Despite leading the NFL in points and yards, the New Orleans Saints had a significant offensive weakness in 2008. They struggled to pick up first downs in short-yardage situations, particularly when power running back Deuce McAllister was not on the field.
While they tried to fix their leaky defense in the offseason, the only significant move they made in the running game was releasing McAllister, whose damaged knees kept him from being an every-down back. They are gambling that holdovers Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush will pick up the tough yards they weren’t able to get in crucial situations last season.
That liability might have cost the Saints a playoff spot, contributing to two excruciating losses in consecutive weeks after they beat the Tampa Bay Bucs to open the season.
Trying to protect a 24-22 lead at Washington with a little more than four minutes left, they handed the ball to Thomas on 3rd-and-1 at their own 37-yard line. He hesitated, got caught from the backside, and was tackled for no gain.
A first down would have forced the Redskins to use their timeouts and put the Saints in position to run out the clock if they moved the chains one more time.
Instead, they punted. Santana Moss caught a 67-yard touchdown pass on the next play, and the Redskins won, 29-24.
A week later, the Saints faced a 3rd-and-1 at the Denver 24 with 2:19 left, trailing by a 34-32 score. They gave the ball to Thomas again, and he was dropped for a 1-yard loss.
With a first down, they could have milked the clock and attempted a chip-shot field goal in the final seconds.
Instead, they settled for a 43-yard attempt by unreliable kicker Martin Gramatica at the two-minute warning. It went wide right.
Just like that, New Orleans was 1-2 instead of 3-0. The Saints never were more than a game over .500 the rest of the way.
Unless New Orleans signs a late, available free agent like Edgerrin James, an unlikely move at this point, the solution will have to come from within. The list of running backs on the summer roster includes Mike Bell, Lynell Hamilton and undrafted free agents P.J. Hill and Herb Donaldson, but Thomas and Bush are the only serious candidates.
Thomas is a better bet than Bush, who is stronger in open space than tight quarters.
Thomas says he has increased his weight from 215 pounds to 225. He averaged 4.8 yards a carry last season, a yard better than Bush. He should benefit from the experience he gained as a featured back for the first time, leading the Saints with 625 rushing yards.
He watched how McAllister picked a spot and plowed into the line to pick up first downs when Payton started using him more in the second half of the season.
As good as the offense is, the Saints cannot afford similar breakdowns this year. Payton lost so much confidence in short-yardage situations that he called for an end around to wide receiver Devery Henderson on 4th-and-1 from the Tampa Bay 30 on the first series of a November meeting between the teams.
Henderson was pushed out of bounds three yards behind the line of scrimmage. The Saints lost that game, too, 23-20.
Saints fans screamed for McAllister in short-yardage situations all year. Then they screamed at Payton when the plays failed while McAlister stood on the sideline.
If chants of “Deuuuuuce” are still reverberating around the Superdome this season, we’ll know the Saints should have upgraded at running back.
If McAllister’s name never gets mentioned, the offense will have solved its only trouble spot.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!