LSU fans and Saints fans, most of whom inhabit the same soul, have lamented for years the assembly line of Tiger talent the Saints have let slip out of Louisiana and infuse rosters all over the NFL.
No time may it have hurt more than in Sunday’s playoff-ending, likely era-ending 30-20 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
There were linebacker Devin White and running back Leonard Fournette, both still wearing their purple and gold-trimmed LSU pads under their white Bucs jerseys, making big plays all over the field that contributed to the Saints’ demise.
White had a team-high 11 tackles (10 solo), recovered a fumble and made the Drew Brees interception to set up Tampa Bay’s final, game-clinching touchdown with 4:57 remaining, a 1-yard Tom Brady keeper. Fournette, the former St. Augustine High star who must have immensely enjoyed his 26th birthday Monday, ground out team-leading 63 yards on 17 carries and had a Bucs-best five catches for 44 yards. That included a 6-yard touchdown pass from Brady that was the start of a 17-unanswered point avalanche that buried the Saints after New Orleans took a 20-13 lead early in the third quarter.
If it was the end of the Brees era in New Orleans, and there is every indication that it is, it will be one sour note to end on after such a sweet career. Brees looked every bit of his 42 years, not trying to throw deep downfield (the Saints had to bring in Jameis Winston to do that) and letting loose three interceptions.
White said don’t blame Brees for the turnovers. Credit the Tampa Bay defense.
“We felt like we were taking him off the spot by pressuring him on the line of scrimmage,” an amped-up White said after the win. “It was nothing Brees did. It was everything our defense did.”
While the truth may lie somewhere in the middle, you can understand White’s excitement.
If you thought White’s targeting ejection in 2018 against Mississippi State was bad, the call that kept him out of the first half of that year’s Alabama game, it was nothing compared to his COVID-19 lockdown that started Jan. 1. He missed Tampa Bay’s regular-season finale against Atlanta and the Bucs’ 31-23 playoff-opening win against Washington.
“I just want to shout out to God to allow me to play and overcome this COVID stuff,” the 2018 Butkus Award winner said.
The man who piled up 140 regular-season tackles was back on form Sunday, much to the Saints’ regret.
“Devin’s a baller,” said Bucs cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, who also picked off Brees. “He’s known for making plays. He’s an energy bug out there. That kind of energy is contagious. It runs through the entire team.
“He makes big plays, splash plays whenever you need him. He came through for us and did everything.”
Brees threw only one interception combined in his previous nine games against Tampa Bay. His three Sunday, plus Jared Cook’s post-catch fumble — stripped by Bucs safety Antoine Winfield and gobbled up by White — were far too many for the Saints to overcome.
“If you take it away more than you give it away, you win,” White said. “We were up for the challenge.”
White also took time to be magnanimous in defeat, throwing a bouquet Brees’ way.
“I respect Drew,” he said. “I’m from Louisiana. I went to LSU. I watched the Saints growing up.
“I talked to Drew after the game. I don’t know what he’s going to do with his career. If he ends it after tonight, he had a helluva career. I’m just blessed and honored to watch him growing up and taking the same field as him.”
If Brees’ career is indeed in twilight, White’s appears to be just taking off after his first playoff game and win, advancing Tampa Bay into this Sunday’s NFC championship game at Green Bay.
Despite all his tackles this season, White was somehow snubbed for the Pro Bowl. He was upset, but he said Brady helped him take a broader view.
“He’s like, ‘D, there’s a bigger bowl I’m chasing. We’re all chasing it. Come on,’” White said. “I just thought, ‘Man, it’s a blessing to hear that. I need to hear that. He’s still chasing those (Super) bowls in his 40s. I am just so grateful to be able to spend this time with him.’ ”
If asked, Brady would no doubt say the same thing about Devin White.