While most of his teammates were hurriedly dressing and headed to the team busy, Jimmy Graham was taking his time at his locker, as he often does after games.
Graham reached up with his left hand and massaged his right shoulder. It was one of a few times he seemed willing to acknowledge he was hurting, the other being a brief moment on the field when he reached for the shoulder then quickly caught himself because he didn’t want the Carolina Panthers players to know he was aching.
This time, with the New Orleans Saints’ 28-10 victory well over and with no Panthers players around, Graham finally gave the injury some attention and pressed hard on the joint, hoping to somehow ease the pain he was feeling.
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Seven catches for 83 yards and a touchdown, plus a leap over a defender early in the game, sure helped him feel better. In fact, when he’d finished with the mini-massage, Graham stood up and told a Saints staffer with a smile he was starting to feel like his "old self" and that just a little more flexibility in the joint is "all I need."
One of the most devastating offensive weapons in the NFL is working his way back to full form. And with a commitment to the running game and a powerful runner in Mark Ingram serving as a ground threat, the Saints’ having Graham on the mend is a dangerous thing for opposing defenses.
"I just need to play more emotional," Graham told reporters.
He absolutely did that on Thursday night. After his touchdown catch, he went back to the sideline and rammed his head into the bench in, uh, celebration?
"That’s just me probably letting out a little frustration," he said. "We’ve been tested in so many ways this year and there have been a lot of people that have written us off. That was more of just getting out some frustration that’s been on me for quite awhile now."
Frustration he hasn’t been in top form because of the injury that threatened to sideline him for one or two games. He didn’t miss any, though he’d been limited the past couple of weeks. Graham played a near-full role both on Sunday night and again on Thursday night – 62 and 68 percent of the team’s snaps in those games respectively, to be exact.
Early on, the Panthers tested his will by playing physical defense against him. Linebacker Thomas Davis flattened Graham on a block after an interception. Graham remained motionless on the ground for several seconds before finally getting up, acting as if it didn’t hurt and not retaliating.
Graham was peeved by the play. He noted the hit came before the pass was even deflected, and he’s right. Davis wasn’t even watching the play develop behind him. He lined up Graham and whacked him, even though he wasn’t the intended receiver.
"That wasn’t a block. That was a hit and it seemed like that was intentional," Graham said. "Early in the game they were trying to come after me. Even in my routes, I was just getting hit — literally getting hit, so I’ve got to protect myself better. It definitely got me going and sparked a fire underneath me."
Ingram, who is also dealing with a shoulder issue and left Bank of America Stadium with an ice pack on the joint, called Graham a "warrior" for playing through his injury. Drew Brees said Graham’s injury is "day by day," meaning it can have Graham feeling as if it’s almost healed and then get worse out of nowhere.
Graham found the antidote for the injury on Thursday night, and it was emotion. The Panthers can blame themselves for bringing it out of him. Graham, meanwhile, is probably just glad he didn’t hurt his upper body any further via his unconventional celebration. He laughed when told cameras caught what he believed was a private act and that a clip of the act was spreading on Twitter and elsewhere.
Graham should know by the way defenses pay attention to him there’s little he does that goes unnoticed — even to the point of reporters watching him bend down while struggling to put on deodorant because his right arm can’t quite reach up to his left armpit just yet.
"I think early I wasn’t playing emotional enough — at least for me. I think I need to bring it that way on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and in practice," he said. "When I do that, I think it adds something not only to my game, but it helps spur our offense."