Kenny Phillips felt numb.
Phillips, the veteran safety who came back from two years away from football, had initially made the Saints’ 53-man roster, only to get cut the next day after New Orleans made two waiver claims.
The next morning, Phillips headed out to a park near his house in Miami to run. The same park where he’d spent the past two years, a former first-round pick trying desperately to get one more chance after arthritis in his left knee forced a career-altering microfracture surgery that knocked Phillips out of football. Handed a chance by the Saints this offseason, Phillips was sure he’d done enough in training camp to make the team.
“I felt like I did a good enough job in preseason that somebody would give me a call,” Phillips said. “Just being back home, going to the same park that I was at for two years, running, it was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m here again.’ ”
An injury to Rafael Bush in the Saints’ season opener Sunday pulled Phillips back out of that park again.
Phillips was re-signed by New Orleans on Monday morning to play free safety, stepping into a void left by Bush, who has been placed on season-ending injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle, and Jairus Byrd, who is still out of practice with a knee injury, although the prized free agent of the 2014 offseason did not practice Wednesday.
New Orleans still expects Byrd to return to the field soon.
“We’re fortunate that Byrd’s coming along,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.
But Byrd still needs to get into football shape, meaning the pressure may fall largely on Phillips to roam center field for the Saints in the home opener against Tampa Bay this week. When Bush went down 21 snaps into the season opener, New Orleans was forced to shift Jamarca Sanford into the free safety role, a spot Sanford has never played before. Sanford, a veteran in his seventh season, has always played strong safety in the past.
Now, the Saints will likely lean heavily on Phillips, whose release the day after training camp came as something of a surprise to the rest of the New Orleans secondary. Phillips worked his way up the depth chart in training camp, made a start at safety against the New England Patriots and led the Saints with 27 tackles during the preseason.
“He had a good training camp, he had a good preseason,” starting strong safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “I thought he was already going to be on the roster, regardless. It’s almost destiny that he was going to come back.”
Phillips doesn’t know exactly how many snaps the Saints need him to take Sunday, but he will likely have to play a key role for the Saints in the immediate future.
Vaccaro, who turned in an excellent performance in the opener, is such a pressure player that Payton admitted he’d like to see his strong safety spend more time near the line of scrimmage in the coming weeks.
With Vaccaro potentially moving closer to the line, Phillips will spend a lot of time roaming center field, helping the New Orleans corners and trying to take the deep ball away from opposing offenses. For a player who hadn’t seen the field in two seasons, Phillips looked plenty capable of manning the spot for the Saints in August.
“Being away from the game, it’s like you’ve got to see the field all over again,” Phillips said. “Get your body used to tackling, getting in football shape, breaking out the routes. Slowly, but surely, it’s been coming back to me. I’ll be ready.”
Phillips, who’d struggled to get attention for two seasons, had interest from other teams after the Saints cut him 10 days ago, but he chose to keep an eye on New Orleans, and he knew he might be back even before Bush got hurt.
But it didn’t make getting cut for the first time in his career any easier.
“Being a first-round pick, I never got to see this side of it,” Phillips said. “I always wondered. It’s tough. There’s a lot of great players out there that would never get a chance to get back in this door. It’s so hard to get back in once you’re out. ... It’s truly a blessing.”
Now, Phillips will get a chance to prove he never should have been out in the first place.