In a three-day flurry of negotiations stimulated by bookkeeping, the mirage became real. There's no more questioning, hoping or speculating. No more watching Rob Gronkowski chew up your linebackers in the Super Bowl and wonder, "what would that be like?"
No, the Seattle Seahawks and Russell Wilson finally found a superstar No. 1 option. By trading for New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, Seattle has a nightmare receiving matchup it desperately lacked in 2014. Maybe more important, the Seahawks acquired an upgrade to their offensive dynamic, rather than slipping into a holding pattern and hoping they're still good enough for a Super Bowl run.
Make no mistake, snagging Graham reaffirms that this is still the gold standard in the NFC. With a returning Marshawn Lynch, still-developing Wilson, and wideouts Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Chris Matthews will find only more space with Graham's presence. Indeed, this may be the key that leaps this offense forward, and gives the defense an equal partner.
Perhaps the most stunning aspect of all this: it wasn't born out of desperation. In fact, it was the opposite. This was a piece of bookkeeping that helped both teams. Surely, Seattle gave up a significant bounty in center Max Unger and a first-round pick. But Unger is due a contract extension after next season, and has had some injury concerns. More troubling? With what the Oakland Raiders just paid free-agent center Rodney Hudson (an average of almost $9 million per season), Unger could very well sign a 2016 extension making himself the highest-paid center in NFL history with a bounce-back 2015. As improbable as it sounds, Graham's $19 million total owed for 2015 and 2016 might actually make him a comparable salary slot.
The difference is, Graham empowers the money Seattle will pay Wilson in his upcoming contract extension. Wilson is going to land elite money, and Graham will be a guy who helps push his production to an even higher level. By pairing two highly paid guys together like that, you take a step toward making them both more valuable.
Not that the Saints lost out in the deal. If anything, New Orleans pulled out something close to a draw in total value. The Saints got some sorely needed 2015 salary cap relief and a first-round pick that could be used to help the current rebuild. The Saints could also use that first-round pick (No. 31) and package it with their own (No. 13) and make a run at one of the elite players in this draft. Even a quarterback, if the franchise was inclined to believe Drew Brees is in the sunset of his career.
As for Unger, he instantly anchors the New Orleans offensive line if healthy. Despite being a center, Unger will likely be New Orleans' best and most consistent offensive lineman next season. And like many centers, he could continue operating at a high level deep into his 30s.
But the winner in the immediate phase of the game is Seattle and general manager John Schneider. He didn't repeat the major mistake of the past and acquire someone like Percy Harvin. There will be no need to bend the offense to the talents of Graham. If anything, it allows Seattle to mold it more around Wilson and the existing pieces – adding some explosive pop to the intermediate game and opening up deeper parts of the field by occupying the safeties in the seams.
Graham and his 6-foot-7 wingspan can be plugged in and cranked up. And you can bet after last year's subpar performance with a shoulder injury – and a trade that always shakes up the most motivated players – he'll be ready to chase down the title of NFL's toughest matchup again.
Seattle finally got its arms around the mirage and made it real. The Seahawks got Russell Wilson his dominant partner in the passing game. Now it's up to the rest of the NFC to figure out how to respond.