When he saw five free-agent kickers working out and being evaluated at the Saints facility Tuesday, special-teams captain Will Herring dialed up kicker Garrett Hartley, who had missed four of his past six field goals for New Orleans and ranked among the least accurate players at his position in the NFL.
“Keep your head up,” Herring told Hartley when the sixth-year kicker answered. “I believe in you. Every guy I’ve talked to believes in you. We’re going to continue to ride with you.”
On Sunday, more than 73,000 people at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and millions of others watching the Saints play the San Francisco 49ers on television learned those weren’t empty, flowery words. In the final 13 minutes, 23 seconds of Sunday’s game, at which point New Orleans trailed San Francisco by six, the Saints asked Hartley to make kicks from 21, 42 and 31 yards.
He nailed all three in the Saints’ 23-20 win, leaving no time on the clock after the last one.
A kicker whose job seemed in danger five days earlier had just helped the Saints improve to 8-2 with his second winner of the season.
A kicker countless people speculated was on the verge of unemployment had just vanquished a 49ers team (6-4) that had beaten the Saints in a 2011 playoff game and again in Week 12 last year.
Of the week he had experienced, Hartley said, “I would definitely say it tested me — not physically but mentally. It was a time to show everyone how thick my skin is.”
It certainly wasn’t the plan to give Hartley an opportunity to do so.
The 49ers scored all of their points off turnovers. San Francisco’s first touchdown came after a punt that Lance Moore muffed early in the second quarter. The 49ers’ Raymond Ventrone recovered at New Orleans’ 11 and, two plays later, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick tossed an 11-yard TD to wideout Anquan Boldin to tie the score at 7.
Later in the quarter, Kaepernick threw a pick at San Francisco’s 44 to Saints cornerback Corey White. Hoping to score his first career TD, White stretched the ball out around the 1-yard line, but he lost his grasp on it and fumbled out the side of the end zone.
San Francisco took over at its 20, and the 49ers scored a 10-7 lead on a 55-yard field goal by Phil Dawson.
On the first drive of the second half, with New Orleans up 14-10, Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw an interception to 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks. He picked off the pass at New Orleans’ 44 and returned it to the 22. Kaepernick hit tight end Vernon Davis for a 17-yard touchdown three plays later.
The Saints then turned the ball over on downs late in the third quarter. A 29-yard field goal from Dawson on the ensuing drive made it 20-14 in favor of San Francisco.
New Orleans was within striking distance because it accomplished its main objectives on defense: It held star running back Frank Gore to 48 yards on 13 carries, half of which came on a single run. They prevented Kaepernick (17-of-31 for 127 yards, two TDs and the one pick) from orchestrating any scores on the eight drives he had that didn’t start after a Saints turnover.
“They hung in there,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of his team. “And they deserved to win that game.”
Brees, 30-of-43 for 305 yards and the interception, threw a 3-yard touchdown to Josh Hill in the opening quarter, the rookie tight end’s first career score. Fullback Jed Collins scored on a 1-yard run late in the second quarter, his first TD of the season.
The stage was set for Hartley to be the hero, though he had made just five of nine attempts at the Superdome this season and was 16-of-22 overall — 72.7 percent, the league’s third-worst accuracy rate.
After Dawson’s field goal, Hartley capped a nine-play, 77-yard drive with a 21-yard kick to make it 20-17. The Saints defense then forced a three-and-out, one of five in the game.
It seemed the Saints’ comeback would fall short when Brooks hit Brees at New Orleans’ 45 on third-and-2, causing a fumble. But officials determined Brooks delivered an illegal blow to Brees’ head and neck, resulting in a penalty that set up New Orleans at San Francisco’s 30. Five plays later, Hartley hit a 42-yarder to tie it.
On San Francisco’s next possession, defensive end Junior Galette sacked Kaepernick for a loss of 9 yards on first-and-10. Kaepernick, sacked three times in the game, then narrowly avoided a safety by stepping out of the tackle box to the right and throwing a pass away in the end zone as defensive end Cameron Jordan was in his face.
Kaepernick scrambled for 16 yards on third-and-19, and the 49ers punted with 1:48 left.
Brees was 3-for-4 for 41 yards to help the Saints move from their 40 to San Francisco’s 13, setting up Hartley for a 31-yard attempt with three seconds left.
Hartley put it through the uprights, boosting New Orleans to 6-0 at home.
“It’s good to see,” Payton said of Hartley. “I love the way he responded. I’m proud of him.”
Added Hartley: “This team, this coaching staff and this organization just never took their foot off the gas with me. And here we are sitting at 8-2.”
The Saints won’t have long to enjoy the thrilling triumph. They head to the Georgia Dome on Thursday to clash with the Atlanta Falcons, who are 2-8 after Sunday’s 41-28 loss at Tampa Bay (2-8).