When was the first time New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara did something that made you giggle? For me, it was Oct. 15, when Kamara vaulted over a Detroit Lions defender with a kind of effortless style that made him seem like a superhero among a bunch of regular guys. I laughed. I'm still laughing. Kamara is just that damn fun.
With Kamara and a squadron of rookies from one of the best draft classes in franchise history, the 2017 Saints have made football in New Orleans fun again.
There's cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who despite missing a few games is a candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
There's safety Marcus Williams, who in any other year would command enormous hype as a successful Saints defensive draft pick, but this year is overshadowed by Lattimore.
There's offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk, who filled in early for injured longtime tackle Zach Strief and has helped the Black and Gold develop one of the best rushing attacks in football.
There's defensive lineman Trey Hendrickson, who has provided competent snaps as a rotational player in the Saints' improved front seven.
And there's linebacker Alex Anzalone, who was a starter until he suffered a season-ending injury against the Miami Dolphins Oct. 1.
Other young players have helped, too: 2015 first-round offensive lineman Andrus Peat, playing both left guard and left tackle, depending on the week's injury situation; 2016 second-round wide receiver Michael Thomas; 2016 undrafted free agent cornerback Ken Crawley and many others.
Together, they've put the Saints into playoff position and have given the team a chance to win the NFC South for the first time since 2011. But it's Kamara who has led the way, doing seemingly impossible things on the football field that provoke emotional responses in fans that are fitting for the holiday season.
He makes us merry.
Kamara is the perfect New Orleans Saints player for the contemporary NFL. The league has been addicted to controversy for years, careening from scandal to scandal, each time leaving behind a mess of exhausted fans. No team has suffered during the NFL "scandal era" more than the Saints, who were made the league's case study for "player safety" during the 2012 "Bountygate" scandal.
"Bountygate" split the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era into two parts: Before it, the Saints made the playoffs four times in six years and won a Super Bowl; after it, the Saints missed the playoffs four of five years — while ending 7-9 each of those four times.
Fast forward to this year. The Saints, resurgent with a 9-3 record, traveled to Atlanta to face the Falcons and came away from the resulting 20-17 loss surrounded again by the whiff of scandal.
This time, several storylines converged. The game itself was terrible — full of injuries and penalties — everything fans have come to expect from Thursday Night Football. After the game, there were multiple media reports that one member of the game's officiating crew was a former Atlanta Falcons player. Media also reported the NFL recently had hired a former Saints employee who was a key witness against the team during "Bountygate."
After the game, Brees attacked the idea of Thursday Night Football. On Twitter, Payton lashed out at the league. Local media questioned the appearance of impropriety by the league. Fans at bars and restaurants across New Orleans exchanged knowing looks and noted that Falcons owner Arthur Blank had just helped NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell get his contract renewed.
The Thursday Night Football game against the Falcons Dec. 7 was everything that is bad about the NFL today. It took the ingredients of a great product — an American sport all but unmatched in its ability to create moments of brutal grace and drama — and destroyed them in a blender, then served them cold over uncooked rice.
That's why Kamara is so great for these times. The young star doesn't just do amazing things on the field, he does them with a freewheeling sense of fun that reminds us what this sport can be at its best. He scores touchdowns and jumps into the stands to celebrate with fans. He comes off the field grinning like a kid. He hands out Airheads candies on the sideline; he's been pictured sitting on a throne of Airheads in the locker room.
This is the kind of guy you want to put on a float this Mardi Gras regardless of how this season turns out.
The 2017 Saints are built for success. For the first time, the post-Brees future doesn't look totally barren. Take the secondary. Lattimore and Ken Crawley should be able to hold down the cornerback position for years. Williams and second-year player Vonn Bell are the safeties, even if veteran safety Kenny Vaccaro moves in free agency after this season.
At the same time, defensive lineman Cam Jordan has made himself into one of football's great front seven players, and around him the Saints have placed other young contributors such as Hendrickson and defensive tackles Tyeler Davison and Sheldon Rankins.
On offense, the Kamara-and-Mark Ingram-based ground attack has stormed through the league (I favor the nickname "Kingmara"). The two men are in the midst of one of the great seasons by any running back tandem in NFL history.
Drew Brees is still Drew Brees, even if his final pass during the Falcons game — a heartbreaking interception — was one of the worst decisions of his career. And though he doesn't have a fleet of game-breaking perimeter weapons at wide receiver and tight end (there's no Jimmy Graham on this roster), he does have the ever-reliable Michael Thomas, who has a chance to set a new team single-season record for pass receptions.
And when Brees finally moves on, the other pieces should still be in place. But what about now?
These Saints are bruised, having suffered more than their share of injuries. They are angry, having faced the NFL's scandal machine yet again. They have beaten good teams (their sweep of the Carolina Panthers is, so far, the best entry on their resume) but also lost to good teams (the Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams).
This season feels as if it could tilt one of two ways: The Saints could embark on a rage-fueled tour through the rest of the regular season and the playoffs, obliterating the competition left in their path; or, slowed by injuries but still enraged, they could win a few, lose a few and generally make a mess of the NFL. If you get a chance to watch Kamara in the playoffs, you should consider the year a smash-hit success.
Either way, it should be one hell of a good time.
What Santa could bring the Saints (and Saints fans) this year
The most catches ever — With just 15 more receptions, second-year wide receiver Michael Thomas can set a new franchise single-season receptions record with 100. He's averaged almost seven per game and needs to average just five in the remaining games to get there.
A 3,000 Yards Club membership — Only five running back tandems have ever combined for 3,000 yards from scrimmage in a season, and none have done so since 1985. With 484 yards to go before the end of the final regular season game, Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara can join the club.
A full set of Rookie of the Year awards — It's been 50 years since one team had players win both Offensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Rookie of the Year, but Kamara and cornerback Marshon Lattimore, respectively, are among the favorites.