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Saints' McCown proves tough to replace

8/29/2014

NEW ORLEANS – Lesson learned this preseason: Write off Luke McCown at your own peril.

It should have been known the veteran New Orleans Saints quarterback wouldn’t be so easy to get rid of. Maybe his 11 years spent bouncing around the NFL with five different teams should have been the first clue. He’s a survivor.

And by the way, that runs in the family (see: fellow journeyman Josh McCown, now a starter in Tampa Bay at age 35).

Despite having spent most of the summer predicting that second-year pro Ryan Griffin would unseat McCown as the Saints’ backup this year, I’ve changed my mind.

The last clue was McCown’s terrific finish to a solid preseason during Thursday night’s 22-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. McCown started and played just one series -- leading the Saints to a touchdown on their opening drive. He was a perfect 4-for-4 for 29 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown strike to running back Travaris Cadet.

Griffin had a nice preseason, too (despite a so-so performance on Thursday). Griffin likely has a roster spot as the Saints’ No. 3 quarterback and a future as their backup.

But McCown kept dropping clues all summer that he wasn’t going to hand over his spot to the young guy. The 33-year-old has never considered himself a placeholder.

“I play to win, I compete to win, to be the starter,” McCown said. “As I said early in camp, I’m not just competing for a spot on this team, I’m not just competing to be the backup. I want to start. And obviously Drew [Brees] has got that pretty well under hand. But that’s the mentality you have to have.”

McCown’s numbers didn’t jump off the page this preseason. He completed 26 of 43 passes (60.5 percent) for 240 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. But he looked particularly good on the opening drives against Tennessee in Week 2 and Baltimore in Week 4. And he said he thinks his third summer with the Saints was probably his best. He said it’s only natural to get more comfortable, to develop a better understanding of the offense.

McCown said he first heard the classic NFL cliché, “You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse” from former coach Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay. And he took it to heart.

After struggling as a rookie starter with the Cleveland Browns in 2004 -- then getting traded to Tampa Bay after the season -- McCown learned quickly.

“Nobody has to announce, ‘Hey, there’s an open competition for this spot or that spot. You should have the understanding as a player that, ‘If I don’t perform today, they might look to replace me,” McCown said. “You never want to plateau or get to a point where you’re complacent or you’re content or you say, ‘Hey, man, I’ve done enough and I’m good now.”

McCown, who did get cut in favor of Chase Daniel during his first summer with the Saints in 2012, didn’t necessarily need any new inspiration to drive him after a decade spent learning that lesson over and over again.

But he said he was obviously inspired by watching his older brother Josh catch lightning in a bottle last year with the Chicago Bears. Josh thrived as an injury replacement for Jay Cutler before signing a lucrative free-agent deal to become the Buccaneers’ starter.

“Absolutely. How can it not (inspire you)?” McCown said. “I mean, the right situations don’t come along for everybody. And for my brother and myself, they’ve not come along very often for either one of us. But that’s not to knock our abilities or our capabilities of being a leader of a team. That’s just the way the cards have fallen for us. That’s been God’s plan for us.

“With that understanding we’re competitors, and we’ve continued to compete and look for that opportunity. And Josh got a great opportunity in a great situation, surrounded by great people last year. And look what it did for him. And it revitalized his career, if you will. But the point is that he was ready for that. Because he never got down, his mentality was right, he continued to work.

“And that’s not a lesson for me, that’s a lesson for anybody that’s gone through the ups and downs of a NFL career.”