Curtis Lofton didn't really play for the New Orleans Saints last season.
Fans thought that he did, family members may have bragged that he did and his W-2 form didn't offer any evidence to the contrary.
But – no slight or malice intended – the inside linebacker didn't play for the Saints last year. At least, not the Saints he thought he'd signed up to play for when he joined the organization as a free agent signee from the Atlanta Falcons, courtesy of a five-year contract.
Suspensions and injury changed the 2012 Saints in the worst way. They robbed the team of Coach Sean Payton and several other key leaders, and virtually guaranteed that the season wouldn't function at the level it had as it tumbled to a 7-9 record.
And the expected level was this: Three consecutive double-digit win seasons from 2009-11, three consecutive playoff appearances, four playoff wins and a Super Bowl victory – all of which the 6-foot, 241-pound Lofton witnessed from close proximity, as a mainstay for the Falcons, New Orleans' NFC South Division rival and arch nemesis.
"I don't know what last year was, but it wasn't what the Saints are about," Lofton said.
This season? He figures that this season precisely is what the Saints are about.
The Saints are 5-1 entering today's kickoff against Buffalo in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, two victories shy of equaling last year's total, with 10 games remaining on the 2013 schedule. They lead the NFC South, are tied for the best record in the conference and are a team that firmly believes its best football hasn't been played.
"This is definitely the team that I envisioned playing on, the organization I planned on being with," Lofton said. "This year, everything I hoped for and wanted … I knew when I made my decision that this is the team I was going to be playing on, was going to be playing in big games, having a chance to go to the playoffs and eventually playing in the Super Bowl.
"We've just got to keep working as a team. I love being here, love the fans, love the organization."
He needn't be concerned about reciprocity.
Lofton has been all he was expected to be in New Orleans, and fans and the organization deeply are appreciative. The fact that he leads the team this season with 41 tackles is the equivalent of saying the sun rose in the East.
Last season he led the Saints with 157 tackles, the most by a Saint since 1997, and tossed in two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 10 passes defensed. It was the fourth consecutive season he'd led his team in tackles and the fourth straight year he'd posted at least 142.
But, perhaps just as important, it was the fifth consecutive season he played every game.
His regular-season consecutive games streak stands at 86 (he never has missed one) and considering the physical demands of his position, it's a streak that's not to be taken lightly.
Lofton has been as reliable as they come since he entered the league in 2008, as Atlanta's second-round draft pick (No. 37 overall).
"Dependability means that you're always ready," he said. "You're going to hit some adversity but you always find a way to play. You've got 10 other guys depending on you and for me, I always find a way to play, be out on the practice field, take care of my body to where I'm always available.
"I think the No. 1 thing with me is, it starts with my nutrition, staying at a great body weight. No. 2 is just keep lifting, keep my physical strength ready.
"And No. 3 is all the things that I do from getting massaged, dry needled, chiropractic work, enough rest and supplements in my body to make it through the NFL season. I'm not going to say I haven't been nicked and banged up, but I always find a way to push through and be out there for my teammates."
He figures he has it easy, when he considers the sacrifice that was made for him.
"It comes from my grandma (Delora Terrell)," he said. "My grandma raised me and she's pretty much the foundation of the family.
"She worked two and three jobs just to put food on the table. She always was there for me and pushed me. Seeing my grandma do that, I feel that whatever I go through is nothing compared to what she went through. So I can find a way because she found a way."
Lofton's way has been to lead a Saints defense that allows 17 points per game, and 338 yards. That's a significant improvement from last season, when New Orleans surrendered 28.4 points and 440 yards per game, and it's a huge reason the Saints opened 2013 with five consecutive victories.
"Overall, it's a great feeling," he said. "You're 5-1, you're ahead of the NFC, (but) there's a lot left out there and at the same time, we haven't played our best football.
"I think that's the most exciting thing. I know defensively we haven't, offensively we haven't and special teams we haven't. This team is just taking the right steps, keeps growing as a team and I feel like we're on the verge of something special.
"I feel like we've been playing at a solid level. In order to be a great defense we have to stop making the little mistakes here and there, having bad eyes and not getting lined up before the play. That's the only thing that's holding us back from being a great defense. I feel like we'll continue to work on that in practice, and we'll be better."
So will the man in the middle of it all, the defense's quarterback. Even now his game is expanding; he's been asked to rush and hound the quarterback a few times and as a result, has produced a sack and a critical pressure.
"I think that's one thing that shocked me, too," Lofton said. "I haven't been put in that position too often in my career. This is actually the first year that I've been given a chance to rush and show what I can do.
"It's just an awesome feeling that your head coach (Sean Payton) and your defensive coordinator (Rob Ryan) has that confidence in you that you can get to the quarterback.
"I'm still growing. I feel like I'm in the prime of my career and just adding more tools to help me become a better player."
A better player for the Saints team that he imagined he'd be playing for.