In thrashing the previously unbeaten Miami Dolphins on Monday night, the New Orleans Saints looked every bit the team that ruled the NFL before Bountygate. The scary part is Sean Payton, Drew Brees and company actually can get better
In New Orleans, time has a way of standing still, Katrina be damned. Walk down Bourbon Street, and it smells the way it smelled to you in college. Have the beignets changed in Café du Monde? Not a bit. The Superdome, even with its post-hurricane facelift, is the same as it ever was.
And Monday night, Sean Payton proved you can go home again. His team looks as explosive and dangerous and as much a Super Bowl contender as his teams did before he left for his one-year suspension stemming from Bountygate. The Saints crushed previously unbeaten Miami 38-17, and as we get some clarity on the 2013 NFL pennant race, this is what we see: The Saints and the Seattle Seahawks, both 4-0, are the teams to beat in the NFC after a quarter of the season.
It could be a race to NFC home-field advantage in the playoffs, because Seattle certainly has the biggest home-field edge in pro football, and New Orleans might be second. Which could make Saints-Seahawks in Seattle two months from tomorrow night the biggest game in the conference this year. We’ll see.
For now, other than the fact this team can play some defense, what really has changed in the Saints’ world? Well, the running game is different, to be sure. The Saints struggled to run all September, and it seems like Payton, while the run game finds it legs, is content with Brees dumping the ball to Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas (just like in 2011) for the time being. The passing game? Well, you wouldn’t know anything was different. After four games this season, Drew Brees has thrown for 1,434 yards, with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions. After four games in 2011, Bress had thrown for 1,410 yards, with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions.
“Yeah, everything’s the same but the run game, which we’ve got to fix,’’ said guard Jahri Evans in a composed locker room late Monday night. “If you’re talking about being 4-0, and slinging the ball around like Drew does, and our defense taking the ball away, it’s amazingly similar.’’
Sure looked that way last night. Sproles, in space, and power forward/tight end Jimmy Graham are two of the biggest matchup problems in football for a defense, same as in 2011. The unknown Marques Colston is always precisely where Brees needs him to be, and he’ll get the ball another 80 to 90 times this year if his knees hold up. And Payton calls the kind of aggressive, merciless game well into every fourth quarter that opposing coaches dread. There was a great shot by the ESPN cameras Monday night after a turnover of Miami offensive coordinator Mike Sherman with his head in his hands. It was as if Sherman was saying to himself, “We need every possession we can get against these guys, because they’re going to score on almost all of theirs.”
The last touchdown, Brees to Graham up the right seam for 43 yards, was a perfect example of what a team in harmony can do well. Split slightly right, Graham ran upfield and nudged the cornerback in coverage off him, getting a two-step edge while Brees looked off the deep safety. By the time Graham caught it and held it while getting downed in the end zone, it looked so easy. Brees, unruffled in the pocket, and Graham, effortlessly shrugging off coverage, connected the way they’d done so often since Graham walked into the Saints’ lives in 2010. Philip Rivers has Antonio Gates. Brees has Graham. You see the way the Patriots mugged Tony Gonzalez on the last two plays of the New England win in Atlanta Sunday night? That might be the smartest way to stop Graham. Take two defenders and mug him so much in the five-yard bump zone past the line of scrimmage that Payton will have to start setting some subtle picks for him or Brees will have to look elsewhere. For now, Brees to Graham is as dangerous a combination as there is in football.
Moreover, the Saints just look sharper. They’re already plus-five in turnover ratio. They don’t have many wasted plays, except runs. Brees and Payton are the dynamic duo again, pressing each other, Payton seeming to be in Brees’ grill when he needs to be.
“It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what Sean does,’’ tackle Zach Strief said after the game. “But he’s a leader. He knows when to push, when to back off, when to stop a period in practice and go back over things we need to do better. And Sean being back takes pressure off a lot of people. Initially, it takes pressure off Drew.’’
“Last year,’’ said Evans, “you had this person and that person and another person.’’ He was referring to the removal of Payton, and then Aaron Kromer and Joe Vitt (when he came off his suspension) alternating with the coaching reins. ‘Now you’ve got the guy who’s going to be there throughout the year. It’s his presence, and his knowledge of the game, and his connection with Drew. Those two guys are magical together, and it shows.”
And it’s going to make for a fun season, the Saints being in the spotlight, after being in the shadows for an ugly 2012.
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The Tuesday Mailbag
HONORING A STEELERS LEGEND. Surprised and disappointed to find no mention of the passing of the great L.C. Greenwood in your MMQB column. A premier member of arguably the greatest front four on the greatest defense of the greatest team of any era surely deserves more from what I consider the best football column anywhere. You managed to mention your rotisserie league and whiffed on the passing of an NFL great. I hope you clear that up Tuesday.
Very good point—I blew that. When I was at NBC on Sunday, Tony Dungy, who was very fond of L.C., talked about him in glowing terms as a person and an impact player who probably never got the attention he deserved because of all the stars on that defense. I’ll always think of the gold shoes when I think of Greenwood. I think people are rightfully so fond of that Steelers team because they were so good for so long, and they did things the right way.
COACH OF THE YEAR QUIBBLE. I love your work, but how in the world can you select Bill Belichick as your coach of the year candidate through the first quarter of the season? The Patriots are ALWAYS good because they have Tom Brady. The Chiefs were 2-14 last year and had the first overall pick in the draft. Then Andy Reid comes in and now they're UNDEFEATED (sorry about the all caps, but I'm excited). I don't care how much talent Reid inherited or how Belichick has performed. In my mind it is no contest. Andy Reid is without question, hands down, the coach of the year through the first four games of the season.
—Ted Chartier, Kansas City
If you don’t give Belichick credit in a year like this—when the Patriots are 4-0 for the first time in six years, when they’ve played the first month without their top five receivers from 2012, when they just beat a desperate Atlanta team on the road—when exactly would you give him credit? There are quite a few coaches who deserve applause after four games, and I could make a case for all of them. How can you possibly say anything bad about the job Andy Reid has done? It’s fantastic. I just think the Patriots have done an extraordinary job of going 4-0 with the guys they’ve had to play with. I actually was thinking about giving it to Rex Ryan until the Jets lost so decisively Sunday.
IT'S NOT THE HALL OF VERY GOOD. How can you mention Tony Dungy and the fact that he could be the first black coach in the Hall of Fame yet continue to ignore Tom Flores, the first Hispanic coach and two-time Super Bowl winner? It’s amazing the lack of respect Flores gets from the sports media.
—Taft Petersen, Chico, Calif.
I respect Flores as a coach and as a person, but I’ve never supported his candidacy for the Hall of Fame. I don’t believe that because a coach wins two Super Bowls or if a quarterback wins two Super Bowls, he should automatically be considered a Hall of Famer. Flores’ body of work is not that of a Hall of Famer, in my opinion. He took over a good Oakland team and did a good job coaching it, and won two Super Bowls. He went on to coach Seattle for three years to a record of 14-34. Six of his 12 seasons as coach, he was over .500. That’s a nice career. That’s not a Hall of Fame career.
HEADY QUERY. Peter, I wrote you last year about prominent players still being allowed to wear old model helmets. Brady switched for one game and was back to his old helmet. Brees still wears an old model helmet. As do Adrian Peterson and many others. What kind of message does it send about the NFL's concern for concussion safety? They make these guys wear meaningless thigh and knee pads now, but marquee players are still wearing outdated equipment on their heads? It just doesn't make sense. Talk to me Peter!
This is a good question. It’s something, actually, that The MMQB is looking into right now. I’ll tell you what I’ve been told about this. The shell of most of the helmets that you see has not changed materially over the past few years. It’s what is inside the helmet that has changed. So then the questions has to be: How are these older helmets reconditioned? Are they reconditioned to the point that they are equal to the helmets with the most modern technology? Those are some of the questions that we are asking right now. I’ll let you know when our story on this appears, and I look forward to your feedback.
A GOOD QUESTION FROM ART. What do you think Mike McCoy’s role has been in the great performance thus far of Phillip Rivers? His “resurrection” has been nothing short of amazing.
—Arthur S. Leider, San Diego
Great question. In talking to McCoy this summer, the one thing he emphasized to me about Rivers is that he always wanted him to have more than one good alternative when he dropped back to pass. He never wanted Rivers to feel like he had to force the ball to someone because no one else was open. And watching Rivers play this year, he doesn’t seem to be forcing the ball the way that he has in the past.
TACKLE TIEBREAKER. If there is a logjam at WR for HOF consideration, then why don’t you start looking beyond receptions and touchdowns. Is there really a difference between 1,000 receptions or 1,100 receptions? It’s apples to apples. Don’t forget the intangibles Hines Ward brought to the field—when he’s up for consideration.
—Scott Dean, Clyde Park, Mont.