Everyone loves a good comeback story.
Members of a New Orleans Saints team that began this season with championship aspirations but now is 4-7 and desperately trying to snap a three-game losing streak when it kicks off against the Steelers (7-4) at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh at noon Sunday are no exception.
They’ve all rooted for someone who has been written off as done for, not unlike many have done to them with five games left this year. And they’ve then seen those “dead athletes walking” surge back to life to prove the naysayers wrong.
Those kinds of stories are replaying in the back of Saints players’ minds as they attempt to realize the lofty expectations placed on them when — to start his fourth season in New Orleans — defensive end Cameron Jordan went on television in July and declared, “This is the year I get a Super Bowl.”
As tight end Benjamin Watson worded it, “We have to look at it as, ‘Hey, it’s not over. ... And there’s still time for us to do what we want to do.’ ”
Watson learned that from the 1992 Buffalo Bills.
That was the team whose star quarterback, Jim Kelly, was out injured for a wildcard playoff game Jan. 3, 1993, against the Houston Oilers and was trailing 35-3 early in the third quarter. Watching at his family’s home in Virginia, where he lived until he moved to South Carolina in the 10th grade, Watson didn’t flip the channel mainly out of support for the Bills’ fill-in quarterback, Frank Reich — who went to the University of Maryland, where Watson’s father was once a linebacker.
“I remember ... thinking it was over,” Watson said. “But then they start coming back and making plays and it gets exciting.”
The Bills won 41-38 in overtime, thanks largely to four touchdown passes by Reich in what remains the largest comeback in NFL history. A young Watson recalled marveling, “The game wasn’t over, and they kept playing. And you just never know what’s going to happen.”
“That,” Watson said, “is probably my favorite story.”
In Saints running back Mark Ingram’s opinion, nothing compares to the decision by ex-Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan to quit the NBA after winning championships in 1991, 1992 and 1993 so he could play minor league baseball in 1994.
Jordan wasn’t nearly as dominant at baseball as he was at basketball, and at least some figured he had made an irreversible mistake giving up the NBA in his prime. But Jordan returned to the NBA and took each league championship from 1996-98.
“Mike ... (taught me) to just always be persistent,” said Ingram, the Saints’ leader in rushing yards (645) and carries (149) who has run for a career-high six touchdowns this season.
For Saints left tackle Terron Armstead, the team that taught him to never lose faith was the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals. A fan because he grew up right across the Mississippi River from St. Louis in Cahokia, Illinois, Armstead was in his second of three all-conference seasons at Arkansas-Pine Bluff when he watched in horror as the Cardinals fell 101/2 games behind in the race to make the playoffs as a wildcard.
But then St. Louis won 23 of its final 32 games and made the playoffs. They went on to win the World Series — after they were one strike away from elimination at two different junctures.
“It was crazy,” Armstead said. “It was magical.”
Heading into Sunday, Armstead’s team isn’t mathematically in as dire straits as those Cardinals were. Before tiebreakers, they’re even with Atlanta (4-7) — which visits New Orleans on Dec. 21 — in the battle for the NFC South race and the right to host a playoff game.
And that’s why Armstead hasn’t dipped into the depths of despair that many Saints supporters find themselves in after seeing their team lose consecutive games to San Francisco, Cincinnati and Baltimore at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“(A turnaround) can definitely happen,” he said. “That’s the great deal in sports.”
Armstead pointed out one last thing: the Team Gleason wristband he wears daily with the words “No White Flags” on it.
That’s the rallying cry of the charitable foundation launched by former Saint Steve Gleason, who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2010 but has forged on to become a renowned advocate for people battling the same neuromuscular disease that put him in a wheelchair.
“Regardless of the situation — 16-0 or 0-16 — there’s no white flags,” Armstead said. “I will never give up, and no one else in this locker room will ever give up.”