Metairie, La. • The New Orleans Saints can only hope safety Marcus Williams’ recent refusal to discuss the last play of last season isn’t a sign of mental fragility.
New Orleans is counting on Williams, a 2017 second-round draft choice from the University of Utah, to build on a largely promising rookie campaign that helped solidify the Saints’ secondary and propel the club back to the playoffs for the first time in four years.
At issue now is how Williams will move forward from the cruel way his first NFL season ended. His whiffed tackle attempt on Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs last January allowed the Vikings receiver to score a 61-yard, game-winning touchdown in the dying seconds of an NFC divisional round playoff game.
It’s a question that, for now, Williams declines to field.
“I’m not talking about last year,” Williams said after practice on Saturday.
Asked moments later if he still watches a video he promoted on social media that opens with that final play in Minnesota — which he titled “Turning my NIGHTMARE into my MOTIVATION” — Williams smiled silently and turned his gaze toward a team public relations official, who ended the interview.
Defensive backs routinely utter the refrain that players at their position must have short memories — that they must quickly forget receptions made by players they defend and focus immediately on their next opportunity to thwart a pass.
But in Williams’ case, the touchdown he couldn’t prevent in Minnesota instantly went into NFL annals as one of the more stunning and unusual endings to a playoff game in league history.
That one will be hard to forget.
Meanwhile, Williams’ decision to block a columnist for The Times-Picayune on Twitter also raises questions about how he deals with scrutiny.
Teammates, however, are quick to suggest that Williams’ performance at training camp says more about his response than anything else.
“The way he approaches practice, the way he approaches each meeting, the way he approaches the game — period — you can tell he doesn’t necessarily think about it, but it’s there and it drives him,” Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. “He’s been playing out of his mind in training camp so far.
“I commend him for that,” Rankins continued. “A play of that magnitude in that game — that could derail a lot of people’s confidence and kind of make people go into the tank.”
During the first couple weeks of training camp, Williams has looked like a star in the making, closing hard on balls thrown anywhere near him. Several times, he has intercepted Drew Brees, who compared Williams to retired Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed, a five-time All-Pro.
“I really love everything about him as a teammate and as a young player who is just hungry to be great,” Brees said. “He is definitely a presence and a force in the deep part of the field. You have to know where he is because he’s got such good range and such good instincts.”
Coach Sean Payton appeared to make a point this offseason of deflecting blame for last season’s end away from Williams, who not only had four interceptions during the 2017 regular season, but also had another pick in the playoff game against the Vikings. While being interviewed by his daughter, Meghan, on NFL Network, Payton said his biggest regret from the playoff loss was the Saints offense’s inability to convert a third-and-1 play before kicking a go-ahead field goal with 25 seconds left. If New Orleans had gotten one more first down, Payton reasoned, the Saints’ field goal would have been attempted with virtually no time left for the Vikings to respond.
And after recent practices, Payton has been highly complimentary of Williams.
“You have seen him come back in the spring and even now in training camp, just playing at a real high level,” Payton said. “He is just continuing to get better. He is a great thinker. He is smart. Rarely on the field does he do something that you don’t want. That intelligence, along with his physical skill set, are two great traits.”
Williams does discuss the upcoming season. And in those moments, he doesn’t sound like a player overly burdened by his past.
“I just do my one-eleventh — whatever the coach tells me to do,” Williams said. “Everybody has their own job to do. You can’t be Superman out here.”