After two straight non-winning seasons, New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton knew he needed to try something different.
Even though his offense led the league in total yards and points per game in 2008, it still had its share of shortcomings.
The Saints were slow starters. They scored just 13.6 percent (63/463) of their points in the first quarter.
Much of their yardage and points came only after trailing by multiple scores.
Two games from 2008 really stand out to confirm this.
The first one was a 34-32 loss to Denver.
At first glance, you see that Drew Brees threw for over 400 yards. Dig deeper and you notice that the Saints trailed 21-3 in the second quarter and needed a furious comeback just to have a chance to win.
The second game was a similar contest against Carolina.
Again the Saints lose by just two points, this time 33-31. Brees throws for 386 yards and four touchdowns.
Look closely, though, and you'll see that Brees needed 49 passes to accomplish this personal feat. The Saints trailed 23-3 in the second quarter before briefly taking a 31-30 lead late in the game.
This is not to say that the Saints' offense wasn't good in 2008. It was. It just wasn't as good as some analysts will have you think.
Here's What's Changed
Coach Payton has found that the key to a consistently good offense is balance in play calling.
The Saints are running the ball more than they ever have under Sean Payton and it is paying off.
2006: 56/44 (10-6)
2007: 63/37 (7-9)
2008: 62/38 (8-8)
2009: 48.7/51.3 (5-0 through six weeks)
Points per game
2006: 25.8 (Fifth in the NFL)
2007: 23.7 (10th)
2008: 28.9 (First)
2009: 38.4 (First - through six weeks)
One thing that I quickly noticed was that the Saints' offense was at its worst when they passed the ball the most often.
New Orleans has scored 45, 48, 27, 24, and 48 points in five games this season. More importantly, the Saints are scoring early in games.
The Saints have scored 25 percent (48/192) of their points in the first quarter, which is nearly double their output last year.
Incredibly, the new pass/run ratio has helped Brees become an even better quarterback.
He hasn't had to force any passes, and defenses now must respect the play-action fake and prepare for a running attack that's averaging about 160 yards per game.
Even though he is on pace to throw for about 600 yards fewer than he did last year, he is on track to throw for more touchdowns and fewer interceptions than ever in New Orleans.
2009 projected stats: 4,480 yards, 42 touchdowns, and just six interceptions.
When It All Changed
Many observers and analysts seem to think coach Payton had his epiphany during the offseason when he tinkered with the idea of bringing in Edgerrin James before ultimately sticking with Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush, Mike Bell, and Lynell Hamilton.
I say they're wrong. I think the light switch went on near the end of last season.
The 6-5 Saints headed into Tampa Bay with slight playoff hopes.
But even though the game was played on a rain-soaked field, Payton called 48 pass plays and just 18 running plays. That kind of ratio suggests that the Saints were getting blown out and needed to catch up early.
The game, however, was close throughout as neither team led by more than 10 points as the Saints ultimately lost by three and fell to 6-6 and all but out of the playoff chase.
Payton called a new kind of game the following week against Atlanta.
The Saints called 32 pass plays and 30 run plays as the team accumulated 184 yards on the ground and pulled out a thrilling 29-25 victory.
I think Payton kept those two weeks in the forefront of his mind as he prepared for this season.
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