by Bert Bartlett
Last year at this time, the Saints were looking up at the rest of the NFL with a goose egg in the win column. The view is better from here. Sean Payton adroitly pointed out to the media after Sunday’s waltz over the Cardinals that this team was still very much early in the process of finding it’s identity, with lots of young and new players. We couldn’t agree more, and the perch the Saints find themselves in is quite favorable at this stage, particularly with two division wins, one on the road, this having already increased their chances of winding up at the top of the NFC South considerably. And all the paint isn’t even on this renovation, much less begun to dry.
Most obvious is the wind of change on defense. Unlike what seems like what has been forever, so far, this defense contains and stops opponents in a relatively consistent manner, while the injury bug has already bitten it. On instant replays, the Saints actually have defenders on the screen the majority of the time. When the unit takes the field, for Saints fans, it isn’t necessarily time to jump up to get something to eat, or go to the restroom. We don’t mind the sights of a legitimate pass rush without excessive blitzing, or promising rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro crashing around, though much of the time he doesn’t completely know what he is doing. It isn’t necessary to try and define this defense, just seeing it somehow angle towards par is relieving enough.
A third of a century ago, the Dallas Cowboys had a consistently formidable defense, using the late, great, Tom Landry’s scheme known as The Flex. It’s a minor miracle what coordinator Rex Ryan has done with this defense, that last season was as bad as any that ever took the field since pro football officially began to be played, circa 1920. So in New Orleans these days, we’re riding with The Rex until further notice.
What have the first three wins shown us? That Marques Colston’s height (he looks about 6’4″) is a towering asset to his game, shielding himself to ward off smaller defensive backs who simply can’t get around him and up to the football while in flight. Colston had butterfingers more than usual in 2012, and without a reprise of that, he’s on another All Pro campaign. In Tampa, we saw why Drew Brees gets the big bucks. Behind, with 1:11 remaining, deep in their end of the field with negligible timeouts, his consecutive down the greens passes to varying receivers had Crescent City fans holding their collective breaths. Those moments were about the Saints’ brand of faith (and let’s be candid, not many of us thought they were going to pull it off, particularly following the rankness of much of what preceded it, the rain delay, the dirty hits that went uncalled by the refs, etc.). It was a swift, surgical execution by Number 9. If anyone noticed, Garret Hartley’s chip shot field goal to win it was treacherous, he slipping on his lead foot before the swing and follow through. As the ball frittered through the uprights, Hartley was almost on his back. Had he missed it, we doubt Coach Payton would have let him on the plane for the ride home.
Against the Falcons in the opener, the Still The King of tight ends’ wand was officially passed, from the great Tony Gonzalez to our Jimmy Graham. Beast, freak, whatever you wish to call him (what about Jolly Good Cracker ?), he is the best at his position in the game, no disrespect to the injured Gronkowski up in New England. Graham has more range, and is a tad bit more physically foreboding in defensive backfields. We really like his hands. And it’s like he is still learning the game! What happens when he eventually “gets it” ? On Airline Drive, talks have begun on a much deserved new contract for him. After Brees, this will, and should be, Bank Opening II for the front office. Let’s hope it doesn’t drag out and be the subject of needless fodder. And if Jimmy Graham somehow doesn’t get signed and is allowed to leave New Orleans? Souls Of The Saints may shut down, in protest.
Predictably though, leaks have sprung in Drew Brees’ protection. The Saints will not win as often if the quarterback is harried and sacked 4 to 6 times a game. Payton may have to draw up extra block schemes with more double tight end formations to chip defenders on the way off the line of scrimmage, or use the fullback more, to block in the pocket, all of which mean one or two less outlets for Brees, and less pressure on opponents. Not Good. And the Saints’ running game, or lack thereof, remains it’s Lost Soul. Mark Ingram has recently become the media’s and fans’ whipping boy for it, yet some of that is undue. Coaching situational football like Payton does, the running game has not been paramount yet, and some of the calls where it has been tapped on have been less than ideal, Payton coughing up as much with the media afterwards. Notably, a better defense allows the team the luxury of not having to hold onto possession of the ball as critically. Rumors were that the frustration, and his persistent injuries as well, had Ingram demanding a trade. The air is still, similar to that around Reggie Bush near his final days here, before he went to Miami. Speaking of which…
Last summer’s HBO reality series, Inside Training Camp, visited the Miami Dolphins, down in Biscayne, Fla. Over the past several years, players and coaches on the featured teams appear more candid and relaxed on the show, and less contrived, while the cameras tail them around and hover sponge microphones in the vicinity. After all, it is the heat and pressure cooker of training camp, incidental criticism and public image be damned, at least for the moment. This has gradually forged it into a good show.
Some poignant scenes were when relatively new head coach Joe Philbin cut veteran receiver Chad Johnson early in the morning, just hours after he been arrested and released from jail for assaulting his wife. Ocho Cinco couldn’t jive his way out of that one with Philbin, whose decision had been made before Johnson even sat down on the sofa. Then some team leaders, including Reggie Bush, visted Philbin and mumbled that they didn’t appreciate that what they thought should have been more of a team decision had been made, without them being consulted. Philbin listened, nodded, and said he’d make more efforts for team leaders to meet with him about such issues going forward. The players acted placated, though left his office disappointed. As did Chad Johnson, earlier in the day. Johnson hasn’t been on a league roster since, and likely never will again. NFL franchises are much more likely to put up with divas when they are young and fast, not when they are in their late 30’s and have just beaten their wives.
Anyway, Philbin, though appearing to be in every comportment the square jawed semi-perfect gentleman, seemed generally as dull as the day after Christmas. While watching the show, the question seemed to be only how many games into the 2012 season he’d last before being let go, with as talent shy and as new and unproven a roster. Fast forward to their current 3-0 start, and Coach Philbin is a contender for coach of the year. Dr. Dull has quietly assembled a young, promising team, including quarterback Ryan Tannehill out of Texas A & M, free agent receiver Mike Wallace from Pittsburgh (after the Steelers didn’t want to pay him, they are regretting it), and plucking linebacker Dannell Ellerbee from the champion Ravens. They did let Bush go, to Detroit. It’s a real credit to Philbin that he has connected to this young and particular generation of NFL player (it can turn on a dime) while having more military image than rock star or celebrity status.
If The Fins keep ascending, tens of thousands of the team’s fans will bring back and wave their traditional white handkerchiefs in their home stands, with partisan enthusiasm. The New England Patriots have owned the AFC East for years, in part to perpetually weak outfits in the division. If anyone is going to knock Tom Brady and Bill Belichick off their coddled favorite status this year, it’s Miami. Their helmet logo has been modernized, with a skinnier Dolphin streamlining a swim through the ring of fire, versus standing up on a hind fin like Twinkle Toes at Ocean World and in a good mood amidst it. We prefer the latter. Other than that, everything looks much better for the Miami Dolphins.
They will come to the Superdome and give the home team plenty to worry about on Monday night, because they have a stingy defense, and are playing with ability, youth, and confidence, the elusive combination of ingredients that all NFL teams always yearn for. But the Saints have more been here and done that, a prime time matchup amongst unbeaten teams, and at home in particular. Who ‘Dat Nation will wear on the opponent’s focus and New Orleans having more weapons on offense over 60 minutes should be enough to prevail.
Frankly, sterner tests await the Saints afterwards, on the road the next few weeks in Chicago and New England. A lasting image with these two teams was in the title run year of 2009, when a certain running back wearing #25 in black and gold, shot out of a cannon from the 5 yard line, up and over and draping the pylon with the ball for 6 points, in a dramatic win down there. In homage, we’ll call this Monday night The Reg-gie Bowl.