I have read a some 2009 season prediction-based articles from people who are all obviously at least familiar with the overall strength and competitive nature of the modern day NFC South, but still outside the inner circle of the Saints faithful mind you, where the consensus seems to be in full support of the Falcons winning the division. They also either have the Panthers or the Saints (the majority going with Carolina) winning a wild card berth with both of these teams' respective predicted final records falling somewhere just short of the Dirty Birds' predicted final record.
General consensus among these articles' writers also seems to be unanimously in favor of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers being heavily into “rebuilding” mode and, barring the completely unforeseen (which tends to be more of a rule than an exception to it in this particular division as of late), pretty much out of contention as a possible playoff participant for the 2009 season at least.
I am noticing that many of these articles' predictions are being based fairly heavily on just a few common factors. Numbers posted by the teams in this division from last season are a big consideration for many of these predictions, as are the teams' 2009 draft picks as well as any coaching and/or scheming changes made and their offseason personnel moves via free agency up to this point.
This all makes perfect sense to me (what else are you going to base your predictions for a team's next season on anyway, right?) but I am also noticing that all of these articles are biased, at least in some small part, to one team or another's favor.
While all four of the teams in this division each have a fairly significant laundry list of question marks heading into this brand new season, these authors in question all seem to place a higher significance on the questions surrounding the Buccaneers and the Saints than they do either of the other two participating teams for whatever reasons.
A major factor affecting the authors' predictions appears to be in full agreement among all of them with respect to the Saints' running game with Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas the obvious heirs apparent to the team's current offensive backfield which will permanently be missing the familiar number 26 for the first time after the eight straight seasons prior to this one.
As far as the questions regarding the Saints' offensive backfield, I truly think the issue has already been successfully addressed, at least in part, with the acquisition of free agent FB Heath Evans to replace released FB Mike Karney in that department.
Evans just fits like a glove into Sean Payton's offensive game-plans whereas Karney didn't and had been used less often over the last three seasons.
In 2005, Karney played in all 16 games and started in 14 of those under Head Coach Jim Haslett (used much more often as a blocking FB with six carries for 12 yards and 10 receptions for 61 yards with no TD's).
In his 2006 season, he played in 15 games starting in only 7 for the first year under Head Coach Sean Payton (with 11 carries for 33 yards and 15 receptions for 96 yards with 2 TD's).
Then in his 2007 season, he played in all 16 games again starting in only 9 (with 11 carries for 17 yards and 13 receptions for 78 yards with no TD's).
Finally, in his 2008 and last season with the Saints, he played in just 12 games starting in only 8 (with 8 carries for just 10 total yards and 9 receptions for a total of only 18 yards with no TD's).
I also believe that the Saints already have the personnel needed to get the job done at the RB position this season with a healthy and well rehabbed Reggie Bush and a fully inspired Pierre Thomas both primed and ready to lead the way.
It is pretty much a given around the league that Reggie has yet to prove to anyone that he can be a consistent and reliable lead role-player at the RB position in the NFL. For that reason, I look for him to come running hard out of the gate with a huge chip on his shoulder in a quest to prove all the critics wrong once and for all.
Bush has not only been seen in attendance much nearer to 100 percent of the time than ever before in his career in the Saints' offseason training program but also has been commented to by his fellow teammates that he essentially “might want to save some (of his intense effort) for the upcoming season.”
In a similar way, there are many still unanswered questions around the league as to whether or not Pierre Thomas can carry the load of an every down back on his shoulders for all 16 games in a single season. He also seems fully determined to come forward and show that the answer to those questions is a resounding “Yes He Can!”.
There are four other potential stallions in the Saints' barn waiting to be released at training camp this summer to try and make the squad with the final two spots remaining behind Reggie and Pierre. They are Mike Bell, Lynell Hamilton, Herb Donaldson and P J Hill.
Mike Bell went undrafted in 2006 but was still able to make a mark in his rookie season as a free agent with the Denver Broncos with 15 games played in (three started) where he posted 157 carries for 677 yards (4.3 yard average) and 20 receptions for 158 yards (7.9 yard average).
For whatever reasons, Bell was never given a full opportunity with the Broncos under Head Coach Mike Shanahan to truly shine as the featured back being released on July 21, 2008 after a less than stellar sophomore season in Denver.
He was picked up 10 days later by the Houston Texans but then waived again only a week after that. Bell then sat and watched the rest of the league play without him for most of the 2008 season until the Saints signed him to replace Aaron Stecker who went on IR in November of last year.
Now with a whole offseason to get himself back into an NFL training routine and get himself focused on his second chance in this league with the Saints, I look for Mike Bell to come into camp like a man on fire with a lot to prove in his own right.
Lynell Hamilton has wowed the Saints front office with his work after being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2008 and spending his rookie season on the practice squad. Hamilton also seems primed to make a strong showing in camp this summer in his second attempt to make it to the final 53 man squad in 2009.
Hamilton's size is impressive at 6'0” 230 pounds and he runs with a level of power, speed, explosiveness and confidence that could translate well to the between-the-tackles style of back that the Saints are missing with the departure of Deuce McAllister this offseason.
I look for the competition for the four, at most, spots on the active roster at running back to be intensified ten-fold or better on top of these four already somewhat NFL experienced players, three of whom went undrafted all of whom have something to prove, by the Saints' signings of two more undrafted rookies in Herb Donaldson at 5'10” 226 lbs out of Western Illinois and P J Hill at 5'10” 218 lbs from Wisconsin. Both of these youngsters are also trying to make a mark of their own in the NFL with the Saints in 2009.
The other key factor in the Saints not being a favorite from the NFC South to make the playoffs in these early predictions is the question of whether or not their defense will be able to improve in short order from it's bottom of the basement ranking to at least the middle of the pack with the leadership of a new difference maker of a Defensive Coordinator in Gregg Williams and some new faces in some important places as addressed through free agency and the draft.
It all starts with Gregg Williams whose first words to his fresh-faced defensive players in Saints rookie mini-camp were quoted as being “Knock 'em the ____ out!”. If the Saints new defense's attitude mirrors that of it's Defensive Coordinator through this mission statement of his (as it ideally should), then opposing offenses should be fear-stricken this season when facing New Orleans this season.
Former Pro-Bowl LB Dan Morgan was reinstated on February 12, 2009 to make his NFL comeback after retiring for one year on May 19, 2008 not too long after first signing as a free agent with the Saints. He is reportedly in excellent shape and thriving in the Saints' offseason training program and hopes are high that he will be able to win the starting WLB position alongside Vilma and Scott Fujita.
In terms of defensive player personnel, the Saints started where everyone expected they would by quickly re-signing Jonathan Vilma as their MLB in the first hours of free agent eligibility in early March, 2009 which was a very busy month for the Saints in free agency moves mostly intended to address the defensive side of the ball and give Williams more to work with.
Their next chronologically listed actions were to lure CB Jabari Greer away from the Buffalo Bills as an Unrestricted Free Agent on March 5, followed by the contract termination of CB Mike McKenzie on March 19, the signing of FA DE Paul Spicer (former Jacksonville Jaguar under Gregg Williams' leadership last season) on March 20, the signing of UFA S Darren Sharper (Minnesota Vikings fame) on March 24.
The Saints also signed of UFA S Pierson Prioleau (not only another former Jacksonville Jaguar under Gregg Williams' leadership last season but also a former Washington Redskin under Gregg Williams as DC and a former Buffalo Bill under Gregg Williams as Head Coach) on March 25, the contract termination of S Kevin Kaesviharn the very next day and the signing of FA DT Rod Coleman (former one year retired Atlanta Falcon making his NFL comeback with the Saints) on March 27.
The middle of April saw the re-signing of FA CB Leigh Torrence back onto the Saints roster and the signing of FA LB Anthony Waters (San Diego Chargers) for added defensive depth under Coach Williams and the end of April ushered in the end of an earlier Saints' era with the releases of DT's Brian Young and Hollis Thomas.
Gregg Williams has been known to declare that there essentially are no starters in his defensive line-ups and if a player is wearing a uniform he will see playing time on the field during the game.
Here is what he had to say when he was asked to share some insight into his defensive philosophies as related to his new coaching position with the New Orleans Saints right before the 2009 NFL draft:
“We are going to have multiple, and I mean multiple, defensive looks and packages. I can tell you today that people won’t say the Saints will be a base 4-3 or 3-4 defense. We will look different every single week and maybe even every different defensive series. We may be running six defensive backs out there, maybe four linebackers, who knows? I just want to create mismatches and create havoc.”
Personally speaking, early rankings like this don't bother me one bit and, realistically speaking, they really don't amount to a whole hill of beans in the long run anyway. My belief is that the Saints will use the “Shock and Awe” method of surprise attack on the rest of this division which has apparently underestimated this team's offseason accomplishments through coaching changes, free agent player acquisitions and the draft.
Much like the title of my article suggests, let them all predict Atlanta to win the division and Carolina to earn a wild card berth ahead of New Orleans all they want! The Saints faithful know better that this particular upgraded and improved version of the New Orleans Black and Gold “Bless You Boys” are primed to be the surprise team to beat in the NFC South this year and beyond.
I (we) BELIEVE. I (we) have FAITH. And we will all be signing “Who-dat sey dey gonna beat dem Saints!?!?!?” in unison down in the Big Easy (and wherever else we may be) this January during the 2009/10 playoffs!