It's a numbers game. They are what defensive linemen – especially, defensive ends – are judged upon.
Sacks, pressures, quarterback hits, fumbles caused and recovered, batted passes, tackles for loss, even the occasional interception are the things that legitimize the defensive end in the public eye.
So when Cam Jordan's totals after five games this season – 14 tackles, one sack, one pass defensed and a fumble recovery – appeared to be less than pedestrian for a man who, in the offseason, had been rewarded with a five-year contract extension worth a reported $60 million ($27 million guaranteed), the murmuring began and intensified.
Jordan, too, was ticked off.
Not because his numbers were down; because his team's number was.
"I look at wins," he said. "That's all that matters to me."
The New Orleans Saints had none after their first three games, and only one after their first five.
Since, though, they've won their last two, and Jordan jumping off the page has had a large hand in a New Orleans defense that has shown flashes of dominance entering Sunday's game against the Giants in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
In consecutive games against two of the league's premier quarterbacks – Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Indianapolis' Andrew Luck – the Saints have produced nine sacks. Five of them, for a loss of 24 yards, belong to Jordan, who also essentially pushed Luck into a sack that was shared by end Bobby Richardson and tackle John Jenkins.
Credit him also with five tackles for loss, eight quarterback hurries, two passes defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in the last two games, and understand the optimism surrounding what appears to be an improving Saints defense, where the complimentary pieces are doing just that – defensive backs and linebackers holding up in coverage, defensive linemen and linebackers applying pressure, and all rallying to become a better unit against the run.
Currently, Jordan's six sacks are tied for fourth in the league (a half-sack behind the trio of NFL leaders) and he looks every bit the part of the player who was expected to lead the line in word and deed as a first-year defensive captain.
"I think defensively, we've gotten into a nice little groove the last two games," he said. "That being said, it's only a two-game stretch. We still have the next game, we still have to fight for this 4-4 (record). I'm glad that we're a part of the D-line that we're a part of. We're going forward. We're just trying to help everybody grow and I think we're doing that at a great pace.
"I think that good things will come together. I think I've been able to rush the passer better, but at this point I'm reaping a lot of the rewards of the young guys. We have (defensive tackle) Kevin Williams, who's been in the league for 13 years, creating that middle pressure that you want and you're allowed to come off the edge and get a sack or two.
"You've got (defensive tackles) Tyeler (Davison) and John Jenkins coming up the middle, you've got a lot of pressure coming from a lot of young guys and you're able to relax yourself and get off. When I'm in the middle and you've got (outside linebackers Hau'oli) Kikaha and (Kasim) Edebali coming off the edges, that's elite in my book."
True, but most elitism on the Saints defensive line begins with Jordan, a Pro Bowler after the 2013 season.
He posted a career-high 12.5 sacks then, along with four passes defensed, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery for a defense that finished No. 4 in scoring defense and yards allowed. Last year, his numbers dipped along with New Orleans' rankings (Nos. 28 and 31 in scoring defense and yards allowed, respectively), to 7.5 sacks, five passes defensed, one fumble recovery and an interception.
This year, the team's defensive rankings are improving along with Jordan's production.
Of course, production always can't be measured by numbers, and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has been quick to note that Jordan was disruptive and effective even when his sack total could be counted using one index finger.
But Jordan, while recording his best two-game total and posting five sacks in a month for the first time in his career, has seen his hard work result in a cascade of quarterback takedowns and like it or not, that's the standard by which he is measured.
"It's tough with linemen, always, because we see production and typically, an offensive lineman, if we're not talking about him during a game, he's probably playing well," Coach Sean Payton said. "(Against Atlanta), you saw the production (for Jordan) and there's a lot that goes into that – the lead, when a team all of a sudden has to throw the ball, it becomes a lot harder on the offense. But he's got that versatility to play the run and give us the rush as well."
It's that versatility that allowed the Saints to experiment with using Jordan at the "Jack" linebacker position as a rusher.
"New year, something like a new position," he said. "I've still got my hand to the ground, I'm still an end, whether they call it 'Jack' or outside linebacker or whatever you want to call it for some of the downs. Come third down, I'm still left end, I'm still at the defensive end that I need to be. I've got to apply more pressure, I've got to get back to the quarterback, I've got to make a statement on defense every game.
"In my mind, I've been the guy since I've been here, whether that's true or false. They have to respect me when I get on the field but that being said, I'm going to earn it."
He has earned respect and, yes, with his numbers, he earned his contract. It's a deal that Jordan said he is proud to have, with the organization that picked him in the first round (No. 24 overall) in 2011.
"I'm blessed with a new contract," he said. "I'm glad that not only did we agree to a contract, but it lets me know that the organization loves me as much as I love the organization. And that's something that you can be proud of.
"It's clearly a symbiotic relationship and at this moment, I'm glad to be a Saint, I'm happy to be here. I've been a Who Dat nation since I've been in the NFL, and I don't plan on changing."
Photos of Cameron Jordan vs the Atlanta Falcons. Photos by Michael C. Hebert.