HE WAS A "BUST."
That's what Brandon Graham called himself this past spring and summer. I've been doing this gig since 1981, in four towns before working this one, and never had I heard an athlete in any sport describe himself this way. Not Shawn Bradley, not Bobby Hoying, not Jerry Stackhouse, not Ilya Bryzgalov. Belief in yourself, regardless of mounting evidence, is important to the survival of any elite athlete, and critical to any professional one.
That belief sometimes requires a controlled form of insanity, like the hitter who believes his 1-for-50 slump is simply a matter of the ball not finding holes. That is the kind of thinking you expect to hear from a guy in Graham's shoes, a guy way too small to be drafted way too high, a guy who suffered a debilitating knee injury during his uneven rookie season, a guy dwarfed by comparisons with the Giants' 6-5 defensive end, Jason Pierre-Paul, who was selected two picks after Graham in that now-infamous 2010 draft.
If you think about it, though, none of those things is his fault. Howie Roseman overvalued him, he ripped up his right knee in the 14th game of that first season, and his genetic coding dictated his 6-1 height.
Graham mentioned none of that as he battled back from microfracture knee surgery. Instead, he beat you to the spot all spring and summer, let you know that it was all right to talk about, that he was thinking it, too.
"I was just calling me what everybody else was calling me," he said at his locker Wednesday. "It was all motivation for me. Of course. I kept thinking, 'I can't wait for that one day when everybody has to eat those words.' "
Over the last 2 weeks, Graham has inched his way in that direction. It is way too soon to revise any long-term assessment of him, and it is conveniently inaccurate to blame all of his uneven and disappointing play on Jim Washburn and his now-exiled wide-nine, or to blame it on the presence of Jason Babin and the lack of snaps that entailed. But Graham now is tied with Fletcher Cox for the team lead in sacks with 5 1/2, and his performance in last week's loss to Cincinnati at least suggests he may yet emerge from the world of Mamula.
Slotted against respected right tackle Andre Smith for much of the game, Graham got 52 snaps against the Bengals, and spent a good chunk of them applying pressure on Andy Dalton.
One of his two sacks, with the Bengals on the Eagles' 7-yard line, forced Cincinnati to kick a field goal. The other forced a fumble and led to an Eagles score that tied the game at the time.
Graham's 15 tackles over the last three games are one shy of his total over the first 11. Four of his sacks have come over that stretch, as well. No doubt, jettisoning Babin gave him more opportunity, and dumping Washburn in favor of Tommy Brasher created a scheme more in line with not only to his talents, but those of Cox and Trent Cole.
But this also is about that controlled insanity, and what an injury like the one he suffered in 2010 can do to it. Friday will mark the 2-year anniversary of the extensive microfracture surgery performed on Graham's right knee, which means he is long past feeling pain or feeling limited physically. "I'm 100 percent physically," he said.
The trick, really, since the middle of last season, has been to convince his mind of that. Trepidation is a subliminal impulse, not a conscious one.
"You think about it all the time," Graham said. "You're always messing with it. It's always on your mind. Until that one day when you go out and make a play and it doesn't hurt. Then you don't even think about it."
And so the 52 snaps last Thursday were as much about mind as they were about the matter. I asked whether Graham had yet that aha moment athletes in his spot often speak of, when the body has finally persuaded the brain to let go and the injury has been left behind for good.
"Last game," he snapped. "Just the relentless act of me. That's what I always try to have in my game. To always give effort and make sure that's never the problem. And everything else will follow. That's what I tried to show last week. That once I'm in good shape, I could go."
And go. And go. And go. Two games remain, two games more to whittle away at that "bust" label he still keeps close to his oversized heart.
"It ain't over," he said. "This is just the start. I'm going to try to get better each week and keep going forward."
On Twitter: @samdonnellon