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 offseason 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 New Orleans Saints’ locker room.
It was two days before Davis pounced on Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster’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 playoffs for the Saints. He was already in a playoff mode, sensing what’s ahead and how it contrasts with where he’s 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 tilt. And 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 flip our record here, I’d still have a better record than I had in Cleveland,” Davis told USA TODAY Sports. “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. So, I’m just enjoying the ride.”
Davis is a refreshing face for the playoffs, as good as anyone in representing what it means to be in the arena. Sure, the NFL is big business. But 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. So, this is special.”
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 no-brainer 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. But our offense can put the ball in the end zone when we need a touchdown. With the game on the line, with two minutes, I want our offense on the field last. Everybody doesn’t feel like that, so you can’t take that for granted.”
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 playoffs, 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 five sacks and won an NFC defensive player of the week award.
On top of that, when the season began, his new teammates voted him as a team captain, an ultimate measure of respect as they witnessed his dedication to his craft during the offseason. They also couldn’t help but notice his hands-on work on social justice initiatives.
“Higher than any accolade you can achieve is the respect of your peers,” Davis said.
Or as Condon put it, “He has such a high character and a passion for the game, he’s going to be a fit in anybody’s locker room.”
Allen remembers Davis from way back, during the first 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.
And 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,” he said. “I think I’ve figured that out the past couple of years. That’s what’s separated me and made the biggest difference 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 playoffs, 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 playoffs. 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.
Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.