Most of the NFL seemed to think tight end Jimmy Graham was done after his stay with the Packers fizzled, they cut him in March with a year left on his contract and he went unsigned for two weeks.
To an extent, they were correct. Prime Jimmy Graham — the version that was so athletic he could have played small forward in the NBA — isn’t here anymore.
But Graham, now 34, nimbly has navigated the worrisome waters that sink many athletes in their 30s. What he inevitably lost in speed and agility, he made up for in intellect.
‘‘Successful veterans who last a long time accentuate all their physical abilities with that mental part of the game,’’ Bears offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. ‘‘He’s not gonna face a whole lot that he hasn’t faced before. He knows what’s worked against it [and] what hasn’t, so he can take advantage of it.
‘‘The production he’s had from it just shows that I think he has both the physical and the mental, [and] he can put it together.’’
Graham closed the regular season with 50 catches for 456 yards and eight touchdowns. And while that’s nowhere near what he produced in his glory days for the Saints, the Bears desperately needed it.
And they’ll continue needing him in a playoff game against his former team Sunday. The Bears took the Saints to overtime at Soldier Field in Week 8 despite a minimal contribution from Graham: two catches for 13 yards on seven targets.
He was disgusted.
‘‘I wasn’t good enough,’’ Graham posted on Twitter that night. ‘‘I let my team, city and myself down. I own it. I will be better.’’
Better is the key word with Graham. The Bears don’t need him to be great. They just need him to be better than what they had last season and better than he played in that game.
Signing him was a solid move by general manager Ryan Pace, who was with Graham with the Saints in 2010-14, to bail himself out after Plan A (drafting Adam Shaheen No. 45 overall in 2017) and Plan B (signing Trey Burton for four years and $32 million) failed.
The Bears used six tight ends last season, led by J.P. Holtz with 91 receiving yards. So signing Graham at this stage of his career didn’t seem so crazy to them.
‘‘We knew we weren’t getting the 27-year-old Jimmy Graham from the Saints,’’ coach Matt Nagy said. ‘‘But his production has been really what we thought. And now you get into the playoffs, and you really rely on a guy like this who has that experience.’’
Not only did Graham eclipse the 2019 tight ends’ collective production, but he paired nicely with rookie Cole Kmet. Kmet is more of a traditional, in-line tight end and grew into a solid receiver with 28 receptions for 243 yards and two touchdowns.
And speaking of upgrades, the Bears didn’t have a red-zone threat such as Graham last season. That’s where his intelligence helps the most, as he manipulates defenders with his body to create opportunities in the most crowded part of the field. He was fourth in the NFL in catches (nine) and touchdowns (six) from inside the 10-yard line.
Graham was a highly questionable signing at the time, but he has been worth it. And he’ll be an essential part of the plan as the Bears go into their biggest game of the season.