Malcolm Jenkins’ one-finger salute to the Saints sideline late in his Eagles’ Nov. 18 blowout loss displayed everything the New Orleans locker room loves and respects about the All-Pro free safety.
Survey Saints players on both sides of the ball, players and coaches who have been teammates, opponents and partners off the field, and the same few words always eventually pop up.
Competitive. Emotional. Respect. Leader.
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They start to scratch the surface of a player who made a name for himself in New Orleans, cemented his legend leading Philadelphia to a Super Bowl title a year ago and enters the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for Sunday’s divisional playoff matchup as one of the biggest threats to the Saints’ championship hopes.
“(Saints coach Sean Payton) describes him as a Swiss army knife,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “A guy that can do everything.”
Jenkins began his NFL career with first-round draft pick pressure at cornerback on a team with the pieces in place to make a deep postseason run. But after winning the Lombardi trophy his rookie season of 2009 with the Saints, the former Ohio State star, whose talents include the ability to act as a coach on the field and tenacity around the ball, moved to safety.
“His versatility to be able to come down and cover a slot receiver, to cover a tight end or a running back … He’s a smart, tough football player, instinctive,” Brees said. “He gets everyone lined up, and when there’s confusion, everyone looks to Malcolm.”
Darren Sproles is the shortest guy in the Philadelphia Eagles locker room.
Perhaps no game put that do-it-all-nature on display more than the Eagles’ worst performance of the season two months ago in New Orleans.
With Philadelphia already down starting corners Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills and safety Rodney McLeod, backup Avonte Maddox and starter Sidney Jones also succumbed to injuries during the rout, during which the Saints scored the final 31 points to roll 48-7.
That final touchdown came with the Saints up comfortably, 38-7 with less than a quarter left, but not comfortable enough for Payton. Facing fourth-and-6 on the Eagles 37 — too far for a field goal, too close to punt and too early to pull the — Payton elected to go for it.
Alvin Kamara, set up near the Saints sideline, used a quick, powerful swim move to push a step ahead of Jenkins in man-to-man coverage. Brees hit him in stride, and the safety couldn’t throw Kamara down before the goal line.
Then, the Eagle directed his bird toward Payton, though the pair cleared the air after the game.
“I’m a competitor. I love Sean to death,” Jenkins said. “I know what type of guy and coach he is. That was more so personal between me and him.
“They’re going to go for it. I was more so upset that it was on me.”
That emotion pooled out after the frustrating loss, and Jenkins wasn’t afraid to speak his mind publicly in the tunnel after leaving the locker room without speaking to the media.
“Being winners of the Super Bowl last year doesn’t win you a goddamn game this year,” he told reporters. “So when you look at what we’ve done all year, our record (4-6 at the time) is reflective of how we’ve played. You get what you put in."
He added this two days later: “I’d rather get thrown out of a game than just lay down and take it.”
Saints veterans repeated this week the common notion that in a playoff atmosphere, high emotions are par for the course — if you don’t feel different, you’re not doing it right. But there’s something to be said about a player who can find that inside him during a gut-punch of a loss. In the playoffs where every team is vulnerable, sometimes the ease of finding that next level can make the difference.
Terron Armstead and Larry Warford started a conversation during training camp that hasn’t concluded.
“Any game, a team may seem better on paper, but they may not come ready to play that specific time, so whenever you have an emotional leader on a team, Malcolm being one of them … that’s important,” Saints tight end Ben Watson said.
Multiple players called Jenkins “everything you’d want in a pro,” hinting that that emotion he displays on the field mirrors the passionate work he does off it with the NFL Players Coalition, a group that includes Davis and Watson and is aimed at making an impact on social justice and racial equality.
It’s one example that proves his emotions are rooted in the right place. He’s not a ticking time bomb, not a head case for a head coach to worry about. Everything Jenkins does, from what he says to how he tackles, who he covers, what coverages he calls and how he teaches, has purpose.
“It’s not often a safety can make calls and get guys lined up,” said Saints running back Mark Ingram, who was a teammate of Jenkins for three seasons. “He plays with a lot of pride and passion, and as a competitor, as a teammate and as an enemy now, you’ve got to admire it.”
And in that Week 11 matchup, Payton saw a star that played his heart out until the end of a brutal defeat. He knows Jenkins is an asset, no matter a team’s record, health or makeup.
Before a pressure-packed game like Sunday, Payton said he wishes he’d done at least one thing in his career differently.
“I think the world of him,” Payton said. “I hate that he got out of here. That is probably as big of a mistake as we have made here in 13 years.”