Coming off a flat playoff loss to the Bears, the Saints have had two highly anticipated, somewhat exciting, yet ultimately two very disappointing seasons. As with every team, one way or another, the head coach bares the burden for the fate of the team.
Sean Payton got a lot of traction after starting out his Saints tenure successfully. Furthermore, after surviving the once probable departure of the franchise to become the glue, the identity in large part, that kept Southern Louisiana from falling into the abyss of despair post Katrina, Sean Payton has been spared the hyper-scrutiny that is now the norm for his peers.
However, under the radar he shall fly no more. Although the city is still struggling for a host of reasons (I didn't mention Nagin, so you shouldn't either), the new deal for the team to stay in New Orleans, along with the simple passage of time from the impacts on the city in 2005, have allowed the resilient Saints fan base to raise their expectations to a very high level for the coming 2009 season.
There were many dents and worn parts in the Saints machine coming into the off-season. From what we can see at this early stage however, there is reason to optimistic that Coach Payton will have his team prepared for the epic competition that will be the 2009 NFL Super Bowl derby.
The concerns are primarily in the backfield. Of course, every Saints fan knows, and most casual NFL fans came to realize due to the highly chronicled and highly pathetic results of the short yardage 3rd down offense, that the Saints absolutely needed to overhaul their rushing attack.
Deuce is out. He was a great Saint, and deserves nothing but respect and admiration for his job on the field...Thanks Deuce.
Although the personnel wasn't overhauled, I believe the rushing attack will be by the start of the season. There is a lot of speculation about bringing in other backs, but I believe the unheralded former Patriot, Heath Evans, will play a vital role on this team.
There are three things that need to be done to overhaul the rushing attack:
1 - Get a short yardage back. Evans is the man for this. Evans is not a huge bruiser, yet he has the size to get 1-2 yards when you need it on a consistent basis. He has moxy and just enough talent to be the man they need.
2 - Feature Thomas. Payton needs to scheme for and commit to getting Peirre the rock and committing the offense to the run. Of course they will primarily be airing it out, but they need to establish a rushing identity, and that will come by properly using Thomas and Evans.
3 - Acknowledge what Reggie Bush is and what he is not, and use him accordingly. Reggie needs to stay healthy. He works hard and is committed, so lets hope he fares better this year than last regarding his health. Peyton needs to use him exclusively like the Patriots use Kevin Faulk.
If he's in on 1st or 2nd downs, he needs to go in motion, split out to the slot, or loop to the flat to enhance the passing game and widen the spreads of the defensive linemen. On third down you can give him an occasional draw play, but Peyton must give up on trying to make Reggie develop as an inside runner.
If used like Faulk is, he will find some lanes inside on draw plays, but Reggie will be Reggie when in space and when running screens. This will keep the defensive front seven on their heels. This will help Thomas tremendously, keep Reggie on the perimeter, and hopefully keep Reggie healthy.
As I've read many times in the last few months, I must concur that by far the best move the Saints made this off season in regards to the defense is the acquisition of Gregg Williams.
There were significant weaknesses at all three levels of the defense last year. The linebacker situation, with Vilma back in the mix, is serviceable. The secondary was its typical incompetent self last year, as it has been the last few years.
Injuries played a factor, but the talent simply wasn't good enough. Yet the biggest problem in the secondary was that the defensive front's play was shameful. Again, some bumps and bruises slowed Grant and Williams, but the motor, the effort, the pride just didn't seem to be there.
I won't go down the road about complacency after being shown the money, but if these guys don't produce this year under the new coordinator, I surely will have a negative opinion in that vein to write about.
So optimistically, I see Gregg Williams scheming for and motivating successfully Grant and Smith so that they can create some pressure each week and ramp up the teams sack totals dramatically. Obviously, this will make the secondary's jobs much easier. Ellis looks solid and should improve greatly from his rookie campaign.
The two rookies, Jenkins and Vaughn, are going to need to excel and stay healthy for optimal results, but getting Greer and Sharper as well will be a significant improvement in talent and experience over what we've seen in the last few years.
Arnoux unfortunately is hurt, but at least it was at the linebacker spot, and not in the secondary, where their draft was neutralized.
Drafting a skilled directional punter could prove to be a very shrewed move if he pans out. That is a lost art in this game, and I'd love nothing more than to see some punts go out of bounds inside the 10 as opposed to everything bouncing in the middle of the field on the five and just barely crossing into the end zone as the gunner misjudges his timing trying to down the ball.
Over all assessment:
In general, I'd give the Saints an 'A' right now for their offseason moves. A ton of that optimism depends on the the current talent up front being ready to play and committing themselves to the new coordinator, so that his knowledge and experience can be implemented properly. If Grant and Williams don't have outstanding years, and if Ellis doesn't improve, then it will be another disappointing year.
Sean Payton has a rare smile in the picture above. He looks relaxed and confident. His state of mind, confidence level, and leadership, are the second biggest factor in my grade assessment.
He, like Grant and Smith, needs to show up and perform. Payton is a tireless worker, so I'm not comparing him in regards to effort, but he has under achieved, and he needs to win at least one playoff game this season to remain in the unique, resilient, and crazy chocolate city.