Photos of Benjamin Watson vs the Philadelphia Eagles. Photos by Michael C. Hebert (New Orleans Saints photos)
This isn't at all a rebirth for Benjamin Watson.
A statistical spike, absolutely, especially given his production in his first two seasons as a New Orleans Saint, when the veteran tight end was asked to cede the pass-catching duties to Jimmy Graham and caught 39 passes for 362 yards and four touchdowns, total, as a primary blocker while Graham tuned up NFL defenses for 171 catches, 2,104 yards and 26 touchdowns.
And it's a blow to the theory that chronological age (he's 34 and will turn 35 in six weeks and two days) equals dissipation of skills – which, by the way, is the normal course.
But Watson didn't immerse himself in a fountain of youth for this season.
It wasn't a fluke when he seemingly bound through the Saints' secondary, virtually un-coverable, during training camp at The Greenbrier. What he did then against his teammates, he's doing now against Saints opponents and he's a major reason that New Orleans (4-4) is on a three-game winning streak entering Sunday's game against Tennessee (1-6) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
"You're always just staying prepared for whatever," Watson said. "My whole career, I've just been prepared for whatever the coaches ask me to do, so if it's running or blocking or catching balls or whatever it is, that's what I try to pride myself in, being prepared. This year it's just playing more plays than last year. It's fun to be able to contribute.
"I'm doing things that I haven't done here before, that I've done at other places in the past. The ebbs and flows in your career, you just try to stay prepared for whatever happens."
He's definitely in a flow.
Watson has established single-game highs in receiving yards in two of his last three games, first against Atlanta (127) and then against the New York Giants (147). At an age when his birth certificate says he should be slowing, his foot is heavy on the career accelerator.
With 38 receptions for 472 yards and three touchdowns at the season's midpoint, he's on pace to eclipse his single-season highs in receptions and receiving yards (68 for 763, with Cleveland in 2010), and to tie his single-season high in touchdowns (six, with the Patriots in 2007).
Worth noting is that Watson got off to a slow start, with 12 catches for 102 yards in the first four games.
"I think that, No. 1, when you're playing quarterback and you have someone that is very reliable in what they're going to do and also, someone who's got very good football instincts, there's a lot to be said for that," Coach Sean Payton said. "We've seen tight ends play well into their 30s because they understand leverage and they're smart and they've got great hands and they've got real good change of direction.
"Ben's one of those players who's smart, he's got very good football instincts and I think there's that trust that Drew (Brees) has when he's locating him in the progression or potentially throwing the ball to him off of a flushed pocket."
It's not a trust or confidence that just was established this offseason. Even when Watson wasn't New Orleans' "pass-catching" tight end, he was working to create a rapport with Brees and showing he was versatile enough to handle each duty that the position calls for.
"It's all just kind of happened," Brees said of Watson's production increase. "I've always felt like he was just a phenomenal athlete, could do everything, so complete a tight end. I don't know if there is a more complete tight end in the league, in regards to what he brings run game, pass game – not only catching, but blocking – and what he means to us in the locker room.
"The way that he practices, his approach, his demeanor, his leadership ability, his character – all those things, he's the total package. And there's always been that guy. I think, obviously, with Jimmy here the past couple of years and Jimmy being the feature guy, Ben got his touches every now and then but when we were talking about tight end touches, we were talking about Jimmy. Now when you talk about tight end touches, you're talking about Ben Watson."
If opponents aren't talking, they should be. In the last four games Watson has 26 catches for 370 yards and three touchdowns. Only four tight ends have more than Watson's 472 receiving yards, a total that tops his mark in nine of his previous 11 seasons.
"I expect to go out and work hard and practice hard and get the reps that I need to on game day, I can perform," he said. "But every year looks different, for a lot of players. I'm not the only one that's ever had two drastically different years.
"As players, you understand that there are a lot of things that you're capable of doing, but you're only asked to do certain things at certain times. And that's fine. My goal is to help the team win no matter what that is.
"As an offensive player, you want the football. All of us do. The tight ends want to be receivers but we're too big, and too slow sometimes. But that's why you play offense. You play defense because you want to hit people. So you love a chance to get your hands on the ball to make plays in the passing game, but you also understand that it's just as important when you make a great block for the running back to get the touchdown.
"In a team sport, a lot of times we focus on catching balls, and that's great. We all want to get the ball. But each play, and each person that's doing their job – whether it's blocking or whether it's catching – is equally important and contributes to the team winning. That's what you understand as a player."