By all appearances, Joe Morgan had had his third strike as a Saint — maybe even in the NFL.
A DWI arrest in 2013, a two-game suspension preceded by four weeks on the inactive list in the first half of the 2014 season and being unceremoniously waived with three weeks to go seemingly brought the wide receiver’s time in Black & Gold to an end in December.
The reason for cutting Morgan was never made clear, but he’s acknowledged “lacking focus because of off-the-field things.” Maybe that’s why Drew Brees was yelling at him for lining up wrong during his final game, the 41-10 home-field humiliation against Carolina that made Morgan the perfect candidate to be made an example of.
Nobody else wanted Morgan either, not as a late-season pickup or even as a no-risk acquisition anytime for months afterward.
But somebody felt he was worth redeeming.
So on Wednesday as the team went through the third week of OTAs, there was No. 13, running the deep routes that made him such a home run threat, (his 14 career receptions have averaged an eye-popping 33.6 yards), albeit an occasional one. Morgan’s even occupying his old locker instead of one of those cramped middle-of-the-room ones reserved for rookies and free agents.
And if Morgan’s back at the bottom of the depth chart instead of starting as he did in the 2014 opener, and had to go through the humiliation of a tryout just to get a contract, well, that’s OK, too.
“It’s no fun getting fired,” said Morgan, who was re-signed in March. “Last year, sitting home watching those last few games and not being able to do anything to help really hurt.
“But I like to think that when I got cut, I didn’t leave with any bad blood. If I had, I wouldn’t be in this locker room now.”
Morgan does have a way about him that invites forgiveness.
An open, friendly smile and an almost-classic tale of overcoming the odds to get to the NFL helps.
His father was murdered when Morgan was 4, and after two years at Illinois he spent the last half of his college career in his hometown of Canton, Ohio, at Division II Walsh College and made the Saints as an undrafted free agent in 2011, only to miss the entire year with a knee injury. Another torn ACL cost Morgan the 2013 season.
Whatever the reason may be, Morgan has missed 50 of his potential 67 games with the Saints.
Now who wouldn’t root for someone who’d endured all of that, no matter his other shortcomings?
Especially since the Saints traded away the player who most closely resembled him.
“I think at some point all of these players understand how short potentially that time can be playing in this league, and certainly the opportunities to be part of a team,” coach Sean Payton said. “Joe’s done a good job of training and taking advantage of his opportunity.
“He will be competing, so we will see how it goes.”
Morgan does have a solid shot at a roster spot, in large part because the Saints shed themselves of second-year man Kenny Stills and didn’t draft any wide receivers or sign any other veteran free agents. So after Marques Colston and 2014 first-round pick Brandin Cooks, it’s pretty wide open for the five or six other roster spots.
“I always had in my mind that I was going to get back in the league somewhere,” Morgan said. “That’s why I kept in shape and have worked on my short and middle routes.
“I work harder in the weight room now, too, and I do the other things off the field I need to do.”
If Morgan was part of the problem that beset the Saints down the stretch last season, his teammates have nonetheless welcomed him back, especially veteran tight end Benjamin Watson, who is the unofficial team chaplain.
“It’s no secret that I believe the power of God can change people,” Watson said. “Joe understands that, too, but a lot of times we get a lot of voices coming from a lot of different people who aren’t necessarily grounded.
“I believe God gave me another year in the NFL for a reason, and I tell guys that if I can help you from my mistakes, then that’s what I’m here for.”
Watson wouldn’t say he was surprised the Saints re-signed Morgan — citing that after the Jimmy Graham trade nothing surprised him anymore.
“There’s a reason they brought Joe back, and that’s because he’s talented,” he said. “He isn’t a charity case.
“Not many guys can run like him, so they definitely see the potential there.”
They perhaps also see someone who has learned from his mistakes.
Morgan says he has matured over the past few months, thinking about what he can do for his daughters, Justice, 5, and Austin, 11 months — and what he can’t do if he’s out of the league.
The folks back home in Ohio and the fans he’s encountered since coming back to New Orleans have been supportive — to a point.
“A lot of the folks I see tell me that this time I’d better not mess it up,” Morgan said. “I agree with them.
“This opportunity has been driven by common sense and not doing anything stupid that will get me kicked out the door early. I’m not going to let them down.”