Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ten Variables En Route to the Two-Dat

The defending world champions go into the 2010 NFL season with their team largely intact. Over 70% of New Orleans Saints’ Super Bowl roster is returning for the NFL regular season kickoff against the Minnesota Vikings and most of the players that were either cut or lost to free agency or injury were back-ups.

There are certain things I suspect will remain constant. First, a healthy Drew Brees will throw north of 4,000 yards and bushels of touchdowns. Second, the much under-appreciated (thank you fantasy football) receiving corps will continue to make the plays that made the New Orleans franchise the league’s top offense over the past four years. Thirdly, that defensive end Will Smith will play at the high level he’s paid. Fourth that the Pro-Bowl offensive linemen will keep playing like All-Stars and give Brees the protection that allows him to be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. And fifth, that the kicking game that bedeviled the team in 2007 and 2008 will be as reliable in this year as it was in the past season.

But what about the variables? The 2009 season was a lot scarier watch play out than it is to view in retrospect. What if wide receiver Robert Meachem doesn’t recover that interception against Washington? What if the Saint Louis Rams had ended the Black and Gold’s unbeaten streak early? And then what if the hated Chicago Bears don’t perform the ultimate service to the Saints by beating the Minnesota Vikings at Soldier Field in December?

Any one of those three scenarios could have resulted in the Saints road to the Super Bowl going through the Metrodome instead of the Superdome. In both Drew Brees and Sean Payton’s autobiographies, the importance of possessing home field advantage for the championship game is emphasized.

Below are ten variables that would alter the team’s quest for the Two Dat.

1) What If HE Goes Down? Forgive me for stating the obvious but quarterback Drew Brees IS the franchise player. Brees was the MVP of the Super Bowl and should have been awarded MVP for the league. But it’s hard for even someone of Brees’s talent and media market to win over sportswriters who find Peyton Manning just so “dreamy”. The worst thing that could happen to the team is for Brees was lost for the season due to an injury. The front office made the right moves letting his backup Mark Brunell get away in free-agency (the season finale at Carolina was like a horror movie preview) and keeping Chase Daniel instead of Patrick Ramsey. Though Daniel is no Brees, the Saints will need him to be a vast improvement over Brunell if the unimaginable happens.

2) Can Malcolm Jenkins Be Half the Safety That Darren Sharper Was? Sharper was the best free-agent pick-up for the Saints since Brees joined the team in 2006. The future Pro Football Hall of Famer snagged nine interceptions and brought three of them to the house. The last Saints to rack up that many INTs was the late great Dave Waymer in 1986. If the team’s 2009 first round draft pick can grab five, he’d be contributing in a big way. On a side note, props to the team for not cutting Sharper and instead temporarily shelving him as Physically Unable to Perform. Whatever Sharper gets paid in 2010 should be considered his bonus for out-performing his one-year deal.

3) Is Head Coach Sean Payton Committed to the Ground Game? Payton claimed he learned his lesson after the 2008 road game to Tampa Bay, but then again he still likes to call the double-reverse. The decision to balance the offense between the ground and the air made the team less predictable and harder to defend while also giving our own defense more time to rest between changes of possession. A quick 3 and out from dropped passes doesn’t give a linebacker much of an opportunity to catch his breath.

4) Can the Defense Adjust to Fewer Take-Away Opportunities? The Saints defense was third in the NFL with 26 interceptions. Even without Sharper in the lineup, opposing teams are going to be wary about throwing the ball too much against a team that won the conference championship and the Super Bowl due to picks. Can the front seven force opposing offenses to punt? A large part of the team’s success will be decided by the defense’s ability to get the ball back the hard way.

5) What if Pierre Thomas Gets Injured? Originally this was titled, “Will Chris Ivory Step Up”, though the Tiffin product himself was injured, though was not lost for the season like third running back Lynell Hamilton and fourth running back P.J. Hill. Since Reggie Bush is not an every down running back, a PT-less Saints offense will have to rely on Ivory and fourth back DeShawn Wynn, who wasn’t even on the roster a few weeks ago. In 2009, Mike Bell seamlessly filled in for an injured Thomas and Hamilton in turn carried the load after Bell went out. Lack of depth in this position could haunt the Saints later in the season and could be the number one “bitching point” by fans if the season ends on a sour note.

6) Will the Linebacker Corps Get It Together in Time? The depleted linebacker corps faces a similar problem. A productive player was let go in free agency and injuries and cuts have thinned the ranks. While starters Scott Shanle (a little love for this man finally?) and Jonathan Vilma (best trade EVER) are back, there are some questions about the third spot. Initially, the team surprised people by tapping Jonathan Cassillas as the weak-side linebacker and shifting Shanle over to Fujita’s old slot but then Cassillas went down during the pre-season. Trading one of the team’s six receivers for a proven linebacker has bubbled up and could be a reason why Adrian Arrington will finally start a season off on a 53-man roster. Again, another area Saints fans thought would have been addressed in the draft but went completely ignored until after the last round.

7) Can the Defense Stop the Run? The folks at WWL AM radio like to say turning down the television volume and turning up the radio call during games is a New Orleans tradition. Add giving up 50+ yard runs at some point in the game. Ironically fans don’t even panic over it anymore- kind of like how Londoners KBO’d during the Blitz. Unlike the mellifluous voice of Jim Henderson, this tradition is not welcome and needs to come to an end. Can the front seven finally “make it stop”.

8) Will Jeremy Shockey and Reggie Bush Stay Healthy? Same question I asked last year; same question I will ask this year. Will these two brittle yet valuable players get through the season on the roster and not on the injured reserve list. When they play, the Saints are a better team as the other side doesn’t know who the ball is going to. They’re the third-down killers that keep the offense on the field.

9) Will Jermon Bushrod Continue to Be the O-Line’s “Weakest Link”? No need to add further commentary beyond mentioning his replacement is waiting in the wings.

10) Thin at the Fat Boy Spot Defensive tackles are amongst the heaviest people on the team; and forgive the pun, the Black and Gold are awfully thin at the spot. The team tried to do something about it in the draft but ended up cutting Al Woods, though I felt the position deserved enough of a priority to be selected in the first round, even trading up to get value. General Manager Mickey Loomis went in a different direction investing in a foundation for later seasons, picking players who had no chance at starting barring unforeseen injuries. Are Sedrick Ellis, Anthony Hargrave and Remi Ayodele able to remain healthy and improve on what they accomplished last season? I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say you can forget homefield advantage for the playoffs if Ellis goes down for the rest of the season. Ellis is only behind Brees on the list of irreplaceable players.

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