Thursday, September 10, 2009

Will This Be the Year for the Saints? Yes. No...Really?

Will this be the year that the Saints finally go all the way or will this just be the latest installment of a post-2006 season “great pumpkin-esque” Super Bowl vigil?

As a longtime follower of the Black and Gold dating back a tad prior to the team’s first taste of success in 1987, pessimism comes natural. And after the heady days coming from the team’s first conference championship appearance, the pattern is pointing to another let down.

I like what I saw this off-season with the moves made in free-agency (no undersized cornerbacks acquired at a premium this year) and to a lesser degree with the draft (defense, defense and special teams). And I like the play calling I saw on both sides of the ball in preseason.

To hell with heartbreak as it’s hard not to be optimistic, especially since the NFL’s most potent offense from last season is returning intact. Mostly.

Deuce McAllister, the best running back in team history, is gone as his “bodyguard” fullback Mike Karney. However, Deuce’s last year was more of a sad farewell tour as he played sparingly and Karney had his least productive year with the team. However both of these letdowns could just as easily affixed to Head Coach Sean Payton’s play calling than the cut duo’s capacity to play.

Another missing piece, albeit temporary, is Pro-Bowl Offensive Tackle Jammal Brown, who will be out of the first four to six games of the season. Brown’s presence will be missed as he contributed to a line that provided the protection that helped make Drew Brees one of the most prolific passers in NFL history.

But there’s a big upside to this season’s offense.

Running back Reggie Bush and tight end Jeremy Shockey go into the new season healthy and hopefully the injury prone “celebri-thetes” will avoid spending too much time on the back of a golf-cart heading towards an x-ray room.

Wide receiver Marques Colston seems to have returned to old form after struggling in 2008 with a finger injury and Lance Moore, who largely filled the receiving vacuum when Colston was sidelined, appears to have rebounded from an injury he sustained while lifting weights in the off-season.

Devery Henderson, whose reliability has steadily improved, and Robert Meachem, who has shown the stuff that led the team’s front office to use a first-round draft pick on him in 2007, give Brees the plethora of targets that will further confound opposing secondaries.

The return of John Carney as kicker should give the team the kind of stability they have been lacking since the infamous Orlindo Mare “upgrade”.

The biggest offensive concern for the Saints was the running game, which was underscored by the team’s interest in making a trade to land Buckeye running back Beanie Wells in the latter part of the first round in this year’s draft.

Wells was the last person I felt the Saints should have been pursing due to questions about his durability hovered over him during the draft and that the Saints should not have even considered mortgaging a future first round draft pick and complicating the team’s salary cap picture when they already possess the necessary talent at that position at a bargain.

Running back Pierre Thomas still holds the distinction of being the only Saints player to have achieved 100 yards of receiving and 100 yards of rushing in a single game and in my opinion was not given ample opportunity to prove his worth, but that problem was not the fault of Thomas but the man doing the play calling.

The Saints ranked 21st in average yards per carry but were 26th in rushing attempts. Payton’s refusal to balance the offense and obsession with a gunslinger approach resulted in a lack of clock control that kept his own defense on the field longer than they should have been.

Though Thomas will likely miss the first game of the season, Bush will be complemented with heavy-duty backs Mike Bell and Lynell Hamilton, the latter could prove to be a true diamond in the rough if his preseason performances are any indication of his talent.

The biggest problem for every Sean Payton team has been the defense, which declined with every passing year. Last season they allowed 393 points. This year they finally did something about it.

To Mickey Loomis’s credit, the front office was fairly aggressive in addressing the team’s most glaring weakness, landing Gregg Williams as the new defensive coordinator- perhaps the most highly anticipated assistant coach in the history of the franchise, thinking defense and special teams in the draft, cutting players in the secondary that didn’t get the job done and bringing in new…scratch that…different players in free agency.

The Saints’ secondary has been virtually remade with two new cornerbacks and two new safeties in addition to shifting former cornerback Usama Young to safety. Cornerback is no longer the Achilles heel of defense and the two veterans (Darren Sharper and Pierson Prioleau) that were brought in would be hard-pressed to do worst than their predecessors, even if they’re short-term fixes.

Though defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith are suspended four games their presence won’t be terribly missed if they don’t improve from their combined 6 sacks in 2008, equaling what part-time defensive end Bobby McCray accomplished by himself last season.

Grant hasn’t broken into double-digits in sacks since 2004 and Smith hasn’t since 2006. Any improvement at all would go a long way for the Saints defense.

The Saints seem solid at defensive tackle with Sedrick Ellis continuing to justify the trade Loomis made to leap ahead in the 2008 first round to draft him.

Perhaps the greatest area for concern is at linebacker. While there is no questioning the ability of Jonathan Vilma at middle linebacker, outside linebackers Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle have not exactly set the world on fire with their play. What’s ironic about the pair is that despite Shanle having made two sacks last season while Fujita had none, Fujita continues to enjoy wide popularity with the fans while Shanle has assumed the role of team “goat” now that the Black and Gold faithful no longer have Fred Thomas and Jason David to kick around anymore.

Hopefully linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, who seemed to be a one-man army in the final preseason game against Miami, will have an opportunity to prove his value to the team during the year.

The team that will take the field against Detroit on Sunday will be a vastly improved squad over the one that opened up last season. Loomis has without much fanfare put together the pieces needed to compete at a higher level.

When looking at the schedule, which is hardly a walk in the park, I can still see this team finishing 11-5 and contending for the NFC South, which will be a duel with the rival Atlanta Falcons.

If ever there was a Saints team on paper that looks Super Bowl worthy, it’s this one.

Keys to success:

1) A healthy Drew Brees (teams that lose their star quarterbacks end up finishing behind teams like the Dolphins)
2) A commitment to running the ball to use the clock against opponents
3) Jeremy Shockey and Reggie Bush being healthy and productive, if only for distractive purposes in terms of opposing defenses and not tabloids
4) Putting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks so they all don’t look like Michael Vick
5) Converting on the 3 and 1’s that were the bane of the team’s existence last season

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