The news was stunning, like a lightning bolt to your backyard out of Tuesday’s lead gray skies.
Jimmy Graham, the Saints’ superstar tight end/wide receiver/hybrid SUV, whatever you want to call him, had been traded to the Seattle Seahawks.
The Seahawks, two-time NFC and once-removed Super Bowl champs; the home of Mr. Smirk, Pete Carroll; the domain of smackback Richard Sherman, who helped neutralize Mr. Graham in those two big meetings with New Orleans in 2013; will now be the launching pad for his outlawed goal-post slam dunks.
Goodbye, crawfish; hello, king crab. And, apparently, hatchets will be buried in the soft sand along Puget Sound, to the delight of 12th Man legions everywhere.
“He’s overrated,” Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett said of Graham after the Seahawks beat the Saints 23-15 in their January 2014 playoff meeting, a game in which Graham had one catch for 8 yards. “He doesn’t help in the blocking game. I think he’s overrated, and I’m not scared to say that.”
As bombshells go, this was an all-time stunner in New Orleans pro sports history, ranking along with the Saints trading away all their draft picks in 1999 (plus first- and third-rounders the next year) for the right to draft Ricky Williams and his flotilla of personality complexes. And the only thing that rivals that was the New Orleans Jazz trading two veteran players and a total of five top-three-round picks for the rights to “Pistol” Pete Maravich in 1974.
It’s hard to compute or understand how the Saints will use this to their advantage, other than the fact that their new center, Max Unger, does answer a pressing need up the middle. Speaking of advantages, maybe Rita and Renee LeBlanc can use this trade in their battle with Tom and Gayle Benson over control of the Saints as final proof that the old man has really flipped out.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” the LeBlancs attorneys could ask, “who would in their right mind trade away one of the top three tight ends in the game to the team that is their team’s biggest obstacle to returning to the Super Bowl?”
Everyone knows Benson has allowed Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis to spend the Saints into a salary-cap crisis, and this move doesn’t actually alleviate it. Graham’s $2 million cost against the cap could have been pared elsewhere with much less drama.
Then again, maybe this divorce shouldn’t have come as such a surprise. Maybe there were cracks in the marriage going back to last offseason that were deeper than they first appeared.
Graham news dominated the Saints’ offseason last year, too. He wanted to be paid like a wide receiver, and New Orleans balked. There was an awkward and prolonged legal battle in which the Saints and one of their top Saints had to go before an arbiter and testify against each other.
When the Saints traded Darren Sproles to Philadelphia, Graham, who had been maintaining a low profile through his dust-up with the franchise, blurted out on Twitter, “Shocked and disappointed on everything that’s gone on this offseason.”
Graham returned to the team and made nice, but a disconnect was palpable. He seemed to be hurt to find that pro football really is a business and that he was really just a cog in the Saints machine, bruised by Drew Brees’ comments that the Saints got along fine before Graham (they won the Super Bowl, though that’s almost hard to remember) and could cope without him.
Maybe my memory is clouded by Tuesday’s events, but Graham’s heart didn’t seem to be into his work in 2014 as much as it was in 2013. He only caught one fewer pass (85 compared to 86) but for more than 300 fewer yards (889 to 1,215) and six fewer touchdowns (10 to 16).
Could be that’s what did the deal.
What will the Saints do moving forward? Will they try to find another big-time target at tight end? Will they draft and/or trade for more receivers? Anyone at this moment who thinks they know what the Saints will look like come opening day is blowing hot air. So far, the personnel moves have defied description, with Graham going (along with Pierre Thomas and Curtis Lofton) while they inked Mark Ingram to a lucrative new four-year, $16 million deal.
The Saints hopes to return to Super Bowl contender status will rest on Payton and Loomis being surgically accurate at what they’re doing. The cuts, the trades, the draft picks will all have to be productive. Acquiring Unger does allow Tim Lelito to take his talents back to guard where he best belongs, for example. But there are plenty of other needs at linebacker, cornerback (including deciding whether to make Keenan Lewis financially secure or not) and now at tight end.
The Payton/Loomis team’s acumen is about to come under its most intense scrutiny. It had better pay dividends, or Graham won’t be the last departure from the Saints’ house.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.