Terron Armstead hasn’t been himself for weeks.
His left knee simply won’t let him. Armstead, who underwent arthroscopic surgery on the knee after suffering an injury in the Saints’ win over Dallas, returned to the Saints two weeks later, and he’s played every game since, fighting his way to the field every Sunday, even though there have been many weeks he’s been unable to practice.
Two hours before the Washington game, Armstead tested out the knee and limped off, visibly hobbled with each step. He started the game anyway. Four days ago, Armstead was visibly hobbled again, laboring every time he pulled to take limping steps with the left leg, make a block near the sideline, then get up slowly and go back to the huddle.
Somehow Armstead has turned in the breakout season everybody expected him to have.
“For him to play and not give up pressures on one leg at this level, it’s unbelievable,” Saints tackle Zach Strief, who said in training camp that Armstead could be one of the best tackles of all time, said. “That’s a tough dude that’s going to be a very successful player. All of the hype and all of the things we’ve said about him before the season has started has come true.”
Armstead’s toughness this season has gone largely unrecognized outside of New Orleans. Teams with 6-9 records rarely get their remarkable stories told on a national level.
But Armstead, who hasn’t revealed the specifics of his injury, would be a national phenomenon if he played on a Super Bowl contender. The knee buckled in the first half against Dallas; Armstead returned to the game and played the entire second half, then underwent surgery the next day. Armstead has undergone four or five MRIs this season since he returned — no further damage has been done.
He’s still not sure if the knee will need another surgery after the season, although he’s hoping he’s been under the knife for the last time because of this injury.
“I’ve had what he has,” Strief said. “It’s hands down the most painful thing I’ve ever dealt with.”
Given what Armstead has been battling all season, a game like he played against Jacksonville — no pressures allowed despite visibly limping in between plays — is the stuff of legend to the rest of the Saints.
Armstead, by most rating services, has been one of the best tackles in football this season, rarely allowing any pressures, giving up just one sack all year. Armstead has established himself as one of the best tackles in football despite playing on just one leg.
“The game we just played. I would say this, it was one of the gutsier performances I have seen in a while,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “In a lot of cases, guys would have just said ‘Guys, I can’t go’, but it’s been fantastic. There isn’t a left tackle I would trade him for in the league.”
Armstead’s performance has been even more remarkable because of what he’s lost because of the injury.
The former third-round pick is arguably the most athletic offensive lineman in the NFL. Three years ago, the 4.71-second 40-yard dash he posted at the NFL Combine set a record for offensive linemen. Few big men have Armstead’s mobility at that size; when Payton jokingly had the linemen handle punts in practice during summer workouts, Armstead looked like a natural. Before the injury, that speed and agility made him a devastating blocker in the open field; the Saints’ screen game was heavily based on his ability to create crushing blocks out in space.
Then he injured the knee against Dallas. Even in that game, Armstead underwent an X-ray, only to come back to the field and finish out the game before undergoing surgery the next day. Two weeks later, when he came back, New Orleans didn’t change its playbook much, and the Saints still call the plays that require Armstead to get out in space.
“You guys saw him last week, when he was out there pulling on those toss-cracks,” Saints left guard Tim Lelito said. “On those toss plays, he was out there limping around, but he’s still out there doing the job, getting it done.”
Armstead hasn’t complained once. If he can make it into the starting lineup, Armstead believes he should be able to do anything the Saints ask.
“I wouldn’t want Coach Payton to have to limit his play-calling, limit the game plan for me to be out there,” Armstead said. “That would be taking away from the offense as a whole, so I wouldn’t ask him to do that.”
Armstead is dealing with so much pain that anybody would have understood if he’d taken a game off here or there. Maybe in Washington, when he could barely take a step. Maybe last week against Jacksonville, with the Saints eliminated from playoff contention.
But he just keeps answering the call.
“I don’t know, this is really all I do, is play football,” Armstead said. “If I feel like I can go out and be productive, try to help the team win, that’s what I try to do. Sunday was tough, pregame was tough. The Redskins game was, too. But I feel like if I can do my job as much as I possibly could, I’ll play.”
Armstead has done the job better than anybody could have expected.