Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- New Orleans Saints wide receiver Joe Morgan (13) beats Tennessee Titans cornerback Coty Sensabaugh (24) for a long catch to set up a New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) touchdown during the second quarter Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, at the Mercedes Benz Superdome.
Offensive assistant Carter Sheridan weaved in and out of the crowd inside the Saints' locker room minutes after the team had beaten the Titans 31-24 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Friday night and didn't stop until he found wide receiver Joseph Morgan.
Morgan had just finished leading the Saints (2-0) with 108 yards on three catches -- an astounding average of 36 yards per grab -- in his first NFL game at the Superdome since 2012. Sheridan high-fived Morgan, leaned in for an embrace and told him, "You did yourself a favor tonight. You keep enjoying doing what you're doing."
Don't mind if Morgan does. His outing Friday against Tennessee (1-1) and the quiet congratulations he earned from Sheridan vividly illustrate just how far Morgan has come in what for him has been a tumultuous 14+ months, which have seen him endure off-field legal problems, suffer a career-threatening injury -- and persevere through both as he tries to reclaim his status as a tantalizing deep ball threat for the Saints.
That's a status he earned in 2012, when he racked up a jaw-dropping 37.9 yards per catch and three touchdowns on just 10 receptions.
But then he endangered it with a Memorial Day weekend DWI arrest the following year. Bad became worse when he went to the Saints' ensuing training camp and tore the meniscus and partially tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee at an intrasquad scrimmage last August.
He spent the rest of the 2013 campaign recovering while the Saints' passing game finished No. 2 in the NFL. It was the second complete season Morgan missed after a serious preseason knee injury sidelined him for all of 2011, when he joined the Saints as an undrafted free agent.
However, since then, Morgan has entered and been completing a diversion program to avoid prosecution in the DWI case. He's patiently rehabbed his knee and more often than not been a full participant at 2014 training camp practices, which were at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia from July 24 to Wednesday but return to the Saints' headquarters in Metairie on Sunday afternoon.
His diligence paid off Friday. With wide receivers Kenny Stills (quad) and Marques Colston (undisclosed) scratched, Morgan on a few occasions attracted attention from quarterbacks Luke McCown and Ryan Griffin, who are competing to be the understudy to Drew Brees (out with a strained oblique).
Morgan capitalized. With McCown calling the signals, he drew defensive pass interference on a first-and-20 from New Orleans' 10 while being covered by Titans cornerback Jason McCourty, improving the Saints' field position vastly.
He then roared past Titans cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and dove around New Orleans' 30 to catch a 45-yard throw from Griffin. Morgan got back on his feet and gained an extra seven yards before he was hauled down.
That play set up a score for running back Mark Ingram, who ran in a short Griffin pass from 23 yards out to help give New Orleans a 21-17 lead.
Morgan later slipped behind Sensabaugh again to catch a 44-yard throw from Griffin around the Tennessee 40, a play that meant the receiver at that moment was averaging an obscene 48 yards per grab. That number became slightly more reason when Griffin connected with Morgan for 12 yards and a first down -- but it was still enough to push the receiver over the 100-yard barrier.
That all could go a very long way for Morgan as he jockeys for a roster spot at receiver under Colston, Stills and rookie first-round draft choice Brandin Cooks. His chief competition as of Friday included guys like Nick Toon, Robert Meachem (who on Friday dropped a pass in the end zone), Andy Tanner, Seantavius Jones (who caught a TD against the Titans) and Brandon Coleman.
"It was encouraging that he got behind the defense and was able to make a few plays that we've seen him make prior to his injury," Payton said. "I think more than anything what is important for us in the evaluation process is how is he moving and tonight we saw him do a few things that were encouraging."
No one was more encouraged Friday than Morgan himself.
"With any rehab process, you're not allowed to just go from zero to 100 in the blink of an eye," Morgan said to reporters afterward. "It's been a long process, but right now it feels great.
"The hardest thing to do is make a team in the training room -- the less time you spend in the training room, the better your chances to make the team."
Note: Advocate correspondent Guerry Smith contributed to this report. This post has been updated since it was first published.