Locker Room Leadership
33 years of veteran leadership lost with Watson, Ingram, Unger
The finality of the ending of New Orleans Saints 2018 season was crushing for the Black & Gold Nation. A missed call cost the team a chance to go to just their second Super Bowl in franchise history. Opportunities to reach the NFL’s pinnacle are fleeting. That’s why the missed pass interference hurt so much. The Saints are still one of the highest regarded teams in the league, and many think they will be very competitive in 2019.
However, as the NFL’s new year kicked off this month, there is still a sense of what might have been and questions about whether or not the Saints get there again are lingering in the heavy, humid air of the Big Easy. Those feelings haven’t dissipated as the 2019 league year officially kicked off.
Before last season ended, tight end Ben Watson, a 15-year veteran, announced it would be his last season. In the first week of free agency, the Saints couldn’t reach a deal with running back Mark Ingram, an eight-year vet, to keep him in New Orleans. This week, center Max Unger, who played in the NFL for a decade, announced his retirement.
The three players combined have 33 years of experience and a wealth of institutional knowledge of the league and the team that will be difficult, if not impossible to replace.
Watson was seen as one of the league’s elder statesmen. While the 38-year-old’s play might not have been what it once was, his character made him a leader and his skill still made him a potent threat.
Ingram, of course, was a vocal leader and popular among his team mates. He was a salary cap casualty, but his leadership and dedication to the team was evident when he said he would always bleed black and gold, even after he signed with the Baltimore Ravens.
The Saints landed Unger when they traded away Jimmy Graham. While the team hasn’t had a tight end quite like Graham since, Unger was the cornerstone of the Saints’ offensive line – considered one of the NFL’s best – for several seasons. His loss, coming a year after the retirement of right tackle Zach Strief, has caused a shakeup to the unit tasked with protecting quarterback Drew Brees and opening holes for the team’s potent rushing attack.
The Saints signed running back Latavius Murray to take Ingram’s place. While many prognosticators are saying Murray might not be the player Ingram has been, team officials are hoping the move plays out in a similar manner to their replacement of the highly regarded Reggie Bush with the more productive, but lesser known Darren Sproles. Murray will split time with Alvin Kamara, who is considered the best all-around back in the NFL.
As the Saints look to fill a position that is essentially the quarterback of the O-line, they will have options. This week, the team signed former Vikings’ guard Nick Easton, who has experience at center. He may be penciled in as the replacement now, but Cameron Tom and Will Clapp will also likely get time practicing snaps to ensure the team gets the best combination of talent on the field at the same time.
While the loss of Watson, Ingram, and Unger are dominating headlines, there has been some good offseason news. The team re-signed kicker Wil Lutz, backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, linebacker Craig Robertson, and safety Chris Banjo and added defensive tackles Malcom Brown and Mario Edwards.
The Saints still need to find a starting tight end and an impact wide receiver or two if they expect to fight for the Lombardi Trophy this year.
A lot will be asked of the team’s newcomers. They have significant voids to fill. However, the pressure will not be on them entirely. Brees and Cameron Jordan remain in place as the team’s undisputed leaders on offense and defense. Rising stars – most notably Kamara and wide receiver Michael Thomas – will need to step up and take on greater leadership roles.
Losing and gaining team mates on an annual basis is part of the modern game, and football is better for the excitement free agency brings. A team’s fortune can be changed overnight – for better or worse. Saints fans have seen the ups and downs that come with both massive and minor roster changes. After being so close to the top for the last two seasons, here’s to hoping this year’s tinkering will give the team the boost they need for a second Saints Super Bowl in Miami.