ATLANTA — Rookie Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks was ready to surrender each of the seven catches he made at the Georgia Dome in his NFL regular-season debut on Sunday. He was prepared to give back every single one of the 95 yards from scrimmage he had and the 10 yards’ worth of penalty calls he earned.
He would not hesitate to forfeit his first career touchdown if somehow that would have erased the Saints’ 37-34 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons (1-0) and changed the result to a victory for New Orleans (0-1).
“I had an all right day, but at the end of the day you want the win — no matter what,” said Cooks, whose seven grabs tied a record for Saints rookies making their NFL debut, a mark set by former running back Reggie Bush in Week 1 of New Orleans’ 2006 campaign. “I’d rather have zero catches with the ‘W’ than what I did.”
Nonetheless, had Cooks not delivered the outing he did, the Saints would not have had the chance they did to win their regular-season opener. And that is at least something the Saints can point to as a silver lining in a defeat that was sealed when veteran receiver Marques Colston lost a fumble on New Orleans’ lone offensive drive in Sunday’s extra period, which set up a game-winning, 52-yard field goal by Falcons kicker Matt Bryant.
Cooks’ first catch was a 32-yard grab over the middle in traffic on the second play from scrimmage. He had two more catches — for 2 and 14 yards — on that possession to facilitate a 31-yard field goal by Saints kicker Shayne Graham that gave New Orleans a 3-0 lead.
All of which meant Cooks alone accounted for 48 of the 67 yards the Saints gained on his first official drive in the pros.
“He made good plays in space, held on to the football,” Saints coach Sean Payton said afterward. “The thing with him is, he’s prepared — he looked very comfortable in those spots.”
On Cooks’ next touch, he ran from the right side of the field, grabbed a handoff from quarterback Drew Brees and sprinted around the left end of the line of scrimmage for an 18-yard rush to open the second quarter. That moved New Orleans from its 43 to Atlanta’s 39.
The first-round draft choice out of Oregon State then hauled in a 9-yard pass from Brees at Atlanta’s 2; and one play later, running back Khiry Robinson punched in a 2-yard score that helped put the Saints ahead 13-0.
Cooks’ ensuing two grabs counted for a total 11 yards, and a 3-yard scoring connection with Brees to help give the Saints a 20-7 edge late in the first half. In between those catches, he drew a 5-yard penalty from cornerback Robert McClain.
McClain in the third quarter would be whistled again for a penalty, using his hands illegally in an effort to contain Cooks on a second-and-10 passing play. That foul on Cooks negated a sack on Brees, though ultimately the Saints punted on that drive.
Cooks finished his day with a 9-yard grab on a third-and-five early in the fourth quarter to extend a drive that culminated both in a 3-yard touchdown by running back Mark Ingram and a 27-24 lead for New Orleans.
Cooks would’ve done even more damage, but a pass Brees threw from Atlanta’s 14 to Cooks in the end zone was intercepted by McClain in the third quarter.
“The one that really bugs me is the turnover,” said Brees, who was 29-of-42 for 333 yards, a touchdown and an interception. “If I put that thing one more foot in front of Cooks, it’s a touchdown.”
Cooks for his part chalked up Brees’ interception to “a good play” by McClain.
The rookie said he’d have difficulty processing the season-opening setback but also said the team had to flush such emotions out of their system with a Week 2 trip to Cleveland just ahead.
However, Cooks did find plenty to be encouraged about in the production of the passing game, which operated without second-year receiver Kenny Stills. Stills — scratched with a quad injury — topped the NFL in yards per catch (20) and had five touchdowns in 2013.
“For me, on the offensive side of the ball, we had something real special,” said Cooks, who fielded two punts he signaled for fair catches Sunday. “We just have to continue to build. We had one of our weapons missing out there today, so that’s really encouraging.”