New Orleans Saints Year in Review: Why 2010 Ended Differently Than 2009
For Saints fans, it's time now to move on.
It's been a week since the "Shocker in Seattle." A week has passed since Marshawn Lynch ripped the hearts out of Saints fans everywhere with his spectacular run.
No more pouting, no more shouting. No more ifs, ands, or buts.
Now is a time to reflect on the season whose last chapter has already been written.
I am taking a position by position look at 2010's Saints, comparing them to 2009, and then looking toward 2011 (assuming there is one).
Drew Brees is the clear MVP of this team. He was at or near the top in almost every major statistical category, throwing for over 4,000 yards for the fifth straight season. Brees engineered five game-winning drives this season.
Whether it was defensive schemes or receivers dropping the ball, Brees did not have nearly the same big-play success he had last year. He had 11 fewer completions over 20 yards this year than in 2009, while throwing the ball 144 more times.
Brees averaged 7.0 yards per attempt, his second-lowest output since arriving in New Orleans. He averaged 8.5 yards per attempt in 2009.
Twenty-two interceptions. As much of a perfectionist as Brees is, you know he's still lamenting each and every one of those picks.
In the beginning of the season, it seemed Brees placed a lot of unnecessary pressure upon himself to break the "Super Bowl hangover." Many of his interceptions were forced throws that should have just been tossed out of bounds.
In Week 3 against the Falcons, he threw a Favre-like underhanded pass as he was falling down when he should have just taken the sack and settled for the field goal.
Don't change much. The high number of pass plays was out of necessity and not design. I trust that Brees will take a look at each one of his 22 picks and see how many uncharacteristically dumb throws he made.
I think it's likely he makes adjustments and get the interception total under 18 next year.
There were some games in which the offensive line was dominant. In the first game against Tampa Bay, the line kept Brees' jersey clean on each of his 32 pass attempts. The linemen also paved the way for Chris Ivory's 158-yard day.
Left guard Carl Nicks played at a high level all season long.
Jahri Evans and Jonathan Stinchcomb, both Pro Bowl selections a year ago, combined for more than 20 penalties in 2010. Evans was highly regarded as the best guard in football but was far from dominant this year, despite being voted to the Pro Bowl for a second straight year.
Both left and right tackle. I've already touched upon right tackle Stinchcomb, so let's move to left tackle Jermon Bushrod.
Bushrod is charged with protecting Brees' blind side but too often allowed defensive ends and linebackers to blind side him. In the two seasons that Bushrod has started at left tackle, Brees has had his two highest fumble totals.
Too often, the offensive line could not adequately protect Brees against a three-man rush.
Promote second-year tackle Charles Brown to the starter's position. The second-round draft pick is said to have excellent pass blocking technique, but, at 6'5" 297 lbs, lacked ideal bulk. With two NFL offseasons to train, he should be ready by September (or whenever the season eventually starts).
Chris Ivory emerged as the Saints' latest undrafted gem. The rookie out of Tiffin University led the team in rushing yards. The Saints were 5-1 when he carried the ball at least 12 times and 3-0 when he scored a touchdown.
Even when the Saints running backs were healthy (more on that in a second), the screen game was almost non-existent. New Orleans was lethal with the screen pass last year, but teams seemed to figure out when it was coming and where it was going this year.
The top three running backs from a year ago combined to miss 22 regular season games, and Pierre Thomas and Ivory each were placed on injured reserve prior to the playoffs.
Consequently, two running backs, Ladell Betts and Julius Jones, were each signed off the streets to carry the ball at least 45 times.
Reggie Bush is due $11.8 million next year—cut him. He is a decoy and a third down back.
Re-sign Pierre Thomas. He is the best overall back the Saints have had since Deuce McAllister (2006 edition). Thomas is underrated as an inside runner and works the screen game as well as anyone (see Super Bowl XLIV touchdown).
Bring back Chris Ivory (he's still under contract for the league minimum) and keep an extra running back on the 53-man roster.
I am not a proponent of drafting a running back, especially early in the draft, unless there's an Adrian Peterson-type available. The Saints have proven that quality running backs can be signed as college free agents. New Orleans owns four of the first 92 picks in the draft and can take the opportunity to improve their defense.
Marques Colston and Lance Moore combined for 15 touchdowns and nearly 100 first downs. In total, Saints wide outs combined for 235 catches, nearly 3,000 yards, and 21 touchdowns. As badly as the running backs were hit with injury, the top four wide receivers missed just one game combined.
Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem both seemed to regress this season. Both lacked the explosive plays that was a staple of their games in previous seasons.
Henderson had his lowest catch total since 2007, and Meachem's touchdown total was barely more than half of last year's.
The Saints went 4-3 in the first seven games. In those games, Colston, Meachem, and Henderson combined for four touchdowns. They simply did not pick up the slack when injuries left the Saints without much of a running game.
Allow Adrian Arrington to seriously push Meachem and Henderson for playing time. In his first career NFL game, Arrington caught seven passes for 79 yards.
Otherwise, I wouldn't change a thing. The receiving corps is still young and relatively cheap. Brees has fantastic chemistry with Colston and Moore.
Rookie Jimmy Graham was a revelation at tight end this season. The third-round pick was targeted just once in the first five weeks, but finished the season with 31 catches and five touchdowns. Once Graham earns the starting job for good, he will be on the fast path the the Pro Bowl.
Jeremy Shockey has missed at least three games in a season every year since he arrived in New Orleans and his production is starting to suffer.
In his first two seasons as a Saint, Shockey converted 60 percent of his catches into first downs. This year, barely more than half moved the chains.
The Saints lack depth at the tight end position, with Shockey seeming to deteriorate and David Thomas becoming a free agent. New Orleans also doesn't possess a blocking tight end, something they supplemented with the large but heavy-footed back up tackle Zach Strief.
Make Jimmy Graham the starting tight end. I'm not exaggerating when I say that he can become the next Antonio Gates.
He's super athletic, has great hands, and has the same college basketball background. Allow David Thomas to explore free agency and find a tight end to serve primarily as a blocker.
Sedrick Ellis quietly had a fantastic 2010. The interior lineman led the team with six sacks and forced two fumbles while facing numerous double teams. He stayed healthy all year after missing nine games in his first two years.
No matter how you slice it, the Saints were an average team in stopping the run. They were in the middle third of the league in yards per game, yards per rush, rushing touchdowns, and first downs allowed.
The Saints need to improve against the run to force more third-and-long situations and give the ball back to the offense.
The two games against Atlanta illustrate this well. In Week 3, the Falcons rolled up 202 yards and hogged the ball for over 45 minutes, amassing 25 first downs. In Week 16, the Falcons totaled just 75 yards rushing and 14 first downs, holding on to the ball for just 23 minutes.
The pass rush was less than desired. Just in case you missed it a second ago, an interior lineman led the Saints in sacks. Unless you have the 2000 version of La'Roi Glover (17 sacks), interior linemen should not lead your team in tackling the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage.
When you blitz as much as the Saints do, you need to record more than 33 sacks in a year.
Get an edge pass rusher with speed. There were 10 games last year in which the Saints didn't get a sack from a starting defensive end. New Orleans needs a pass rusher who demands the attention of the entire offensive line.
Jonathan Vilma is in the Pro Bowl for a second consecutive season. Vilma has led the team each year he has been in New Orleans. The Saints backup middle linebacker, Marvin Mitchell, had his best season as a professional.
Jonathan Casillas, an outside linebacker who showed tremendous promise in the preseason, didn't make it to the regular season after suffering a foot injury.
New Orleans got very little from its outside linebackers. For the third time in four seasons, Scott Shanle did not have a sack. In fact, all of the outside linebackers combined for just one sack and two forced fumbles.
Acquiring fast, athletic outside linebackers with decent coverage skills should be the No. 1 priority for the Saints. Shanle is a free agent and should be allowed to test the market, especially if he gets offered a similar contract to what former Saint Scott Fujita got from the Browns.
Danny Clark will be 34 next year and isn't more than a backup. Jo-Lonn Dunbar is worth keeping because of his youth and he's an asset on run downs.
New Orleans allowed the fourth fewest pass yards per game, while also ranking first in passing touchdowns allowed and second in percentage of passes that resulted in first downs. Somehow, though, none of that translated to postseason success.
New Orleans made just nine interceptions one year after Darren Sharper collected nine interceptions all by himself. Malcolm Jenkins and Jabari Greer tied for the team lead with just two each.
The secondary, playing without Jenkins, got torched for 272 yards, four touchdowns, and three completions of at least 38 yards in the wild-card loss to Seattle.
It's time to move in a new direction at strong safety. Roman Harper is unrestricted as a free agent but is restricted in his ability to cover a receiver or a tight end.
I, for one, like the team's talent and depth at cornerback. Only twice did a receiver manage 100 yards against this secondary, with one of the times being tight end Tony Gonzalez. Jabari Greer, Tracy Porter, and Patrick Robinson are a formidable trio.
They are forced into a lot of man coverage and don't allow many big plays. My biggest knock on them is that they miss too many games.
For those of you who are ready to get rid of Jabari Greer, two words: Jason David.
It's never a good sign when starting with the punter but that's where we're are, unfortunately. Thomas Morstead improved his gross and net punting averages by more than two yards. He was the only consistent member of this not-so-special unit.
Garrett Hartley made his last 10 field goal attempts.
The return units consistently failed to flip the field and give the Saints good field position. They ranked 15th in kickoff returns and 23rd in punt returns. Neither type of return produced a touchdown and the longest kickoff return was just 39 yards.
Despite being early in the season, Hartley's 29-yard miss in overtime against the Falcons in Week 3 completely re-shaped the season for the Saints.
If they win that game, both teams finish 12-4, the Saints win the NFC South and the number one seed, and are perhaps on their way to host the Bears in the NFC Championship Game.
Stick with Hartley despite the early-season heart break. He rebounded to miss just one field goal in his last 10 games. The more pressing need is in the return game. They need a game-breaker who won't fumble. The middle of the draft is a good place to find one.