Nov 10, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) is introduced before a game against the Dallas Cowboys at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy Graham: The Law Behind Tight End and Wide Receiver Positions

When I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck.— James Whitcomb Riley, Indiana poet (1849-1916)

When studying formal logic, the “duck test” is a great way to learn the differences between inductive and deductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning takes place when the evidence provided leads to a probable conclusion. Deductive reasoning, however, occurs when the premises utilized lead to a logically certain conclusion. So, if you witness a bird that walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, is the bird assuredly a duck?

While the evidence strongly suggests that the bird is in fact a duck, perhaps the witnesser lacks formal zoological training. Maybe the bird is not actually a duck but instead a close relative of the duck in the Anatidae family—like a pygmy goose or a trumpeter swan.

We can distinguish the aforementioned duck scenario by considering a pre-Kindergarten math problem: Jimmy has five blocks; Samantha takes two blocks from Jimmy; how many blocks does Jimmy have remaining from the initial five? The answer, obviously, is three.

The duck test is an example of inductive reasoning, because despite the seemingly self-evident nature of the hypothetical, there is still margin for error. Meanwhile, the counting blocks example is classic deductive reasoning; there is no room for subjectivity in basic subtraction. But what if we tweaked the duck test? Rather than an individual simply witnessing what appeared to be a duck, what if that very bird purportedly identified as a duck swam up to the observer and spoke in plain English, “I am a duck, quack quack…”? Would that be deductive reasoning, yielding a logically certain conclusion?

New Orleans Saints star ball catcher Jimmy Graham, similar to our hypothetical anthropomorphic duck, self-identifies as a tight end. The biography section of Graham’s verified Twitter Account, @TheJimmyGraham, reads “New Orleans Saints Tight End #80. Private Pilot.” The New Orleans Saints have historically listed Jimmy Graham as a tight end. Graham has made the Pro Bowl as a tight end. He has played a brand of football largely synonymous with other contemporary tight ends like Rob Gronkowski, Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Dennis Pitta, and Jason Witten. And Graham himself has even personally labeled himself a tight end.

When I see a football player that walks like a tight end and swims like a tight end and quacks like a tight end, I call that football player a tight end. But now, in an apparent about-face, Jimmy Graham wants to be considered a wide receiver for financial motivations.

Dec 22, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) scores a touchdown during the game against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium. Panthers win 17-13. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy Graham was set to become an unrestricted free agent, so the Saints—rather than signing Graham to a longterm contract extension—decided to assign him with the Franchise Tag. The “Franchise Tag” can either be “exclusive,” “non-exclusive,” or “transitional,” with each subset having different particularized rules. In the case of Graham’s Franchise Tag, however, the specifics surrounding each of these types of Franchise Tags are not all that important; what is important is whether Graham is legally a tight end or a wide receiver.

Under the Franchise Tag, the amount of money owed to Graham under the Franchise Tag for the 2014-2015 season will be either \$7.035 million—an average of the top tight ends in the National Football League—or \$12.312 million—an average of the top wide receivers. Given the \$5 million+ salary difference in salary on the line, Graham has significant reason to now want to be known as a wide receiver, and the Saints have equal rationale to pay Graham as a tight end. When the New Orleans Saints Franchise Tagged Graham as a tight end, Graham initiated a legal appellate process. He will be represented by the NFL Players Association before an arbiter in his Franchise Tag Grievance Hearing June 17th and 18th. But who will win?

Jimmy Graham’s Argument

Graham’s argument in favor of his position being wide receiver will be centered around where precisely he typically lines up on the football field. Historically, the tight end is assumed to line up alongside either the right tackle or the left tackle on the offensive line. Graham, uncharacteristically, lined up either as a wideout or in the slot position 67% of the snaps he played in 2013. According to Graham, it would follow that someone who lines up in a typical wide receiver position 67% of the time should be paid like a wide receiver. Short. Simple. And to the point.

New Orleans Saints Argument

The Saints will likely counter by emphasizing the ambiguity of football positions and the actual lack of a “typical wide receiver position” on the football field. Pursuant to the 2013 Official Playing Rules of the National Football League, “tight end” is not defined. Neither is “quarterback,” “left guard,” “wide receiver,” or any other position, for that matter. As a result, the Saints will almost assuredly argue that in light of positional ambiguity, it is not just to define Graham’s position on the football field exclusively by where he lines up for a majority of snaps. Chances are, the Saints will bring up the inherent versatility of the tight end position—a position requiring the player sometimes to block, catch, and run from locations all over the football field.

Whereas Graham’s argument seemingly will rely exclusively on what best might be described as common sense assertions, the Saints can actually rely on codified examples of the versatility and inherent ambiguity of the tight end position. Section A.R. 12.65 of 2012 Official Casebook of the National Football League provides the following:

A.R. 12.65 ILLEGAL LOW BLOCK—PUNT Fourth-and-2 on A45. Team A lines up in punt formation. At the snap, flyer A4 is blocked below the waist from the front by B4 on the line of scrimmage. B1 fair catches the punt at the B15. Ruling: A’s ball, first-and-10 on B40. Illegal low block by B4. Team B cannot block below the waist during a punt play (other than linemen on or inside the normal tight end position at the snap). This is not a post-possession foul, as the foul occurred immediately after the snap, before the ball was kicked. (12-2-5) [emphasis added].

Additionally, Section A.R. 12.67 of the same Casebook similarly provides the following:

A.R. 12.67 LEGAL LOW BLOCK—PUNT Fourth-and-6 on A40. Prior to the punt, B1 blocks tight end A2 low at the A40 at the snap. The punt is then made, and B2 catches the ball at the B15 and runs to the 50. Ruling: B’s ball, first-and-10 on 50. No foul if B1 is on the line and lined up on or inside the normal tight end position at the snap. (12-2-5-Exc.) [emphasis added].

This codified concept of a “normal tight end position at the snap” does two important things. First, it acknowledges that the tight end does occupy a normal position—presumably alongside either tackle on the offensive line. Second, and most importantly for the Saints, if the tight end is explicitly defined as having a “normal position,” then that would mean that the tight end may also occupy abnormal positions as well. Otherwise, the rule would read “… and lined up on or inside the tight end position at the snap.” [thereby omitting any allusion to positional normalcy]

Such a logic holds true in other instances. Consider a river. If I were to explain what a river is to a 12-year-old, I would say that a river is a flowing body of water normally above ground. After all, I couldn’t state that a river is exclusively above ground because some rivers are actually subterranean. Just as a river is normally but not always above ground, a tight end is normally but not always alongside either tackle. This is a tremendously important and advantageous distinction for the New Orleans Saints.

Sep 8, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) celebrates after a touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons during the third quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

What will the Arbiter Decide?

I honestly have no idea. I am not the arbiter, and legal decision makers are notorious for sometimes making curious rulings.

That said, if I were deciding this matter, I would be incredibly leery of the Saints potential argument regarding positional ambiguity. Slippery slope arguments are often perceived as taboo in today’s media climate, but a slippery slope absolutely exists in this instance. If the Saints can save \$5 million by paying Graham as a tight end as opposed to a wide receiver, what is to stop the Saints and other teams from potentially taking this a step further and abusing the original intent of the Franchise Tag? The running back is effectively a dying position in today’s game; what if a team decided to Franchise Tag a blocking-savvy running back as a fullback? Think someone like Matt Forte or Ahmad Bradshaw. Such a situation would be far more egregious than the Saints considering Jimmy Graham a tight end.

Ultimately, despite the potential for a slippery slope, I would rule in favor of the New Orleans Saints. Graham is perceived as a tight end, self-identifies as a tight end, and is not even unique in his slot and wide-out positioning—fellow tight ends Pitta and Gonzalez both lined up at wide receiver at higher percentages than Graham in 2013.

It appears to me that tight ends are different from wide receivers in so much as they are required to do blocking tasks foreign to wide receivers not named Anquan Boldin and Brandon Marshall. While you might be thinking that the added versatility of tight ends should warrant them being paid more than wide receivers in certain circumstances, ideally my ruling would force Roger Goodell and the NFL into completely revising the logic of Franchise Tag.

Athletes should be paid according to their individual value—not according to a bizarre average of the salaries of other players who may or may not even be accurate comparables.