“As tough as he is physically, he’s the same way mentally.” PHILIP RIVERS, San Diego Chargers QB on New Orleans Saints RB Darren Sproles
METAIRIE — So, Saints fans. You say you still feel really rotten about Sunday’s 28-27 loss at Green Bay?
Well, put yourself in Darren Sproles’ shoes.
After getting a reprieve via a blown call on a fumble at the end of his kickoff return following the Packers’ go-ahead touchdown, Sproles suffered a rare drop on third down from the Green Bay 25.
Make the catch for the first down and the Saints probably either keep driving for a chip-shot field goal or maybe even a touchdown.
Either way, Saints win.
Instead, there was the bizarre sequence of a made field goal negated by a holding call, the next attempt delayed by an encroachment on the Packers, and, finally, Garrett Hartley’s miss from 48 yards out.
Welcome to the miserable world of 0-4.
“It killed me, man. It killed me,” the normally reticent Sproles said earlier this week. “I’ve never had one like (that) before. I definitely lost some sleep over that play.”
But in the NFL, you have to move on.
So on Wednesday, the team’s first day back at practice, Sproles and quarterback Drew Brees stayed late to work on precisely the play that produced the drop — a quick out to Sproles who was lined up in the slot.
“I knew the drop had upset him, and he came up to me and said, ‘That’s not going to happen again,’ ” Brees said. “So we went out there and ran the play several times in a row and completed it like we always do.
“That says a lot about Darren and his mindset. He cares; he cares a lot. He is my go-to guy in all situations — especially crucial situations.”
Sproles has been that go-to guy for eight seasons now — last year with the Saints, where he set a league record for all-purpose yards, and before that, for six seasons with the San Diego Chargers, the team the Saints face Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“Darren Sproles is one of the best teammates I’ve ever had and one of my all-time favorites,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. “Just the kind of guy he is in the locker room and off the field is just awesome.
“And it was always fun to watch him play. It’s tough to see him doing what he’s doing now in New Orleans and not here. But I’ll always be pulling for him.”
It’s hard not to pull for someone who’s only 5-foot-6 (officially making him the shortest player in the league) and perhaps generously listed at 190 pounds.
“Sproley’s awesome,” said former Saints standout Michael Lewis, whose 2,432 combined returned yards in 2002 remain an NFL record and who remains with the team as an ambassador.
“You’ve got to think that’s he not just a return guy, but he also plays running back. For a guy that small to take the pounding and to do the running he does, you can’t do anything but respect a guy like that. And he’s one of the nicest, real humble guys around here.”
It is sometimes hard to remember that Sproles is primarily a running back and not just on third downs as he was in San Diego.
On a team without a designated go-to back, Sproles actually led the Saints in rushing last year with 603 yards (a 6.9 per carry average) on 87 carries, both career highs, but only two touchdowns.
But this season, Sproles didn’t get a carry in the first two games, although he did have a career-high 13 receptions for 128 yards in the Carolina game.
Then, on the third play of the Kansas City game, Sproles took a pitchout on third-and-3 and went 47 yards, also a career best.
He finished the day with seven carries for 62 yards, tops on the team. And last week, he again was the leading rusher, such as it was, with five carries for 20 yards along with five catches for 44 yards.
“I love blocking for Darren,” tackle Jermon Bushrod said. “He’s explosive, especially when he can get to the edge, whether you’ve handed it to him, pitched it to him or thrown it to him.
“And then, because he’s so short, he can maneuver around a little bit more than some guys.”
In space, Sproles can make people miss, as he did Packers linebacker D.J. Smith with a breakaway move on his 6-yard TD catch just before halftime.
But three of Sproles’ carries were between the tackles.
Those can be career-shortening experiences for a small running back. But as Lewis pointed out, short players like Sproles often can avoid the direct hits their larger counterparts don’t.
Besides, there’s little choice.
“When they call my number, I’m going to do whatever is needed,” Sproles said. “We’ve got other guys in the backfield who want the ball, too.”
But it’s as a receiver and return man where Sproles is carving out a long NFL career. He hopes to eventually surpass Brian Mitchell’s league record for kickoff return yards (14,014 as well as punt return yards (4,999).
Mitchell, the former ULL standout who played for 14 seasons, is second to Jerry Rice in career all-purpose yards
Sproles is on his way to challenging that mark with 13,335 yards, 12,539 of them since 2007 which is tops in the league.
“I’d love to last that long,” Sproles said of Mitchell’s mark. “Brian’s got a lot of yards, so beating him would be really special.”
Even rule changes aren’t deterring Sproles.
With kickoffs now coming from the 35, the opportunity for returns would seemingly be severely reduced.
But Sproles has the green light to come out from 8 or 9 yards deep. In fact, his 12 kickoff returns are actually three more than he had through four games last year.
Sproles’ 692 all-purpose yards in 2012 are only six shy of league leader Percy Harvin.
“If it’s a line-drive kick, then normally I’m going to out with it,” Sproles said. “If there’s a little more hang time on it, then I won’t. If I don’t get it past the 20, then there’s nobody to blame but myself. That’s just how it is.”
Sproles was trying to make something happen when the most controversial moment of the Packers game unfolded.
Green Bay had retaken the lead with 7:00 left when Sproles took the kick 4 yards deep into the end zone and after making a move around the 20 which garnered an extra 10 yards, lost the ball when hit by ex-Tulane linebacker Desmond Moses well before he touched the ground.
However, the officials ruled Sproles down by contact and with the Packers out of timeouts, the call couldn’t be reviewed.
“We got one there,” Sproles said. “But I should have taken care of the ball better.”
The Saints weren’t worried about it. Sproles got the call on first down and went up the middle for 9 yards. But the drive ended with his drop.
“That was a game-changer,” Sproles said of the drop. “I was trying to run with the ball before I caught it. I let my team down.”
Sproles’ teammates didn’t see it that way.
“Nobody is perfect,” special teams captain Courtney Roby said. “Darren’s as surehanded as anybody I know. He’ll be alright.”
For Sproles, Sunday night going against the team which drafted him in the third round out of Kansas State in 2004 would be the perfect place to start that recovery.
It’s something Rivers fears just might happen.
“Sproley is so dependable and he cares much more than just about anybody else in the locker room,” he said. “Any time he makes a negative play — which is rare — he’s the kind of guy who will come back on the next play.
“As tough as he is physically, he’s the same way mentally.”