CHICAGO — Jimmy Graham remains full of confidence. Full of energy and promises too. The 33-year-old tight end, once one of the most menacing matchup nightmares in the NFL but now a long-in-the-tooth journeyman, firmly believes 2020 will be a reawakening year for himself and the Bears.
That came across loud and clear Thursday afternoon. During a 25-minute conference call on the day his free-agent deal with the Bears officially was announced, Graham spoke candidly and with great conviction.
A sampling of his proclamations:
“I’m still fast. I still have the ability to make big plays.”
“(In the Bears), you have a team that’s hungry to win, hungry to improve and hungry to get back to the playoffs.”
“If I didn’t think I had the ability to dominate this league, then I wouldn’t play anymore. But I still believe that I have that ability.”
“This just seemed like the perfect fit.”
None of it seemed like bravado. Not even a little bit. It was more a blast of self-belief from a player who has been selected to five Pro Bowls while recording 649 career catches, 7,883 receiving yards and 74 touchdowns. Graham has tasted high-level success and remembers the formula behind it.
He believes, with this next opportunity in Chicago, his skills as a chain-moving, touchdown-scoring, game-changing playmaker will come back into the spotlight.
Bears general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy obviously believe that too. A week ago, the Bears guaranteed Graham $9 million on a free-agent contract that could be worth up to $16 million if all of Graham’s offseason visions turn into regular-season production.
“I’m about to get to work and make my way toward something special,” Graham said.
In many league circles, Graham’s deal created a surge of head-scratching. After all, the tight end’s production has been in steady decline since his glory days with the Saints from 2010-2014.
His catch totals the last four seasons with the Seahawks and Packers: 65, 57, 55 and 38.
The gradual yardage dip: 923, 520, 636 and 447.
For some, this Bears-Graham union feels desperate, an expensive, fingers-crossed dice roll akin to tossing a pile of chips for a “yo” bet on a craps table.
In Chicago, justifiable fears have surfaced that Graham might turn out to be the latest Orlando Pace or Jared Allen — or even Adam Archuleta or Roy Williams — NFL stars or standouts who joined the Bears after they had become all too ordinary but didn’t know it yet.
Still, as such doubt and skepticism swirl on the outside, Graham sees a window of opportunity.
For starters, he looks at Nagy’s offense and recognizes that, conceptually anyways, it’s a tight end-friendly system similar to what Andy Reid and the Chiefs run. In an ideal world, the door will be open for Graham to spread out wide, to get free down the seams, to use his size and athleticism in favorable matchups to enliven the passing attack.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Graham said, “for the opportunity to show the player that I still am.” Beyond that, Graham expressed belief in the mindset of the coaches and players at Halas Hall, enamored from afar, he said, by all the fun the Bears had on the way to the NFC North title in 2018.
Graham has been a part of winning cultures at all three of his previous stops — in New Orleans, Seattle and Green Bay. In his 10 seasons, his teams advanced to the playoffs six times. So he is familiar with what’s needed for the climb. At all three stops, Graham said, there were good players constantly grinding in a hyper-competitive but united environment.
“It’s that type of culture where guys are coming to work not to work but to compete and to have fun,” Graham said. “Those are the teams that stick together. … That was one of the biggest things I talked with my agent about. It was, ‘Hey, whatever happens, I want to go somewhere where the team’s hungry, where the team has that type of culture and also has a defense that dominates.’ ”
The other common denominator between the Saints, Seahawks and Packers, though? They all had star quarterbacks. Drew Brees. Russell Wilson. Aaron Rodgers. That box isn’t checked in Chicago, and Graham couldn’t say Thursday whom he expected to be catching passes from during the season.
Mitch Trubisky or Nick Foles.?
“I’m excited to work with both of them,” Graham said, “and to see where I can help both to where we can all get on the same page.”
Graham also takes great pride in his availability with only seven games missed over 10 seasons. Last season alone, Trey Burton missed eight for the Bears. Adam Shaheen missed eight as well.
And if the veteran tight end needed any more motivation, the pink slip Graham received from the Packers two weeks ago stung. He called it “a tough pill to swallow.”
“It was the first time I’ve lost my job,” Graham said. “… For me, it has lit a fire. I know the player I am and I know what I can do.”
As always, spring gusto only counts for so much. Thus when Graham began talking about winning a Super Bowl, referencing 1985 and envisioning Chicago’s possible return to NFL glory, the only pragmatic reaction was a shrug or a rapid head shake.
Still, it would be equally imprudent to believe a player with Graham’s lengthy track record of success is incapable of a major bounce back in an offense that will need to feature him heavily to make its desired offensive leap.
At the very least, Graham is eager to reciprocate the Bears’ belief in him.
“I know how hard they play and I know how much fun they have together,” he said. “To now have the opportunity to go play with a team that is hungry and where everybody is going to put their head down and just work, that’s what I’m about. That’s what I’ve always been about.”
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