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Can New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton Avoid Fate Of Dick Nolan?

George BecnelCorrespondent IMay 11, 2009

CHICAGO - DECEMBER 11:  Head coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints looks on against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on December 11, 2008 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Much has been made of the prolific offense demonstrated by the New Orleans Saints in 2008. That's understandable, considering the Saints finished the season ranked first in the league in points scored, total yards, and passing yards per game.

On their way to an 8-8 finish, the Saints averaged 28.9 points per game, 410.7 total yards, and 311.1 passing yards per game. Quarterback Drew Brees threw for a whopping 5,069 yards.

In 1979, the Saints also finished at 8-8 and featured a high-powered offense. Three years after sitting out the 1976 season with an arm injury, quarterback Archie Manning passed for 3,169 yards. Like Brees in 2008, Manning earned a Pro Bowl invitation following the season.

Brees managed to throw for more than 5,000 yards despite nagging injuries to receiver Marcus Colston. In limited action, Colston still finished with 760 receiving yards. Lance Moore emerged as the the team's top pass-catching threat, hauling in 79 receptions for 928 yards. Reggie Bush added 440 receiving yards out of the backfield.

Manning's big-play receiver in 1979 was Wes Chandler. A former No. 1 pick from the University of Florida, Chandler hauled in 65 passes for 1,069 yards. Henry Childs amassed 846 yards during his Pro Bowl season. One of the top pass-receiving running backs of his era, Tony Galbreath had 484 yards in receptions.

The biggest difference between the two offenses was the running game. The 2008 Saints threw for more than 5,000 yards because they had to. New Orleans finished 28th in rushing, averaging only 99.6 yards per game.

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The team's leading rusher was not the big names like Deuce McAllister and Bush, but Pierre Thomas with 625 rushing yards. Age and injuries played a role in McAllister's limited action in his final year as a Saint. Bush was nagged by injuries as well, but more than anything, he has yet to prove he is an every-down back.

The 1979 Saints had the 2008 squad beat in terms of rushing. Chuck Muncie became the first 1,000-yard rusher in franchise history with 1,198 yards on his way to the Pro Bowl. Galbreath, no slouch as a runner himself, chipped in 708 yards on the ground.

The downfall for both teams came on the defensive side of the football. Injuries and still-pending suspensions for defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant for alleged violations of the league's drug policy hurt the team's pass rush. The linebacking corps was thin and the secondary was porous.

The 1979 Flex defense installed by head coach Dick Nolan featured the likes of defensive tackle Derland Moore, linebacker Joe Federspiel, and Pro Bowl safety Tommy Myers. What proved flexible about the Saints' defense was the ability of opposing offenses to run and pass right through it.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Nolan's squad going into the 1980 season and Payton's club as the 2009 season approaches is perception. The Saints posted a then-best franchise record in 1979 and was seen as an up-and-coming team. Payton's 2008 squad also finished 8-8, but that team was looked upon as being underachievers.

What happened to the 1979-turned-1980 Saints is history. Drug problems and team dissension led to a 1-15 collapse. Defensive lineman Don Reese's drug problems would eventually become infamous in the pages of "Sports Illustrated."

Muncie, long a malcontent, was shipped off to San Diego for a second-round pick by midseason. Many a rat left a sinking ship, if not physically, then certainly through a lack of effort on the field.

Payton's Saints face a much tougher overall schedule in 2009 than they did in 2008, although the NFC South may be weaker than a year ago with Tampa Bay going through a coaching change and personnel purge, Carolina getting older at key positions, and an Atlanta team that is unlikely to sneak up on people.

Can Payton avoid the fate that got Nolan fired after 12 winless games in what proved to be a 1-15 season? All signs point to "Yes." No one foresees a 1-15 season this time around.

Most importantly for Payton, he seems to have more high-quality players on his squad than Nolan had. Perhaps most importantly, the team's management and front office situation is much more stable than it was all those years ago.

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