It took almost a dozen weeks to remember why everyone was excited about Joe Morgan in the first place.
His 2013 season wiped out by a knee injury, the New Orleans Saints wide receiver got off to a slow start last season. He couldn’t consistently get on the field early in the year and then hit a road block when the team suspended him for undisclosed reasons.
But during a Week 11 game against the Baltimore Ravens, he reminded everyone why he was on the team and why the Saints have been so intoxicated with his natural abilities. On the second play of the game, Morgan took a handoff around the left end and turned up the field for a 67-yard gain. Then, two series later, he took off up the right side of the field and hauled in a Drew Brees pass for a 62-yard gain.
In a season where big plays were hard to come by, the only question at that point was why Morgan wasn’t being used more often. He was the home-run hitter this team needed. But a few weeks later, Morgan was off the team, released for reasons that are still not clear.
Morgan has been something of an enigma during his tenure in New Orleans. Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Walsh College, his talent has long been known but never fully realized. He missed two seasons with knee injuries and has gotten into trouble off the field, including a 2013 arrest for driving while intoxicated.
But every time he touches the ball, good things seem to happen. Throughout his four-year tenure, he’s caught 14 passes for 471 yards, an average of 33.6 yards per catch. It’s not easy to forget those plays. It’s the kind of production that can haunt a coach who never fully harnesses it.
You can be sure those figures were lingering with Saints coach Sean Payton since releasing Morgan late last season. And you can be sure those figures played a role in the decision to bring the receiver back last week on a one-year deal.
For all the reasons listed, the move was both one of the more surprising and sensible moves the team has made this offseason.
It was surprising because something caused the team to wash its hands of Morgan late last season. Players with such talent and potential are not typically released during the season and then brought back — especially not when the team has been unceremoniously dumping players in an effort to reclaim the locker room.
But after trading away tight end Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills, New Orleans is in need of playmakers. They need players who can hit home runs and potentially provide yards where there are no yards to be found.
It helps that the risk is minimal. Morgan is not going to be promised a roster spot. He’s likely being brought back on a very minimal deal. If things do not work out and last year’s release was not enough to wake him up and put an end to whatever issues led to his release, then he’ll be back out on the streets in search of a job.
But it’s not just about Morgan being a good citizen. There’s also no guarantee he’ll be able to step up and fill the “Z” receiver role vacated by Stills. Stills, who has since been traded to the Miami Dolphins, ran a variety of routes last season and showed significant growth in his second season.
He began showing signs of being a tactician, excelling on nearly every route in the playbook. Whoever steps up to fill that void will need to be able to do the same.
Perhaps it was a result of the way the Saints drew up his plays, but Morgan did not display the same variety last season. He was targeted 10 times last season. Three of those came on go routes, another three on post routes, and three more targets came on go routes. He was targeted on one hitch.
To become a bigger piece of the offense and help erase the loss of Stills, he will have to become more of a tactician and not rely on his athleticism to get open, which might have been the case last season.
During a December game against the Carolina Panthers, it appeared both Payton and Drew Brees had to inform Morgan that he was running the wrong routes. At one point during the game, Payton ran Morgan down and yelled at the wide receiver on the sideline.
Morgan was released days later.
Mistakes such as those cannot happen. If Morgan learns his playbook and shows growth both on and off the field, this could be a bargain signing for the Saints and a chance for him to get his career back on track.
If he doesn’t, all that will be left is the haunting image of untapped talent.