The New Orleans Saints bested all comers in the first three weeks of the season. On Monday Night Football, though, they played host to a Miami Dolphins squad boasting the same undefeated record—and the NFL's fourth-ranked scoring defense.
After three quarters, the Saints were leading, 35-10, and putting their fourth win in the cooler.
Drew Brees had an almost perfect night. Darren Sproles hurt the Dolphins in all three phases of the game. Jimmy Graham was every bit as beastly as his 6'7", 265-pound frame appears. Even newcomer Ben Watson got involved in the scoring.
The Saints put up an awful lot of points last season, with all the same players in all the same roles. Nevertheless, the return of head coach Sean Payton has elevated the unit to incredible, incredibly dangerous new levels.
Though the Denver Broncos have a more balanced, consistent approach, the unique weapons on the Saints roster—and Payton's genius in maximizing them—makes the Saints offense the most dangerous in the NFL.
The Tao of Drew
Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael did a fine job in relief of the suspended Payton last season, making sure the wide-open Saints kept all their energy flowing through Brees. The Saints, though, weren't quite as efficient in 2012 as they'd been with Payton at the chalkboard.
Brees put up his lowest completion percentage (63.0 percent) and joint-highest sack rate (3.7 percent) since coming to New Orleans in 2006, per Pro Football Reference. He also led the NFL in interceptions, with 19.
In 2013, excellence again seems to come easy to Brees. Given a pressure-packed Monday Night Football matchup against the toughest defense the Saints have yet faced, Brees completed 30-of-39 passes for 413 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions.
There's an idea in Taoism called wu-wei, effortless action. When Payton and Brees are at their best—they were against the Dolphins—Brees can tear defenses to shreds with apparently effortless dump-offs; he launches soaring deep balls with the same glacial calm he flicks bubble screens.
Throughout the game against the Dolphins, Brees naturally progressed from the former to the latter.
He began the game moving the chains by passing horizontally to Sproles and possession receiver Marques Colston. He then progressed to attacking the sideline with bubble screens to Sproles and outside-breaking routes to Colston and Graham. Finally, as the Dolphins tried to cover the width and depth of the field with two-deep zones, Graham gashed them down the seam:
Throughout, Brees appeared to be doing nothing more than taking what the defense was giving him—whether the Dolphins were giving him a six-yard dump-off or 60-yard bomb.
Besides Sproles' and Graham's triple-digit receiving performances, Colston caught seven passes for 96 yards. Watson caught his first touchdown pass in the Big Easy. Five different Saints caught at least four passes, and eight different Saints caught at least one.
All this, and the Saints offense still left points on the table. Sproles lost a fumble, and kicker Garrett Hartley missed a 43-yard field goal in the third quarter. The Saints could, and arguably should, have put up more than 38 points.
After this stunning performance, Brees is on pace to complete 66.9 percent of his passes for an NFL-record 5,736 yards, 40 touchdowns and just 16 interceptions on 664 attempts. That'd be a career-high 8.64 yards-per-attempt average for Brees, never a slouch in that department.
The Te of Darren
Sproles, listed at 5'6" (and even that may be generous), is not a prototypical every-down back. Traditional NFL group-think maintained that a back so small couldn't withstand a full diet of touches—or at least not a full season of them—and a back who couldn't do it all couldn't do it at all.
Against the Dolphins, Sproles indeed had just four carries for 28 yards.
That hardly describes Sproles' contributions, though; one of those carries was a five-yard touchdown run during which he wasn't touched. Sproles also had seven catches for 114 yards and a second score:
Though Sproles ought to be too small to punish this sturdy Dolphins defense, he possesses great te—another Taoist concept, interpreted as power or virtue. His quickness, suddenness and vision make him almost impossible to catch out in the open; even when caught, his pound-for-pound strength and low center of gravity make him difficult to bring down.
Still, Sproles, also the Saints kick and punt returner, wasn't often used as a between-the-tackles back. That's not because he isn't able to run conventionally at an acceptable level, though; it's because that would require using an important piece of Payton's offense in a non-optimal way.
That said, the Saints may have to find a back who can carry a workhorse's load if they want to keep winning like this. Once the Saints tried to run the clock out, their inability to play conventionally became apparent.
The 5'11", 215-pound Pierre Thomas had four carries for one yard. The 6'0", 220-pound rookie Khiry Robinson had 12 carries for 37 yards, including one 11-yarder. Add in Brees' four attempts for two yards, and the Saints averaged a miserable 2.83 yards per carry.
The genius of Payton, though, is that he knows exactly how to utilize players like Sproles. Payton never asks Sproles to do anything at which he doesn't excel, and Payton never exposes Sproles to unnecessary risk. Sproles showed flashes of play like this in San Diego, but—like Brees—wasn't anywhere near this dangerous until he played for Payton.
If the downside of this unconventional usage is that Sproles has to watch from the sideline while lesser players battle it out for garbage-time reps in blowout victories, so be it.
The Path Forward
Four weeks into the season, Payton and the New Orleans Saints are 4-0.
Brees is playing as if he's again in harmony with the football universe, and Sproles and Graham are impossible-to-defend mismatches for almost any defense.
Though the Saints may not have the most balanced, most consistent offense in the NFL, they've proved that at their best, they can achieve an enlightened state of effortless effectiveness no other unit can—and no defense can interfere with.
As Payton's inspired play-calling and leadership chart the path forward for the Saints, it's hard to envision anything but a return to the top of the NFC South—and perhaps, a return to the Super Bowl.