CHICAGO — During a rare conversation with reporters early in training camp, Jimmy Graham repeatedly insisted that, even with his 33rd birthday rapidly approaching, he was not washed up. Even if there were times last season when wondering such a thing about the Green Bay Packers veteran tight end wasn’t entirely unfair.
His quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, had been so excited about his free-agent addition before last season, and Graham knew his production (55 receptions for 636 yards and just two touchdowns) was insufficient. And Graham, who would suffer a finger injury a few days later during practice and would sit out most of the rest of camp, wanted to make amends.
“When I get those opportunities, I have to show him that I’m the biggest, fastest thing out there. I have to go up and get those grabs for him,” Graham said of Rodgers that day. “I’ve been focused and I’m ready to get this thing started, obviously. We have four more weeks (of camp), but I’m about as fired up as I’ve ever been to go and shut a lot of people up.
“Everybody thinks I’m old and slow now, so, we’ll see what happens.”
What everybody saw during the first half of the Packers’ season-opening 10-3 victory over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field Thursday night was a glimpse of what Graham was promising to deliver.
After the offense languished during the first half of head coach Matt LaFleur’s debut, a 47-yard Rodgers-to-Marquez Valdes-Scantling deep ball finally awakened an outfit that had finished the first quarter with minus-12 net yards. Two plays after Valdes-Scantling’s catch, the Packers were on the Bears’ doorstep with a first-and-goal at the Chicago 8-yard line.
Rodgers dropped back and, with his initial read covered, bought a tick or two of time. He then sidestepped pressure and sidearmed a ball to the end zone to Graham, who despite having Bears defensive back Deon Bush draped on him, snatched the ball for the game’s first touchdown and a 7-3 Packers lead.
For an encore, Graham gave the Packers another albeit remote scoring chance two series later, with the half winding down. With only 15 seconds left until halftime and the Packers starting on their own 33-yard line, Rodgers hit Graham on a crossing route. When Bears all-pro safety Eddie Jackson came at him low, Graham made a turn-back-the-clock move, hurdling over Jackson to pick up 16 yards and give Rodgers a shot at a last-second Hail Mary.
Although Graham couldn’t reel in Rodgers’ prayer on the final play of the half — which came up just shy of the goal line — he’d certainly started the 2019 season having backed up his training-camp talk. He even drew a 38-yard pass-interference penalty early in the third quarter, although it didn’t lead to any points.
“This is an offense where they match up a lot of formations, and the run to the pass. And for me, that’s all good,” Graham had said in August. “And, they like to use the tight end quite a bit. I’m excited to see what we’re going to do this year. I really am.”
When LaFleur was drawing up his first regular-season game plan and dreaming about what his offense might look like in its prime-time debut, it’s safe to say the first quarter was definitely not what he had in mind.
The Packers finished the quarter with negative-12 yards, with Rodgers having 2 of 5 passes for 5 yards with two sacks. According to ESPN Stats & Information, that qualified as the Packers’ fewest total yards in any quarter since Sept. 18, 1994 (3rd quarter) against the Philadelphia Eagles. That was so long ago that Brett Favre was in his third season as the Packers’ starting quarterback, and Rodgers was 10 years old.
How bad was it? Halfback Aaron Jones was stopped for no gain on a toss play on LaFleur’s first play call; Rodgers was hurried into an incompletion on a screen to Jones on the second play; and Rodgers was sacked by Bears defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris on the third play, for a 10-yard loss.
The second series wasn’t any better. Rodgers threw low to Graham on a first-down incompletion; Jones was stuffed for no gain on second down; and Rodgers was sacked again on third down by Leonard Floyd. The Packers then went three-and-out on their third series, but at least they gained 5 yards on a Rodgers completion to Davante Adams — their only yards until Valdes-Scantling’s 47-yard catch.
The Packers’ inactives were rookie wide receiver Darrius Shepherd, rookie running back Dexter Williams, rookie cornerback Ka'dar Hollman, first-year guard Cole Madison, rookie defensive lineman Kingsley Keke, injured inside linebacker Oren Burks (chest), and No. 3 tackle Alex Light, who was added to the injury report Tuesday with a wrist injury. With Light inactive, veteran right guard Billy Turner went into the game as the team’s third tackle, backing up David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga. … Inside linebacker B.J. Goodson, acquired in a trade with the New York Giants earlier in the week, was active and played in the game despite not arriving in Green Bay in time to take part in a single practice. … With limited options at inside linebacker, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine mostly used a 3-3-5 alignment on base downs, deploying Raven Greene and a third safety/hybrid linebacker.