Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Super Bowl

There’s no way I could possibly dress up the title of this column. No hyperbole or jacked up adjectives could do it more justice.

The New Orleans Saints, after four-decades of frustration and inching progress towards the goal of every NFL team, will compete in America’s biggest sporting event.

There are so many angles.

Some believe the game’s relevance is rooted in Katrina and what all of us New Orleans folk “went through” (President Obama’s pity-reason for rooting for the Black and Gold).

But this Katrina evacuee, victim and returnee doesn’t think the story of the Saints’ first appearance in the Superbowl should be about Katrina.

Tens of thousands of Saints fans packed the Superdome, and before that Tulane Stadium, prior to August 29, 2005. Those Saints fans came back to the dome in 2006, mostly to demonstrate their love of a team that has given its fans little to cheer about in the existence of the franchise.

That the Superdome has been sold out through season tickets every year since the Saints returned to New Orleans had nothing to do with Katrina and everything to do with the ownership’s commitment to putting a quality product on the turf.

The Tom Benson era started off with much promise with four playoff appearances and five winning seasons in the first seven years under new management. Sports management guru Jim Finks was hired as general manager and help mold the Saints into winners for the first time.

But when Finks’s health deteriorated, so did the team. Between 1993 and the start of the 2006 season, the Saints organization had one bright spot: winning its first playoff game in 2000.

Compelled by NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to return to the battered Crescent City, Benson and general manager Mickey Loomis gutted and rebuilt the team, from head coach down to quarterback and along the way picked up the team’s first certifiable celebrithete with the second overall pick of the 2006 draft. More so than even the signing of quarterback Drew Brees, selecting USC running back Reggie Bush was the first real signal in the post-Katrina world that Benson wanted to win.

The Saints front-office, recognizing the economic realities of a metropolitan area still struggling to recover, developed a ticket pricing structure and the fans responded.

General manager Loomis was as aggressive in free agency in 2009 as he was in 2006, turning the Saints secondary from its Achilles heel to its defensive strength. Head coach Sean Payton showed maturity adopting a more conservative and balanced game plan, abandoning the aerial circus of calling pass after pass and utilizing the team’s talented yet unrecognized running back committee undrafted free agents Pierre Thomas and Lynell Hamilton and Denver Bronco castaway Mike Bell.

Now there’s the real story of the NFC Champion New Orleans Saints. No hurricane drama. Just a well-put together team that never gave up regardless of the deficit and fed off the energy of the league’s most passionate fans.

The Peyton Angles

I found myself turning off the radio the other day as a national sports talk program had worked my last nerve. For that particular program…or rather any given sports radio program not originating from Louisiana, the story for the sports media is Peyton Manning. I can think of one hell of a Peyton angle but they never really dwelled on it.

For them it’s about adulation of an individual that is one of the greatest to play the position. On this count, I’m partial to Brett Farve on this but Peyton is young and talented enough to beat many of the grizzled veteran’s records.

I could understand the Peyton obsession back in 2007 when the talk was whether Peyton would be denied enshrinement based upon his lack of post-season success and a Super Bowl ring. But Peyton got his jewelry and their reserving a place for his bust in Canton.

But why are they still talking about him when the pressure is now on Saints quarterback Drew Brees to win the big one in order to for his name to one day join the gridiron’s immortals?

Because he hails from a small and often denigrated media market, Brees will likely have to win a Super Bowl, if not two, to get to the Hall of Fame.

The real Peyton angle is that he will be facing off against the team his father Archie led in the seventies and early eighties and whose name prominently hangs on a banner inside the Superdome.

Who would have thought thirty years ago that the only thing stood between the Saints and their first Super Bowl victory was a scrawny adolescent in the stands watching his father run for his life from the opposing team’s defensive line?

The Breakdown

The Indianapolis Colts offense is what the Saints used to be prior to 2009: over-reliant on the pass.

Throw in that Peyton Manning ranked seventh in interceptions with 16, the ball-hawk Saints secondary only need to pick the Colts quarterback off twice to put Indianapolis in a hole they might not be able to climb out of.

That said, Manning has one of the best offensive lines in the NFL and the Saints have a lackluster pass-rush that will give the Colt general ample time to safely get the ball off to the open receiver of his choice.

Can the Saints’ secondary cover tight end Dallas Clark, the best in the business, and wide receiver Reggie Wayne? If they can, then they’ve practically shut down the Colts offense.

The other piece of good news for the Saints defense is that the Colts were dead last in the league at rushing. For a squad that has given up big running scores throughout the season, the Saints run defense should perform better than they have against teams with a more establishing running game.

And finally there is the most talked about ankle in the world, owned by Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney. Freeney, who had 13.5 sacks in the regular season, won’t be at his best even if the Pro-Bowler sees action, which is good news for Drew Brees’s award winning offensive line.

The Colts defense isn’t as stout against the run, ranking 24th in the NFL allowing 126.5 rushing yards per game. They’re better against the pass, ranking 14th surrendering 212.7 yards in the air per game. However the Colts defense is far stingier when it comes to points, giving up the 9th fewest in the NFL, 19.2 per game.

Brees commands the best offense in the NFL and will test a good but not great Colts defense. With ample targets for number Nine and a hobbled if active Freeney, Brees should have a great day if he does a good job protecting the football when the Colts defense gets penetration. Better to take a sack than give the ball up.

The Oddsmaker

USA Today oddsmaker Danny Sheridan has the Colts as a 5 point favorite. No surprise here. Peyton Manning is the prototype for a quartback and the Colts won their conference championship with greater ease than the Saints. Also keep in mind that had the Colts not pulled their starters, they would have finished the season no worse than 15-1, with the one loss coming from having to play in the middle of a blizzard in Orchard Park, NY.

My Prediction: Saints Win!

Since I believe the Saints will win and the Black and Gold are the underdogs, take the points.

Without writing a lengthy passionate screed, I would like to briefly state four reasons why I believe the Saints will win:

1) The Saints will be healthier with two weeks rest as the bye periods have been a blessing.

2) The Saints are hungrier. That they haven’t been there before isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Brees knows his place in NFL history and his spot in Canton are on the line. Tight end Jeremy Shockey was denied the opportunity to play in his previous team’s Super Bowl appearance; he intends to make the most of this chance. Reggie Bush, who will likely be peddling his services elsewhere next season because of his salary, could not have a better stage on which to audition for new prospective employers. Defensive end Will Smith, who was snubbed out of a deserved Pro Bowl invite/bonus, sees this as his opportunity to make a statement to his peers. And free safety Darren Sharper wants another line for his Hall of Fame resume. Sabremetrics it’s not but I stand by the above cited intangibles.

3) The Saints have overcome the most hurdles, and I’m not talking about Katrina. Look at who the Saints have beaten this year: two teams that played in conference championship games (New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings) and three hall of fame quarterbacks (Kurt Warner, Tom Brady and Favre). While the Saints barely defeated the Vikings, the Colts had a few close calls against lesser opponents in the regular season.

4) Balance. Running back Pierre Thomas is going to introduce himself to the free world on Super Sunday.

In closing, I have only this to say: WHO DAT!

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