BY TED LEWIS
November 15, 2012
METAIRIE — He was a card-carrying Dirty Bird who often spoke about hoping to play his entire career in Atlanta.
But now, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton is a treasured member of the Who Dat Nation.
“I get that all the time,” said Lofton, who in March became the Saints’ first impact free agent signee from the Falcons since wide receiver Michael Haynes 18 years ago. “People will say, ‘I hated you, Curtis. But now that you’re a Who Dat, we love you and are happy to have you part of this team.’ ”
Proof again, as Jerry Seinfeld said, we root for the laundry.
But it’s not just a fan thing.
“When Curtis was with Atlanta, we never spoke a word to each other,” said teammate Jonathan Vilma, whose injury and suspension status was a major factor in the Saints’ hot pursuit of Lofton. “We never felt the need to talk to guys from that team.
“But he’s a great teammate. He’s a good guy who fit right in because practices hard, plays hard and always finds a way to keep things positive.”
Lofton, who signed a five-year contract for undisclosed terms, turning down offers from Tampa Bay among others, has lived up to the expectations of the organization, his teammates and the fans.
Through eight games, he leads the team in tackles with 86, putting him on track to surpass the career-high 167 he posted last season.
And Sunday, Lofton gets his chance to cement his Black & Gold bona fides when the Saints (3-5) host the undefeated Falcons (8-0) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“Special? It’s just another game to me,” Lofton said, although he was unable to suppress a smile doing so. “It’s just another game on the schedule, and I didn’t put too much on it.
“Yeah, I’m excited to play these guys. But I don’t think I have anything to prove to them.”
That’s correct on both levels.
As Lofton pointed out, it’s just another game on the schedule, albeit one against a divisional foe at a time when the Saints’ playoff hopes are hanging by a thread.
At same time, though, Lofton has a hard time containing his hard feelings about the team which drafted him in the second round out of Oklahoma in 2008 and for whom he started 63 of 64 games in his four seasons in Atlanta but whom apparently didn’t go all-out to keep.
“I look at it as I left,” he said. “I mean, they offered me and they wanted me to stay.
“But I wanted to go to a team that celebrated me, not tolerated me. That’s the way I felt.”
Atlanta Coach Mike Smith didn’t quite see it that way.
“Curtis was an integral part of our success,” he said. “But the way that the league is set up, with free agency and everything, you’d like to be able to sign all of your players back, but it’s just not possible.
“I miss Curtis. Curtis is a great man. Unfortunately, now we’re on opposite sides of the sideline.”
Certainly there’s little complaint about the Falcons defense to date. Although only 19th in total defense at 356.3 yards-per-game, Atlanta is No. 5 in scoring defense at 17.9 points-per-game allowed.
However, third-year man Akeem Dent, Lofton’s successor, has only 34 tackles, sixth on the team.
In contrast, the Saints are last in total defense and tied for 28th in points allowed. But with Vilma having to sit out the first six games on the physically unable to perform list and fellow free agent MLB David Hawthorne injured and inactive for the last five games, Lofton’s durability and reliability as an every-down player have been vital whatever level of success the defense has had.
In Monday’s victory against Philadelphia, Lofton had eight tackles plus a game-clinching forced fumble.
That kind of performance, Saints’ interim coach Joe Vitt said, is why the Saints coveted Lofton so much.
“No. 1, what you get with Curtis is a steady linebacker,” he said. “He can protect in the paint and he really tackles well in the paint.
“But the thing you don’t know about a player until he gets here is what kind of person he is. Curtis has earned the respect of every player in our locker room.”
And as for how Lofton and Vilma could co-exist, well, apparently there have been no problems.
“The team handled it the right way,” said Vilma, who has moved to weakside linebacker since his return two games ago. “Sean (Payton), Mickey (Loomis) and Joe called me before they signed Curtis and said it was no reflection on me, and that once I was good to go again, we’d work it out.
“Now, he makes plays and I make plays. It doesn’t matter.”
It certainly doesn’t matter to Lofton.
“If there’s one thing about this team, it’s that everyone is going to do what’s best for the team,” he said. “Wherever you play is where you’re going to play to help out.
“JV’s a great linebacker, and we’re both used to competition.”
And this week, the competition is not between teammates, but the Falcons.
For Lofton going against an offense that features the likes of Matt Ryan, Tony Gonzales, Julio Jones, Roddy White and Michael Turner has its challenges.
“Matt’s probably playing the best of any quarterback in the league right now,” he said. “Tony’s a Hall of Famer who taught me a lot about being a pro,
“All of those guys function really well. I’ve still got a lot of friends over there, and I have a ton of respect for them.”
But this week, there’s not a lot of camaraderie, save for some trash-talking texting.
“When I was with the Falcons, I hated the Saints,” Lofton said. “Now I’m with the Saints, I hate the Falcons.
“Both cities hate each other and there’s no love lost. That makes it fun.”