The New Orleans Saints Jimmy Graham is an athletically gifted small forward trapped beneath a tight end’s shoulder pads, but don’t give a thought like that too much attention because the NFL wants Graham’s feet firmly on ground. In March, the NFL decided to call foul on the basketball-inspired goal post dunk, reinterpreting a rule that flagged the use of the football as a prop in post touchdown celebrations, and though the dunk didn’t originate with him, Graham joined Ken Stabler and Ricky Williams in the Land of Eponymous.
Contradictions are a way of life in the NFL, and honestly, I wonder if they make rules sort of stupid just to keep people talking about them. Like me. It’s really only relevant now because Graham, in one of those quasi-protests that are essentially meaningless gestures, decided to dunk twice in last Friday’s preseason game. Of course he was flagged for it, twice, and it’s possible he’ll receive a fine from the League’s office. In a league where Frank Gore was fined $10,500 for wearing his socks too low, Graham will write a check if for no other reason than it makes great theatre. The NFL didn’t earn 9+ billion in revenue from exclusively fining players even if it seems like it, so it’s not as if Graham’s fine really matters.
The fine didn’t matter to Sean Payton, certainly, or Payton’s wallet, but 22 total penalties in an ugly, slow-paced game made an otherwise forgettable preseason game completely unwatchable. While I’m sure the spectacle of Graham slamming home pigskin over a goal post means even less to Payton than receiving soggy beignets at Café Du Monde, the televised spectacle of the high-flying Graham added to the more problematic, “Holy crap, discipline is breaking down,” storyline that coaches love to hate. Payton let Graham know exactly what he thought of his stunt on the sideline, but essentially everyone knows it’s just lip service because honestly, who the hell cares about a preseason game? The biggest travesty would have been if Graham somehow had torn an ACL if his cleats got caught in the turf.
The biggest joke is that an act as dynamic as leaping off the ground and dunking at a height of 10 feet is as accessible a feat to fans as there is in the game. Every common fan with two working legs and a set of Reebok Pumps has tried at one time or another to dunk a basketball and entire industries exist promising incredible hops. They don’t make adjustable backboards just for kids. Some of my best highlight reel moves existed at 9 ½ feet. Quick move baseline, up and under the rim, and jam it home. In high school my weight lifting coach bought this special machine of torture just to improve speed, power, and jumping ability. Not everyone can run like a cheetah or squat a semi, but damn it all if every single one of us didn’t want to fly through the air like Michael Jordan. It is, in essence, a measurement of athletic ability, and for those of us gravity-bound incredibly enticing. Players such as Graham make it look easy, effortless, and we can appreciate their skills all the more.
Does this even make sense? The NFL spends a week broadcasting young men getting measured in every conceivable area: strength, speed, coordination, power, dexterity, and intelligence. They spend millions upon millions proving to their fans that these young men are not only talented but extremely gifted athletically. For every athletic marvel such as Mike Mamula or Vernon Gholston, there is a Vernon Davis or Calvin Johnson. Even the busts fly through space like the Road Runner on amphetamines, gobbling up yards of turf with each powerful stride, so how talented must the successes be?
Isn’t Graham the type of player the NFL should embrace? He’s young, talented, and graduated from the University of Miami having yet to be charged on a double-homicide. Isn’t that a win? In this day and age it doesn’t get much better than that. His current act of rebellion is kid hijinks compared to some of his contemporaries.
Jimmy Graham is, without question, the best offensive tight end in the NFL today. You can debate ad nauseam if Graham is a wide out or an end, but debating whether he’s top tier isn’t really on the table. Over the last three years he’s ninth in the NFL in receiving yards with 3,507 and he’s number one with 36 touchdowns. There’s not another tight end in the top twenty in terms of yardage and only three others for touchdowns. Even by my own limited math that seems like 12 opportunities a year for non-Green Bay fans to witness their own versions of the Leap. Worried that he might delay the game by knocking a goal post off kilter? Embrace it. Do you think Pitt regrets this little Jerome Lane gem?
Darryl Dawkins didn’t earn the nickname Chocolate Thunder by laying the ball in gently.
You don’t marginalize a player of Graham’s ability by making him like everyone else. What’s the difference between Graham and Benjamin Watson? About 1,000 yards receiving and an extra 14 times he can lay waste to an inanimate object. These things are exciting. Back in ’88 Ickey Woods brought us his end zone shuffle fifteen times until the NFL decided his celebration had to be moved closer to the bench (where by that time it was just old and contrived) and then ultimately banned altogether by 2007. Maybe things don’t move quickly, but they certainly move towards a serious lack of fun.
Graham has protested the “interpretation” of the rule, and maybe for a team with Super Bowl aspirations it’s the sort of thing that a coach can use to motivate them. Another holding penalty? “Just like one of your so called on-the-field leaders, you men lack discipline!” Maybe a savvy guy like Payton can spin an us against the world tale. God knows the NFL has done everything it can to punish New Orleans.
Jimmy Graham just hasn’t gotten used to it yet.