The Saints were a single tackle away. The Minnesota Miracle drove headlines for days, and Stefon Diggs’ 61-yard touchdown catch that sent the Vikings to the 2017 NFC championship game will forever live in football lore, but it was a single fluke play, one New Orleans had stopped countless times in 2017.
The Rams are one of the best teams in the league at throwing the football down the field.
Mistakes happen in football, and honest ones in a sport with 120 or more plays per game shouldn’t invoke knee-jerk reactions, especially when it comes to the personnel of an entire franchise.
“We had the guys last year,” said Saints punter Thomas Morstead, who’s in his 10th season with the organization. “We just didn’t have a ball bounce our way.”
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Entering 2018, the Saints didn’t need another home-run slugger; they needed the middle infielder with opposite-field batting precision. They didn’t need the next top-of-the-line Escalade for a job your dad’s dented, reliable Chevy pickup could handle.
The Saints didn’t need the Dream Team. They needed the right team.
“It’s not easy to be successful here, but it’s worthwhile,” offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod said. “You have to push a little harder, and the younger guys are going to push you and fight to be successful. It’s one team. It’s one goal, and at the end of the day, it’s all about winning games. It’s about being a family; that’s what it’s really about.”
Bearing down on Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara on Sunday afternoon will be the souped-up Escalade of a free agent signing the Saints nearly made this offseason — one that would have completely changed the framework of their free agent moves.
Rams defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh ate breakfast with Sean Payton in New Orleans in mid-March and spoke with trusted friends Bushrod and Larry Warford, seriously considering signing a one-year deal with the Saints after the Dolphins released him for salary-cap considerations.
But it was the bright lights and Hollywood stars of Los Angeles, not the smooth, rhythmic jazz music of New Orleans, that piqued Suh’s interest.
“The cities for sure had a factor in it,” he said Wednesday. “I have aspirations outside of sports.”
It was 28-28 with almost no time left in the fourth quarter. Brett Favre was driving the Minnesota Vikings down the field, closing in on a win…
Suh fit the profile of the type of players the Rams front office targeted and signed this spring — big-name talents with alpha-dog egos that could sometimes boil over on the field: Suh and cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. Together they represented a Super Bowl-or-bust offseason haul, to pair with talented free agent receiver Brandin Cooks and quarterback and head coach wunderkinds Jared Goff and Sean McVay.
Talib, Peters and Suh combine for 12 Pro Bowl selections, nine games missed due to suspensions and $268,842 in fines for on-field transgressions. In their defense, the trio’s largest incidents this season have been Suh’s horse-collar tackle in early December and Peters’ inappropriate celebration in mid-September.
With Suh off the table, the Saints turned toward aged veterans, former Saints and other names that many casual NFL fans didn't recognize. Those signings pool just three Pro Bowl appearances, coming from the team’s backup quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, and 12-year journeyman lineman Bushrod. Only one of those signings, linebacker Demario Davis, has started every game for the Saints in 2018.
But the group hit on all the right notes of team chemistry and on-field performance.
“The message was the same in the offseason in their recruitment,” Payton said. “We have an opportunity, we think, to have another good football team, and we want to you to be a part of it. And the evaluation and the makeup was just as important in those decisions as the skillset.”
The first new piece of the puzzle came with a discarded secondary asset from their own division. The Panthers released nine-year veteran Kurt Coleman in late February. With the loss of free-agent safety Kenny Vaccaro looming, the Saints pounced on Coleman as a player Payton had always admired from afar.
Ben Watson was hoping to play one final game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Ohio State alumnus fit in perfectly with the team’s affinity for Buckeye defensive backs and represented the elder statesman of the secondary next to budding talents like Marshon Lattimore, Marcus Williams, P.J. Williams and Vonn Bell. Coleman played more than 50 percent of the snaps in just three games this year, but his younger teammates see his presence in the locker room and in practice as just as important.
“He’s an encourager. He’s that guy you want in the locker room, that older guy that’s going to tell you what you need to do or what we can do to be better,” Marcus Williams said. “He’s there if we need him, and he goes in and makes plays when the time comes.”
Less than two weeks after Coleman, the Saints added another respected locker room voice and force in between the lines on defense. Davis had flipped back and forth the previous three seasons between two of the AFC’s bottom-dwellers, the Jets and the Browns, but he almost immediately made his presence known throughout the Saints facility. Before this season, he was named a team captain.
“When something needs to be said, he’s going to say it,” Coleman said. “But he does a lot of talking with his play.”
Statistically speaking, Davis has been far and away the Saints biggest addition, leading the team in tackles during the regular season with 110 and finishing third with five sacks.
“You turn the tape on, and he’s going at a different speed than a lot of people,” defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins said. “His impact on this defense has been immeasurable.”
Another new piece to the puzzle, tight end Ben Watson, said Davis has been a great fit from the start.
“When you go to a new team — and I’ve done it several times — one of the hardest things to do is find your niche and to gain respect,” Watson said. “You’re always in this race to meet expectations of the people who wanted you, earn respect in the locker room, and thirdly you want to do your job. From Day 1, (Demario) has been that guy.”
Watson, true to his words, has seamlessly found his own place this season in a locker room he’s quite familiar with. The 15-year pro who won snagged a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots as a rookie in 2004 spent three seasons in New Orleans from 2013-2015 before returning for what he says will be his final season.
Players also respect Watson for the work he does off the field with the Players Coalition, along with Davis, to the point that his 35 regular-season catches for 400 yards and two touchdowns sometimes become an afterthought.
“He’s helped me manage my ups and downs and work on staying even,” said second-year tight end Dan Arnold. “All these older guys, they want everyone to succeed, because that’s what makes our team succeed as a whole.
“The weakest link is going to be what breaks us, so we try to make sure everyone gets better.”
Like Watson, Bushrod returned this offseason for an encore performance with the team that drafted him in 2007. He won a Super Bowl with the Saints two years later and enjoyed Pro Bowl seasons in 2011 and 2012 before leaving New Orleans as a free agent and signing a five-year contract with Chicago, where he spent three seasons before a two-year stint in Miami.
Getting the call from the Saints front office this offseason was a dream for Bushrod. He met his wife in New Orleans. They were married here and had their first child here.
“I’ve had a lot of life memories and pivotal life milestones here. It’s always going to be special to me,” he said. “And the opportunity to bring my wife back … it’s hard to take a New Orleans girl out of New Orleans.”
But Bushrod’s natural position of left tackle was already taken by five-year starter Terron Armstead. Bushrod, who had appeared in 131 games since 2009 and had started in 122 of those, understood his role this time around would be different. Still, he knew the special culture Payton and Brees had cultivated over the years and wanted to be part of it.
Though he was cut the day before the season opener and then resigned four days later, Bushrod became a vital backup during another potential Super Bowl run, starting five consecutive games for Armstead while he nursed a pectoral injury.
“I just wanted to come in and do my part whenever I was called upon,” he said. “I wanted to be somebody the younger guys could look up to and be accountable for when my number is called.”