Saints’ LB rel­ishes 1st play­offs

Ini­tial post­sea­son game has Davis in 7th heaven

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - Colum­nist USA TO­DAY Jar­rett Bell

METAIRIE, La. – This is the new world De­mario Davis has spent a ca­reer try­ing to dis­cover. He’s play­ing foot­ball in Jan­uary, with le­git­i­mate ex­pec­ta­tions about Fe­bru­ary. His body clock, un­til now forced to tran­si­tion to offsea­son mode at this point on the cal­en­dar, is not play­ing tricks on him.

Chas­ing Su­per Bowl glory is no longer a pipe dream.

“Man, if I can de­scribe it in one word, I’d say, ‘grate­ful,’ ” the ebul­lient line­backer de­clared in, well, late De­cem­ber, when a vis­i­tor stopped by his cor­ner stall in the Saints’ locker room.

It was two days be­fore Davis pounced on Steel­ers wide re­ceiver JuJu SmithSchus­ter’s fum­ble in the clos­ing sec­onds to se­cure the vic­tory against Pitts­burgh that clinched a 31-28 win and the No. 1 seed in the NFC play­offs for the Saints. He was al­ready in a play­off mode, sens­ing what was ahead and how it con­trasts with where he has been.

Davis, who turned 30 on Fri­day, has never missed a game in his seven NFL sea­sons. And he’s never played in a play­off game. That last de­tail changes Sun­day, when the Saints (13-3) host the Ea­gles in a divisional matchup. He would ar­gue that it’s about time. Last year, in his se­cond tour of duty with the Jets, Davis played his heart out — lead­ing the team in tack­les and sacks, as a mid­dle line­backer — for a 4-12 squad. Two sea­sons ago, he was all-in for a Browns’ unit that bot­tomed out with the NFL’s worst record at 1-15.

“If you were to flip our record here, I’d still have a bet­ter record than I had in Cleve­land,” Davis told USA TO­DAY. “It’s been an amaz­ing jour­ney with God, with all the ups and downs I’ve had. It’s al­most like I’m in par­adise now. I don’t have a com­plaint in the world about work. There’s noth­ing I would change about our op­er­a­tion. Ev­ery­thing is right in place. And you can feel it. We are des­tined to do some­thing spe­cial.”

Davis is a re­fresh­ing face for the play­offs, as good as any­one in rep­re­sent­ing what it means to be in the arena. Be­yond the money and fame, so many are driven by the com­pet­i­tive pride of chas­ing cham­pi­onships, and some play­ers never get that chance.

“I don’t know if I can say I ap­pre­ci­ate it more than the next man, but there’s some­thing that comes with not hav­ing some­thing and then hav­ing it,” he said of the play­off run. “I ap­pre­ci­ate be­ing able to put to­gether this many wins, be­cause I know it’s hard to do. I’ve been in sit­u­a­tions where it felt like we had the right recipe, but it wasn’t.”

He landed here in mid-March on a three-year, $24 mil­lion free agent con­tract ($18 mil­lion guar­an­teed) that came only af­ter the Saints shook up his process for se­lect­ing a team by en­ter­ing the fray in mid­stream. Divine in­ter­ven­tion? The Saints weren’t in the pic­ture orig­i­nally, Davis said, af­ter he and his agent, Tom Con­don, whit­tled the list of po­ten­tial teams from a half-dozen to three.

He re­mem­bers his re­ac­tion thusly when the Saints reached out: “Oh. If we can get the dol­lars right, you don’t even have to ask me a ques­tion.”

The play­off pos­si­bil­i­ties, the win­ning cul­ture or­ches­trated by Sean Pay­ton, and the prox­im­ity to his home state, Mis­sis­sippi, were all fac­tors in the no­brainer equa­tion. Along with Drew Brees.

“To play with prob­a­bly the great­est quar­ter­back to ever play the game,” he main­tained, “I couldn’t pass on that.”

See, com­ple­men­tary foot­ball can get you places, even when at­tached to the un­pre­dictabil­ity of ca­reer spans in a bru­tal sport that chews up bod­ies and spits them out. Maybe Davis will wind up play­ing 15 years in the NFL. Maybe not. He agreed with the sug­ges­tion that if, by chance, this is his last stop, it had to in­clude the pur­pose of play­ing for the big­gest prize.

Take it from a man who, un­til this year, played on just one team with a win­ning record (Jets, 2015, 10-6).

“I needed to get it right,” he said. “You look at the land­scape, and I had to go to a team that had a top quar­ter­back. You can have the great­est de­fense in the league, but if your other side can’t score points, it don’t mat­ter. Es­pe­cially this time of year. It’s cool to have a great de­fense . ... With the game on the line, with two min­utes, I want our offense on the field last.”

What a win-win deal it has been. Saints de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Den­nis Allen lauds Davis for the ath­leti­cism and phys­i­cal­ity he’s added. He led an evolv­ing de­fense (when last seen in the play­offs, yield­ing that “Min­nesota Mir­a­cle” in last year’s sting­ing divisional-round loss to the Vik­ings) with 110 tack­les. He also matched his ca­reer high set last sea­son with five sacks.

On top of that, when the sea­son be­gan, his new team­mates voted him as a cap­tain, an ul­ti­mate mea­sure of re­spect as they wit­nessed his ded­i­ca­tion to his craft dur­ing the offsea­son. They also couldn’t help but no­tice his hands-on work on so­cial jus­tice ini­tia­tives.

Allen re­mem­bers Davis from way back, dur­ing the first trek with the Jets that spanned four years. “When I was back in Oak­land and we were get­ting ready to play the Jets, I’m like, ‘Who’s this 56?’ ” said Allen, pre­vi­ously the Raiders’ coach.

He knows all about No. 56 now and what Davis means to a de­fense that has be­come more co­he­sive and cut down the big plays on the back end as the sea­son has pro­gressed. Some­times Allen will walk by the meet­ing room and no­tice one player, alone, study­ing video­tape. Davis might not have been a mar­quee free agent sign­ing, but the Saints seem­ingly se­cured one of the best value deals of the spring.

Now there’s this mis­sion to seize the mo­ment of a play­off run that he’s spent years pre­par­ing for.

“It’s work­ing smarter, not harder,” Davis said. “I think I’ve figured that out the past cou­ple of years. That’s what’s sep­a­rated me and made the big­gest differ­ence in my game, to where it’s jump­ing off. Ev­ery part of the jour­ney, I’ve learned a lit­tle bit along the way. It’s in­ter­est­ing now (with) the play­offs, but a lot of stuff about my process was stuff I was do­ing with the Browns and it was the end of the sea­son. I was in there pre­par­ing like we were go­ing to the play­offs. So it’s not like I had to change any­thing to be ready for this mo­ment. Those habits were al­ready there.”

It’s just that with the win-or-go-home habit of Jan­uary foot­ball, the stakes are a lot higher.

CHUCK COOK/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Out­side line­backer De­mario Davis cel­e­brates the fum­ble re­cov­ery against the Steel­ers that clinched the win and the NFC’s top seed for the Saints.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.