After a seven-month wait, Judgment Day has arrived for Carl Nicks.
The Pro Bowl lineman of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers said he circled Sunday's matchup against New Orleans on his calendar since the day he departed the Saints as a free agent by signing a five-year, $47.5 million deal that made him the NFL's highest-paid guard.
"A lot of memories, a lot of them good, real good,'' Nicks said of time in New Orleans. "We won a Super Bowl together, set records together. I feel I've played alright here. I haven't given up any sacks, but I can do a lot better in the running game. I'm just excited to play my old team and kind of stick it to them a little bit.''
While the Bucs swooped in aggressively to weaken an NFC South rival in March, the Saints were in no financial position to keep Nicks because they were preoccupied with signing quarterback Drew Brees to a long-term deal.
"Carl is one of the best guards in the NFL – that's why Tampa signed him and stole him from us,'' said Saints interim head coach Aaron Kromer, who has worked as Nicks' position coach in New Orleans. "We still like Carl Nicks. He's a powerful player who is a 1-on-1 matchup win.''
While the Saints (1-4) have replaced Nicks at left guard with veteran Ben Grubbs, the Bucs (2-3) can't say enough about a 6-foot-5, 350-pound mauler blessed with rare athleticism for his size.
"If Carl was as nasty in practice as he is in a game, we'd have a lot of our guys walking around hurt out here,'' Tampa Bay defensive tackle Roy Miller said. "He's got the total package. He can move, he can block and he can finish. He's one of the big reasons the Saints have had so much success. I guess they forgot about that and let him go.''
In four seasons with the Saints, the 27-year-old Nicks emerged as one of the league's premier interior offensive linemen, keeping Brees upright while New Orleans set new offensive standards and won a Super Bowl.
Nicks downplays any notion of hard feelings.
"I'm sure anybody wants someone to fight over them,'' he said of his free-agent defection to the Bucs. "The Saints will bounce back. They can still end up being 12-4. Everyone thinks it was the money, but it really wasn't. The challenge here is to be something the Saints didn't look at me as – a premier player that could be a leader. I try to lead by example and teach young guys how to be pros.''
After admiring Nicks from afar, Tampa Bay center Jeremy Zuttah is enjoying a close-up view whenever he looks to his left.
"He's huge, but he moves like somebody 50 or 60 pounds lighter,'' Zuttah said. "Carl's a quiet leader, not a rah-rah guy. He walks around with a smile, but when the game starts, he's putting people on their backs. I know there are guys on the Saints he played with for years, but when Sunday comes around, all that goes out the window.''
Nicks knows that part of Sunday's task is to keep Brees and that prolific New Orleans attack off the field by controlling the clock and dominating the line of scrimmage.
"I hope we don't throw one single pass,'' Nicks said. "It would be nice.''
After the game, Nicks will shake hands with former teammates and share a few laughs with the triggerman he protected so well before moving on.
"I can't say I was surprised he left,'' Brees said, "just because you knew Carl was going to be the highest-paid guard in the league. You figured there would be a lot of suitors willing to pay him a lot more than maybe we were able to. To watch his growth and maturity here was awesome.
"I'm happy for the opportunity he got. Unfortunately, he goes to a divisional opponent."