Few would blame New Orleans Saints safety Roman Harper if he chose to gloat in the afterglow of the first multiple takeaway performance of his NFL career in Sunday’s season-opening win against the Atlanta Falcons.
After all, if Saints officials had listened to Harper’s critics during the offseason, he would have been on the first flight out of town following the selection of safety Kenny Vaccaro with the 15th pick in April’s draft.
Instead, Harper has taken the high road, choosing to dwell on things most meaningful to him, such as team and family, and not the opinions of those in social and news media.
“When you’ve been around as long as I have and you’ve seen the ropes, you understand how the business works,’’ said Harper, a second-round pick in 2006 who turns 31 on Dec. 11. “People are going to say things. My family probably takes it harder than I do. I don’t listen to any of that stuff. I tell them to stop looking at it, stop listening to it, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t control me or affect me, and I don’t worry about all that stuff. I can only control what Roman does, and that’s all I’ve ever done.’’
Against Atlanta, Harper collaborated with fellow safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Vaccaro to produce two defining plays in the Saints’ 23-17 victory.
In the second quarter, Harper scooped up a fumble caused by Jenkins that led to a 25-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Drew Brees to receiver Marques Colston. Then, inside the final minute with Atlanta facing fourth-and-goal at the Saints 3, Harper intercepted a deflected pass by Vaccaro in the end zone to preserve the victory.
“Roman had a phenomenal game for us,’’ outside linebacker Junior Galette said. “We expect that from Roman; he’s our leader. We expect him to play at a high level every game, so I guess when he has an average game and not even a bad game, people will be like, ‘Oh my God!’ ”
In 99 games played from 2006 to 2012, Harper had eight takeaways — six interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Those are modest numbers for one of the game’s best-paid safeties.
In the first game played under terms of his new three-year, $10.5 million contract signed in May that guarantees him $4 million this season, Harper collected two takeaways and grabbed a third ball afterward.
“Roman got a defensive game ball,’’ Jenkins said. “Everybody expected it. It was obvious to see that he was our defensive player of the game with his production and what he does for us.’’
What Harper does for the Saints sometimes gets lost in the collateral damage caused by a missed tackle or blown pass coverage. Jenkins said you must add Harper’s physical, gritty style of play and versatility (13 forced fumbles, 17 sacks) to determine the player’s true value.
“For whatever reason, there are guys in this profession who the masses tend to use as a scapegoat,’’ Jenkins said. “You never really know what it is about them, but people are always real critical of them. For instance, I’ll be in a grocery store, and some fan will come up to me and say, ‘Hey, Jenkins, good luck but, ah, we need to get rid of Harper.’
“This is the same guy who’s been a productive part of our defense since 2006 and who had 7.5 sacks (in 2011) and really played a big role in us winning the Super Bowl, and who can still play at a high level.’’
Along with Vaccaro and Jenkins, Harper is being asked to play multiple positions in new coordinator Rob Ryan’s 3-4 defense — sometimes in coverage in the slot against a tight end, sometimes up in the box on running downs and sometimes on the edge in a blitz package on passing downs.
“They move us around a lot,” Vaccaro said. “We kind of keep offenses on their toes because they really don’t know what we’re going to do or where we’re going to line up. ... Roman is right there with us. He’s been a great mentor to me. In training camp, he taught me a lot of things. We’re all in competition, but we’re all still trying to help each other get better each and every day.”
In the bigger picture, the same can be said of a Saints defense that remains a work in progress.
“Everybody is saying how cool we played on defense (against Atlanta), and we really didn’t play as well as we could,’’ Harper said. “Yeah, we helped our team win the game, and that’s always a really great thing. But it’s just one game. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not like we won a championship. We won one game. We’ve already put it behind us, and now we’re moving on to Tampa Bay.”