There are two different kinds of NFL teams, those that have a quarterback and those that don’t.
The New Orleans Saints are lucky enough to be in the haves column with future Hall of Famer Drew Brees running the show, something head coach Sean Payton understands. Many in the Big Easy, however, believe actions speak louder than words and assume Payton’s plan for the 2015 Saints is about taking some of the load off his now 36-year-old signal caller.
Here’s the empirical evidence:
The veteran head coach and his general manager, Mickey Loomis, traded away the best pass-catching tight end in football in Jimmy Graham, as well as emerging deep-threat wide receiver Kenny Stills.
Meanwhile, Pro Bowl center Max Unger was brought back from Seattle in the Graham trade, and 6-foot-7 Stanford offensive lineman Andrus Peat was the team’s pick with the 13th overall selection in the draft. Mark Ingram was also re-signed to run the ball behind all that new beef and he was given a complement in the backfield with ex-Buffalo speedster C.J. Spiller.
On the surface all of that looks like an effort to bolster the running game and rely less on Brees and his passing ability, a narrative Payton downplayed this week.
“In ’06 (Payton’s first season as the Saints’ head coach), there was a certain talent that we had present and we tried to take advantage of the playmakers and progressively through the years we’ve done that,” the coach claimed. “I don’t see that changing much … I don’t see this whole major shift in a certain direction.”
For Payton, it’s never been about run versus pass and the only goal moving forward is maximizing the final years of Brees’ stay among the truly elite QBs in the NFL.
The Purdue product has carried this offense for a decade but is coming off a bit of down year, at least for him.
Brees led the league with 4,952 passing yards in ’14 and the Saints’ passing game ranked in the league’s top five for the ninth straight time. However, the quick-triggered Brees was sacked an uncharacteristically high 29 times and also turned the football over 20 times, a very high number for a signal caller who has always been about taking care of it.
“Each year what we’ve tried to do is take our personnel and apply it the best way we see fit to move the football,” Payton said. “The key will be how we utilize this group of players. I do not envision this drastic change if you will.”
That’s may seem like an oxymoron unless you examine things closely.
On the one hand, yes, going from Graham to a Ben Watson-type and taking away Stills from the wide receiver group seems to trend away from the passing game, while bolstering the offensive line and fortifying the backfield clearly points toward an emphasis on the running game.
Conversely, though, a strong ground game has always been a part of Payton’s plans. And at times a better balance to the offense might take some raw numbers away from the passing game but it will ultimately help the offense’s efficiency in key situations.
“When we’ve been good, we’ve run the ball (effectively),” the coach said. “In ’09 we ran the ball really well, in ’06 we ran the ball really well, and in ’13 (we did that).”
The numbers actually bear that out. Even last season the Saints’ 406 rushing attempts and 4.5 yards per rush were very hearty for any offense.
Payton has always remained open-minded in how he wants to move the football and any coach wants a competent, consistent running game for their four-minute offense.
None of that means the Saints will be abandoning their strength, however.
“Look, we’re always going to throw the ball. As long as (Brees) is here,” veteran right tackle Zach Strief said. “We’re going to throw the ball because we’re good at it.”
And Brees still has veteran Marques Colston as well as emerging second-year player Brandin Cooks outside the numbers.
“I think (Cooks) is someone that is a quick learner,” Payton said. “He was able to pick things up fairly quickly for a rookie. For him it is year two of a system so it is a little easier with the learning curve … He has a lot more
knowledge of what we are doing and so that allows a player to play a little faster.”
The real mentality of this offseason in NOLA has been about replacing Brees’ former security blanket, scatback Darren Sproles, who was traded to Philadelphia before the ’14 season, and rebuilding an O-Line that started to show some serious cracks a year ago.
Spiller has far more size and speed than Sproles ever did and an upper echelon skill set but the former top 10 pick needs to flash the durability and consistency that was absent during from his game in Western New York.
“He’s versatile,” Payton said of his new RB. “He has exceptional speed so he’s a threat on the perimeter. The trick each time you’re obviously getting ready to play each game is trying to find ways to get him the football in those space situations. He can run.”
Helping Spiller garner that space will be Unger, the new pivot who was a two-time Pro Bowl selection with the Seahawks, and Peat, who will start his NFL career right next to Unger at left guard, although his length and athleticism eventually project out to left tackle, currently the domain of Terron Armstead.
“He’s coming from a pro system,” Payton said when discussing his prized rookie. “I think there will be some catching up to do and yet at the same time, knowing him, he’s a pretty sharp guy, he just graduated from Stanford so I’m sure he’s had a few more challenges that are a little bit more difficult.”
The names may change in New Orleans but the plan remains the same as long as Brees calls the city home.
“We’re going to try to move the football and score,” Payton said. “Some weeks it may be running the ball well and in some weeks it may be throwing the ball more. That’s just the truth.”