It’s a whole new game
After a long hot summer of draught and discontent the New Orleans Saints returned to their Superdome hunting grounds in August eager to replenish the stores of enthusiasm that had so spilled over in the two years prior. Where worn green colored carpet once bore the frequent face plants of Archie Manning, now plush hybrid turf loftily nestles Drew Brees’ masterful command of game and crowd. Where King Cotton Dome Dogs, contents uncertain, once could be had for a pittance with few in line to delay one’s purchase, now club seating and VIP lounges serve martinis and rich pasta for the football, and financially, devoted who sell out to capacity every single week. The underdog has become the powerhouse, and consistent with the true first-class professionalism that has become this franchise’s hallmark, the front office has withstood the loss of several veterans, or ushered it along in certain cases, by retaining the services of several new, exciting players who should continue to rock the home crowds for several years to come.
Gone is Reggie Bush; the here and now is Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles. In between the jetting dashes of Pierre Thomas, defenses must deal with Ingram’s savvy bull rushing, cutback style. It is entirely possible that, aside from the unfortunate blunted career of George Rogers, the Saints have never had a running back with such clear potential for the Hall of Fame, which is saying a lot, and yet the reality is that Ingram is already showing signs of being a premier running back in his first year. Ingram is often compared with Emmitt Smith, the Cowboys great and Hall of Famer, and in watching his first touchdown for the Saints, in his first game, which was in the Dome, it became evident why – the score was a bullying, spinning masterpiece of footwork, impressive balance and vision and as a finale Ingram ran in backwards effortlessly into the end zone. Smith was best known for scoring touchdowns, bushelfuls of points that propelled the Cowboys to many wins and NFL championships. Even given Coach Sean Payton’s penchant for distributing the ball amongst his several running backs every year, in this situation he might find it worthwhile to rely on Ingram as a steady goal-line back, such that it’s easy to imagine him breaking the Saints’ all-time record of 13 rushing touchdowns, first set in 1981 by Rogers, or Dalton Hilliard’s 1989 record of 18 total touchdowns.
Gathering up their haul from the April draft, the Saints in August plunged deep into the swirling waters of the brief but roiling free agency market, snatching up several players who will further round out what appears to be, on paper, maybe the Saints’ best squad ever. Darren Sproles, the former San Diego scatback, consciously replaces Bush’s role as all-purpose field-stretching outside runner, pass receiving backfield threat and dangerous return man. In college, Sproles was everything, and more, that Bush was at USC, but toiled away in the media blackout that is Manhattan, Kansas, for the Kansas State Wildcats, whereas Bush played in the glare of the Los Angeles spotlight for USC. When Bush scored, the whole nation saw it within moments on ESPN – when Sproles scored it might have made the Topeka late night news. But as pros, Bush has 4,984 all-purpose yards in five seasons compared to Sproles’ 9,958 in five seasons. One can suspect that Mickey Loomis and Payton have again plucked a major talent from a relatively stagnant situation to introduce him to the full throttle offensive experiment in motion that is the Saints offense. The San Diego offense is by no means literally stagnant itself, but Sproles had been relegated to an almost forgotten role behind other running backs. No doubt Payton has plans to exploit Sproles’ skills to their maximum.
The final new piece to the Saints’ offensive puzzle will be Olin Kreutz, the 13-year veteran who as the new center has stepped in as the man who anchors the line and serves as the timing switch in Brees’ clocklike machine. Though second-year prospect Matt Tennant looks extremely hopeful as a future talent, it is not surprising that Payton’s brain trust did not feel ready to turn over the steering wheel to him quite yet. An experienced hand was apparently needed and plugging in a true footballer with six pro-bowl selections, 183 starts, a Super Bowl and several championship and other playoff games on his resume was an opportunity not to be missed. Kreutz’s appearance, in replacing Jonathan Goodwin, is also notable for being one of the few occasions, aside from the departure of Jamaal Brown at tackle and Jeff Faine previously at center, that Brees’ corps offensive line has ever changed, which is quite a testament in the modern NFL.
The final primary cog in the Saints’ offense promises to be fullback Korey Hall, signed from the Green Bay Packers, who replaces key team leader Heath Evans. Evans’ stay in New Orleans had been filled with high expectations, but from a statistical standpoint, after being oft-used to great success at the start of 2009, but then being injured and later largely unused as a runner and receiver in 2010, his final production has to be considered a disappointment. Hall takes over despite having never had a carry and only 21 catches in four years, and clearly the suggestion is he is here to block and bolster the running game. On defense, the Saints have let go three defensive linemen, tackle Anthony Hargrove, tackle Reme Ayodele, and end Jimmy Wilkerson, and one defensive back, Usama Young, and brought in three new linemen, tackle Shaun Rogers, tackle Aubrayo Franklin and end Turk McBride, plus one new defensive back, Fabian Washington, to go along with monstrously huge first round pick Cameron Jordan.
Clearly the message from an exhausting and ultimately disappointing 2010 was that the Saints needed to strengthen their run game on offense and improve their ability to stop the run on defense. But there is something more: having raised the desires of so many so high, and at such a cost, the formerly benignant, underdog loving Saints fans, so happy for their intermittent winning seasons could, in their newly refurbished palace, turn their passions in a different direction, seeking nothing short of perfection and winning in just the fashion to which they have become accustomed. As the spending grows, so do the stakes, for all concerned.
– PAUL WEGMANN