2018 Saints must be remembered for more than “the call”

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Saints defense
(Photo: Parker Waters)

METAIRIE – The 2018 New Orleans Saints won’t win the Super Bowl.

They won’t even be in Atlanta next week after falling narrowly short of an NFC Championship in a 26-23 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Rams last Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

In fact it’s quite likely that this team ultimately will be best remembered not as much for all it accomplished – a franchise record-tying 13-3 regular-season record, the No. 1 seed in the NFC, a 10-game winning streak a second consecutive division title for the first time in franchise history – as it will be for the manner in which it was denied the NFC Championship and an opportunity to win the Super Bowl.

The shot heard round the world but unseen by any officials – the brutal textbook pass interference with a helmet-to-helmet blast for lagniappe committed by Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman against Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis – should have given New Orleans an opportunity to run the game clock to practically nothing before kicking a chip-shot, go-ahead field goal.

But no penalty was called on the third-down play, forcing the Saints to settle for the tie-breaking field goal with nearly two minutes remaining, which was enough time for the Rams to tie the game with 15 seconds left and extend their season.

The missed call was so egregious that it already has ignited discussion about rewriting the NFL rules to allow such a call to be reviewed by replay officials. Currently pass interference as a judgment call is not reviewable.

But any review of the Saints’ 2018 season should separate the officials’ blunder from the team’s excellence.

This team – quite possibly the most complete one of the franchise’s 52 – deserves to be remembered foremost for its body of work.

If the 2019 Saints are as adept as the 2018 team was at putting behind it the devastating manner in which its previous season ended and dedicating itself to achieving greater heights, then next year’s team might well wind up in the Super Bowl.

But that will be a different team – one that features most of the key players from this team, but a different team nonetheless.

“That’s the hardest thing about football,” linebacker Craig Robertson said Monday as he stood in the middle of the Saints locker room while teammates cleaned out their lockers and dispersed for an off-season that should not have begun for another couple of weeks.

He was talking about the inevitability of teams being broken up after each season. Robertson himself might never again be a Saint because he is one of 22 unrestricted free agents on this team.

“I want to be back,” Robertson said. “We have unfinished business.”

Tight end Benjamin Watson won’t be back. He already had announced that he was retiring after this season before appendicitis forced him to sit out the NFC Championship.

Offensive lineman Jermon Bushrod might join Watson in retirement, or he might re-sign with New Orleans. It’s the same choice he had last off-season when as a free agent then, as he soon will be again, he decided that the Saints provided the only opportunity that could entice him more than retirement.

The opportunity to return to his wife’s hometown, where he was part of a Super Bowl champion nine years ago, and join a team capable of another championship run made New Orleans unique to Bushrod.

“It’s heart-breaking,” said Bushrod, who doesn’t choose an adjective such as that cavalierly after enduring the death of his infant daughter during this season.

“But you can’t let it break you,” Bushrod said.

He added that he needs time away from football to talk to his wife before deciding whether he wants to go through the off-season conditioning, OTAs, mini-camp, training camp, preseason and another regular season – as well as thumb surgery that awaits – in hopes of getting another opportunity like the one that was taken from his team and given to another team by an official’s decision to leave a handkerchief in his pocket.

“Props to the people who won,” Bushrod said, without naming the NFC champion Rams.

He was asked if he would watch the Rams and the New England Patriots play in Super Bowl LIII.

“The way I feel right now,” Bushrod said, “definitely not.”

Bushrod is one of three members of the 2018 Saints who were members of the only Super Bowl team New Orleans has ever had, one that should have had company after this season.

The others are quarterback Drew Brees and punter Thomas Morstead. Brees spoke Sunday night about “not getting younger” after turning 40 just five days before his 18th season ended.

On Monday, Morstead stood in front of his locker, in the same spot where 370 days earlier he had rehashed another devastating game in which the last play of a playoff game had turned it into the last play of a Saints season.

That Divisional Playoff loss at Minnesota turned 180 degrees on the final play because of the Saints’ defense’s inability to make a routine play, not because of an officiating crew’s inability – or unwillingness – to make a routine call.

This was different.

“This one feels dirty,” Morstead said.

When reporters and photographers entered the locker room to visit with the 2018 Saints for the final time, Robertson held his hand up, like a center marking the spot for an offense to huddle.

It was the most unpleasant interview session the players had faced and Robertson volunteered to field the questions first, providing enough quotes, sound-bites and video to make it just a little easier for his teammates to beg off any interview requests if they so chose.

It was a simple and yet remarkably generous gesture toward his teammates, who nonetheless were agreeable when asked for interviews.

“It’s a play that changed memories for a lot of people, changed memories for a lot of families, changed a lot of things,” Robertson said.

He marveled at the closeness of the 2018 Saints, saying it is the closest group of teammates he has ever been a part of including high-school teams that featured teammates he grew up with and remains close to today.

“I’m talking about guys that genuinely care for each other,” Robertson said of these Saints. “Our wives’ Bible study group is huge. No one talks about them behind the scenes, but they’re so close that when we lose, they hurt.

“We had kids crying. That’s how close we are, and we’ve got to find a way to keep that together and keep on moving.”

Now they move on toward the 2019 season, knowing that whatever they accomplish next season will be shared with a different group of teammates.

“2019 will be a completely different season. It’ll be a completely different team, even if we have the same nucleus,” tackle Terron Armstead said. “And we’ll have to attack it as such, starting with offseason workouts, picking ourselves up and going and writing that story for that team.

“This one is over.”

The locker room was understandably somber Monday, though not as morose as the one in the Superdome was Sunday.

Still, no one was playing ping pong or indoor basketball or video games, all of which were part of the daily routine throughout 2018.

Armstead said the locker room was like “a playground at times.”

“We would be here, get out of meetings at 5 p.m. and be here until 7 or 7:30,” he said.

“That’s the thing you’ll miss most when the season ends. This same group will never be together again, and that part sucks.”

Bushrod talked about a lifelong bond he has with Brees and Morstead, borne of the 2009 Super Bowl experience.

It’s a unique bond that this group will never share.

“This team deserved that moment, to at least compete in the Super Bowl,” Bushrod said, “and instead, today I’m here having exit physicals when we should be coming in here and celebrating and getting ourselves ready to go to Atlanta.

“Now, the only thing you’re going to remember from ’18 is the call.”

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Les East

Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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