Walking away from the visitors’ locker room at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Saturday night, Jonathan Goodwin wouldn’t say whether he felt he had earned the starting job at center for the Saints after New Orleans’ 23-17 victory over the Colts.
He instead remarked, “It felt like old times,” and left it at that.
Goodwin’s summation was as accurate as it was simple. It had been more than three seasons since he had worked with quarterback Drew Brees, who missed the Saints’ first two preseason games with a left oblique he strained Aug. 1.
But as the two were reunited for New Orleans’ third exhibition game on Saturday, when projected starters saw the most game action of the preseason, it looked like a replay of Goodwin’s best days with the Saints, during which he started 45 consecutive regular-season games from 2008 through 2010 and won Super Bowl XLIV with the team.
Goodwin logged 36 snaps against the Colts, 28 of which were on three drives with Brees behind him as well as Pro Bowl guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans flanking him. He assisted in maintaining a clean pocket of protection for Brees and personally neither surrendered a single sack, hit or hurry nor drew a penalty flag.
Brees, meanwhile, directed a pair of 80-yard scoring advances, going 9-of-15 for 128 yards and two touchdowns. The Saints averaged a respectable 4.72 yards per carry on 11 rushes while Goodwin worked with Grubbs, Evans as well as first-string tackles Zach Strief and Terron Armstead — a clear indication that the center fit in well with the unit.
“Goody is Goody — (he) ... gets the job done, does it very well,” Brees said afterward about Goodwin, a one-time Pro Bowler who originally arrived in New Orleans in 2006, the same year the Saints’ franchise quarterback did. “He’s moving really well. He’s strong. He’s powerful.”
Those were exactly the sentiments the Saints were hoping to be able to eventually express when they signed the 6-foot-3, 318-pound Goodwin in June to compete for a spot left vacant by Brian de la Puente, who was New Orleans’ starting center from 2011 to 2013 but joined Chicago in free agency in April.
The idea was never all that far-fetched. Though he’s 35, after heading to San Francisco at the conclusion of his first tenure with the Saints, Goodwin helped the 49ers post the eighth-, fourth- and third-most rushing yards in the NFL from 2011 to 2013. He went to the NFC Championship Game with San Francisco each of those three years, and in 2012, he made his second career Super Bowl with them, a game coincidentally played at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
That all represented a deep wealth of accomplishments he could resort to as he vied with the other man jockeying to replace de la Puente, Tim Lelito, who was a rookie when he started in two Saints wins last season in which Evans was injured. Goodwin and Lelito have each said the veteran has had no hesitation teaching the second-year interior lineman all he can about being an NFL center all throughout training camp, which began at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia on July 24 and has returned to the Saints’ training facility in Metairie.
But at junctures Lelito has struggled in one-on-one camp battles while Goodwin has been steadier. A number of Lelito’s snaps in drills have resulted in loose balls while Goodwin has managed to limit mental mistakes. In preseason games, the scouting service Pro Football Focus blames a QB hit and two hurries to Lelito, who nonetheless has seen 32 more snaps than Goodwin’s 87 through three exhibitions. It attributes no pressures given up on Goodwin.
Goodwin does have one holding penalty, on a first-and-10 at New Orleans’ 45 on a drive ending in a punt. Lelito has none. However, Goodwin then thrived with the No. 1 offense Saturday. Lelito seemed to have issues in run-blocking when he went in after Goodwin, though the Saints rushed 21 times for 89 yards with him in the contest.
None of this means Lelito won’t be important for the Saints as they journey forward. They like his 6-foot-4, 315-pound frame, the promise he displayed as a reserve last year, and the growth he’s displayed battling Goodwin in camp. “Their two different players in their careers,” said Saints coach Sean Payton, who declined to say a decision had been made at center.
Yet Goodwin is playing as confidently as he ever has, and that’d be tough for any young guy to outdo. “I felt like I’ve played extremely well this camp, and at the end of the day that’s all I can do,” Goodwin said. “I might’ve had my top camp in my personal opinion.”