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TE Jimmy Graham’s ring-chasing falls flat with Bears, but he’s been a valuable asset

Graham has handled the closing chapter of his career with class, and regardless of his production dwindling this season, he was a good signing by the Bears. Now it’s time to appreciate what could be the last six games of a great career.

Graham is in his 12th season and has 83 career touchdown catches.
AP Photos

Jimmy Graham knows he’s near the end. He’s not sure how much longer he can cling to his football career, but fresh off his 35th birthday, he sees it fading.

Every great athlete must grapple with the stage at which their physical abilities decline and the sport seems to be sweeping them out the door, and only some handle it with graceful self-awareness. Some are in denial, refusing to see the signs. Others pivot to a different style of play or shift to a more specialized role.

It’s a little of all of that for Graham.

He has embraced guiding the Bears’ younger tight ends like Cole Kmet, but he’s still desperate to push his career numbers as high as he can with an eye on his already-strong Hall of Fame candidacy. He also still covets the championship that has eluded him for 12 seasons, but his team is 4-7 and he’s getting sporadic playing time.

“I’ve been chasing the ring for a long time,” Graham said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be satisfied with it if I’m not carrying some type of hardware after all the work and all the dedication. I’ve given a lot to get to the point that I’m at today.

“I don’t know [about retirement]. I’m sure my body will let me know. I’m sure the league will let me know because nobody will want me on their team.”

That message has been coming through in pieces over the last few years, and Graham will probably get a more conclusive answer when he hits free agency after this season. Given his age and the fact that he has just six catches for 98 yards and a touchdown while playing 22% of the snaps, there probably won’t be much — if any — demand.

The Packers cut him in March 2020, and Graham went unsigned for two weeks before agreeing to a two-year, $16 million deal with the Bears that was widely panned as overspending. Graham and the Bears were vindicated, though, when his 50 catches, 456 yards and eight touchdowns exceeded the output of all their 2019 tight ends combined.

Still, with the expected emergence of Kmet, it was surprising the Bears kept Graham this season for his $10 million price tag.

Graham, by the way, said he joined the Bears thinking he could win a title with them. After spending his entire career with Drew Brees, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers, it’s hard to believe he was imagining the Lombardi Trophy when he linked up with Mitch Trubisky. The Bears have gone 12-15 and had one of the NFL’s worst offenses during his time with them.

“You’ve gotta look [at 2018], they went on a run that was pretty special,” Graham said. “There was a lot of upside. . . . Sometimes it’s timing, and sometimes you’ve gotta pick and choose as you have and I have done that.

“I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done or any decision I’ve made in this league. I’m blessed to be here, a part of these guys and a part of this franchise.”

If these last six games are the final phase for Graham, it’s worth appreciating what he has accomplished.

After playing basketball at the University of Miami, he launched himself into the NFL after one season of college football. He had two 1,000-yard seasons, made five Pro Bowls and was an All-Pro in 2013.

While Pro Football Reference’s projections have him far from a sure bet for the Hall of Fame, he is sixth all-time among tight ends in catches (705), eighth in yardage (8,437) and fourth in touchdowns (83).

The Bears got in only at the end of that run, but they were still better for having him. Ultimately, he was the ideal bridge to Kmet in both production and mentorship, and bringing him in was a success.