Chris Hogan thrives in the 'chaos' and, now, the Saints need him

For a decade, the former lax player has beaten the odds. Clutch catch after catch, he added to the legend... and he's not done yet.

In truth, Chris Hogan should’ve disappeared from NFL relevance a long, long time ago.

It’s been nine seasons since HBO featured him as a plucky subplot on “Hard Knocks,” since Reggie Bush called him “7-Eleven.” Yet despite always being open, despite the coaches themselves saying right there on camera that Hogan caught everything, he was cut loose.

They saw his best. They, still, did not believe.

Through a career packed with adversity, this first obstacle is the one he thinks about most.

“To get cut was a punch in the gut,” Hogan says. “My girlfriend, then fiancé, now wife at the time said to get my butt in a car and get back to work if this is what you want to do. That was one of those gut-check moments where I didn’t want to give up on the dream.”

Hogan hasn’t stopped yet. Rewind that season of Hard Knocks and you’ll notice that pretty much everyone else on that Dolphins’ practice field is no longer employed by the NFL.

He willed his way into the Buffalo Bills’ lineup.

He earned a contract in New England and played in three straight Super Bowls.

He seemed to crash to a halt in Carolina and New York before — why not? — giving pro lacrosse a try this offseason. And when Michael Thomas was placed on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, the New Orleans Saints placed a call. Ironically enough, the team’s assistant GM (Jeff Ireland) was the GM of that Dolphins team that didn’t give Hogan a shot to begin with. Surely, Ireland and GM Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton all know that the Saints could use Hogan, too.

This is a roster built to win the Super Bowl. Drew Brees has retired but, no, the Saints never braced for a massive rebuild at any point as the future Hall-of-Famer’s arm faded the last few years. They, instead, re-signed all of their core pieces to long-term deals. They, instead, likely believe there’s a chance to upgrade at QB with Jameis Winston 2.0.

Alvin Kamara is one the best playmakers of this generation.

This defense remains loaded.

They simply need another weapon to emerge at wide receiver while Thomas heals. Badly. And more than that? These Saints could use a healthy injection of championship pedigree. No team in the NFL is as mentally calloused as the Saints. No team has endured more heartbreak these last four seasons, only to lift themselves off the canvas, spit in the bucket and win 12 games again. Something’s missing in January. Quite possibly, Chris Hogan is that magic touch the Saints need then.

That may sound outrageous. Hogan was running around with a lacrosse stick in his hands before signing July 28.

But the man’s entire NFL career has been outrageous.

Hogan is a source of hope for every single player fighting like hell to make a roster right now. A decade ago, he was just like all of these faceless camp bodies in all of these preseason games. In due time, Hogan was a Super Bowl hero. Now, he has one more stunt to pull off in the Big Easy. This next challenge may be his toughest yet but, as Hogan says, he’s been “thriving in the chaos” for a decade now.

“That’s what I’ve always done,” Hogan says. “I came into this league and no one knew who I was. My expectations for myself were always high to earn a spot no matter where I was and to just work as hard as possible. I come in and try to take advantage of every opportunity I get. I’ve been around for a while so I’ve seen a lot of things to help these younger guys and try to be as good of a leader as I can. I can do offense, special teams, I’m willing to do whatever it takes. That’s how I’ve been able to last in this league.”

To recap, here’s that career of survival in 15 seconds or less…

  • A, uh, well, Caucasian wide receiver who played mostly defense at Monmouth University—catching all of 12 passes — initially catches the eyes of NFL scouts at the 2011 Fordham Pro Day where he runs a 4.47 in the 40-yard dash, kills the speed drills and bench-presses 225 pounds 28 times. The 49ers sign him, cut him. The Giants sign him, cut him. Joe Philbin sees the very best of Hogan in Miami and decides to pass.

  • Hogan spends four years in Buffalo. After biding his time for two seasons, he breaks out as a solid No. 3 on a run-first, run-always team. And in that final season, 2015, Hogan grits through an excruciating wrist injury. The pain’s so bad the final month that Hogan downs Nyquil just to sleep at night. When the Bills show no interest in re-signing Hogan, he reverts back to “7-Eleven” mode in the 2016 offseason by waking up at 4 a.m. every morning to work out. His wife’s still in his ear. He inks a deal in New England.

  • All of the sacrifice pays off. Whenever the stakes are highest, he delivers. In the ’16 AFC Championship, he torches Pittsburgh for 180 yards on nine receptions with two scores. That 180 spot is the most ever for an undrafted receiver in the playoffs. In that year’s Super Bowl, he made the clutchest of clutch catches this side of Julian Edelman against Atlanta. The next year, he has six grabs for 128 yards in a Super Bowl loss. The next, his one-handed catch on third down with six minutes left keeps a drive alive in the AFC Championship at Arrowhead Stadium. Then, he wins one more ring. Everyone else’s loss is Tom Brady’s gain. He believes in 7-Eleven.

  • The Panthers sign Hogan in 2019. His season ends with a knee injury. The Jets sign him in 2020. His season ends with a high ankle sprain. He catches 22 passes in 12 games between the two teams.

Share Go Long with Tyler Dunne

And that, we all assumed, was The End for Chris Hogan.

Only, it wasn’t.

Hogan first threw himself back into lacrosse this offseason, a sport he hadn’t played since starring at Penn State 2007-10. Nobody in the NFL was calling, lacrosse was such a passion back then, so he figured why the hell not? Hogan had a chance to go to camp with the Cannons of the Premier Lacrosse League and decided to for it. If an NFL team called in a few months, great. If not, that was fine. He insists he didn’t stress about it.

Mostly because Hogan didn’t have time to stress about it. He was too busy pouring all of his energy back into lax.

Of course, a huge reason he even was given the chance to try out was his NFL success but Hogan also insists nothing was given to him with the Cannons. He had to bust ass just to make the team.

“I had to work to get a spot,” Hogan says. “The second the season was over for football, the stick was in my hands. And I was training like I was training for football. It was something I had to do every single day and I worked hard at it. I prepared myself as much as I could going into training camp so I could earn the roster spot. I had a week to do it. I played well enough to earn one.”

In college, Hogan was an offensive midfielder who led the Nittany Lions with 34 points on 29 goals and five assists in ’09.

In the PLL, a decade-plus later, coaches plugged him in as a defensive middie. The idea of playing defense forced Hogan to change his mindset as an athlete and the game, in general, had a changed a ton, too. He admits his head was “spinning” but says he was making progress while appearing in three games.

Then, the Saints found out Thomas wouldn’t be playing football any time soon.

Hogan was ready to go. Mainly because he’s always seen a ton of crossover between the two sports.

“The agility. The physicality of playing at middie and playing receiver. The eye-hand coordination. Cuts. Everything,” Hogan says. “The crossover is, you could be doing one or the other and training for the same sport. There’s a certain skill level you need in lacrosse and a certain skill level you need at receiver. That’s the only difference — one you have a stick in your hands, the other you’re catching a football. There’s such a huge crossover. That’s why it was easier for me to transition from one to the other.”

All signs point toward Hogan making the team and they’ll need him on Sundays, too.

This is a young receiving corps missing it’s No. 1 guy.

And this is also a team that’s endured a ton of postseason trauma from the Minneapolis Miracle… to the Nickell Robey-Coleman DPI that wasn’t flagged… to losing to Kirk Cousins in OT… to last season’s divisional playoff loss at home vs. Tampa Bay. If Jared Cook doesn’t fumble? The Saints could’ve been in the Super Bowl against the Chiefs. For four straight years, New Orleans fielded a roster capable of winning it all and — each time — were punched directly in the gut.

Their resilience is remarkable but, also, something’s missing.

And that something may be that lacrosse player falling right into their laps at the 11th Hour.

Hogan spent all three of those seasons in New England shining in do-or-die moments. Whenever the entire world’s watching, he enters the calmest of calm spaces.

There are no 28-3 stories to tell in New England without Chris Hogan.

That epic drive that tied the game at 28-28 began deep in New England’s own end. On third and 10, from the nine, with 3:17 to go, Brady lofted a completion to Hogan between two defenders. That following offseason, Keanu Neal wasn’t shy. You could tell that play truly haunted him. When we met in Atlanta that summer in ‘17, Neal said knew what was coming and failed to close on the ball.

Says Hogan: “These are the moments, right? These are the moments I’ve worked my butt off for — for however many years — to get to these spots, these moments in games. If a guy like Brady is going to trust me to win my route, get open and catch the football on third and 10 in a Super Bowl, I’ve got to get it going. You know? By no means am I nervous. That’s all the hard work I’ve put in throughout the years. To be in those positions, is nothing short of amazing.”

He remembers that entire Super Bowl like it was yesterday, one that’ll easily go down as one of the greatest games ever. Inside the locker room at halftime, nobody panicked even though everything was going wrong.

This was as bad as the Patriots had played all season. The calm was striking.

“No one wavered,” he says. “No one was getting mad at each other. We just had to go out there, buckle up our chinstraps a little bit tighter and try to make some plays. As soon as we started making plays, that energy started coming back to our team. It was so much fun to be a part of.”

Momentum is 100 percent real. Don’t let anyone in analytics tell you otherwise. Hogan could feel it that night in Houston and, by God, was that a powerful sensation coursing through his veins. “That energy,” he says, “you cannot deny it.” And that energy is what he hopes he can help bring to New Orleans.

He should’ve been a never-was, a pointless HBO character long forgotten on par with Rickon Stark. Now, Hogan’s perspective can matter, even as a No. 4 or No. 5 receiver in town.

The key? Pointing the finger at yourself this time of year.

“You’ve got to hold yourself accountable to everything you’re doing,” Hogan says. “Going out there and just making plays and taking advantage of the opportunities — because they don’t come very often.”

And to get to that Super Bowl moment, he knows you also need to blast through adversity.

Those Patriots teams encountered plenty those three seasons, too.

“You’ve got to be able to ride the ups and deal with the downs,” he says. “How you respond to those tougher times, those tougher games — you’re going to lose a game in the NFL. How you respond to those types of situations, you’ve got to keep grinding through the season. Because it’s a long season. To get to the playoffs, it’s very tough.”

There’s no vengeance in his voice.

No grenades to toss at Miami, Buffalo, Carolina, any team that moved on at any point.

Simply, he relishes that chaos.

That manic second half vs. Atlanta. That fight to the finish vs. Philly. When it’d be easy to clam up Hogan sincerely does not get nervous. He wants the ball. He views that specific moment as the culmination of all those camp practices in Miami, those 4 a.m. wake-up calls, etc. And right when it seemed like his expiration date has passed, the Saints gave him a call.

Last week at practice, Winston hit Hogan for an 80-yard touchdown. Tonight, on Monday Night Football, there’s a good chance he can lock up a role in this offense.

It’s the preseason. Not quite a Super Bowl. But he has always treated everything exactly the same.

“I came into this league and no one knew who I was,” Hogan says. “My expectations for myself were always high to earn a spot no matter where I was and to just work as hard as possible and earn the opportunity and be grateful for the opportunity to be out there playing this game.”

Listen to that kid in No. 81 fighting for a roster spot on HBO. He said then that —as an UDFA — he has to catch every ball thrown his way and be someone that coaches can trust.

The truth is, not much has changed in nine years.

“I’m still fighting for a job,” Hogan says. “Nothing’s guaranteed in this league.”