WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — From the outside, it certainly seemed coach Sean Payton’s testimony against the interests of All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham in a two-day arbitration hearing earlier this summer might’ve upset the Saints’ team chemistry.
But little did outsiders know Payton had long ago acted to ensure that didn’t happen. He didn’t wait until the contract extension that could keep Graham in New Orleans for up to four years and $40 million was finalized — he sprung into action during the bathroom and meal breaks of a hearing many speculated could drive a wedge between the star player and his team, Payton explained in his final meeting with reporters Thursday before the Saints begin training camp practices at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia on Friday morning.
“That was a long two days, but (there was the) chance during lunch breaks to touch base,” Payton said. “I mean, we were all in a room (at a hotel outside of New Orleans), and we have to go to the bathroom once in a while and eat.”
The coach and player couldn’t specifically discuss or debate the issues at the heart of the June 17-18 hearing with each other, during which Graham argued the Saints utilized him more as a wide receiver than a tight end and therefore deserved $5 million more under a franchise tag New Orleans placed on him to prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent in March. Payton testified to the opposite in the proceeding, and the arbitrator listening to the case ruled against Graham, who last season led both the Saints with 1,215 receiving yards and the NFL with 16 touchdown grabs.
Yet a deal was still agreed to before a July 15 deadline lapsed. And it’s not a stretch to say Payton’s dialogues with Graham — who sat out the Saints’ offseason practices and minicamp while negotiating the contract — kept the road to that outcome as smooth as possible.
The coach didn’t open up about the content of his talks with Graham, who spent his offseason working out on his own in Miami, where he went to college. But he made some remarks that perhaps hinted at it.
“Listen, the process is put in place and we just kind of follow it,” Payton said, speaking about Graham’s new contract for the first time.
“When something goes to arbitration, there was probably more gray area than both sides wanted, or else it wouldn’t be being arbitrated.
“In the end, I’m fired up for Jimmy because he’s earned this opportunity. And I know it was a lot off his plate. There’s a weight on your shoulders when you’re at a crossroads with regards to a contract; and, when its resolved, man, there’s a lot of relief.”
In a separate session with reporters, Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis echoed Payton’s thoughts on the Graham situation, portraying it as “a tough negotiation (that) ended well.”
He said the five-year, $100 million contract extension the Saints worked out with quarterback Drew Brees throughout the spring and summer of 2012 prepared the Saints’ front office for the Graham negotiations.
Brees was also given a franchise tag to keep him out of the open market. He successfully sought a grievance, arguing it was the second tag of his career, not his first (as the NFL said) — this mattered because a third one applied the next year would’ve represented a massive raise.
And the Saints worked that deal out without Payton at headquarters — the coach was serving a suspension related to the bounty scandal.
“Those are personal issues for the players in particular,” Loomis said. “Guys want to maximize their value, I understand that.”
Now that Graham’s been taken care of, “we’re glad to have it done,” Loomis said. “I’m sure Jimmy’s glad to have it done.”
Early indications are that Loomis is right about Graham, whose 270 catches and 3,507 receiving yards are the most among NFL tight ends during the previous three seasons and whose 36 touchdown grabs over that same span are the most in the league.
That’s because when Graham showed up for his conditioning test Thursday, he summarily posted a low time.
Cracking a smile, Payton said, “I told him to stay in Miami every offseason.”