A new message hung from players’ lockers when the New Orleans Saints showed up to practice Thursday — a reminder, perhaps.
It was a motivational cartoon depicting two men in dress shirts and ties carrying pickaxes in separate tunnels. The one on the bottom was slouched over with a glum expression on his face, holding his pickax over his right shoulder, and walking away from a thin barrier of mud separating him from a trove of diamonds. The man at the top was wielding his pickax over his head and digging frantically toward the diamonds, which he’d reach as long as he kept moving in that direction.
The Saints (2-4) didn’t know exactly who printed the cartoons and distributed them. But the message came through to them perfectly as they were readying themselves to clash with the Green Bay Packers (5-2) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday night.
“The picture is dead on,” veteran guard Jahri Evans said of the “Never Give Up” drawing found throughout the Internet. “You ... have to keep plugging away, keep working, because you don’t know when ... that seal is going to break and ... all the stuff you’ve worked for is going to pour out into your hands.”
When the cartoon appeared in the Saints locker room Thursday, New Orleans had lost three of its six games by fewer than three points. The only blowout defeat the Saints suffered was a 38-17 blowout in Dallas on Sept. 28.
Ninth-year tackle Zach Strief said such losses threaten more than their position in the NFL standings, and the cartoon cut right to the heart of the matter.
“The danger and the fear is that people after all that don’t get the reward, turn around and walk away and say screw it ... and tank the season,” Strief said. “And yet who knows how close you were to the reward? So I think the message is keep hammering, keep working, and the rewards will come if you keep doing that. But if you don’t keep swinging it, if you don’t keep swinging the pick, you’re never going to break through, so just telling guys to keep working and have faith in it and do your best to enjoy the journey because it’s not over.”
Other players saw the cartoon as a reinforcement of the importance of finishing whatever anyone starts. One of them was fullback Austin Johnson.
“We’re just so close,” Johnson said.
But miscues at key junctures have doomed the Saints’ efforts in the tight setbacks. There was a lost fumble in overtime in Atlanta. There was a late fourth-down conversion and disastrous coverage on a 28-yard reception that set up a last-minute game-winning field goal for the Browns in Cleveland. The Saints then surrendered a 73-yard touchdown pass on a third-and-14 situation with fewer than four minutes to go which allowed the Lions to overcome a 23-10 deficit and triumph 24-23.
Better play at those moments could’ve resulted in a record as good as 5-1 for the Saints instead of the lackluster 2-4 they are.
“I think everybody pretty much gets it,” Johnson remarked. “Keep working and just (focus on) finishing.”
Motivational tactics such as the “Never Give Up” cartoon have been common for the Saints since coach Sean Payton took charge of the franchise in 2006.
For example, after losing the final three games of the 2009 regular season, Payton had wooden bats placed in his team’s lockers as it prepared to host a divisional playoff. The message for a team that had started the year 13-0 was, “Bring the wood or be one-and-done in the playoffs.”
The Saints then won three straight games to capture Super Bowl XLIV.
Others have been rehashed throughout the years: empty gas cans at the lockers of older players at the start of the playoffs, urging them to find enough fuel within themselves to finish the postseason; or leaving cheese out when the Saints are on a winning streak, warning them to stay hungry and not buy the hype.
Nonetheless, though Thursday’s gesture wasn’t the first and probably won’t be the last of its kind, it spoke loudly to Saints cornerback Corey White, who was beat on the lengthy touchdown that sparked the Lions’ comeback in Detroit.
“Right now, we can say we’re in a rut,” said White, who shaved off his distinctive mohawk haircut following the Detroit game because he figured it was time to switch things up. “And right now, we have to get in a groove. This is the time to get in a groove.”