A Saints Primer for 2009
Written by Jack Moss
Thursday, 10 September 2009 16:11
|A Saints Primer for 2009|
Caveat Lector: What follows are the “insights” of a lifelong fan and student of professional American football, one who takes the game and its history very seriously—and is not scared or ashamed to allow his ridiculous ride-or-die allegiance to the New Orleans Saints occasionally cloud his judgment.
Not everyone is a die-hard Who Dat, a devotee of the Saints so ardent that, for him or her, the Black and Gold don’t go “off the radar” for several months during the off-season. Who Dats closely follow their team through the draft, OTA’s, mini-camp, training camp, and preseason games. They live it. Casual or circumstantial fans of the NFL’s most loveable oft-underachieving franchise, on the other hand, usually tune in about now, a few days before or right after the beginning of the regular season. Those fans make up a majority of the fan base, and though they do not bleed black and gold, they too are allowed in that number.
It is for them, those casual or circumstantial Saints fans, neither overly cynical nor self-amusingly fatalistic, that this primer is intended—not for Who Dats, who will by definition read it anyway, and enjoy it.
When Last We Left Our Saints…
The Saints ended last season with a loss at home to the Carolina Panthers 32-30 in a match most distinguished by quarterback Drew Brees’ coming within 16 yards of breaking Dan Marino’s NFL record for most passing yards in a season.
It was a disappointing loss, for sure—but not because #9 came just short of breaking the record. He had a fine year; the record would have been lagniappe. What really sucked was that, even had the Saints won and Brees broken Marino’s record, the game didn’t matter. It had no real postseason implications. Both teams’ postseason fate had already been by that point sealed: the Panthers had a first-round bye in the playoffs, and the Saints, for the second straight year, had to watch the playoffs from home.
Since then much has changed and much has stayed the same.
What has stayed the same is that the Saints are still, beyond a doubt, the Saints of the Sean Payton era—a team marked by its high-powered and “innovative,” pass-dominated offensive attack, which was, statistically speaking, the league’s most prolific last year. And for the most part, the arsenal remains in place: Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas at running back; Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Lance Moore, and Robert Meachem at wide receiver; Jeremy Shockey at tight end; and Drew Brees pulling the trigger at quarterback.
With the same personnel back this year, arguably healthier as a group than they’ve ever been, there’s no reason to believe there will be a significant drop-off in offensive production. The Saints will likely rack up beaucoup yards and score points in assloads again this year.
But, as Saints fans have come to learn well over the course of the last two seasons, scoring a lot of points means nothing in terms of making the playoffs and winning the Super Bowl if the opposition routinely scores more. High-scoring offenses are exciting to watch and fun to cheer for, and they no doubt are good for merchandise and ticket sales. But true now as it has always been and will be as long as “football” is football, “defense wins championships,” and the Saints have not had much of one the last couple of seasons, a fact obvious to the casual fan and downright painful for the die-hard Who Dat.
And that, it appears, is what has changed. This season’s Saints D’ will be in many ways unrecognizable to those who knew it in ’07 and ’08, for it is now under the charge of new coordinator—and not just any one, but one of the league’s best.
Most Significant Off-Season Acquisition
While the Saints defense definitely needed a few upgrades in personnel, what it needed most was a change in approach and attitude.
Under former defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs, who had served in that capacity for the ’06, ’07, and ’08 seasons, the unit was overly cautious and too often passive in scheme. While surely unintended, Gibbs’ sit-back-and-wait approach influenced the group’s mentality. Instead of imposing their will on opposing offenses and dictating what those sides could and could not do, the Saints D’ allowed their opponents to take the game to them, both in terms of play-calling and attitude. In other words, they were the absolute worst thing a defense can be: soft.
Exit Gary Gibbs. Enter Gregg Williams.
As a defensive coordinator, Williams is as good as they come, and he has been for quite a while. At this point in his coaching career, no respectable player, coach, G.M., or NFL analyst questions his football I.Q. or his defensive philosophy.
He is by no means a “players coach,” a term used these days to refer to coaches who comport themselves as their players’ friend and concerned equal. Williams is ol’ school. He is an intense, straight-shooting, no-nonsense hardass who demands “accountability and availability” from his charges and doesn’t give a rat’s ass whether they like him or not. They are expected to do their jobs well and play well through pain; those unable or unwilling to do both will not remain his charge for long.
And guys love playing for him. A defensive coach can be as merciless a hardass as he cares to be and still have his players’ complete loyalty if he does one thing often enough come game day: turn ‘em loose. And that Williams does. Like many other coaches, he encourages his players to react instinctively, but unlike many others, he’s not afraid to let them. He knows that big plays on defense don’t just happen; they are usually the result of a gamble on the part of the play-caller, a player, or both. And he knows that making big plays is contagious.
If this Williams D’ is anything like past incarnations of it in Tennessee, Washington, and Jacksonville, Saints fans can expect a tough, nasty, violent, havoc-wreaking unit, which blitzes often, hits hard, gang-tackles, and forces turnovers—i.e. one not at all like the Saints D’ of the last couple of years. Should that be the case, and there’s no reason to think it will not, Williams’ acquisition will go down in Saints lore as one of the best moves the franchise has ever made—though, admittedly, competition in that regard is not particularly stiff.
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