GREEN BAY — There may be no more mysterious player in the Green Bay Packers locker room — at least to those outside that room — than Jimmy Graham.
By all accounts, the five-time Pro Bowl tight end is well-liked by his teammates and coaches. His quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, loves him. His coaches, including head coach Matt LaFleur and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, swear by his leadership and professionalism and speak frequently about what a good teammate he is. And young tight end Robert Tonyan can’t say enough about the way Graham and fellow veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis have taken him under their collective wing to accelerate his development.
Off the field, he’s an experienced pilot and has gotten involved with the Oshkosh-based Experimental Air Association’s Young Eagles program, which introduces children to flying. He’s held a charity cornhole tournament in Green Bay each of the two years he’s been on the roster. And on the rare occasions that he’s spoken to the media over the past two years, he’s been engaging, interesting and an entertaining storyteller. (His story of his basketball recruitment to the University of Wisconsin and why he opted for the University of Miami is quite the tale.)
But because he seldom speaks to the media, Packers fans don’t have much of a feel for what Graham is like. To be sure, professional athletes can use the media to create a persona that may not be authentic; Graham has said in the past that interviews simply aren’t something he’s interested in. Although standard NFL contracts require players to be reasonably cooperative with reporters — and state that players are subject to fines for non-compliance — Graham is hardly the first NFL player to eschew his media responsibilities as much as possible.
What matters more is how Graham produces on the field, and after up-and-down performances the first six weeks of the season, it appears LaFleur, Hackett and Rodgers may have solved the mystery of how to get Graham more involved offensively during last Sunday’s win over Oakland.
Graham enters Sunday night’s prime-time matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium coming off his most productive game this season — four receptions for 65 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown catch and a season-long 29-yard catch-and-run.
Speaking to reporters earlier this week for the first time since the season began, Graham acknowledged that inconsistency but expressed hope that what he did against the Raiders is just the beginning.
“We’re 6-1. I don’t really check stats and media and all that good stuff,” Graham said. “I know we’re 6-1 and I hope we keep doing what we’re doing. I think we found a lot of different ways to win. That’s what special about this team. We’re just getting better and better each and every week. Hopefully when my number’s called, it doesn’t matter what it is — run blocking, pass blocking or running routes — I can do it to the best of my ability.
“This offense calls on the tight end — me, Marcedes, Rob and the young guys — to do a lot of things and some of these (defensive) pressures takes you out of the route and brings you into protection. That’s a part of the game. I know my time will come. Last week we were able to connect on some of those times. Hopefully we can just kind of keep building on that.”
Graham opened the season with what certainly looked like a fountain-of-youth performance, catching three passes for 30 yards — including the game’s only touchdown and a 16-yard catch on which he hurdled all-pro safety Eddie Jackson — and drawing a 38-yard pass-interference penalty in the Packers’ 10-3 victory at Chicago.
The next two weeks, though, Graham didn’t have a catch — the first time that had happened since his rookie year in New Orleans in 2010 — and was targeted only twice. Then came the team’s Week 4 loss to Philadelphia, in which Graham caught six passes for 61 yards and a touchdown but also failed to come up with a pair of balls in the end zone — including a fourth-and-1 throw that he wrongly tried to catch with one hand instead of two — in the Packers’ lone loss of the season.
With No. 1 wide receiver Davante Adams sidelined, Graham then had only five catches for 58 yards over the next two weeks before his performance against the Raiders, which included that 29-yard catch (on third-and-7 from midfield) and another explosive gain of 25 yards to kick off the third-quarter drive that ended in his touchdown catch.
“I just think it’s about opportunities. I think of the balls he caught, really just one of them was a play designed for him. That’s the ability that he brings,” Rodgers said at midweek. “I hit him on a super-clean pocket, late, with him running kind of a seam that he turned into a deep over for a big (gain). I hit him on a checkdown and he made two guys miss. That’s what you get from Jimmy. You have the playmaking ability.
“It wasn’t like we were scheming up a bunch of plays for him. He got some opportunities and made guys miss. That’s got to give him more confidence going forward. We’ve got to keep finding ways to get him the ball.”
That’s a refrain both Rodgers and LaFleur have sung throughout this season. While Graham’s 18 receptions for 214 yards puts him on pace for 41 receptions for 489 yards — which would be down from last year in both receptions (55) and yards (636) — he’s already surpassed the two touchdowns he had all of last season, even with end-zone drops against the Eagles and Detroit Lions.
“I love Jimmy’s approach. I think he’s a pro,” LaFleur said. “I know I’ve said this a bunch of times, too: He is hard on himself. I think the key is you can never get too high, never too low. If you make a mistake, you’ve just got to learn from it and move on. Nobody’s out there trying to make mistakes, especially when you talk about a guy dropping a ball. That happens sometimes. But I’m more interested in how you respond to that.’
Added Hackett: “I personally really felt him a lot more in (the Raiders) game. It really lifted up our offense. He’s got great energy. He caught that checkdown and ran and made some plays, and he blocked well. He did a lot of good things. The more we can get him rolling, whether it’s getting him the ball or get him at the point of attack in the run game, whatever we have to do to get him rolling, I think the whole team feels it.
“I think we’ve got to make sure he’s locked in and ready to rock because he definitely brings a lot to this offense.”
Photos: Packers crush Raiders as Aaron Rodgers turns in stellar performance