Graham’s ineffectiveness over the past five games was one of the Saints’ biggest letdowns -- though it was one of many.
He had just 20 catches for 219 yards and one touchdown over the final five games, including a career-high three dropped passes in a Week 14 loss to Carolina and a controversial goal-line fumble in a Week 16 loss to Atlanta.
Graham’s lingering shoulder issue was clearly one factor. But it couldn’t have been the only factor. Graham still had some big games after the injury, when he scored six touchdowns over a five-game stretch from Weeks 8-12. He still showed plenty of his usual physicality and aggression in games at Carolina and vs. San Francisco, in particular.
As Graham explained last week, it was something he had to fight through all year after first suffering the injury in Week 5. But neither Graham nor coach Sean Payton gave any indication that it affected him more down the stretch, when his production started to fizzle.
“There was no secret,” Payton said Monday when asked if he could reveal whether the injury was bothering Graham more than the team let on, now that the season is over.
“It gradually got a little better, but I honestly think that he was having to deal with that for quite a while,” Payton said. “Obviously it affected him, but to what degree it was causing him pain (in Week 17) or the week before, I wouldn’t know that. … I think he would be able to answer to what degree it was still potentially affecting him later in the year. It was significant for a good middle point of the season, though.”
The bigger detriment to Graham’s success might have been the way defenses approached him. Graham said he always has to deal with safeties shadowing him over the top or cheating his way. That's part of the reason why the Saints couldn’t get the ball downfield to the three-time Pro Bowler like they had in past years.
Perhaps it also hurt when they lost dynamic receiver Brandin Cooks to a thumb injury, allowing defenses to devote even more resources to bracketing Graham. But those downfield throws were a season-long issue for the entire passing offense.
Graham’s 85 catches and 10 touchdowns were in line with his career averages. But his yardage was way down, with a total of 889 yards on a career-low 10.5 yards per catch.
The Saints needed to get a lot more out of Graham than that -- especially since they don’t have a bona fide “No. 1 receiver” on the roster.
I wrote several times during Graham’s contract standoff this past offseason about how I believe he can be just as impactful as most No. 1 receivers in the NFL. I ranked Graham in the top 10 among all pass-catchers in the league, regardless of position, and believed his new four-year, $40 million deal was a bargain.
But that wasn’t the case consistently enough in 2014. And the Saints and Graham both need to figure out how to change that going forward.