Drew Brees and most aspects of the offense are a sure thing and a proven commodity. It’s the more subtle variables—the question marks—and the auxiliary pieces around Brees that will either falter or triumph at key junctures. These pieces will ultimately decide the course of the New Orleans Saints 2009 season.
Here’s a look at five under-the-radar story lines that will have a big impact on the Saints' 2009 campaign.
Inconsistent kicking cost the Saints several close games over the course of the 2008 season.
Martin Gramatica missed two field goals including a 43-yard field goal that would have given the Saints a lead with under two minutes remaining in a Week Three loss to the Broncos. In Week Five, a total of two missed field goals, one that was returned for a score, sealed a 30-27 loss to the Vikings. Expect the field goal unit, now lead by Garrett Hartley, to determine the outcome of a handful of nail-biting games in 2009 as well.
Hartley, signed off the streets, stepped in at midseason after failed experiments with kickers Taylor Mehlhaff (3-for-4 FG and one missed PAA in 2008), Martin Gramatica (6-for-10 FG in 2008), and Olindo Mare, if you want to go back even further. Hartley exceeded expectations making 13-of-13 field goals from short and intermediate range.
Although Hartley was 100 percent last season, fans should question his accuracy, power, and overall dependability. Keep in mind that he only played in eight games. What’s more, Hartley never attempted a field goal over 47 yards and has never attempted a game-tying or game-winning field goal in the NFL.
Question marks remain, and until he plays a full season and actually makes some challenging kicks, how much do we really know about him?
In 2009, Hartley will have an opportunity to answer some of those looming questions but will not be fortunate enough to again kick for 100 percent. Just how much his kicking percentage drops could mean the difference between a division championship and sitting at home in January.
Here’s hoping there’s no sophomore slump, and that Coach Payton can finally stop kicking himself for releasing the man who turned out to be last year's NFC pro-bowl representative, placekicker John Carney.
Bell was cast off from Denver as a result of fumbling the ball away to Chicago in a 2007 matchup at soldier’s field. Coincidentally, Bell was cut from the Broncos on the same day that Saints’ kicker Garrett Hartley was cut from the Broncos.
Bell made his way to New Orleans and is now projected to be the short yardage solution to another ailment that plagued the Saints in 2008. The most glaring example of failure for the Saints' short yardage backs took place in Week Two in a loss to the Washington Redskins.
With four minutes left to play, the Saints held a 24-22 lead and the ball. On a pivotal 3rd-and-1 play, Pierre Thomas was handed the ball but failed to gain the one yard needed that would have allowed the Saints to try to run down the clock and finish the game with a win. Unfortunately, after the failed 3rd-and-1, the Redskins rallied and eventually won the game 29-22.
In 2009, expect the Saints' short yardage running to again be the weak link of the offense. Mike Bell will not get the job done as the problem lies more in the Saints' offensive line than it does in the running backs themselves. The Saints' O-line is designed for pass protection and simply cannot drive defensive lineman off the ball in obvious run situations against a stacked box.
Look for Mike Bell to be held for no gains and losses in critical short yardage plays early in the season. Hopefully these failures won’t be significant enough to cost the Saints any games, as the brutal 2009 schedule will leave little room for error.
Expect Payton to address the situation by calling on Brees to throw more shallow and intermediate passes on 3rd-and-short. This strategy should be more effective and more difficult for opposing defenses to neutralize considering the talent level of the New Orleans' passing game. Keep in mind that Drew Brees has a lofty 117 QB rating on third down, which should be enough to get the job done, more times than not.
I absolutely love what the Saints have done to address their needs in the defensive secondary. Tracy Porter made some nice contributions in his rookie season and will hopefully come back strong after injury. The additions of Sharper, Greer, Jenkins, and Prioleau will solidify the unit. However, probably the biggest improvement the Saints made in their secondary came from the subtractions of anchors and tankers, Kaesviharn and Bullucks.
Despite all the upgrades, for the secondary to be dominant in 2009, they are going to need some help in the form of QB pressures from their defensive ends. Grant and Smith will miss the first four games due to the Starcaps suspension, which will force Bobby McCray and others to step up in their absence.
McCray was a nice surprise in his first year with the Saints, recording a total of six sacks. Six, that’s the same number that grossly over-paid starters Smith and Grant combined for all season long.
Another candidate I expect to see excel is Jeff Charleston. He tallied three sacks while only playing sparingly from midseason. His contributions should be more significant in 2009 with additional opportunities.
Standing at 6’6" and 6’4", McCray and Charleston have the physical tools and the motivation to play well in 2009. Anticipate McCray to hold onto the starting job even after the suspension to Grant and Smith is served, and they return to the team. Smith should regain his starting position while Grant will see a somewhat reduced role.
The added pressure from McCray and others in a new, more aggressive defensive scheme should lead to more sacks, more interceptions, and hopefully more capital W’s.
Expect the replacements to step up in a big way from the start of the season.
There is no doubt that Reggie Bush is an explosive player. He is one who can drastically change the dynamics of a football game in an instant. Anyone who needs proof of that should look to Week Five, 2008 when he returned two punts for touchdowns (almost a third) in the same game against the Minnesota Vikings.
However, over the past two seasons Bush, the player projected to be the next Gayle Sayers, has been unable to stay healthy. In 2007, Bush missed four games after tearing a ligament in his left knee, ending his season. In 2008, Bush missed a total of six games due to a sprained medial collateral ligament which later required micro-fracture surgery.
In '06 Bush never missed any complete games but did miss playing time after Baltimore Raven’s Bart Scott “put a little hot sauce” on Bush’s ankle causing him to leave the field for the day in a one sided 35-22 loss.
After missing significant playing time in both 2007 and 2008, the question isn’t so much if Bush will miss playing time to injury but when he will miss playing time, and how much.
Bush has been off the field in December the last two seasons which is when the Saints will need him the most in 2009. They round out their last five games against two likely NFC playoff contenders the Redskins and Cowboys, as well as three divisional games against NFC South rivals, the Bucs, Panthers, and Falcons.
If Bush is still playing in December, the Saints chances for a successful season increase dramatically. However, if Bush is already on injured reserve, the Saints could be playing simply for pride at that point. And one would have to wonder, with serious injuries and surgeries mounting one after the other, "how much longer can this guy play?"
After shipping the Giants a second and fifth round draft pick, the Saints were dealt disgruntled Tight End Jeremy Shockey. Shockey began 2008 on a high-note, catching six receptions for 54 yards in a Week One victory over the Bucs. In hind sight, opening weekend seems like mirage because over the rest of the year he caught only 50 passes for a career low 483 yards and zero touchdowns.
In addition to his disappointing numbers, he dropped passes, fumbled the ball, missed blocking assignments, and even got chewed out by Saints' Quarterback and consummate professional Drew Brees.
Most reports citing Shockey’s disappointing 2008 season seem to attribute the underproduction to a sports hernia suffered in Week Three. While it’s true that a sports hernia may have limited his athletic capacity, that shouldn’t be an excuse for the numerous mental hiccups and dropped balls. A much more likely explanation for his inconsistency in 2009 was a lack of mental focus, preparation, and above all else, a lack of maturity.
In May 2009, a severe lack of judgment and good sense led to a situation in which Shockey was found lying unconscious while partying at a Las Vegas club amusingly called “Rehab”. Shockey was apparently dehydrated and rushed to a Vegas hospital for treatment. It was never reported what role alcohol played in the event, but one would be naïve to think that it wasn't the driving factor behind the whole mess.
Need more evidence that this guy is lacking in maturity? Just look at the way he found an exit from New York. After refusing to believe that his team won the Super Bowl without him, he essentially boycotted all Super Bowl celebrations, later refused to participate in practices, and essentially demanded to be traded. This all came after years of publicly criticizing his then quarterback, Eli Manning, Coach Tom Coughlin, and GM Jerry Reese.
Obviously Shockey has the physical tools to be a great player, but he needs to prepare himself mentally and commit himself to being a professional. Whether he’s capable of doing that seems highly questionable after years of problematic behavior.
Potentially, he could have a huge season in Sean Payton’s pass-first offense. On the other hand, if he remains inconsistent and underprepared, TE Billy Miller who outplayed Shockey in 2008, may end up getting most of the looks.