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Saints' Graham attracts big attention in Big Easy

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

Just how far has New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham come in less than two years in the NFL and less than three since he put on shoulder pads?

Well, he's not just a favorite of teammate and quarterback Drew Brees, who has completed 91 passes for 1,213 yards and 10 touchdowns to Graham this season. Graham, whose infectious grin and joyful style make him a magnet to fans, has become a bigger favorite than even Brees himself in at least one person's eyes.

Brees' 3-year-old son, Baylen.

"[Baylen] watches football with me," said Brees, who broke Dan Marino's single-season passing yards record as New Orleans dominated the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night. "He says, 'Dad, are you out there?' I say, 'No, I'm here with you.' He says, 'Dad plays football for the Saints,' and I say, 'Yeah.' He asks if I wear a fleur de lis and I say, 'Yeah.' Who dat? 'Yeah.' "

[ Related: Falcons in no position to whine over record ]

Then, as Brees gently recounted asking his son who his favorite player is, he imitated his youngster, yelling, "I'm Jimmy Graham!"

Yep, Graham, the first of Brees' offensive Saints teammates at a skill position to make the Pro Bowl, is on the roll of a lifetime that includes having a sushi roll at Rock-n-Sake Bar & Sushi named after him (it's the "Jimmy Golden Graham Roll," filled with spicy crawfish, snow crab, avocado and other ingredients). He also has at least one young girl writing and performing songs about just wanting to stand next to him.

[ Related: Jimmy Graham grants Christmas wish to fan ]

And if you know anything about Graham, you can't help but feel complete joy for him. His childhood was a wreck, complete with a mother who abandoned him at a foster home and no decent father figure.

Still, Graham plays the game as if every moment was something from an amusement park. He is passionate, energetic and, most of all, really happy.

"You don't know how great this all is," Graham said after making four grabs, including a touchdown, against the Falcons. "To play on this team? With this quarterback? Man, talk about blessed."

At this moment, it's some 30 minutes after the game and Graham still was chatting with Brees about some pattern they had just run against the Falcons. It hadn't worked quite right, but Graham is assuring Brees that next week he'll have it down. All the while, Brees is smiling and looking at Graham with this, "Hey kid, don't worry about it; I'm throwing it your way" expression.

This Sunday, Graham has a chance to step in the record books. He's 77 receiving yards behind Kellen Winslow Sr.'s mark for most in a season by a tight end (1,290), although he also is 6 yards behind fellow second-year star tight end Rob Gronkowski of New England. If you want to argue over who is better, Graham doesn't care. The speed and trajectory of his career is so stunning that he should be studied by NASA. On Monday night, he was asked about the Pro Bowl and if he thought he was going to make it when the team was named Tuesday.

"That's tomorrow?" Graham said, completely oblivious. Moreover, he didn't even think about it again after the conversation. On Tuesday afternoon, he was interviewed by NFL Network for the Pro Bowl show.

[ Pro Bowl: NFC roster | AFC roster | Offensive snubs | Defensive snubs ]

That same afternoon, New Orleans coach Sean Payton talked in generalities about Graham's quick progression. There was a smidgen of technical stuff and a smattering of compliments, including Payton comparing Graham's enthusiasm to Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, a guy Graham replaced this season on the Pro Bowl team.

"They both have a great desire to please and get better every day," said Payton, a member of the Cowboys' staff before joining the Saints.

Brees put it more simply.

"I'd adopt Jimmy anytime," Brees said.

No question, a certain 3-year-old would love to have Graham as a big brother.

QUICK SLANTS

Controversial record-setting

For all those folks who think I'm ripping the Saints, Sean Payton or Drew Brees for deciding to keep passing so that Brees could break Dan Marino's passing yardage record on Monday night in the closing minutes of a lopsided game, just stop for a second. Personally, I don't have a real problem with it. The NFL is a league for big boys who are fully capable of taking care of their own business. What I'm questioning is how the Atlanta Falcons feel about the situation. Are they going to hold a grudge? Is it going to help them get motivated?

[ Related: Saints run up score to get Drew Brees the record ]

If I was playing or coaching, I would stick that in the back of my mind and use it to play harder. Maybe that's silly and players should find other things to motivate themselves, but that's just reality for some people. It's all part of creating a mental edge. All of that said, just playing to generate stats isn't a good example to set for kids. If a prep basketball player has 46 points with five minutes left and the team has a 30-point lead, is it OK to go for 50? Probably not. The other issue is that if you want to play that way, deal with the consequences. For instance, how would the Saints feel today if Atlanta ran an all-out blitz on one of those plays and knocked Brees around, potentially hurting him? It was, after all, part of playing the game, right?

Luck's trade value

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Andrew Luck has long been considered the top prospect in next year's NFL draft.
(Getty Images)

As many people have noted, the value of the No. 1 overall pick (and, presumably, the rights to Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck) went up last week when Southern California quarterback Matt Barkley decided to stay in school for another year. Barkley was projected as a possible top-five pick in the NFL draft. The big question now is what will Baylor quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III do after his team's bowl game on Thursday? According to sources, Griffin's parents have interviewed at least three agents so far, which is an indication he will forgo his final year of eligibility. But there are plenty of people who think Griffin III will return for one more year. If that happens, the trade value of the Luck pick could skyrocket. That means both 2-13 Indianapolis, which might keep the pick, and 2-13 St. Louis, which would probably trade it because the Rams already have Sam Bradford, have plenty of incentive to lose this week. The Colts, who have the tiebreaker locked up against the Rams for the top pick, play Jacksonville. The Rams play San Francisco.

Top five
1. Green Bay Packers (14-1):
In a year with a lot of good MVP candidates, Aaron Rodgers just blew away the field with his five-TD effort.
2. 2. New England Patriots (12-3): When I watch the Pats pass D, I hear the phrase "This is London" and imagine London in World War II.
3. 3. New Orleans Saints (12-3): Sadly, the Saints need help from St. Louis at this point, and it's just not happening.
4. 4. Baltimore Ravens (11-4): How did the Ravens almost turn a lopsided win over Cleveland into a nail-biter in the fourth quarter?
5. 5. San Francisco 49ers (12-3): The Niners' defense is as good as any in the league, but setting an NFL record for field goals is not going to hold up.

Bottom five
28. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-11):
Every time I look at the list of Jags scores, I keep asking myself, "How the heck did they score 41 points?"
29. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11): Can't say that I've ever seen a team quit on a coach quite as badly as the Bucs have quit on Raheem Morris.
30. Minnesota Vikings (3-12): Good news on Adrian Peterson is the damage wasn't as significant as some people feared. Still, a tough injury.
31. St. Louis Rams (2-13): A.J. Smith and Jon Gruden together? In the same building? Oh Lord; the collision of egos could level the Midwest.
32. Indianapolis Colts (3-13) : Colts players think they're being honorable by winning. Sorry, that's not really how you get the best players.


CLOSING MOMENTS

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It was a long evening for Matt Ryan and the Falcons' staff on Monday.
(Getty Images)

Having talked about Atlanta, the Falcons are staring straight down the barrel of being one-and-done in the playoffs in the third of four seasons with Matt Ryan at quarterback. In all likelihood, the Falcons are headed back to New Orleans, which is clearly a better team in the Superdome, for the first playoff game – and a similar result is likely. To turn the tide, Atlanta desperately needs to allow Ryan more control of the offense and it needs to be more daring in certain situations. For instance, after Ryan threw a wonderful 21-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones in the first quarter Monday night, the Falcons came back and ran the ball on the first two plays of their next possession. That's like telling a shooting guard to pass after he has made five straight three-pointers. Likewise, the Falcons settled for a 51-yard field goal when they were down 18 points in the third quarter. When you play the Saints, field goals have diminished value. But the biggest thing is Ryan is smart enough to call his own plays in a no-huddle situation that would take advantage of Atlanta's addition of Jones on the outside. Let Ryan have more control over what's happening.

As an aside about Ryan, who threw for 373 yards in the loss on Monday night, and the Saints defense: Over the past three home games, the Saints have allowed Eli Manning, Matthew Stafford and Ryan to each throw for at least 373 yards (Manning and Stafford both topped 400). The Saints have also won those three games by an average of 19.3 points. In other words, be prepared to put up points – not just yards – when taking on the Saints in the Superdome.

Speaking of Brees and the Saints, they will have to play out the string this Sunday when they host Tampa Bay in the Superdome at 1 p.m. ET since San Francisco will be playing at the same time. Furthermore, if Brees hopes to keep that record for more than a week, he's going to have to run up at least a couple of hundred yards. That's because Tom Brady of New England is close behind with 4,897 yards as the Patriots host the Buffalo Bills. In other words, the Saints could have held off on trying to set the record on Monday night and Brees would have gotten it in the course of trying to beat another team.

Normally, I'm not a big fan of people holding up signs in the stands. They're rarely clever or funny. However, I have to give credit to the woman from Green Bay who ripped her "cheating ex-boyfriend." That was awesome. Best sign I have ever seen.

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