Ask any New Orleans Saints player about left tackle Terron Armstead, and before long, he’ll get around to using the word “selfless,” or a close approximation of it. Ask any of his teammates who in the locker room best epitomizes “sacrifice,” and the list doesn’t go deep before Armstead’s name comes up.
He has played with, despite, and through injuries over the last three seasons that have buckled lesser players, and has returned early from surgeries and rehabilitations that have been more serious and challenging than he ever will admit, because Armstead simply doesn’t believe in missing any time unless it absolutely is necessary.
“I just try to do whatever I can for my teammates,” he said. “Football is my life. As always, the goal for me, the plan for me, is to play. So if I feel like I’m able to be productive, I’m going to play. Regardless of what it can do or how I feel, if I can do it and be productive, I’m going to play.”
And if he’s playing, there’s a really good chance that he’s playing well.
The Saints (9-4) were two games into an eight-game winning streak when Armstead rejoined the lineup after offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum. In those six games he helped the Saints take off offensively, averaging 445.8 yards per game, including 177.3 rushing yards – numbers that are better than their season averages.
His highlight play very well might have occurred during a 7-yard touchdown run by quarterback Drew Brees against Buffalo, a designed pass play on which Brees first flushed right in the pocket, then scrambled to his left and saw only one defender between him and the end zone.
That defender, Packers defensive end Eddie Yarbrough, appeared to be lining up Brees and closing. Yarbrough, unfortunately, had been lined up by Armstead, who was closing.
One-handed, Armstead shoved the 259-pounder with such force that there was no need to flop on top and complete the pancake. With Yarbrough splattered to the turf, Brees scampered to the left front pylon for the score.
“I felt Terron, who had been blocking his guy, then he’s running with me,” Brees said. “There’s always that fine line of, ‘I don’t want to be downfield,’ right? So I’m going to kind of stay with my quarterback. And then I felt him just go. And I think one of the linebackers started to kind of feel like maybe I was going to be a run threat. And (Armstead) just leveled him.”
It’s the kind of athleticism that the Saints took note of in 2013, when they made the little-known tackle from Arkansas Pine-Bluff a third-round pick (No. 75 overall), after he ran a 4.71-second 40 at the NFL Combine, a record for offensive linemen.
But Armstead has proven, time and again, that there’s more to him than athleticism. Topping the list may be toughness.
Besides the torn labrum, there were knee and quad injuries that limited him to seven games last season. In ’15, a knee injury cost him three games and in ’14, a neck injury cost him the final two regular-season games. He dealt with a chest injury that cost him a start against Carolina on Dec. 3.
Those only are the injuries that have been divulged; there may be more on an undisclosed list, as well as the aches and pains that are considered the cost of doing business in the profession.
“I had a little knee surgery and I kind of came back a little early,” Armstead said. “I had some complications with the knee itself. It bothered me for a while, not just that year. It continued to bother me. It was a challenge, a tough challenge. But I won’t specifically say more than that.”
He doesn’t need to. His teammates know, and see, exactly what Armstead endures in order to be able to play. And they know why he does it.
“He is very important and, yes, he does play through a lot,” Brees said. “But he’s a tough guy. He is also a guy that doesn’t want to let his team down. You can look at him and know he’s hurt and he’s like, ‘Man, I’ll be there. I’ll be out there. I’ll be there for you.’ You have to love that mentality and that attitude and the way he feels about this team.”
“They know if I can be out there, I will,” Armstead said. “And it’s for them. I try to do whatever I can to help them or be out there for them. A lot of guys have expressed their level of confidence in me when I’m out there with them, how much more comfortable they feel. I don’t want to take that away from anybody. I feel like I can help. I feel like I can help the team win whenever I’m playing, and that’s exactly what I’m trying to do.”
There isn’t anyone associated with the football team who doesn’t appreciate what Armstead brings.
“When he’s on the field, we know we have a top quality tackle and we’re obviously very confident when he’s playing,” offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael said. “He’s, to me, one of the best in the league.
“First of all, he’s a smart player. He’s athletic. We’re confident with him in the run game and pass game. He’s someone that prepares every week. He knows what he has to do to be successful in a game. We just have all the confidence in the world in him.”
The trust and confidence are there even though, as a maintenance issue, Armstead doesn’t practice on Wednesdays. The rest and recuperation day is one less day of work and taxation for his body, another day to continue strengthening his shoulder.
Of course, there are drawbacks, especially for a player who missed all of training camp.
“It’s tough. It’s challenging,” he said. “You can talk to anyone around the league about not having those practice reps. Not just the reps, but the conditioning, the verbiage – if you put in different plays for that game plan, not being a part of that on that day. It’s a challenge. But I’ve been in the league a little while now, so I prepare myself at the utmost level for whatever calls or anything I need to do to be productive on Sunday.”
It’s hard to argue with the results. Even at less than 100 percent, Armstead is formidable and has learned to cater to his available strengths.
“I’ve definitely had to make changes,” he said. “Even still, with the limited amount of practice, a lot of times in the games I’m still trying to get training camp reps as far as technique. Repetition is master of teaching, so if I haven’t had the reps, I can’t really demonstrate it or exercise it. I’ve had make some changes.
“I’ve become a smarter player, approaching it with a lot more angles and leverage. While my body is healing up I can still use my athleticism, but I approach it a different way.”
It’s a selfless approach. It’s an approach that the Saints have come to expect of Armstead.