When Jo-Lonn Dunbar walked into the Saints’ practice facility Thursday, he saw his name on the wall.
Dunbar, along with every member of the Saints’ Super Bowl team, is emblazoned on a banner that hangs from ceiling to floor.
He hadn’t seen it yet. Dunbar pulled out his phone and snapped a few pictures to send to his mother. Four years after he last played in New Orleans, Dunbar is back where his career began.
“You always know, once you build good relationships, that thing kind of happens,” Dunbar said. “It was just always stuck in my mind — maybe I could come back and play here. I was never told anything like that.”
Dunbar was released by the St. Louis Rams earlier this week, becoming a target of opportunity for a Saints team suddenly thin at linebacker. With Dannell Ellerbe fighting a nagging groin injury and David Hawthorne nursing a hamstring, veteran backup Ramon Humber would likely move into the lineup at weakside linebacker if neither player can go, but New Orleans needed somebody capable of stepping into the lineup in an emergency situation.
“He’s someone, obviously, that we’re familiar with, and he came off the Rams roster, and just with our current depth and our situation, he’s someone who learns real fast,” coach Sean Payton said. “That’s an asset.”
Dunbar, who left New Orleans after starting 14 games in 2011 and signed with St. Louis, returned to a very different defensive scheme under Rob Ryan than the one he played in for Gregg Williams.
But after one day of practice, the veteran said he felt like he’s beginning to understand the concepts of what the Saints are doing, even if the terminology remains foreign.
Dunbar was used mostly in running situations by the Rams in the past two seasons. This year, the Rams shifted safety Mark Barron into a linebacker role, and Dunbar found himself on and off the roster. A key special teamer during his time in New Orleans, Dunbar hasn’t been active for any game this season.
“I would say, I think he functions in that role and probably more recently hasn’t had to play that role as much,” Payton said. “He’s been more of a first- and second-down base linebacker.”
For Dunbar, the opportunity represents a chance to end the on-again, off-again season he has had. The long-term plan for Dunbar in New Orleans remains unclear, but the veteran is hoping he can finish the season here.
“It has been pretty strange,” he said. “To be back in St. Louis, get cut and end up back here, it’s definitely been strange trying to figure that out. Hopefully, that comes to an end now.”
Being back in New Orleans has its advantages. Dunbar’s 3-year-old daughter lives here, and after he got the good news Thursday that the Saints were signing him, he drove to her cheerleading practice and surprised her.
She’s plenty busy for a 3-year-old, competing in gymnastics, dance and soccer, and now that he’s in New Orleans, Dunbar can be around for all of those things.
After four years in St. Louis, being back in New Orleans is still a little surreal.
“Not something I would have thought about,” Dunbar said. “But it’s nice to be in this position.”