Peyton’s Last Dance Thursday, Feb 4 2016 

Oddsmakers and the sports media apparently have the fiftieth Super Bowl all figured out. The Carolina Panthers are young, fast, and hot. And with only one loss, the best team in the league. The Denver Broncos, headed by their ex all star John Elway, are a nice story, particularly with Peyton Manning in the twilight.

But it is his counterpart at quarterback, Cam Newton, who is projected to add another jewel to his crown, which includes titles at the junior college, NCAA, and now the NFL level. Toyota ought to drop tens of millions in word play ads in Sunday’s telecast, for their Camry model.

Newton’s crown does have a few thorns, namely his father reportedly bartering the son’s services to Mississippi State University for well into six figures some years back, but that’s another story.

Going into the game, there has been some under the table media hyperbole about the athletic of race, namely Newton’s, brought on by the star quarterback himself, retracted, retraced, enunciated, and apologized for by sundry talking heads. Again, that’s another story.

No doubt, in the private thoughts of underdog Denver’s coaches, this is great news. They much prefer the favorite’s thoughts and preoccupations to be about anything other than football. Any Distractions, Most Welcome.

Then again, it was just released that a Denver practice squad player, a cousin of Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch, was sent home after a sting for possible involvement in a prostitution ring in San Jose. Oops.

The most compelling and critical matchup is Newton versus Denver’s brusque Orange Crush defense, specifically if and how the Broncos can contain Newton in the pocket. Sean Payton and the Saints know Newton well, having played him twice a year for five seasons. On ESPN before the conference championships, Coach Payton poignantly said in opposing Newton, do not let him roll right as that is his strength, and that’s when hell breaks loose for defenses. Indeed, if Newton is forced to operate in a box (more or less), the field shrinks, and his options and the split seconds quickly dwindle.

Panther tight end Gregg Olsen is an excellent receiver, the team’s best. But their wide outs have no future Hall of Famers. For example, Ted Ginn, Jr. can fly, is a threat on kick returns, but has lousy, unpredictable hands. A relatively contained Newton puts pressure on their passing game. Cam can throw just fine too though, his towering height allowing him to see over the top of linemen and ’backers being a big key to it. But Denver’s top flight defensive backs would immediately rise in stature.

The most important coach on the field Sunday evening will be Denver defensive coordinator (and ex Saint interim coach) Wade Phillips. It’s his playing field to level. Not for exotic schemes but in mixing up his handful of personnel packages and guessing right, the goal being to slow down Camry somewhat, have him take some unexpected turns.

In this scenario, the complexion of the game suddenly changes. Some silence would waft across the packed new wave stadium and in a hundred million living rooms, as fans scratch their heads and rethink how all this may play out. It would inevitably turn into a slugfest, but it is the Panthers who will have been knocked out of their auto pilot, dual threat rhythm.

Meanwhile, Mr. Manning, as he is called by some teammates almost half his age, has to figure out how to maintain possession and get his team some points. Also on ESPN, ex 49’er great Steve Young pointed out on film the reason he can’t throw for more than about 35 yards these days is because his right foot is shot, not allowing him to plant or follow through with his torso, sacrificing lots of torque on the ball.

Manning’s pitter patter in the pocket was especially evident in the first round elimination of the Steelers, though he did improve his footwork against the Patriots. But the deep ball, other than yards after the catch, is gone. Peyton will have to get rid of the ball real fast against the cat quick defense of the Panthers.

A.K.A. The Sheriff, he has always been much more fun to watch as an underdog. In his prime with Indianapolis, that was hardly ever the case. Countless times, opponents would get within a score of the Colts, needing to get the ball back as the game wound down. The former Newman Greenie would audible, have his way with defenses, runs and short passes that teased and bled opponents dry, to 00:00. He did it with such astounding regularity and precision it became something of a bore.

In the fourth quarter Sunday night, if Peyton is nursing a lead rather trying to attain one, the Bronx are in great shape.

In 2011 Manning underwent a cervical fusion surgery that seriously risked his long term health to play again. In now his fourth season in Denver, at age 39, it’s clearly time to count the blessings and hang ‘em up (though don’t put it past him to return, even if with another team. The Hollywood Rams are already making some noise about it.). Now he needs a hip replacement in the off season. It’s time. Father time is forever unbeaten.

The assumption is this his “last rodeo” as he aptly whispered it to Bill Belichik at midfield, and it’s impossible not to rewind and fast forward some flashes and images in this, now his (ironical jersey number) 18th season, 5 league MVP awards later. Indy owner Jim Irsay is already requesting he retire as a Colt.

Heisman Shaft?

After being all everything at the University of Tennessee, Manning returned for his senior year instead of electing to go pro. The Vols never got the NCAA title he so wanted until afterwards, and no small supplementing goal of his was to win the nation’s best player award. It went to Michigan defensive back Ron Woodson instead (who is coincidentally just retiring this year, from the Raiders), some hinting the deciding votes were clustered in a biased Northeastern and liberal press, not particularly enamored with Southern quarterbacks, and not excluding consideration of that four letter word that begins with “r” and ends with “e”. Kind of like some presidential election politics!

Peyton and dad Archie were seen leaving, or darting, from the ceremony ballroom, not particularly pleased.

Nemeses

It seems so long ago, but as Manning became a star, it took forever for the Colts to get by the Patriots in the regular and post seasons. The snow and Foxborough were a pair of teeth in this triple pronged piranha. Curiously, New England’s defensive domination largely stopped after they were caught red handed, cheating the league by Videogate, spying on opponents’ practices, stealing sideline signals.

Unlike some of the vanquished Rams years after their Super Bowl with New England, Peyton never retreated to that as an explanation.

Versus Number 12

In the league’s longest and most prolific historical rivalry by position, Tom Brady held the cumulative edge in 17 “head to head” contests, 11 to 6. However, Manning won 3 of 4 conference titles over Brady and the Pats, 2 in Denver.

Career Maker

Marvin Harrison was recently nominated for the Hall of Fame. He was a small, shifty wide receiver with good hands that ran precise routes. Though no speed burner, he and Manning as a duo were near the top of touchdown passes, all time. But let’s face facts, without Peyton, he was just another guy. There were numerous others who got to share the red carpet.

Field General II

Those old enough to be Colt fans of the franchise when they were in Baltimore as well couldn’t have gotten luckier in getting a cerebral successor to the great John Unitas, who defined field general for the QB position in the modern era.

Lamentably, after Johnny U’s death, Peyton was turned down by the league in wanting to wear black high top cleats, in memoriam. Inevitably the fear was that a precedent would be set for God knows what kind of attire requests, and for whom in the future. Precedent stinks, sometimes.

Drone

Manning put the capital “c” on cliché in most all press conferences and interviews. This is how he was raised, to say, do it right, stay away from controversy, in deference to the game, even if it put plenty of people to sleep. About the most aroused he has been in these was just recently, after some rumor news of HGH or performance enhancing drug use broke, those allegedly mailed to his wife. He was livid about her health privacy broken, and said he has known all about the rules for years.

Interestingly, he is fond of writing personal notes over digital, old school in his communications, that which includes team employees that are wild about him as a person, and appreciative fans.

Interception As Legacy?

Unless he throws a Hail Mary on the last play Sunday, Peyton may be remembered more for untimely picks than for any TD pass. When a rookie in 1998, Coach Jim Mora started him, threw him to the wolves right away, in an era when rookies mostly used to sit and learn. It took some time for Manning to throw more TD’s than interceptions.

No interception was more prominent than Tracey Porter’s Pick 6 that clinched the Super Bowl for Peyton’s hometown Saints. It wasn’t a bad throw really, Porter just read the Colt formation right from film study, and jumped it.

And his first season in Denver, the Broncos had a strong, balanced team. But Manning committed a quarterback’s Cardinal Sin in the playoff, that being rolling right and throwing left across the body, resulting in a turnover that suddenly ended a promising year.

Peyton is unblemished with interceptions thus far in this title run, but statistician analytic types predict he will throw at least one Sunday.

Curtains

In an unusual and lesser role for him, Manning (or QB Brock Osweiler) has not led the Bronx to this point, their stifling Orange Crush has. The result will test – hard – the traditional mantra about defense winning championships.

Just two years ago Peyton and Denver were trashed in the Super Bowl by a Seattle outfit with the same profile as ascending Carolina. The downer experience of that slaughter will benefit the core of the Bronco players this time around. And as formidable as Denver is defensively, a rerun of that scenario seems unlikely, that being the game out of reach before even being in hand. These Bronx do not resemble the 1990’s Buffalo Bills, who took turns in Super Bowls getting pounded by the Cowboys.

Who knows how this grand finale against Panther Power will turn out for Denver and #18, but the safest assumption is not as prognosticated. The Broncos cannot start slow, or they will get blown out of San Francisco, as far east as Omaha. To get here, the Panthers disposed of their last pair of foes by a combined score of 65 – 7, at the half.

These teams have not met in over 4 years. This half a century anniversary of the Big Game has the Football Gods’ hands intimated all over it. And whatever that may entail.

Manning will not leave the game winning more Super Bowls than losing them, so any juice about a must win on his last dance to justify or put an exclamation point on his career may be simple and orderly script, but is not apropos, or fair.

On the gridiron, adore him, like him, tired of or bored with him, even hating him, does not change that indisputably, Peyton Manning’s kind does not come along very often, and the game and entertainment of pro football will miss him. Sorely.

‘Tis The Season In Saintsville Wednesday, Dec 30 2015 

By Bert Bartlett

This is the time of year when we know how things are, and how we wish or think they can be. Yet utmost, it’s the season to be grateful for what we have.

Though it was nice to see the Saints rally from 25 down against the Lions, and a breezy win over the Jags, the final tallies do not matter.

The season wasn’t without a few highs. Out of the abyss, and after as fine a preparation week as Coach Payton and his staff have had here, the Saints never let the 6 – 0 Falcons in the game on Poydras. At long odds, N’Awlins boy Michael Mauti’s punt block for a touchdown heart warmed us, reminiscent of Steve Gleason’s a decade earlier.  The Black & Gold  darn near posted Carolina their only loss. They came to play, did so for 60 minutes, and came up just short to a better team.

The next rounds of their drama are to quell the reckless speculation of whether Payton will return (foremost), and the re-evaluation of Drew Brees’ and other veteran contracts, out of balance with a well rounded team legitimate for a post season.  Coach Payton, despite the just so – so 6 – 9 record, keeps saying he likes the work ethic of this bunch.

Regardless, the Saints do have a cadre of young promising talent on the roster that forebodes fine for 2016, which at the brisk rate of time’s passing, will get here before we know it.

Wide receivers Willie Snead and Brandon Coleman are nice additions to the corps. Snead has prototype size for the position, runs consistent routes in getting open, has decent hands, and now Brees’ trust. Coleman, an under the radar free agent from Rutgers, is a poor man’s Jimmy Graham insofar as his 6’6” height allows him to out maneuver defenders for the ball that other receivers simply can’t.  He is coming along and digesting whatever the offense feeds him.  We wondered why he didn’t get playing time last year while Marques Colston had an exorbitant case of the drops.

Brandin Cooks is not a top tier league receiver as hoped after being drafted so high, but still can be. His route tree is slowly but surely improving, and is a legit deep threat “as is”. The diminutive one also tries hard, like he wants to be great.

Out of that jewel of a school that is Stanford, offensive lineman Andrus Peat appears to be an able bodied protector, and is not expected to draw many mental errors or flags.

Barring injury, the Saints are downright deep at running back, by committee.  Tim Hightower was out of football and on the shelf, for 3 years with a major ACL injury. Now the former Richmond Spider  is displaying burst and versatility, filling in just fine for Mark Ingram.

Defensively, though he is not the tackling machine that Curtis Lofton was, Stephone Anthony has good range at linebacker, and a nose for the ball. Edge rusher type Hau’oli Kikaha is short and stocky, but revs up with plenty of motor.  Tyeler Davison (Fresno St.) subbed in at nose tackle late in the season and made an immediate impression as a run plugger.  At 6’2” and 309 lbs., he has obviously spent lots of time in the weight room for his opportunity and may be the most sculpted guy on the team.

Youngsters Obum Gwacham (DE, Oregon St.) and Kasim Edebali (LB, Boston College) are not yet acclimated to the pro game but bang around out there with desire and a learning innocence when given a chance. Those are good places to start.

The Saints don’t appear to have to hold many auditions for kicker next summer as Kai Forbath (UCLA) seems like a consistent, accurate type with a decent leg.  And returner Marcus Murphy, out of Mizzou, is our poor man’s Darren Sproles.

New Orleans native Delvin Breaux is respectable in man to man coverage at corner and has upside. Though it doesn’t seem like it, safety Kenny Vaccaro is in only his 3rd season, this one better than his last.

Snead & Coleman.

Cooks.

Peat.

Hightower.

Anthony.

Kikaha.

Davison.

Gwacham & Edebali.

Forbath & Murphy.

Breaux.

Vaccaro.

These are the motley surnames of many of the New Saints, and the more fans become familiar with their pronunciations and jersey numbers, hopefully the more they will be drawing attention in opponents’ film rooms.

The Mystery Man of the Class of ’15 is promising rookie quarterback Garret Grayson out of Colorado St.  Scouts whispered he may be more NFL capable than the celebrated Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston. He was not viewed as a “system” QB, and had shown the ability to audible well at the line of scrimmage.  He’s looks taller than 6’2” in the pocket, has a big arm, and can dunk a basketball standing still.

The last few games are an ideal time to put him out there near the fireplace, see how he handles it, and get a feel for what he’s got. Instead, apparently #9 will or somebody else will be throwing to pad statistics, while risking getting hurt. We at Souls Of The Saints don’t get to make that kind of decision every now and then.

It really doesn’t matter what round these guys were drafted, or if drafted at all. League wide, the media stamps draft tags on players as  expectancy, and keeps them there too long.  Coaches also err in keeping guys around too long because of how high they were selected, relegating developing prospects to the bench at their expense. What matters is if these Young ‘Uns can play, and right now in New Orleans enough of them have passed eye tests to believe most of them can.

It is both unpredictable and scintillating when a group of young players gets it together and the force becomes with them. In advance of media and fans, even coaches, they can feel, smell it coming. The last electric example of this were Jimmy Johnson’s 1990’s Cowboys, who went 1 – 15 before they began rubbing Super Bowl rings for fun not long thereafter.

Lastly, we should be grateful to have the Saints to kick around at all. After Katrina, San Antonio would have gilded the Alamodome with renovations and packed in new suites to keep them. And in a league first, the city may have also built a sparkling new outdoor stadium, so that the home team could pick and choose where to play on a given weekend, ostensibly based on weather, and freeing up the dome for other events. This wouldn’t have been outlandish at all, given how knee deep the NFL has been in the new stadium and real estate business, which is about as much as they’ve been in the football business.

And fortunately for us, some other franchise is driving the roads paved with gold to Hollywood.

Former Saints Hokie Gajan (1981 – ‘85) and Rickey “City Champ” Jackson (1981 – ‘93) have gotten cancer. Our recovery prayers are with them.

And RIP, longtime press box announcer Jerry Romig.  Foist Down, Saaiints…

 Souls Of The Saints Sincerely Wishes You & Yours A Happy & Healthy New Year  

 

Non – Trending Saints Tuesday, Nov 24 2015 

By Bert Bartlett

On October 11th, the Saints had stood toe to toe for a half with the Eagles, including a nifty pair of red zone interceptions by Delvin Breaux and Brandon Browner. In the ensuing 30 minutes, Coach Chip Kelley’s up tempo offense fired precisely on all pistons and the visitors got pummeled by double digits. The final score was 39 – 17 but could have been worse. At a paltry 1-4 this early in the schedule, Saintly spirits were low.

One wondered if the team plane returning from Philadelphia would safely hit the tarmac out at Moisant International. Or if Drew Brees should be dealt with not next February 1, when his $30 MM contract is up for salary cap consideration (about a 4th of the entire team’s allocation), but dealt to another team by the league’s pending trade deadline in the coming weeks, while there was still some value to get for him.

Magically, New Orleans hosted and thoroughly dominated then unbeaten Atlanta the next week, in a feel good a win as there was one. In streaming live poetic justice, young Saint and native Michael Mauti fulfilled a kid’s dream he had sitting in the stands in 2006, blocking a Falcon punt for a touchdown, just like Steve Gleason memorably did. This on a night the retired Gleason was being celebrated and shone on by the network in prime time. Mauti’s career had been plagued by knee injuries, and his stint at Penn State was compromised by the nasty Sandusky sex scandal. The pleasant extra points are that Mauti’s dad Rich, from Queens, N.Y., also played at Penn St., played wide receiver for the Saints in the late 70’s, and is now a real estate agent on the Northshore. Good for the Mautis…

Though the win will not be historically relevant insofar as a title run, given the swirl of negativity engulfing the Saints preceding it, that week’s coaching job by Sean Payton and his staff was among the best ever during his decade here. The club hunkered down, ignored the extensive and just criticism, believed in what they were doing, and reminded us that if you do that and just keep playing, good things can happen. That was a capable and poised outfit, what we had hoped to see from Week 1.

A workmanlike win over the Colts and an Arena Ball display of offense over the Giants upped the record to .500. The trend was zip zaggedy, but up.

A last minute field goal by Kai Forbath was partially blocked, enabling inferior Tennessee to beat the Saints in overtime on Poydras St. As the game wore on, one could see this train coming a mile away; the Titans simply wanted it more.

Up in Washington, Redskin #31, Matty Jones, received a swing pass and weaved his way through about 7 Saints, 78 yards to the end zone. The defenders weren’t so much as being blocked as they were skating side to side and backwards, as if fooling around on an ice rink in a park somewhere in D.C. If not comical, this was pitiful, really was. The ‘Skins turned up the heat, and the Saints imploded, a few days coincidental to the cowardly terrorism in Paris. Forty Seven to Fourteen.

Of course coordinator Rob Ryan had to go. By the week, the stats run up versus them got record breaking and downright offensive. A shame though, as he was likeable, and had plenty of N’Awlins in him, doing wonders for the unit when he arrived in ‘13. In his defense, he was never allowed to utilize the 3 – 4 alignment, which is how he earned his stripes in previous stops. Though subtle, the 34 is significant in the kinds of personnel skill sets best on the field by down and distance.

Perhaps the team would have accumulated more and better linebackers and edge rush types, an area they remain wafer thin after many years. Perhaps tackling machine and legit leader–by-example Curtis Lofton would not now be plying his wares in Oakland, an off season loss underestimated by the front office, coaches, media, and the fans. Everybody was too enamored with Jimmy Who nonsense.

If left unfettered by the producers, and if he isn’t afraid to incidentally rub somebody the wrong way, Ryan should be an entertaining commentator in his new gig on the NFL Network. In his initial TV sit down, he intimated he got blamed for everything in New Orleans including Katrina.

With an underwater start, some bobs up for fresh air, and a return to the depths, after just 10 games, we have already seen A Tale of Three Seasons. But there will be no Super Bowl at the end, much less playoffs.

A year later, after major self evaluation, in house cleaning and renovation, what’s different about the franchise? Unfortunately, Nada Mucho. A couple of factors come to mind first.

Just two games (losses) broke a season, right in the middle of it. This speaks volumes of the fine lines and parity in the league. Had New Orleans just gotten by a pair of beatable opponents, a remaining outlook with a 6 – 4 record would have quite a different complexion to it. The team would meaningfully be rebuilding and competing at the same time.

More poignantly, there is something glaringly wrong, and has been increasingly so since 2011, with the team’s competitive disposition. Regardless of who has been out there, the players have dressed up in their shiny unis, tied their cleats, buckled their chin straps, taken the field, and promptly – expected somebody else to make a play.

How many times have you seen the Saints come out not ready to compete? We’ve seen it plenty, more than the league norm. This has been the essence of the “inconsistent” and “complacent” Saints, those that have “lacked urgency”, or “competitive fire”, or playing up and down to the level of their competition. And yes, has provided some good theater along the way.

At whose feet does this lie? One could contend the messages from Sean Payton and his staff have gotten stale after 10 years, not uncommon in the NFL (broached on in the last post).

Or that mixed signals from management, such as perceived inequitable purse distribution, or in house alliances with personality plays and fences around the offices, such as the Benson family ownership war, have grated into the back of the players’ minds, negatively affecting what is or isn’t expected – or tolerated. The effectiveness of the organizational “culture”, that bragged about so often up in New England.

The subconscious of a player, especially collectively as a team, is an intangible though potent inertia, instrumental in motivation or lack thereof, and in resultant victory or defeat. It was the Twelth Man for the Saints when they won it all in 2009, the team inspired for a yearning Post Katrina city, too.

Then again, coaches or management don’t block and tackle. So the players themselves, especially as pros, bear plenty of the weight in what has gone astray on Airline Drive. But make no mistake about it, there is a malaise in the building, and it will be difficult to eradicate. We could also put it at the foot of Marie Leveaux’s tomb, somewhere in St. Louis Cemetery…and proceed to rub some rosaries.

What’s left of the 6 remaining games? Well, if you are paying attention, an abundance of typical moral victory spin. Payton at the podium: We will always and continue to play to win, regardless of the circumstance. Next question? Brees: We have great character on this team. We’ll get it right. Even if for next year. Others: Guys have to play for pride. Hey, these are our careers. We want to win for the true fans. Yatta yatta. Ugh.

As soon as they are mathematically eliminated from the post season, it would be wise to play the promising rookie quarterback Garret Grayson for real time experience; pre-season is never the same. It’s not like we do not know what #9 is capable of at this stage and the injury risk reward ratio is poor. But that would entail infinite needling from the media about what the future holds. The incessant queries about Brees alone would be nauseating. It won’t happen.

There is some drama about whether Coach Payton will be back, or as recklessly speculated, whether he is off to Miami, Indy, or even USC (to be near his daughter in college). We hope not. Though hardly perfect, Sean Payton is a very good football coach and we’ve been fortunate to have him. We like to feel – that he feels – he has more aspirations to fill here.

The NBA’s Pelicans are off to a league headlining abysmal start, following what may be a dire miscalculation in the selection of a new coach. It’s not even December and they are bottom feeders, already long shots for a low playoff seed late next spring.

Saint General Manager Mickey Loomis overseeing the basketball operation lends a parsimonious compensation image to the Bensons, and once upon a time that may have been true. But today, it just seems like the corporation of sport gone amok. In deference to the current state of both clubs, someone else should be looking after the Pels, most definitely with a hoops background of some kind.

Though gloomy at the moment, the climate ultimately never trends the same. That is the best news for Crescent City sports fans as we look to 2016.

Souls Of The Saints Sincerely Wishes Everyone A Happy Thanksgiving

Sean Payton’s Nightmare Thursday, Sep 17 2015 

by Bert Bartlett

It is early next January and Minnesota is visiting the Saints, leading late in the fourth quarter in a playoff, 27-23. With the development of young quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, a productive fall from Adrian Petersen, and a pesky defense, the Vikings have been the rising star talk of the NFC during the regular season. Only due to being on the wrong side of a standings tiebreaker with Green Bay did they not win their division. They have come into the Superdome as slight underdogs.

The Saints are approaching the Vikings’ red zone with a little under two minutes to play, and a field goal will not suffice. Sean Payton, in typical sideline pose, is staring at his laminated play sheet, one hand on his side pressing the microphone attached to his belt while he barks the orders of the play call into Drew Brees’ helmet. It’s the usual litany of abbreviations for the receivers X, Y, and Z, and a swing pass option to the running back, on a hard count snap.

As Brees trots to the line of scrimmage, Payton is out of time and recesses his finger off the mike. He meant to add “BP” for Brees to say in the huddle as a reminder, as he often does in these situations.

BP stands for ball protection, and over the summer the offense was coached to be extra careful in the waning moments of a half or game, as the intensity on execution rises, simply protecting the football can be taken for granted.

With nobody open downfield, Brees exercises his swing pass option. The back breaks a tackle and spins forward towards the sideline to get out of bounds for a nominal gain as he becomes fenced in by the opposition. While he does so, a trailing defender strips the ball from behind. The ball squirts around in bounds annoyingly until a bevy of players from both teams collapse on it. There is a mad scramble with more white shirts on the pile than black. The Vikings have recovered.

In the waning moments, it’s 3rd and 5. Bridgewater takes a short shotgun snap indicating pass, while Petersen stands behind him staring straight ahead, hands on his knees. On a delay, Petersen is handed the ball and slashes off left tackle, breaking an arm tackle at the line of scrimmage. He rumbles for ten more yards before he is dragged down. The home team will not be getting the ball back. Fans quickly bolt for the exits. Game, Season – Over.

At about 4 in the morning, Sean Payton wakes up, sits on the side of his bed, shakes his head, and is relieved since it’s only a dream…

At the pro level, contrary to popular perception, the nuts and bolts of a coach’s ability are not X’s and O’s, but the penchant to relate to, motivate, prick, cajole, chastise, and massage individual players in molding them as a team. When the messages get lost, the win loss record starts going down the tubes.

The messages can get lost to today’s generation, no doubt in part, to the advent of social networking that has had dramatic effects on young people’s habits and values. Coaches are not enamored with tweets that bring undue attention to a press conference. Most probably don’t even know what Instagram is. Simply relating can become a problem. Young players today seem far more interested in selfies and such, their New School. The virtues of Old School are so yesterday.

History in the league indicates 10 years is about the maximum effective stint that a successful NFL head coach stays with one team. Though Bill Belichick may end up bucking the trend, long gone are multi-decade plus tenures like those of icons Tom Landry (29 years) and Don Shula (33 years, 2 teams), the large majority of those years with winning seasons, playoffs, and titles.

Ten & Done was spotlighted by the surprising early retirement of John Madden in Oakland in the late 1970’s. The brilliant Bill Walsh simply got burned out in San Francisco in the 80’s. Both had rosters capable of more Super Bowls.

Jimmy Johnson is an interesting case study. After winning three Super Bowls and dominating in Dallas in the 90’s, he departed on his own terms, tired of owner Jerry Jones’ nagging interference. With players, he had managed a hip, aggressive, and no nonsense environment well, and the proof was in the pudding, at the pro and college level prior. He returned for several seasons with the Dolphins, but despite still having the prolific Dan Marino, they were a dud. The ultimate players coach was done.

This millennium, Brian Billick and Jon “Chuckie” Gruden were both let go, not too long after bringing trophies home to Baltimore and Tampa Bay. This once would have been unheard of, as winning it all for a franchise use to earn a head coach the right to punch his own ticket there for as long as he wants. After a pair of rings in Giant upsets of New England, but with three subsequent non-playoff seasons, Tom Coughlin in New York is now in a precipice of win or move on.

All NFL teams play like pigs for a week or two in a given season, because of the physical and emotional toll over so many weeks. In the Saints case though, the volume of stinky days has discernibly increased in recent years. Despite their abysmal start last season, in the middle of it, they hosted the Bengals when a win would have gotten them back in the thick of things. They were horrible, and it was the kind of lack of intensity that had fans calling the shows, saying they didn’t deserve to get paid. That game defined them as a relatively crappy team, as it turned out.

The Saints’ slippage has been due to a variety of reasons, an aging veteran core, some wrong kind of “character” guys in the locker room, lousy draft picks out of college, and Coach Payton and his staff losing their dexterity in pushing all the right buttons.

The reconstruction of this year’s team, from scouting to assistant coaches, to plenty of player turnover, has been well documented in the multimedia. This outfit has so many new faces, for the first time in years, regular fans will need to print out a roster to learn the numbers of the players and who they are. The 2015 Saints will answer a roll call on conjecture.

Without Jimmy Graham to attract multiple defenders in coverage (whether he got the ball or not), how open will the rest of the field be, so others can flourish? Regardless of what side of the Graham opinion fence you may have been on when he left, consider this: he and Brees are the third most effective QB/TE touchdown combo in league history, right behind Brady and Gronkowski in New England. The unit looks a bit eerie without him. Following the departure of Darren Sproles last year, the front office has pushed the envelope in having let two of the most unique targets in the entire NFL leave the premises. Saints fans use to seeing their team score points in flurries will have to learn patience.

Defensively, this canvas is splashed with oils. Not much ado was made about the departure of one of the best tackling machines anywhere, linebacker Curtis Lofton, now in Oakland. And this in a position where the unit has been woefully thin for what seems like, forever. Where Art Thou, Rickey Jackson? The injury bugs hit the defensive backfield hard before the first kick-off. With his off the field issues, pass rusher Junior Gallette let the team down. If the defense can’t tackle, put pressure on the passer, or cover receivers with any regularity, once again, will affable coordinator Rex Ryan survive calls for his head in Jackson Square by November?

On the business front, the fact is the team is at a significant competitive disadvantage because of hefty “dead” salary cap money, meaning players no longer here are getting paid because of contractual gaffes penned by GM Mickey Loomis. In a nutshell, the Saints are shooting at opponents out of a 5 bullet chamber – with 4 bullets.

As for the opener in ‘Zona, predictably, it got hot in the desert. The Cardinals are talented and sound on both sides of the ball, well coached, and are simply better at the moment. Ex LSU Tiger Patrick Petersen manned up on Brandin Cooks and took him out of the game. The Cards are poised to wrest their division from Seattle.

The loss isn’t one to sulk about in New Orleans though. The team didn’t let it get out of hand by halftime when it looked like it could be, and hung in there all day. Both units played well in spurts, just not for 60 minutes. The young wide receivers showed some promise.

Marques Colston dropped the 3rd down pass costing the team a last possession, preceding the controversial punt at the end. Colston’s drops and fumbles have been nagging for several seasons now. As a season ticket holder pointed out, his asset liability ratio has sifted into the negative. He should be sat down more, and given less opportunities in that he can possibly recapture his concentration. GM Loomis and Payton should knock heads about the possibility of acquiring some, any kind of pass rusher before the league’s trade deadline in late October. This is the outfit’s most glaring talent weakness.

Saintsville will inevitably feel better about themselves Sunday evening, after pitiful Tampa has come and gone. It has the profile of a route, and the feeling is Sean Payton may run the score up if in position to, not to humiliate the Bucs, but to instill a more aggressive mindset into this team. Don’t be surprised if the Saints score a Nifty 50 .

This happens to be Sean Payton’s 10th season in New Orleans. Though he is a fine coach and will never go needing employment, it’s the most defining for him here since his first, the Post Katrina Saints of ’06. How it turns out will resemble an off – Broadway production of Anything Goes .

Welcome to the 7th (!) season of Souls of The Saints . Posts are anticipated to be about once or twice a month. Time flies.

Deflation On Airline Drive Tuesday, Jan 27 2015 

by Bert Bartlett

Just as Saints fans commenced rest and put good riddance on the inexplicably crappy football season that was 2014, an in house imbroglio rich in speculation and gossip broke to kick start the off season. The match-up is a lot juicer than upcoming free agency and the college player draft.

Indeed, even if mostly fictionalized, the material could be the genesis for Airline Drive, and run on prime time television, like Dallas. The soap opera requisites of new wealth, its division and inherit strife, jealousy, and comprehensive human foible, with some incidental good heartedness along the way, are all there for a writer’s taking. God forbid though, this script end with Who Shot Mistah Tom?

Heck, if the competitive glory of the pursuit of a Super Bowl were played out in a series against daily dramas equivalent to Vicodingate, Bountygate, and now Bensongate, Airline Drive could have a leg up on and give Dallas a long term run for its money, considering how summarily nuts this country has become about football as recreational viewing, and especially, big business.

To the extent that it’s been easy for long term lovers of the game have acquired, with acceleration, a certain jadedness, cynicism, and boredom in watching much of it, in that all along we assumed it had included redeemable American fabric. In N’Awlins’ case, the attraction has been the perceived uniqueness of the beloved Saints, this mirroring the city, which has been a decent marriage, and one that has mostly superseded who the team owner happened to be (just 2).

Some rah-rah coach was once quoted as saying football doesn’t create character, it reveals it. This is true, and the truth is, these days, we don’t like much of what we see. If the fabric wasn’t a mirage, it’s certainly been ripped into some pieces.

Take for example, the start of the 2014 NFL season. The domestic violence mugshots that splashed across TV screens weren’t necessarily more guilty or frequent than those extant in the percentage of the general population, but they sure created the perfect storm in calling attention to a stereotypical portrait of the league as a depot for too many ill-raised, often fatherless kids who played their way there from the ghettos. And that’s on the stat sheet, not racial profiling. With a major assist from the NCAA, the institution that so ably and conveniently uses education as a shield for its considerable bottom line, the depths of which are unknown to most. At least the NFL generally makes no other insinuations about what protecting their shield means.

And now, leading into the finality of this year’s Super Bowl, this week we were showered with stories about how many pounds psi may have been in a dozen balls for the home team’s advantage in the AFC Championship. And getting all the “investigation”, “cooperation”, and “credibility of the game” public relations jargon from the parties. Ironically, we heard the same media spins, as if rehearsed, for the much more disconcerting domestic violence issues last summer. Give Us A Break.

Yet despite itself, and we need to remember the league didn’t invent the game as much as trademark it’s brand of it, sometimes the NFL does produce some fabulous football, such as the rollicking and wildly entertaining NFC Championship. Give Green Bay credit for showing up with their A Game in the most difficult environment in the league, and Seattle, well beaten for 55 minutes, to simply keep playing. Plenty of teams, down in that situation with that much on the line, have quit. In reprise, rarely have there been so many unique plays over 4 quarters that could have determined a different outcome. It was kind of sad the Packers didn’t get one last shot with the ball, regardless who one was pulling for. These types of contests are why plenty of fans keep watching, hoping to bump into one every now and then.

Anyway, back to Airline Drive

Fighting over the lion’s share of a king’s ransom by blood kin and a subsequent spouse is hardly new. There can be compelling claims on both sides. Traditionally and ideally though, it should occur when the monarch is deceased; implicit in estate money grabs is that they should still have some semblance of common decency. Unfortunately, the original intents of the grantor do tend to get lost in the shuffle. Already in the legal proceedings, assets have been frozen by a judge in Texas, pending. Now, in Tom Benson’s case,You Can’t Take It With You has been supplanted by This Is Going To Be A Pain To Hold Onto.

Interestingly from a legal perspective, we will ultimately find out how much irrevocable there really is in an Irrevocable Trust. Will it set any far reaching meaningful precedent? Knowing what he knows, or feels, now, we are sure Mr. Benson wishes he had set up a Revocable Trust instead.

Not surprisingly, Saints fans are informally picking sides to cheer for. The courts (and the media) will provide the grandstands. Against Team Rita LeBlanc et al, there is residual fear that the team will eventually wind up in San Antonio, where her mom and brother are domiciled, like during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when then Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and his then deputy Roger Goodell stepped in. We’ll never know the terms or extent of the money the league provided to Mr. Benson that apparently stopped his bleeding and initiated a change of heart to secure the team here long term. At the proper hour, will the blood heirs feel the same way? And who knows, at this laughable rate, by then there still may not be an NFL team in Los Angeles…

Since then the image of Benson has much improved. Fans remember, Pre Katrina, the days of State Of The Saints annual press conferences, when the owner grumbled about not enough tickets being sold (to watch perpetually mediocre teams, that part of the equation went unsaid), and the need for a new stadium for the club to compete in the new paradigm of the NFL.

Of course, he was referring to profit and loss, while the fans cared about a contender. The ambiguity amongst the two has always been an absurd, misunderstood fact of life in NFL cities. A stab at New Orleans as bush league was made. And resented, insofar as the city’s by and large forever unyielding support of the Saints through countless competitively lean stretches since the late Sixties. Credit the population’s sense of humor in writing off all the miserable on field losses, and to keep coming back for more. In the Crescent City’s darkest hour after the worst hurricane, the Saints sold out for the 2006 season. And have done so since.

Post K, Benson has in fact been an exemplary hands off owner. With the exception of 2012, when he did not step in and put a stop to the circus interim arrangement and mandate a proven head coach like Jim Mora, Sr. or Marty Schottenheimer step in and handle the team for a designated year until Sean Payton’s return from suspension. The idea of staying within the building for the season was self-effacing garbage; Benson could have outlined it all quite properly from the get go, which would have included keeping staff and assistant coaches in place. This is a one year lease. Don’t change the car, just drive it. Left to his own whims, GM Mickey Loomis fumbled 2012 away, and since part of the suspension equation himself, should not have been left in position to make the decisions in the team’s best interests. Season ticket holders literally got ripped off, and predictably, the team dismally wasted a year.

On third wife Team Gayle, the fear of franchise loss subsides, she having the public image of a gracious partisan native who would never let the Saints leave. However, according to fresh releases, she may not be as docile as it appears. Team Rita contends that besides steering Benson towards an unhealthy diet that includes too much candy, soda pop, and wine, she has orchestrated Benson away from normal relations with the family, and is more manipulative in the sports operations than perceived. Her active hands in changing the colors and renaming the city’s NBA entry, and being involved in Mercedes Benz Superdome naming rights are evidence of that. Yet like so much conjecture in this situation, is it really material to the legality of the case? Those domains will be for the lawyers to filter…

Team Gayle apparently has the support of GM Loomis, Coach Payton, and Drew Brees. Payton tried to insert an opt out in his contract that allowed him to leave if Loomis does, and the presumption was Loomis would have no desire to stay and answer to Team Rita, in the unlikely event she would now want him to anyway. If Team Rita got control, lots of lieutenants and sergeants in the front office perceived with certain stripes will be in for a change of employment.

However the clash plays out, ironically, it is the NFL that could ultimately determine future ownership of the Saints, as the league has a three quarter owner approval rate in its bylaws.

As it is unfolding, we are learning that many in the press claim they have been aware of the schism going on in the front office going on for a while, as have some previous negotiations to settle the considerations. Oh Really? How Kosher. These reportedly included some rather low valuations of the Saints and Pelicans from Team Gayle for a potential asset sheet trade off. Time may show that control of the Saints and Pelicans is more important to Team Rita than their actual value in the divvying up the estate, assuming they remain part of it. OK, you take the banks and car dealerships. We still want the Saints and Pels…

Forbes makes ongoing diligent estimations of the value of pro sports franchises. But whatever they are, it is much more what the market is willing to pay, given the scarcity of supply. If that Microsoft clown out in Los Angeles was willing to (over) pay $2 BB for the NBA’s scandalized Clippers, hardly a banner franchise, what are the Pelicans worth? Benson paid in the area of $330 MM for them a few years ago. And off that comparable sale basis, wouldn’t the NFL’s Saints be worth considerably more than a recent estimate in the $1 BB range?

Why are reporters fessing up about the matter only now? Are only the public court filings giving them the green light to talk about it, i.e., did they stay silent out of fear of reprisal from wide reaching tentacles of the organization, starting at the top? Quite likely. Benson owns the local Fox TV affiliate. Freedom of the press exists in the city when it comes to the Saints, but lamely, candor of the press does not, given the blurry, long ago dissipated line between sports journalism and franchise promotion. The weave of the blanket is so smooth that the younger generation does not really recognize this, never having felt the difference. But that shortcoming is in all pro sports, certainly not limited to New Orleans.

Now that the cats are out of the bag, it will get more unavoidably public. Dirty laundry will get aired. Team Rita’s personal lives and habits will inevitably come under unwelcome scrutiny, as will portraits of Team Gayle as a good old fashioned gold digger, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Humiliatingly, Mr. Benson may be required to undergo a psychiatric evaluation challenging his soundness and state of mind, including an affirmation by him that the current President of the United States is not Ronald Reagan.

Though they could afford it, privacy is a luxury item that’s not for sale at this point. That’s the opportunity cost in the fishbowl of owning pro sports teams. Some would say it’s still a small price to pay for owners to sit back and let the gobs of rising league revenue continue to roll in. As far as the Saints and Pelicans are concerned, Mr. Benson may never rest in peace.

Saints By The Dickens Wednesday, Dec 10 2014 

by Bert Bartlett

If the great Charles Dickens were alive today, no doubt he’d be a Saints fan, as this year’s team has illustriously displayed the best and worst of times.

On a Sunday night not long ago, the Saints handled the best quarterback in the pro game today, Aaron Rodgers, and dismantled the Packers, looking every bit the title contender they were consensually anointed to be in the pre-season. They lost on just a play twist or two to the 49’ers, after valiantly working their way back from a significant deficit. And nobody thought the Saints would win in Pittsburgh.

There have been warning flags all year about this team, from the ill-advised off season departure of Darren Sproles, to “Super Bowl Swagger” reported at training camp, but none more vivid than their pathetically lackadaisical disposition in how unprepared they were in hosting Cincinnati. The script repeated itself, downright caromed, last Sunday against lowly Carolina, over whom they were deservedly favored, having already spanked them earlier this season at their place.

The debacle against Carolina, the most lopsided loss in the Payton & Brees era, had a few revelations.

It was no contest from a coaching perspective. After months of ineptitude on offense, the Panthers decided to unleash Can Newton and dust off the spread, letting him attack with his legs as much as his arm, which caught coordinator Rob Ryan and his defense woefully off guard, with an abysmal lack to adjust. Time and time again, the Saints were lined up with one tier of players on the defensive line, with no linebackers or anyone else staying home to protect the line of scrimmage. Once Newton escaped the pocket, for him, it was off to the races. The Saints were guessing – delaying their instincts – all afternoon while the Panther offensive line swallowed their opponents for lunch.

Over the years, the Saints have been superb in coming back from deficits by putting together a drive and getting any kind of points before halftime. This has been a real feather in their caps. It was role reversal on Sunday, the Panthers putting together a long touchdown drive, the Saints discernibly reeling on their way to the locker room, as if having been tasered by stun guns. Yep, so out of sorts were they that after that, they basically quit. The long touchdown run by Carolina’s untouched running back off tackle to open the third quarter was just a formality. Afterwards, Drew Brees told the media everyone needs to be mentally tougher.

Having watched too many Saints games to count since 1967, rarely did I not stay tuned while they were on the wrong side of routes, if only ghoulishly to see how they played it out, and what the reactions were. Like the team, as a fan, I quit also, my viewing finished at 38-3, before the fourth quarter. Announcer Jim Henderson reported plenty of fans left the Superdome at halftime, not typical of New Orleans attendees.

The loss or the slaughter that was the 41- 10 final score doesn’t really change anything. If only because of the weak sisters in their division, the 2014 Saints remain competitively relevant because they can still win the NFC South and host a playoff game. This is the only bow tie that can be accentuated with the rumpled Black & Gold suit that this year’s team is. After all, this is basically an in and out bunch that fans are keeping the faith with, that they can get hot at just the right time.

Naturally, everyone is scratching their heads for explanations why the Saints have been so unpredictably erratic. The most common sense is deduced from the locker room. Safety Kenny Vaccaro revealed that influential personalities from last year are no longer on the roster. But guys like Smith, Harper, Jenkins, and Vilma were not making enough of an impact to stay on the team. But indeed, there are lots of new faces, and the players likely have cliques – over each other’s backs.

The media loves to tout individual leaders on football teams, typically quarterbacks, but the locker room reality is that regardless of who likes rap or who likes country music, or who hangs out with whom, what matters most is how much “oneness” and trust the players feel about one another on the field, regardless of position. The resultant team characteristic that can be perceived is attitude.

At its best, this becomes playing for a cause greater than self, which is exactly what the now nostalgic 2009 champs did. Along these lines, Coach Payton did choose a remote West Virginia location for training camp to focus and bond this team, but maybe it should have been in Europe or somewhere where the English language is in the minority. This bunch has the collective mojo of just a bunch of guys with briefcases cashing checks, with an alarmingly frequent sense of complacency. No Grits.

Up in Washington, Jay Gruden is acting like a head coach with the overdue benching of Robert Griffin III. After the Redskins got drubbed by the Rams, he remarked that playing pro football is exciting and a privilege, and he expects pro football players to be motivated, and that if the team has pro football players that aren’t motivated, then it’s time to find new pro football players that are motivated. We like that. And get it. A similar evaluation challenge awaits the club’s front office for 2015.

Meanwhile, Dickens would care less about the paltry record and be looking forward to next Monday night’s game in Chicago. Yet he’d pull for the Saints with No Expectations, versus Great Expectations.

Souls Of The Saints wishes everyone Safe & Happy Holidays.

Suddenly, Prime Time Saints Friday, Nov 7 2014 

by Bert Bartlett

Back on October 19th, after a bye week of rest, the Saints were up in Detroit, comfortably ahead by 13 points, having controlled the game all day. The clock ticked with 5:13 left to play. After blowing a flurry of plays, and letting the Lions make all theirs, the Saints trudged off the field with their 4th loss of the young season in 6 tries. Like the tawdry skeletons that fell out of the closet and were dominating headlines about NFL players’ domestic violence sins, and in some of the lamest corporate public moral posturing you’ll ever see, the team was its own worst enemy.

What was supposed to be a year of great promise was suddenly on the brink, and potentially the worst in franchise history, given the lofty expectations. On ESPN’s First Take, the mouthy Stephen A. Smith jumped off ship and put a bag on his head, having previously predicted New Orleans would be playing in the Super Bowl, saying the team’s defense was pathetic.

Who could argue that it wasn’t? It had stunningly reversed from 4th overall in the league in 2013, back to bottom feeder territory. Cam Jordan and Junior Gallette, young stars on the defensive line, were invisible. The team’s prized free agent acquisition, safety Jarius Byrd, was out there, but not relevant. Nobody was putting pressure on the passer, covering anyone, or doing much in the way of tackling, in the event a defender happened to be in the vicinity.

Offensively, the season had gotten off on the wrong foot before it even started. In the worst personnel decision of the Loomis/Payton era, unique scat back and utility specialist Darren Sproles was allowed to leave Airline Drive, creating a vacuum for plays to be made that no one else on the team could (see: Philadelphia Eagle highlight videos). Drew Brees is 35 but was playing like he was 40, leaving us wondering if he’d really be worth the remainder of his fat contract. Annoyingly, veteran producer Marques Colston kept dropping passes and fumbling, costing his team a win in Cleveland. Though he was injured some, even superstar Jimmy Graham got the brunt of some fan scapegoating, having a subpar season, just like the rest of his teammates. Trust us – in any way, shape, or form, Jimmy Graham is not a problem for the New Orleans Saints.

Next on the schedule, hosting, how in the hell were the Saints going to stay on the same field with the hottest quarterback in the league, Aaron Rodgers, and the Packers? Maybe the trainer changed the snacks in the locker room, or the astrology charts aligned favorably, we don’t know – but they certainly did, and won it convincingly. After being out with an injured hand, Mark Ingram running the ball with power and purpose, and the defense holding the Packers to field goals instead of touchdowns were the deciding factors. And Green Bay’s defense remains flimsy, something the late Vince Lombardi would abhor. Sure it helped when Rodgers pulled his hamstring while running out of bounds in the 3rd quarter. But we’ll take it.

With insight, earlier on a set of First Take, for a reason the defense had been playing so poorly, ex-Saint linebacker Jon Vilma remarked that Coach Ryan had been giving the defensive backs lots of latitude in calling last second coverages at the line of scrimmage, and when that doesn’t work, it can get ugly. It had gotten so unattractive that maybe the coach decided his job was becoming at risk, and he best make the calls.

After trouncing the Panthers in Carolina 4 days later, in another sterling prime time effort, the Saints suddenly were in first place in their division. Where had these guys been all year? Though the standings are still close midway through the schedule (heck, the fluttering 2-6 Falcons haven’t been mathematically eliminated from anything), New Orleans is easily the best outfit in the weak NFC South, and the division race is over if the right team shows up just most of the time. Do not assume if they win the league’s worst division that reduces their chances in the post-season. What matters is how well they have come together by late December.

Home Sweet Home is the scene for next 3 tallies, against San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Baltimore, all perceived as more physical outfits than the Saints have been playing, the Ravens in particular having been a thorn in New Orleans’ side for years. So we’ll know lots more about this bunch before they fly to Pittsburgh just after Thanksgiving.

The 49’ers are a curious case study, insofar fleeting headlines go. Despite leading them to 3 conference championships in a row (and a Super Bowl, when the lights went out here in in the Dome), Jim Harbaugh is reportedly under fire. Many feel the team is on the verge of imploding after talk surfaced that the roster has grown tired of his old school, tension filled, combative, militaristic, and pain in the ass head coaching style. But who can argue with the results? The 49’ers had accumulated considerable talent, but it was Harbaugh who cooked the stew.

This is the guy that engineered the most David & Goliath upset in big time football this millennium, when early on in his tenure at Stanford, they upset USC and Pete Carroll, and in the Los Angeles Coliseum to boot. Ironically, current Seahawk Richard Sherman played wide receiver for Harbaugh and the Cardinal.

The last few seasons Colin Kaepernick was playing sublime and looked like he’d turn out to be the best of the league’s Young Gun spread option quarterbacks, that including Cam Newton and Russell Wilson. Not so in 2014, hard to pinpoint why. Likely, defensive coordinators in the league have been sharing some secrets as to how to neutralize him (and the spread), and the kid’s confidence appears to have waned some. He remains dangerous when deciding to take off and run with it, in a flash.

The Niners have struggled unexpectedly to a 4-4 record, much like their opponent on Poydras St. Sunday. But a team like this is, if mostly out of anger and frustration, is capable are of standing up and blowing the doors off anybody at any given time. If the Saints are in any way complacent, they could be toast.

Nevertheless, the Saints have climbed their way back into competitive relevance, something city vendors are certainly grateful for, and for which Sean Payton and his coaching staff have our respect. ‘Dat was quite the slippery slope they were on. Yet is this glass half full, or half empty? At least we can choose to be entertained the rest of the year in finding out. The Derby is still on, and Black & Gold hats are very much in the mix.

You Can Take That Swagger &….. Sunday, Aug 10 2014 

by Bert Bartlett

About a week ago, Jeff Duncan, who covers the Saints well for The Times Picayune, wrote an article about a sense of swagger emanating around the team in training camp, amidst the Appalachians up in West Virginia. The positive outlook about the team’s talented roster intimated swagger was a Super Bowl ingredient, and that the players were feeling it in the comparatively cool air. Welcome to football’s annual Rites of August, when in anticipation of an upcoming season, and all that it may have to offer, emotion gets the best of reason.

Said to be of origin in Norwegian dialect, and supposedly first uttered circa 1596, the root svagra basically meant to bend, turn, or walk away. Merriam-Webster has swagger as “conducting oneself in an arrogant or superciliously pompous manner, especially walking with an air of overbearing self-confidence”. Interestingly, it has also been used in context as if to bully.

Muhammad Ali, The Mouth That Roared, and a natural promotional genius to boot (it is under estimated how calculating and precocious he actually was about it), introduced swagger to the modern American sports kaleidoscope. In those same media burgeoning 1960’s, swagger had a memorable, unofficial and inauspicious debut in pro football, in the first Super Bowl. Kansas City Chief cornerback Fred Williamson, in an Ali emulation and an opportunity to seize the big stage, ran his mouth in advance of his team meeting the heavily favored Green Bay Packers. Williamson promoted himself as The Hammer because he boasted a mighty forearm that he said would knock out Packer receivers.

According to Dale Stram (son of the Chiefs’ late head coach Hank – after he coached the Saints, the Strams settled here in Covington, La., where Dale lives), his father was not enamored with the noise. Coach Stram customarily treated his players first class as individuals, to maximize their potential as a team. If the Chiefs were going to sneak up on a sleeping monster, why wake it in advance? Coach Stram historically didn’t mind media attention being paid to his teams, but not that variety.

The Chiefs kept the game close for a half, but by the fourth quarter the score was one sided in Green Bay’s favor. In a memorable NFL Films clip, Williamson was laid out on the field, knocked out, after being run over by Packer running back Donny Anderson. During the extended pause in play, on their sideline, the Packers sardonically murmured It’s the Hammer, they nailed the Hammer. The Hammer got it. Another closing voice: Hey, get up…

In 1969, Joe Namath, as fine a pure passer as there ever has been, remarked to a group of reporters, from a lounge chair by a hotel pool in Miami, that his Jets would beat the heavily favored Colts in that Sunday’s Super Bowl, that he “guaranteed it”. That happened, and swagger in pro football got a reprieve from Broadway Joe.

Fast forward to 2003. Here is what New England head coach Bill Belichik was quoted as saying to his defending champion Patriots when swagger was broached:

“It’s really embarrassing. It really is. It’s embarrassing. Can’t hit the snap count. Can’t line up on side. There are holding penalties in the defensive passing game every week for key conversions. There are holding penalties on offense, giving the ball away like we don’t give a nuts about it. Just turn it over to ‘em. Leave the ball lying on the field there for five seconds while they come from 30 yards away to recover it. It’s just dumb football, fellas.

I’ll tell you one other thing too, I’ve read a couple of comments. Now, I don’t spend a lot of time reading the paper. I really don’t. But I do watch a little about what we say and what we think. I’ve seen a couple comments here, some of the players talking about we need to get our ‘swagger’ back.

Our attitude back…..you know what? We didn’t have a ‘swagger’ last year. If you think about it, we didn’t have a swagger. What we had was a sense of urgency, a sense of urgency about playing well, being smart, and capitalizing on every opportunity and situation that came our way….it wasn’t about a swagger. You can take that swagger and shove it up your ***, okay?!”

As swagger has seeped its way unto Who ‘Dat Nation, we laud Coach Belichik’s stance on this position. As fans, we don’t want to be wondering where the swagger is and holding the bag if the Saints simply don’t show up ready to play on some occasions this fall. This was the case in 2013, in miserly road losses to the inferior Rams and Jets, those costing the team a division title and superior playoff seeding. Yeah, let’s punt swagger out of the Black & Gold stratosphere. Immediately.

In lieu, what about a new season motto, like Finish Strong, that accompanied the 2009 title run? We’d put in a vote for Come To Play, Every Day.

* * * * * *

Welcome, to what is now the sixth season of Souls Of The Saints. We hope you a tad enjoy the brand of non-jocks-and-stats feature sports writing that observes New Orleans’ pride and joy entry in the National Football League. Posts will not be about the games on a weekly basis (as they were in the “old days”) but intermittent, or basically whenever it appears something stands out. Or something like that.

Our Saints season preview, with an underlying theme, is set to be published in the upcoming issue of Inside Northside, a glossy, general interest magazine published on New Orleans’ Northshore. Will attach it next time out.

Here Comes The Acid Test Friday, Jan 10 2014 

by Bert Bartlett

The Saints couldn’t catch a break as the regular season wore down.

Atlanta needed just a field goal on the last drive in their finale to upset Carolina and put New Orleans in a superior #2 seed for the playoffs. This would have resulted in 2 games to qualify for the Super Bowl instead of 3 for the Saints, including one at home after a week’s rest, versus three straight on the road. Dat’s a difference maker! Matty Ice Ryan was cavorting in the backfield, barking signals for a pass play, but the center didn’t listen and made the snap, the ball sailing past the quarterback for a 15 yard loss. Stinking Falcons. Game over. Division title officially lost.

That night, Cowboy substitute quarterback Kyle Orton also needed just a field goal on the last drive to defeat Philadelphia, which would have had the Saints in Dallas the next weekend, matched up with a team they blew out in early November and have historically fared well, as opposed to facing an ascending Eagles team. Orton threw behind his receiver on a slant route, and a green jersey made the interception. Game over.

Of course, only the Saints are responsible for their slip from a 6-1 record and one of the favorites to win it all this year, to 11-5, and backing into the tournament as a wild card. We’re just sayin…

Yet the Saints have won their opening playoff round. And by discovering a running game! There are now 24 other teams and cities in the NFL that are watching the post season just on television. This we must not forget, or under-appreciate.

But we will say this is a peculiar Saints group. On several occasions, this outfit has appeared to be doing nothing more than going through the motions, looking morose out there, showing even signs of clinical depression. Though it is a business, good teams have fun playing well, and this team hasn’t looked like it has had all that much. It’s ironic that any good team from New Orleans, of all places, can show up and look like party poopers.

Losses to a highly inferior St. Louis team and in Seattle about a month ago made New Orleans look old and slow. But we know they can be the opposite of that, lighting up the scoreboard and putting opponents away early, and playing respectable defense, as they have done numerous times this year. And a wise shift to the running game in Philly this past weekend was the difference in winning it versus losing.

Jekyyl & Hyde is too simplistic, but this is a moody bunch. They have not leaned on 2009’s motto, Finish Strong, not having a little more oomph to put some teams away when they were better most of the day, like in New England, and at Carolina. The asset of lots of proven veterans has been offset by Curb Your Enthusiasm. In summation of this team’s disposition, we regret to report that yes, the 2013 Saints have lacked some soul.

Sean Payton has a mastermind on the psychological side of the game from a coaching perspective, and has used plenty of pricks and needles in his motivational ploys during his tenure here. He prioritizes keeping his hands on the intangible emotional pulses of his teams. We tend to think if, on the sly, we were having a drink with him, he’d admit this season has been something of a head scratcher for him and his staff along these lines. We hope there has been no malingering about somebody or something festering in the locker room, but you never know. If there has been, odds are we won’t find out about it until later.

Payton’s challenges in motivating his team psychology will be great for Saturday night in Seattle, where his team recently just got haplessly drummed, despite it being touted as the regular season game of the year at the time. And it dripped of the miserly playoff elimination loss after the 2010 season up there, when the Saints were far superior. Yet these are the playoffs, and what the coaches can or cannot do – to have the team’s heads screwed on right, is mostly up to the players, and how much they care. There are no excuses for this team being flat on Saturday. If, whomever is, should not be on the roster next season.

The further teams go in the playoffs, the more magnified the weaknesses become. Dark in the bile of the film rooms, the coaches know this, and know what their weak links are. It may be too late to fix them, but the best staffs machinate and cover them up some. For the Saints, it’s obvious the defensive backfield has been vulnerable since cornerback Jabari Greer got hurt around mid-season. Replacement Corey White is ill equipped in man on man coverage. Keenan Lewis can cover though, and is thankfully practicing after a concussion last week. Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins have been veteran presences since the Saints won the Super Bowl. But it seems they have been mostly spectators of late, and it is imperative that these guys get involved and make some plays, and coordinator Rob Ryan needs to put them in more positions to do so.

Seattle’s receivers are hardly all-world, and last time around we feared their tight end being ignored, roaming free and doing damage, which is exactly what happened. The Saints cannot afford a reprise of ‘dat. Cover the dang tight end! From a match-up perspective, their relatively weak wide receiving corps up against our flimsiness in the defensive backfield is a good thing.

And if the protection by the offensive line gets spotty, Drew Brees could be in for a long evening. Number 9 has not been as typically sharp of late, his pocket presence under pressure disappointing, and throwing more interceptions. Some rumors have had him somewhat hurt, like he was in 2010. But we always believe we can win with Drew Brees. Fa-show. Just have optional protection packages ready, and use them as early as necessary.

The local buzz is Brees will be making less audibles at the line of scrimmage than last time, where the noise of Seattle’s Twelth Man crowd hindered the tempo and execution of the visiting offense. And it did appear the Saints came out and had the disposition of just letting the crowd do their thing, weather it, and move on from there. If we see a repeat of this, again, the Saints won’t look like they belong on the same field with the ‘Hawks, and will get blown out of the stadium. Whatever kind of tempo this outfit has better be on display early if the Saints are going to have any chance to win. An early lead of any kind would help! And maybe lots of latte in the locker room.

The last time the Saints were about an 8 point underdog in a post season game was before the Super Bowl, to Peyton Manning and the Colts. That forecast didn’t go so bad. So we’ll take it as a positive omen. Losing in Seattle is getting tiring to hear about, like not being able to win a playoff on the road was, that expunged last week in Philly. For Saints fans, Saturday will definitely gauge one’s capacity to remember what’s possible, and to Keep The Faith.

And win or lose, may everyone have a healthy and prosperous 2014….

The Shrieks Tuesday, Nov 26 2013 

by Bert Bartlett

 

Colin Kaepernick trotted out onto the Superdome carpet with about a minute to play after the Saints took the lead, preparing for a last possession to try and pull the game out for the 49’ers. Fans commenced their collective roars. Sean Payton flailed his arms upward from the sidelines, having no reservation whatsoever in exhorting them to let it all hang out.

Yet all crowd shrieks are not the same. The tenor for the home team can be laced with fear, as in …hold on!  But this barrage had none of that, it having the baritone of a coliseum scene from Russell Crowe’s cinema classic, Gladiator. Kill ‘em! Now! Do It! 

When it comes to defensive stands for the Post Katrina era Saints, the tone of the latter has been far and few between, this reminiscent of the blood thirst emanating from the stands a quarter of a century ago, when the likes of Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling, Vaughn Johnson, Jim Wilks, Frank Warren et al made life miserable for visiting offenses on Poydras Street.  Kaepernick was tossed around like a rag doll in being sacked twice, and had no shot. Game Over. Defensively, on this day at least, the Saints had come Back To The Future.

The Saints will be on the receiving end of plenty of shrieks up in Seattle next Monday night on prime time. Whether those will be fueled by booze or latte is anybody’s guess.

The noise decibels will resemble multiple Boeing 747’s at takeoff. Though it is an outdoor stadium, almost accidentally it seems, it’s the loudest in the league. But the explanation for much of the noise may simply be a release of mass malaise, in a place where it drizzles and rains most calendar days every year.

It will be bedlam. They kick off the proceedings with their 12th Man tradition, and though stolen from Texas A & M University, it upstages that at College Station. A guest of the Seahawks will pull on the rope of a large bell up in the end zone, after which the place will proceed to go bonkers for the next several hours.  

The last time the Saints were in Seattle was bitter, in a playoff opener as defending champs in January of 2011. As double digit favorites over a measly tournament entrant, the team just skidded around up there, made a mess, and though ended up scoring in the thirties, lost. On this page, imagery used afterwards was that of the RMS Titanic, hitting an iceberg in the Great Northwest, leaks sprung everywhere, and everyone having to paddle home.

Head coach Pete Carroll brought the college atmosphere from USC up to Seattle in his first, that season there. Surprisingly, in a pro league that tires of rah rah, largely due to the conundrum of business and marathon seasons, it has worked ever since. His coaching philosophy? It’s simple. Energy, energy, and more energy, and spare me the details. He can be amusing in that respect. Last year, when the replacement refs blew a call on an end zone catch that robbed the Packers of a win, Carroll sprinted to the end zone and lobbied them like a street hustler in New York City, a subtle smile besmirched on his face, knowing full well all along that the call that gave his team the victory was bogus.  

The Seahawks are the fashionable pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl because they a) have a strong team and b) an opponent would have to advance thru the vehement venue of the 12th Man to do so. Seattle hasn’t lost at home in 2 years.

San Francisco’s defense was burly, Seattle’s is faster. Though Darren Sproles is needed back for this game, the Saints aren’t really going to outrun them. Besides some persistence in just running straight at them in the hope they can occasionally crack open a seam, Sean Payton’s offensive game plan hopefully utilizes every inch of ground on their field, and spreads it long and wide. He’s good at that. Some misdirection, in either running or cross field passing, might eventually tire the ‘Hawks, as would monotonous, clock consuming drives. Throw deep a couple of times early, just to get them thinking more and reacting less, which is when they are deadly. Their cornerback in dreadlocks, Richard Sherman (#25), besides being Stanford educated and a cartoonish character, is probably the best at his position in the NFL. Tall, swift, rangy, and physical, Spider Man spins webs around receivers. It will be interesting when he is matched up with Marques Colston. Because of the speed of their linebackers, and that they will likely overload on him, Jimmy Graham is likely in for a tough night.

Russell Wilson has a good arm and can move but is not immensely talented. Where he stands out is with his headiness, efficiency, and composure, in an amount unusual for a young quarterback. He’s not the type to get stupid and get his team beat, a key to the success he has had and brought. Back in that ‘11 nightmare, the Saints missed a jillion tackles on running back Marshawn Lynch, producing a highlight reel touchdown run that, besides inevitably will be replayed countless times in the promos for this game, resurrected a then sagging career. For coordinator Rob Ryan, he will have to pick his poison. If Lynch has another big night, it will be bad news for New Orleans. The gut feeling here is to contain Lynch at all costs and challenge Wilson to beat the Saint defense through the air. Percy Harvin and Golden Tate have ability at wide receiver, but there are no Megatrons on their receiving corps. Whomever is playing tight end may be the key one the Saints can’t afford to forget about.

It’s being billed as the game of the year so far, and though the Pats and Broncos put on quite a show the other night, we can’t disagree. Oddsmakers have Seattle favored by 8 points, a wide spread considering the sterling records of both teams. Big games like this often turn into blowouts; let us hope the Saints don’t end up on the wrong side of that!  

Yet a perusal of their season record reveals that the Seahawks have not faced or defeated a team with as classy an offense this season as the one they will see from Brees & Company on Monday night. They did beat the Panthers in the opener and then the Cardinals, but before both began playing well. And no offense to them, but those offenses were not of this octane. New Orleans’ team knows something about playing while hearing the shrieks. This gives us optimism; indeed, not only that, we’re just nuts enough not only to hope – but to expect – that the Saints will go up there and have enough premium gas to win the damn thing.

 

 Souls Of The Saints Sincerely Wishes Everyone A Happy Thanksgiving

 

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