NFL Nation: Garrett Hartley

Tracy Porter, Brett FavreAP Photo/Bill Haber
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This is the first of three plays nominated as the most memorable play in Vikings history. The others include Tommy Kramer's Hail Mary pass to Ahmad Rashad to beat the Cleveland Browns in the 1980 "Miracle at the Met" and Gary Anderson’s missed field goal in the 1998 NFC Championship Game. Please vote for your choice as the Vikings' most memorable play.

Score: Saints 31, Vikings 28
Date: Jan. 24, 2010 Site: Louisiana Superdome

The last pass Brett Favre ever threw in a playoff game -- an interception to Tracy Porter to cost the Vikings a chance at their first Super Bowl trip since 1977 -- might never have happened if not for the penalty the play before.

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The Vikings were driving for what would have been a game-winning field goal and had called a timeout before huddling up on third-and-10 from the Saints' 33. Problem was, the Vikings had talked during the timeout about running the same play out of two different personnel groups, and fullback Naufahu Tahi got sent into the game as a 12th man in the Vikings' huddle. That resulted in a 5-yard penalty to push Minnesota back to the Saints' 38, forcing the Vikings to call a pass play to get back into Ryan Longwell's field goal range.

With 19 seconds left, Favre rolled to his right, but instead of hitting tight end Visanthe Shiancoe or wide receiver Bernard Berrian -- both were open on the play -- or trying to run for several yards, Favre threw across his body into coverage for Sidney Rice, and Porter stepped in front of the pass, intercepting Favre and ending what turned out to be the Vikings' final drive of the day. The Saints won the coin toss in overtime, drove for a 40-yard Garrett Hartley field goal and won Super Bowl XXIV two weeks later.

The loss was the Vikings' fifth in as many NFC title games since their last Super Bowl trip, and it ended a dream season that had begun with the team signing Favre in August. The 40-year-old quarterback beat his old team (the Green Bay Packers) twice, had what might have been the best statistical season of his career and threw for 310 yards in an NFC title game now famous for the Saints' attempts to knock Favre out of it. But the interception -- and the bizarre penalty that preceded it -- ended the magical run in a way that Vikings fans know all too well.

McMahon on Hartley: Tough, but common

December, 20, 2013
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METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints special teams coordinator Greg McMahon spoke for the first time about kicker Garrett Hartley's release when coordinators were made available to the media on Friday. Naturally McMahon, who has been with Hartley since he first arrived in 2008, said it was a difficult move.

Hartley
"Hey, I love Garrett Hartley. And as we talk around here, we'll walk together forever," McMahon's aid of a popular phrase the Saints have used to describe members of the Super Bowl championship team an organization. "And that doesn't just come and go. He's a good man, he's a great man and a heck of a football player."

McMahon, however, said that such moves are the nature of the NFL business -- especially when it comes to kickers.

"Golly, if you just look around the league, very few guys are like (longtime former Carolina Panthers kicker) John Kasay where they stay with that team forever," McMahon said. "If you look around the league at some of the guys that have been on a team, then they go through a tough time, then all of a sudden they resurface. So it happens. No different than probably a golfer, or anybody else. You've just got to kind of push through it. And heck we're at this run right now and just thought it was the best thing, Coach (Sean Payton) felt like it was the best thing for our team."

Sure enough, more than half of the current kickers in the NFL have kicked for more than one team in their careers -- including 7 of the top-10 leaders in field goals made this year.

When asked if he thinks Hartley will get another opportunity somewhere, McMahon said, "Absolutely. Absolutely."
Drew Brees and Cam NewtonAP PhotoDrew Brees' Saints won the first meeting handily, but Cam Newton's Panthers won't be intimidated.

Round 2 of the NFC South heavyweight battle between the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints takes place Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

The Saints won Round 1 by knockout, 31-13 two weeks ago at the Superdome in New Orleans. They made the NFL's second-ranked defense look less than average and totally shut down the Panthers in the red zone, where they had been so effective.

Will this be a repeat? Or will the Saints' road woes continue?

The division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs are on the line between these 10-4 teams, assuming the winner follows up with a win in the regular-season finale. ESPN.com Panthers reporter David Newton and Saints reporter Mike Triplett are here to break it down.

Newton: So, Mike, as I recall, you said in the press box after the first meeting between these teams that New Orleans should be able to sweep the series. After Sunday's loss to the Rams, a loss that strengthened the argument that the Saints don't play well on the road, has your opinion changed?

Triplett: Well, David, that game was so long ago that there's no way I can be held to anything I said at the time. Seriously, though, it is tough to make any definitive statements about the Saints right now. They clearly looked like the superior team against the Panthers two weeks ago, but it's impossible to ignore how poorly they've played away from home. And now you have to imagine that their confidence will be shaken when they hit the road again -- even if they don't express that publicly.

I do think the Saints have the higher ceiling among these two teams. And if they both play up to their potential, that means the Saints can win. But when you throw in all the demons they'll be facing (the road, potentially bad weather, a team that can run the ball and force turnovers), it becomes a toss-up.

I'll throw the same question back at you. After the Panthers' Jekyll-and-Hyde display the past two weeks, which team shows up on Sunday?

Newton: Hmm. So long ago? Interesting bail, Mike. Not sure I'd call it Jekyll and Hyde either, because the Panthers have lost once in their past 10 games. I'd say the Saints are more Jekyll and Hyde with their home-versus-road issues.

But you're right, Carolina was horribly outclassed in the first meeting. The thing about that is a lot of teams have been outclassed in New Orleans. That's why I don't think it was a devastating loss. And the Panthers were able to bounce back, even if it was against the Jets. Where the loss could work in their favor is they know where they have to adjust. They began to adjust in the second half, when they held New Orleans to 10 points. There's no sense of panic or fear they can't turn things around this time. I sense they are relishing the opportunity to prove themselves.

I see the Saints have released their kicker and replaced their left tackle with a rookie. Not really the stuff you expect from a Super Bowl contender at this time of the year. What do you read into that?

Triplett: It was definitely a unique shake-up at this time of year -- especially the switch at left tackle. And I think both moves are pretty telling of where Sean Payton's mind is at during this playoff push. He was pretty candid after the St. Louis loss, admitting that he still doesn't fully know the makeup of this current team, and that he can't just count on getting the same results as in past years. And all season long, he has been hyper-focused on making sure he's leaving no stone unturned in improving in all areas. Drew Brees has made that point a few times when discussing what's different with Payton after his suspension.

I think Payton believes this team has championship potential -- but also sees how close the Saints are to letting a good opportunity slip past them.

How about on-the-field adjustments? What are the one or two areas where you see the Panthers being able to clean up mistakes that doomed them in the first meeting?

Newton: The biggest cleanup has to be with the secondary. They weren't physical against the Saints' receivers, letting them get into their routes too easily and run free. There also was a bit of miscommunication, particularly in the second quarter, when Brees had the Panthers on their heels with three touchdown passes. The Panthers rectified things a bit in the second half with a few timely blitzes -- more than normal for them -- to force Brees to move in the pocket and get out of his rhythm. I suspect you'll see a bit of that as well this time. But mainly I see them challenging the front four for more pressure, particularly at left tackle, whether it's Charles Brown or somebody else.

I'm still perplexed by the wide differential in New Orleans' scoring at home versus the road (32.9 versus 18.4) and the turnover ratio going from plus-5 at home to minus-5 on the road. I've heard the coach-speak explanation. Now I want to hear the Mike-speak.

Triplett: Wish I were smart enough to figure it out. I think the main difference is that they become a "superhuman" team at home, as former linebacker Scott Shanle explained it earlier this year. On the road, they're simply human. They've actually had the best regular-season road record in the NFL dating back to 2009 (24-15). This didn't really turn into an epidemic until this year. But I've got to think it's messing with their confidence now, too, in addition to the crowd noise and the weather conditions they sometimes have to deal with.

This game will be even more of a test than most road games. The Saints have definitely been affected by cold weather and wind and rain over the years, which makes sense since their strength is the passing game. The worse the weather conditions on Sunday, the more it has to favor a Panthers team that can run the ball so effectively.

Earlier this year, I thought the Saints were looking more prepared than ever to win a game like this, thanks to the patient offense we saw in wins at Chicago, against San Francisco and at Atlanta, plus the most physical defensive front they've had in the Payton era. Lately, I'm less certain.

Hartley thanks Saints, fans on way out

December, 18, 2013
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METAIRIE, La. – Kicker Garrett Hartley made some gracious parting comments on Twitter on Wednesday night after being released by the New Orleans Saints a day earlier. Hartley spent parts of six seasons with the Saints, beginning in 2008. It was a dramatic but turbulent tenure that included the four biggest field goals in franchise history during the team’s Super Bowl run in 2009.

“I would like to start off by saying I have been blessed with the opportunity that the @Saints & ownership have given me,” Hartley tweeted. “The memories that were made with this team will live in my heart forever! I can't say enough for my teammates and their support. …

“And finally the Who Dat Nation. Y'all's passion for the game and this team are second to none.. It's been an honor to wear the Black & Gold.”

 
Sean Payton's decision to release kicker Garrett Hartley on Tuesday was both expected and stunning at the same time.

You could certainly see the move coming. Payton hinted at it after Hartley missed two field goals in the New Orleans Saints' 27-16 loss to the St. Louis Rams on Sunday. And Hartley has arguably been having the most up-and-down season of his roller-coaster career.

[+] EnlargeGarrett Hartley
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsGarrett Hartley, one of the holdovers from the Saints' Super Bowl XLIV team, slumped down the stretch this season.
Yet it's still a bold move, especially considering that it comes in Week 16 of the season. And I think that speaks to exactly where Payton's mindset is right now. He knows this team has championship potential, but he also knows the Saints are on the verge of letting this season slip away from them.

No, the kicker alone won't decide the Saints' fate. But as I wrote Monday, Payton is clearly intent on making sure he doesn't leave any stone unturned as he tries to make this team as playoff-ready as possible. He was as candid as ever on Sunday and Monday as he admitted that he still doesn't quite know what this current Saints team is made of -- and that he knows he can't rely on the results from past years like 2009 and 2011.

Payton made a similar decision when he yanked left tackle Charles Brown from the starting lineup during the Rams loss. It remains unclear if he'll make a permanent change there, but Payton insisted Monday that several players are being closely evaluated right now. Everything is, starting with Payton's own coaching decisions.

I don't see this as panic or overreaction from Payton. It's just the latest example of the attention to detail that quarterback Drew Brees has described as the No. 1 trait he has seen from Payton since the coach returned from his 2012 suspension.

It began in the preseason with big and small changes alike (the defensive coordinator, the run scheme, the offseason workout program). And it has continued throughout the year.

As for Hartley, it's tough to see him depart after he has handled so many extreme highs and lows so well over the years, from being suspended to being a playoff hero to being benched to being injured. Payton stood by him through some other low patches in the past, and Hartley has obviously formed a close bond with longtime teammates.

But it's also understandable why the move was made after Hartley had shown so much inconsistency on the field this season. The two misses at St. Louis (from 36 and 26 yards) were ugly kicks. And Hartley missed six of his past 14 field-goal attempts.

Upon Further Review: Saints Week 15

December, 16, 2013
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ST. LOUIS -- An examination of four hot issues from the New Orleans Saints27-16 loss to the St. Louis Rams on Sunday in the Edward Jones Dome.

Playoff scenarios: As bad as the Saints’ loss was at St. Louis, they can quickly make up for it with a win Sunday at Carolina. If the Saints (10-4) beat the Panthers (10-4), they would clinch the NFC’s No. 2 seed. But if the Saints lose, they’ll need a win and a Panthers loss in Week 17 to claim that No. 2 seed. And while we’re looking at worst-case scenarios, the Saints still haven’t clinched a playoff berth yet. They need to win one more game or hope for some losses by other teams.

Brown
Jobs in jeopardy: Two starters are on shaky ground after their performances Sunday. Left tackle Charles Brown was pulled during the third quarter after coach Sean Payton said he “saw enough” of Brown struggling against pass-rusher Robert Quinn. It will be interesting to see if Payton puts Brown back in the starting lineup against Carolina -- a team Brown played well against in Week 14.

Meanwhile, kicker Garrett Hartley’s job could also be in jeopardy after he missed two field goal attempts (one of which was blocked). Payton mentioned the field goals first when listing the areas that bothered him after the game Sunday. And the Saints brought in a handful of kickers for tryouts last month when Hartley was struggling. Could this have been the last straw?

Road woes: Payton and quarterback Drew Brees finally admitted that their road performances have become a serious problem. Previously, the Saints had bristled at questions about their road record. My take is that they were obviously aware of their road issues but always confident they could fix them. Sunday, I think they were genuinely shocked at how poorly they played and how flat they were in a lackluster atmosphere at St. Louis.

“No one in here is blind or ignorant that we have not played as well on the road,” offensive tackle Zach Strief said. “When you get interviewed in this league, you don’t send out panic. That doesn’t mean that when we’re together and our doors are closed that we’re not looking at ourselves in the mirror and saying, ‘What’s going on?’ ... The fact of the matter is that there’s no time for figuring anything out right now. It’s you figure it out now or you go home.”

What went wrong: I’ll break down the specifics in my film studies this week, but it was pretty obvious that there were four problem areas that doomed the Saints: 1. Turnovers (Brees’ first interception and his fumble were due to pressure from Quinn, but the second interception was a poor decision). 2. Pass protection. 3. Missed tackles (more than we’ve seen all year, especially early; safety Malcolm Jenkins, cornerback Corey White and linebacker Parys Haralson missed three bad ones on long touchdown plays). 4. Missed field goals.


NEW ORLEANS -- You thought the New Orleans Saints proved how dangerous they were last week, when they played a nearly perfect game in a blowout victory over the Dallas Cowboys?

Well, the Saints took it up another notch on Sunday with a scrappy, sometimes-ugly 23-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

This was the performance that truly showed the Saints' mettle as Super Bowl contenders.

San Francisco was the team that had given the Saints fits in each of the past two years. This was the style of game New Orleans hadn't been able to win consistently enough, including two weeks ago in a sloppy loss to the New York Jets. And it's the style of game they'll have to face again, with looming dates on the road against the NFC-leading Seattle Seahawks in Week 13 and two games against the NFC South rival Carolina Panthers.

"This is the biggest win up to date, I think, at the start of my career," said fourth-year Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette, who highlighted another outstanding performance by New Orleans' defense with a sack with 2:01 remaining.

The Saints stood toe to toe with the physical 49ers on Sunday. They absorbed a few big shots (most of them self-inflicted). And they rallied from a six-point deficit in the fourth quarter for their biggest win of the season to date.

"This game means more, the way that we won it," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said when asked which of the past two victories was more rewarding. "These are the ones that just sharpen you, just build confidence."

Not that the Saints needed a confidence boost.

It was especially clear from talking to players after Sunday's game that they had expected to win this game. That belief never wavered, even after three ugly turnovers in the first 33 minutes. The attitude was reminiscent, on a slightly smaller scale, of the confident approach the Saints took into Super Bowl XLIV, and the way they didn't waver after trailing 10-0 in that game.

"We were ready for this team," Saints running back Pierre Thomas said Sunday. "Nobody on this team was scared, none of the coaches, nobody on that sideline was scared."

"We knew we had to just keep chipping away, chipping away, chipping away at it, and eventually things would go our way," guard Jahri Evans said.

"That game had a little bit of an odd feeling to it, in that I felt like the offense was working efficiently, the defense was playing great, and yet we're losing," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "But Coach [Sean] Payton talked all week about kind of pounding away at the rock, kind of wearing someone down."

Players said Payton remained encouraging on the sideline, saying things like, "Let's stay in this," "Let's deal with this adversity" and "Body language."

The Saints' offense and defense both played well, especially in the areas they had preached about all week: stopping the run, staying balanced with their own rushing game and protecting Brees against a punishing defense.

[+] EnlargeAhmad Brooks and Drew Brees
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsThis one wasn't easy. Just ask Drew Brees, who was leveled by an Ahmad Brooks clothesline.
The defense was downright dominant, holding San Francisco to 196 yards and notching three sacks. Payton even credited his trust in the defense for an ill-fated decision to go for it on fourth-and-4 early in the third quarter.

"The defense has been playing unbelievable. Each week we gain more and more respect for them," Saints fullback Jed Collins said. "They just keep proving they're not only here to benefit the offense, but they're here to win games."

The Saints, however, dug themselves into a hole with three turnovers: a muffed punt return by Lance Moore that set the 49ers up for an easy touchdown; an interception return that was fumbled through the back of the end zone by cornerback Corey White; and an interception from Brees that set up another easy score for San Francisco.

Eventually, the Saints came up with a game-tying 42-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley with 2:06 remaining, a three-and-out by the defense and a game-winning 31-yard field goal by Hartley as time expired.

The rally included a lucky break, when Brees' fumble with 3:18 remaining was nullified by a personal-foul penalty against linebacker Ahmad Brooks for clotheslining him on the sack. But there were enough twists and turns and close calls that could have gone either way in this game that the Saints certainly didn't feel like they stole one.

Payton didn't even bother harping on the little things the team did wrong that "could get them beat down the road," as he did in previous games against lesser opponents.

"I just finished telling the guys I'm proud of them, and I thought we fought through some tough breaks," Payton said. "I thought we did all the things we talked about to win this game. … And I just thought they hung in there and deserved to win that game."

Speaking of overcoming adversity, Hartley entered the game on the hot seat after having missed four of his previous six field-goal attempts. But true to his history, he came through in the clutch.

Hartley could have been speaking on behalf of the entire team in his postgame comments when he said, "I would definitely say it tested me. But it was a time to show everyone how thick my skin is."

"We're just on a great level right now," Thomas added. "We have a great attitude. And we're seeing what type of team we can be. And as long as we keep fighting and keep doing what we're doing in practice, we're gonna be a tough out."
NEW ORLEANS -- As if New Orleans Saints' kicker Garrett Hartley didn’t have enough pressure on him already heading into Sunday’s game, there he was, facing the game-tying and game-winning field goal attempts in the final 2:06.

And true to his history, Hartley delivered in the clutch, drilling a 42-yarder and a 31-yarder to seal New Orleans’ 23-20 victory against the San Francisco 49ers.

Hartley
“I would definitely say (this past week) tested me,” admitted Hartley, who had missed four of his past six field goals, prompting the Saints to bring in several kickers for workouts this past week to update their emergency list. “And it was time to show everyone, I guess, how thick my skin is.”

Hartley said he would have been just as happy if the Saints had won on a safety -- which nearly happened with 1:56 remaining. But he admitted it was funny the way things worked out, that he got to prove himself in such a big moment after such a high-profile slump.

It was similar to the way things worked out in 2009, when Hartley was slumping late in the regular season before making the game-winning kick in the NFC Championship Game and three big kicks in the Super Bowl.

“It was really funny that this happened the way it did today, because on the way to the stadium I was actually on the phone with John Carney, just kind of picking his brain a little bit,” Hartley said of the former Saints kicker, who became his mentor. “And the same thing he told me in the NFC (Championship) Game, when it’s coming down to the wire, you just take yourself out of it. You can’t control anything else other than if you’re given the opportunity. And that’s just the way things unfolded, and this one definitely is a little bit sweeter than most.”

Teammates were happy for Hartley, but they insisted they weren’t surprised.

In just six NFL seasons, Hartley has been through more ups and downs than most veteran kickers. He’s had a four-game suspension because of a banned stimulant, a performance-based benching and an entire season lost to a hip injury. Each time, he has bounced back.

“I told him that we believe in you and that you are our guy. We all did,” saints quarterback Drew Brees said of the support throughout the week. “Garrett has had his ups and downs throughout his career, but he has made a lot of big kicks for us. I think that is just the life of a kicker.”

Kudos to Saints coach Sean Payton for feeling the same way. Payton insisted this past week, that he remained confident in Hartley based on his history. And he didn't have an itchy trigger finger, like he did with some kickers and punters earlier in his tenure.

That faith paid off in a big way Sunday.

Locker Room Buzz: New Orleans Saints

November, 17, 2013
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NEW ORLEANS – Observed in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints23-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers:

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Rewarding win: After the Saints beat the 49ers for the first time in three years, some players admitted it mean a lot for them to prove they could win a physical matchup like this. Others insisted they treated it just like any other big game. But everyone agreed that the way this game played out – overcoming adversity to win in the final minutes – was even more rewarding than a game like last week’s 49-17 rout of Dallas, when they were nearly flawless. “This game means more,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “These are the ones that just sharpen you.”

Rewarding kicks: Saints kicker Garrett Hartley certainly admitted that his two field goals in the final 2:06 were more rewarding than most after the personal adversity he faced in recent weeks, missing four of his last six kicks. He said he had just been talking to mentor and former Saints kicker John Carney on the way to the game about blocking everything else out and doing his job.

Colston’s record: Naturally, Saints receiver Marques Colston didn’t overplay the significance of setting the franchise record for receiving yards and yards from scrimmage. He said he’ll probably take time to reflect on it after the season. “Obviously there were more important things going on at the time,” Colston said.

Greer’s injury: Saints coach Sean Payton said cornerback Jabari Greer’s knee injury looks serious, but added that the team was awaiting tests to get the final diagnosis.
METAIRIE, La. – New Orleans Saints kicker Garrett Hartley admitted Wednesday, “I know that my career has been a roller-coaster ride.” However, he insisted that he is not going through a “slump” and isn't dealing with any confidence issues after missing four of his past six field-goal attempts.

Hartley also said he won’t overreact to the fact the Saints brought in a group of five kickers earlier this week to refresh their list of potential backups in case Hartley’s struggles continue.

Hartley
“This is my sixth year now. It’s not my first rodeo. It’s not my first time down this path,” said Hartley, a postseason hero in the Saints’ Super Bowl season, who has also dealt with a benching, a suspension and a season-long injury during his career. “It’s going to work every day. Keep doing what I’ve been doing. My leg feels great. I’m striking a clean ball. Bouncing back, even after a game like [last Sunday’s, when he missed from 37 yards], when obviously I didn’t strike the ball well and I know why. It’s a simple fix. Back to work and get ready for Sunday.”

The group of kickers the Saints brought in this week included veterans Neil Rackers and Shayne Graham. But Hartley said he didn’t see that as the team trying to “light a fire” under him.

“No. No. It’s standard protocol, just as any other position would be,” Hartley said. “This is about what they feel they need to do, and by all means, that’s OK. I know what I need to do as well, and this is still my job. ...

“I know that my career has been a roller-coaster ride. By now, going into my sixth year, it’s, ‘Hey, this is what the deal is, this is how I go about it.’ And obviously I’m just going to put myself in position to go out there and execute come Sundays. That’s all I can do.”

Hartley has made 16 of 22 field-goal attempts this season. His funk started when he missed three consecutive kicks during Weeks 8 and 9. But he had appeared to right the ship when he nailed a career-long 55-yarder and a 43-yarder in the second half of that Week 9 game, a 26-20 loss at the New York Jets.

Coach Sean Payton insisted Wednesday that he still has “a ton of confidence” in Hartley’s ability and explained that the kicker workouts are a common practice in the NFL.

"We'll do this. We had safeties in as well. We'll have other positions in as well,” Payton said. “Typically, we'll bring in players that are on our short list to validate a grade, make sure we feel the same when they leave. ...

"[But] Garrett has done it in so many big spots. I've got a ton of confidence in his ability, and I'm glad we did back in '09. And I think the same thing applies this year."

In 2009, Hartley served a four-game suspension to start the season after testing positive for a banned stimulant, and then he struggled with his consistency when he finally won the job back in December. But he went on to become a postseason hero, making the game-winning field goal in overtime of the NFC Championship Game and making three long field goals in the Super Bowl.

However, in 2010, Hartley struggled again and temporarily lost his job before bouncing back. Then in 2011, he missed the entire season with a hip injury.

Last year was about the only ordinary season of Hartley’s career. He made 18 of 22 field-goal attempts. For his career, Hartley has made 76 of 93 field-goal attempts (81.7 percent).

Upon Further Review: Saints Week 9

November, 4, 2013
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An review of four hot issues from the New Orleans Saints' 26-20 loss to the New York Jets on the road in MetLife Stadium:

Missing Ivory? I focused my postgame stories on the Saints' inability to stop former running back Chris Ivory and their inability to establish a run game of their own. So it's hard to ignore the question: Do they miss Ivory? I still say the answer is no. If he had stayed in New Orleans, he'd certainly have some highlight moments, like he did in the past. But he would also have quiet days, like he did in the past, for a Saints team that doesn't feature the run as often or as well as the Jets.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Drew Brees
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsDrew Brees was sacked twice in the final 20 minutes.
The trade made sense for the Saints, since their backfield is still overcrowded and they got good value in return for him (a fourth-round pick). But obviously the Saints need to figure out how to establish a more consistent run game, from their play calling to their blocking to the runners themselves.

Protection breakdown: The Saints became one-dimensional when they trailed by nine points throughout much of the second half. And the offensive line didn't hold up well under the pressure. Over the final 20 minutes, quarterback Drew Brees was sacked twice, guard Jahri Evans and center Brian de la Puente were flagged for holding, and guard Ben Grubbs was flagged for illegal hands to the face. Brees was also pressured into some incomplete passes, and the Saints failed to score a second-half touchdown.

The Jets do have one of the NFL's most disruptive defensive fronts. But the Saints' pass protection has been more up and down than usual this year, with most of the pressure coming up the gut.

Defensive breakdown: The Saints' run defense also broke down too often Sunday, allowing Ivory to bust loose for gains of 52, 30 and 27 yards. It was obviously unsettling, since the Saints had made it their primary focus to stop the run against a Jets team that doesn't throw the ball very well. The Saints now rank 26th in the NFL in run defense this year, allowing 121.3 yards per game.

However, I still don't see this as a huge area of concern going forward. The Jets are the first team all year that really dominated the Saints with the run game. And most of their damage came on those three long runs. Ivory gained only 30 yards on his other 15 runs.

Hartley's redemption: One of the best things that came out of the Saints' second-half offensive struggles is that it gave kicker Garrett Hartley the opportunity to make two high-pressure field goals from 55 and 43 yards. Before that, Hartley had missed three consecutive field goals -- including a 43-yarder wide left in the first quarter against the Jets. The two made field goals should help him settle back into a groove.

Escalators and the NFC South

February, 19, 2013
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One of the many reasons the New Orleans Saints are in a difficult salary-cap situation is that six of their players triggered escalators that will cost the team nearly $4 million in 2013.

Kicker Garrett Hartley earned a $1.432 million escalator and safety Malcolm Jenkins earned a $1.25 million raise. The other Saints to hit escalators were receiver Lance Moore ($100,000), tackle Zach Strief ($300,000), tight end Jimmy Graham ($700,000) and defensive tackle Tom Johnson ($195,000).

I’ve also got the numbers on escalators that were triggered elsewhere in the NFC South. In most cases, the escalators were based on players meeting specified playing-time levels in 2012. But, in some cases, the escalators were triggered by playing time in previous years.

Atlanta’s Michael Turner, who could end up being a salary-cap casualty, had his base salary escalate by $1.4 million. Defensive end John Abraham triggered a $1 million escalator. The other two Falcons to earn escalators for this season are defensive tackle Corey Peters ($600,000) and cornerback Asante Samuel ($200,000).

Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy had his team’s largest escalator ($775,000). Receiver Brandon LaFell earned a $700,000 escalator and offensive lineman Garry Williams will pick up an extra $125,000.

The Tampa Bay players to hit escalators were offensive lineman Jeremy Zuttah ($250,000), tackle Demar Dotson ($500,000), receiver Mike Williams ($800,000), offensive lineman Ted Larsen ($700,000), safety Cody Grimm ($625,000, which was based on his 2010 playing time) and fullback Erik Lorig ($425,000).

Rapid Reaction: Redskins 27, Eagles 20

December, 23, 2012
12/23/12
4:05
PM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- A few thoughts on the Washington Redskins' sixth victory in a row and their ninth of the season.

What it means: The Redskins have their first winning season since 2007, and if they beat the Dallas Cowboys at home Sunday, they will be NFC East champions for the first time since 1999. The Redskins also retain a chance to make the playoffs as a wild-card team, though they cannot clinch their playoff spot today. The Eagles have lost 11 games for the first time since 1999 -- Andy Reid's first season as their head coach. They have not lost 12 in a season since 1998, when they finished 3-13 under Rich Kotite.

Gimpy Griffin: There was much speculation going into this game about the ways in which Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III might be limited after missing last week's game with a sprained knee. Griffin wore a brace on the knee, and while the Redskins still ran a lot of the play-action passes that have been such a critical element of their offense, it seemed clear that Griffin's legs were not going to be a significant part of the game plan this week. He carried the ball twice for 4 yards in the first half and not once after that. The Redskins went with a fairly conservative game plan, feeding running back Alfred Morris the ball and picking their spots down the field when the receivers were able to get open in the Philadelphia secondary.

Season of giving: The Redskins were able to get back into the game after a slow start on defense because of two Eagles turnovers. Nick Foles' fumble on Ryan Kerrigan's first sack of the game set up a Redskins field goal drive, and London Fletcher's interception of Foles set up a touchdown drive that put the Redskins on top 13-7 in the second quarter. The Eagles entered the game tied with Kansas City for the worst turnover differential in the league (minus-22). Washington's defense seemed to stiffen after the turnovers, but the Eagles were able to move the ball against them in the fourth quarter after it appeared as though Washington had put the game away. Philadelphia had a first-and-goal from the 5-yard line but could not punch it in.

You never know: Colt Anderson's fourth-quarter interception of Griffin may have been the least likely interception of the year in the NFL. It was the Eagles' first interception in nine games and just the fifth of the season for Griffin in 14 starts.

Record-breaking kicker: The Redskins' Kai Forbath's first two field goals of the day were his 16th and 17th of the year in as many attempts. That broke Garrett Hartley's record of consecutive made field goals (16) to start an NFL career.

What's next: The Redskins host the Cowboys on Sunday at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., in a game that stands a decent chance of being picked for that night's prime-time slot. The Eagles travel up the highway to play the Giants at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., in what very likely will be Reid's final game as Eagles coach.

Wrap-up: Packers 28, Saints 27

September, 30, 2012
9/30/12
8:12
PM ET
Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints28-27 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field:

What it means: The Saints played their best game of the season, but still fell to 0-4. I won’t categorically say the season is over, but it’s close to that. It’s going to take an awfully big miracle for the Saints to bounce back and make the playoffs.

The win that wasn’t: The Saints actually had this game won -- momentarily. With just under three minutes left, Garrett Hartley converted a 43-yard field goal that would have given the Saints a 30-28 lead. But the field goal was erased by a holding call. That set up a 53-yard attempt that would have tied for the longest of Hartley’s career. He never got to attempt that kick because the Packers jumped offside. That moved the field goal attempt to 48 yards. Hartley’s kick was wide left. The Packers got the ball back and ran out the clock.

Can’t blame Brees: There’s a school of thought out there that quarterback Drew Brees hasn’t stepped up enough in a season in which the Saints are without suspended coach Sean Payton. I’m not sure how much more Brees possibly could have done against the Packers. He completed 35-of-54 passes for 446 yards and three touchdowns without being intercepted.

Tying the record: Brees threw a touchdown pass in his 47th consecutive game. That ties him with Johnny Unitas for the longest such streak in NFL history. Brees will get a chance to break that against the team that drafted him and later dumped him.

Colston shows up: Wide receiver Marques Colston had been very quiet in the first three games. He wasn’t quiet against the Packers. Colston had nine catches for 153 yards and a touchdown.

What’s next: The Saints will host San Diego at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome next Sunday night.

Rapid Reaction: Packers 28, Saints 27

September, 30, 2012
9/30/12
7:55
PM ET

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A quick look at Sunday's events at Lambeau Field:

What it means: The Green Bay Packers salvaged their season with a wild 28-27 victory over the still-winless New Orleans Saints. The Packers are 2-2 after four games. History has not been kind to 1-3 teams, who have missed the playoffs 85.3 percent of the time under the NFL's current playoff format.

Officiating reprise: The Packers had another shaky day with officials. But six days after the infamous Fail Mary play cost them in a 14-12 loss at the Seattle Seahawks, they did benefit from a call that prevented the Saints from taking a late lead. Place-kicker Garrett Hartley's 43-yard field goal would have given the Saints a 30-28 lead with 2 minutes, 55 seconds left. But referee Jeff Triplette called the Saints for holding on the field goal protection, an unusual call and one for which Triplette did not name the offender. The Packers moved Hartley 5 yards closer by jumping offsides prior to the next kick, but ultimately Hartley was wide left on the ensuing 48-yard attempt.

More officiating fun: Earlier in the game, Saints receiver Marques Colston appeared to get away with pushing Packers safety Morgan Burnett to the ground before catching a 20-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Replays also showed the Saints' Darren Sproles fumbled on the kickoff return that preceded the go-ahead score. Triplette ruled Sproles down by contact, and Packers coach Mike McCarthy didn't have a challenge remaining. All is well that ends well, however.

Defensive issues: The Packers looked more like their 2011 defense than the one they have displayed in their past two games of 2012. Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw for 446 yards. In the end, however, the Packers had their best offensive game of the season, as well. They finished with 430 yards and quarterback Aaron Rodgers had four touchdown passes.

Brief Harrell era: The Packers were in position to extend a 21-17 lead late in the third quarter when Rodgers departed after Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins poked him in the right eye on a blitz. Backup Graham Harrell, on first-and-goal at the 2-yard line, promptly tripped over center Jeff Saturday's leg and couldn't connect on a clean handoff with tailback Cedric Benson. Jenkins recovered the ball at the 8-yard line, and four plays later, Brees found reserve receiver Joe Morgan open against a busted coverage for an 80-yard touchdown play. What could have at least been a 24-17 lead turned into 24-21 deficit in a matter of 1:17 seconds.

What's next: The Packers are on the road next Sunday to play at the Indianapolis Colts.

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