by Bert Bartlett
It was little surprise assistant Aaron Kromer was named Interim Head Coach I for the first six games of the season, given the splendid job he has done with the offensive line since ’08, witnessed by Drew Brees spending relatively little time on his back here over the years. Kromer got his abbreviated head coaching career off to a great start, quoted by a TV reporter that the unusual arrangement for the team this season was “a co-op” effort.
A Co-op! Down at community gatherings on St. Claude Avenue, one is liable to see a Kromer For President sign. Next to the billboard inside the training facility of Sean Payton’s Do Your Job, will there be another one with Interim Head Coach II, Joe Vitt on it, i.e. I’ll Be Back! Or what about one with the late George Steinbrenner, given his proclivity for managerial flux with the Yankees, with a It Can Happen Here – Too!
The surreal atmosphere this off-season perhaps befits no other franchise in the league as much as the Saints, given their checkered, offbeat heritage. And perhaps no other team in can handle it as well, given it is a both a talent laden and veteran outfit. Compared to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina already now 7 years ago, this is piece of cake for the core of the organization that remains from then. Isaac threatened to rock that boat with yet more off the field diversion. But the reality is, the only thing missing in the Saints’ comprehensive, SPOS (Sean Payton Operating System) is the physical presence of the man himself.
A material difference is the halos having been removed from the Saints’ image, which will be given plenty of national media attention this season. One of the many freakish Saints fans replete with a painted face, Darth Saint, will be given much more camera time than The Pope. But when they congregate on Poydras St., Who ‘Dat Nation could give a hoot what the team’s image is, as long as it finds a way to come out on top. Not in the slickness of Just Win Baby, but with the oomph of Somehow, Someway.
Slick is not an attribute of Saints fans, and never has been (save some using FEMA disaster assistance benefits to buy season tickets in ’06). They are traditionally somewhere in between rabid, blindly devoted, eternally optimistic, and in need of psychological counseling, depending on your point of view. The late Jim Jones, who once orchestrated a mass suicide an ocean away in Guyana, would, if he were alive today, be intimidated by the spirituality of Saints fans, that which we like to refer to as Soul.
On the offensive, stalwart Saints like Brees, Colston, Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, and Jahri Evans all have one thing in common. At this stage of their careers, it’s unlikely they will get much better. The good news is, 90% of their typical production, injury free, is enough to take the team a long way in 2012. Particularly with the continued break-out of Jimmy Graham, an emergence of Mark Ingram, and the likes of a lookie at the rookie we got off the street here, Travaris Cadet, via Appalachian State and Pearl River, MS Junior College. Up front, former Raven Ben Grubbs looks about as good a replacement for the departed stud at guard, Carl Nicks, as could be found.
Once again, how long the Saints play in 2013 will come down to defense. New coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s schemes, supposedly in difference with those of Gregg Williams, will have more zone than man-to-man coverage, with the front line free to roam on instincts rather than mostly stay put and protect gaps. The theory is this will create a split second of indecision by the opposing quarterback, which will allow the Saints to have more of a “natural” pass rush, when they don’t decide to blitz. That’s the theory, anyway. The theory looked mostly terrible against Houston two weeks ago in the first half when the teams looked as if they were playing for keeps, as the Texans ran and passed at will. If there is a kink in the much needed new ideas, it’s vulnerability to the run, the most disheartening way for a team to get beat. Saints fans would be wise to have low expectations for the defense until it, and the array of new players, have some time to jell, until say, around Halloween. And what will be evident once again, is that good players that play well together (or lack thereof) trump theories every time.
But by the end of the year, there should be some new household names on the unit, for better or worse. Along the line, former Bronco Brodrick Bunkley. Junior Galette. Akiem Hicks. Tyrunn Walker. Martez Wilson. Behind them, Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne. Will Herring. And maybe even the newly acquired Barrett Ruud, who has had some past success with the Bucs. On the backside, the main thing is that Jabari Greer stays healthy. And that Roman Harper is better utilized to his specific talents (which don’t include isolated pass coverage). Though all the DB’s dropped an inordinate amount of interceptions last year, Malcolm Jenkins is a good player. Patrick Robinson may be better after a few seasons under his belt.
The club has had what appears to be a diverse influx of new talent. In pre-season the local media was obsessed who the fourth receiver on the team would be by opening day. Smartly, the Saints streamlined through the noise and padded a position of strength by keeping six, with another prospect on the practice squad, and saved rookie Nick Toon on injured reserve (see why we have called August Hot Air month?). There was a ditto scenario whether Chris Ivory or the spunky Cadet would make the “final” running back position; they kept ‘em both. Cadet could be an asset on punt/kick returns (besides, great name).
He probably won’t play much, but keep your eyes out for #70, rookie offensive tackle and seventh round draft choice, Marcel Jones from Nebraska. This guy is a behemoth, appearing to be much bigger than the 6’7”, 320 lbs. he’s listed at – more like 7’0” and 375 (teams still usually understate their player sizes in the programs to “surprise” the opponents they line up against on game day, an old school mental ploy). If Morgus The Magnificent needs a replacement for Chopsley, he’s right here, out on Airline Drive. And if Jones has half as much ability as his imposing appearance, how can he not miss? On physics alone, it’s odd he lasted to the last round of the draft. Maybe, for the home team, Morgus called scouts and spooked their teams away from selecting him.
Overall, it’s still as deep a roster as any in the league, the defense especially augmented with possibilities. While the local media worried about whom the fourth receiver would be, over on HBO’s Hard Knocks, down in Miami, Dolphins’ coaches moaned for the presence of any kind of receiver, after Chad Johnson was arrested for allegedly head butting his wife and let go.
Yes, despite six months of headlines about bounties, unprecedented suspensions, a $100 MM contract, sour grapes from a filmmaker and ex-player (ex-fullback John Karney said there was an element of “evil” in the organization), and the lawsuits, the Saints have quietly rounded out a roster that has a chance to be the most complete – and best – in their history. And good enough to compete for a title, assuming of course, the injury bugs comply and go light on the team. Only 5 out of 53 players are 30 years old or over, with Brees tied for senior citizen status at age 33.
Yet the schedule is brutal, which almost looks fishy, like the rigged wrath of a commissioner, though he doesn’t formulate it. The division will be an ornery SEC dogfight, especially if the Panther defense tightens up on the other side of Cam Newton, or if the wild card in the mix, Tampa Bay, starts catching fire with lots of new players and a new head coach from Rutgers. Atlanta is always a problem for New Orleans, whatever the circumstances. The Saints have dates with both Mannings, NFC favorites Green Bay and San Francisco, last year’s Dream Team of capability, the Eagles, and the possibly potent Cowboys. San Diego comes here in what should be an aerial assault, and the Chiefs are on tap, after putting the clamps on Aaron Rodgers and his offense late last fall, turning them into a semblance of pouting little children.
The Post-Katrina Saints under Sean Payton are 4-0 at home and 0-3 on the road in the playoffs. The latter part of that equation will likely have to change if New Orleans is to make an end run here, for a dreamy February homecoming (dreams are also being merchandised at the presidential conventions). This year, the defining, affecting moments of the head coach’s absence will come when the Saints are caught up on Any Given Sunday in an unexpected catfight with an inferior opponent, and in the big games, especially if they are close, which mandate the right calls, which Payton has made much more often than not.
In the coaching fraternity (and especially their agents), though they will be quiet on the matter, hardly anybody will be pulling for the 2012 Saints. In a meeting of coaches and suits at the league’s office in New York when Bountygate was going down, only John Fox (a former assistant friend of the coach’s from days when both were with the Giants) spoke out in support of Coach Payton, according to a report on ESPN’s Outside The Lines. And reportedly it was a hallow one at that. The show also mentioned some murmuring about Payton running up the score last season in pursuit of Brees’ records. Unless it is at the secondary school level, that kind of complaint from the defeated side is always lame.
But friendship, professional ethics, or any gyration of those won’t be the reasons coaches and the agents around the league will have thumbs down on the Saints this season. Just ascribe it to human nature and self protectionism: if the Saints were to even make a Super Bowl, much less win it, without their head coach on the sidelines, subconsciously, the ultimate role (and monetary worth) of the head coach is suddenly pause for reconsideration around the league. Is A Co-op an alternative wave of the future, amidst a pro football culture that is admittedly changing? Nothing would likely come into play from it, but the mere thought of it would have agents concerned.
There are only 32 of these coveted jobs in the NFL, and Sean Payton’s stature with the Saints has been forever etched in a major league positive, but too many in the media start carving out space in Mt.Rushmore for many of them before they’ve really done anything. Coaching icons have done plenty over the years with their superlative records for the esteemed worth of the position, but none more than owner Daniel Snyder in Washington, when he lured Steve Spurrier from Florida to the tune of about $3 MM per annum, opening the floodgates from the then high range of approximately $1.5 MM – $2 MM per year (the hire was a mistake on both sides, and his contract was subsequently bought out). A decade after the mishire in Washington, it is estimated Sean Payton will lose approximately double what Spurrier signed for, from his one year suspension. That’s considerably faster than the inflation rate. Speaking of Washington…
‘Da Redskins! open the season against the Saints on Sunday in the Dome (we prefer that to the Mercedes Benz Superdome. Nothing against MB, but it’s redundant). Owner Daniel Snyder grew up along the Beltway corridor a Redskin fan, and was a media marketing maven at a young age (he formed a limited partnership that outsourced marketing services of the US News & World Reports), earning himself the right to buy his favorite team for some $800 MM at age 34, about half of which was borrowed. Today, Forbes has the Redskins about doubling in value to $1.6 BB, second in the league only to the nemesis Dallas Cowboys by a slim margin, and Snyder’s net worth at about $1.1 BB.
Yet for all his business acumen, since he bought them in ’99, for the majority of the time, the ‘Skins’ parade has marched to the beat of a lousy drum. Consumer rights advocate Ralph Nader would classify them a rip-off, even if the ticket, suite, parking, concession and sundry product prices were not in the Hollywood sphere that they are. By the way, Snyder once signed a movie production deal in another venture after he bought the team, with Tom Cruise.
In reaches to gain instant competitive stature for the team, he operated it emulating Steinbrenner’s Yankees, but with repeated big name free agent signings that ended up being for has-beens or never-weres, all lassoed into an atmosphere that spawned dissatisfaction, given the lofty, unrealistic, expectations. Deion Sanders. Jeff George. Bruce Smith. Albert Haynesworth, to name a few.
He went through plenty of coaches too; Norv Turner, Marty Schottenheimer lasted all of 1 year, Jim Zorn, and there was the attempted resurrection of the legendary Joe Gibbs (at $5 MM per). As much as he had the flair to make lots of money in sponsorships for the Redskins, such as Fedx, to his credit, he didn’t hesitate to throw plenty of it right back at them in an effort to win, though in vain. Plenty of owners historically have not invested in the talent for their teams as aggressively as Snyder has. He has been the owner most responsible for the steep upward curve in player compensation, also.
Maybe Snyder simply surrounded himself with too many yes men, or didn’t understand the game, not an uncommon affliction among NFL owners. This doesn’t make for a bad owner – unless one likes to keep his hands too far down in the playpen. And Snyder, like Jerry Jones, can do that. Mr. Benson’s best attribute as owner of the Saints has been in knowing what aspects of the operation to be hands on, and what not to. It’s a testament to the team aspect of the game that big ticket free agents, like #9 in New Orleans for example, or a Reggie White in Green Bay, can be instrumental to a title, but Super Bowl trophies by and large still can’t be bought on the open market (the Cowboys and 49’ers didn’t need Deion Sanders to win them in the 90’s, trust me). This is what Snyder tried – and failed miserably – to do. The federal government has had a sounder annual budget on what to spend on than Snyder did. If and when the NFL does turn into a gridiron version of Moneyball, it will become a terrific bore (though that made for a good movie, and fits baseball).
Maybe what the Redskins need is some good old fashioned support from a President. Obama likes his community’s Chicago Bears, the Bushes were Texas Rangers, and the only Hogs Bill Clinton cared about were down in Arkansas. Ronald Reagan seemed to like all the teams, but Jimmy Carter didn’t appear to like sports much, his heart in Atlanta if pressed. When Gerry Ford got sworn in, everyone knew he was a Michigan Man. The last President to outreach the nation capital’s home team was non other than Richard Milhous Nixon. A half a century ago, he would go to Camp David to watch a game if it was blacked out on local TV (and let his dissatisfaction with the league’s televison policies known to Commissioner Pete Rozelle, through his Attorney General Kleindinst, along with some veiled congressional threats). Once he flew to a Redskin practice in a helicopter, unbeknownst to anyone other than Coach George Allen. And he was rumored to call a play in to the coach for a playoff game, a failed end around, but Allen never confirmed or denied this afterwards. The press ripped Tricky Dick for the loss to the 49’ers. Give Nixon credit for being a red blooded fan in D.C., unlike the others. If Mitt Romney gets elected, he will likely wear his faith on his sleeve by donning a Brigham Young jersey.
Redskin fans are relieved that owner Snyder’s priorities finally may be in line in that they need to cultivate their own stars out of the hatch, and Robert Griffin III is just the rookie quarterback, that, if all goes according to plan, can run for Mayor of D.C. when he is done some day. RG III is abundantly talented, though how his ability fits into football NFL style is anyone’s guess. From the tapes, it appears the ‘Skins would be wise to have him in the playbook rolling out with pass run options from moving pockets (he can do this, move on a dime while throwing ropes), with running out of bounds and sliding down check off choices rather than busted plays. This is preferable to allowing him to fall into an identity quagmire of pocket passer vs. scrambler, one that the media will no doubt harp on ad infinitum while he develops. I already have that mute button on. Saints fans get the first peek at him on Sunday. Let’s hope it is a muddled debut, but don’t count on it. He likes to work hard, can play, and can light up his teammates, as evidenced by him leading Baylor University football out of the Dark Ages. Griffin has Santana Moss and ex-Colt Pierre Garcon to throw to. After a long, productive career with limited physical ability, TE Chris Cooley retired, in tears at his press conference. The running backs and offensive line are a collection of no-names, though those types have periodically had good games against the Saints.
They do play decent defense in Washington, but head coach Mike Shanahan has been something of a head scratcher, casting his team’s quarterback lot his first few seasons with Rex Grossman, who is better suited for an Arena League. Even though Shanahan inherited Jason Campbell’s injuries and non-effectiveness, there were better options. Once known as an astute judge of talent, his coaching star has lowered while those of John Elway, Terrelle Davis, and Shannon Sharpe have remained bright since the Broncos won back to back Super Bowls in the 1990’s. A player of his once remarked to the effect that he didn’t like playing for Shanahan, because when something inevitably went wrong in the course of a game, it was always “the system is right, you messed it up”. That rings dull to players’ ears, and can sully their motivation, even when it is true. Defensively, the ‘Skins have veteran linebackers London Fletcher and Brian Orakpo. They have corners who can cover, former Falcon DeAngelo Hall and former UT Longhorn Cedric Griffin.
Beware of the Zebras The league is going ahead with replacement referees, as the two sides remain in disagreement over money and some other issues, notably more crews and some full time refs that the league want, the refs feeling that would dilute their value. The men in the striped shirts (why not bring along some women for the job?) make on average $149K – $199K for about 8-9 months of intermittent work and travel per year, plus a pension. Their P.R. has whined about the job taking away more time from their “other occupations”, avoiding the simply obvious: they want more of a bigger pie, just like owners and players do whenever a TV contract or collective bargaining agreement comes up. Naturally, the league doesn’t want to stretch an officiating budget, though their objectives of some full time refs are long overdue.
The rift stinks, and robs the game, and its fans. It will slow it down, making the flow of the game more uneven and longer than it already is. The replay challenges are the worst. Television viewers and announcers often see the right call on their own screens long before the officials come back to the field from the peep show on the sideline and reach down to click on a microphone to say it. Coaches contribute to the momentary malaise with some wasted, bone headed challenges. To stay limber, Coach Kromer may want to have the Saints ready to do some jumping jacks during the pauses and cuts to commercials. Inevitably there will be some non-reviewable blown calls that will cost teams’ games, and standings. In a preview show on NBC, announcer Boomer Esiason said that this was headed towards an unmitigated disaster, and we’re inclined to agree. If it gets bad enough, the sides will promptly settle. As usual, in the interim, it’s the fan that gets the short end of the stick.
Sunday’s debut has some unpredictable written all over it. But this has long been a check off win, commencing a trying schedule for the Saints. If the Saints don’t win it, the longest off-season in club history won’t compare to the apprehension of how long this regular season could possibly feel. Enjoy the autumn of 2012 and what football has to offer during it. Let’s pray fall doesn’t apply to this year’s Saints. There are plenty of reasons it shouldn’t. After all, a Co-op has more units than a single family dwelling.