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Dec

31

Ed Orgeron leaving New Orleans Saints for Tennessee Volunteers

Posted by James Varney and Mike Triplett, The Times-Picayune December 31, 2008 5:23PM


ATLANTA – Saints defensive line coach Ed Orgeron will not be a part of the LSU coaching staff next season, school officials confirmed, and is instead expected to sign a deal with Tennessee.

Saints spokesman Greg Bensel confirmed Wednesday that Orgeron has been released from his contract and is leaving for Tennessee.

The news broke shortly before LSU (7-5) was slated to play No. 14 Georgia Tech (9-3) in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The LSU community in Atlanta for the game was abuzz Tuesday night with speculation Orgeron would join head coach Les Miles and form a powerful recruiting tandem.
LSU athletic officials tried to dampen enthusiasm over the Orgeron reports on Tuesday night. The school cautioned the news was premature and said no arrangement had been finalized. Still, it was clear LSU was hoping Oregron, who briefly attended LSU and is a Louisiana native, would wind up in Baton Rouge.

Instead, it appears Orgeron will join forces with new Tennessee Coach Lane Kiffin. Those two were assistants together at Southern California before Orgeron became head coach at Ole Miss.

The deciding factor appears to have been money. Although LSU made it clear this week it intended to be competitive and some officials hinted a contract in the neighborhood of $500,000 could be seen rumors were rife in the Georgia Dome that Tennessee had offered Orgeron something close to $900,000.

That number could not be confirmed Wednesday evening and there was no official announcement by Tennessee. The Volunteers instead touted the hiring of Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator. The father of Lane, Monte Kiffin had a distinguished NFL career and heads to Knoxville from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Dec

30

New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton has no timetable set for decisions on coaching staff

Posted by Mike Triplett, The Times-Picayune December 29, 2008 10:54PM

Saints coach Sean Payton didn’t offer any drastic solutions for improving his team Monday after missing out on the playoffs for the second straight year with a disappointing 8-8 record.

He chafed at the idea of making defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs a scapegoat, though he also declined an opportunity to offer a vote of confidence to the assistant coach, who has become a prime target of the fans’ displeasure after the team’s last-place finish in the NFC South.

“I’m not going to answer the question right now,” Payton said at his season-ending news conference when asked specifically whether he intends to keep Gibbs as his defensive coordinator, “because I think the day after the season ends, it’s like, ‘What’s Deuce (McAllister’s) future? Are you keeping Gary Gibbs?’ We’re not answering those questions.

“It’s unfair. It’s unfair to Gary. It’s unfair to point out specific players and coaches.”

Gibbs was not available for comment.

Earlier in his news conference, Payton complimented Gibbs’ performance during a season that saw the Saints lose both starting cornerbacks, Mike McKenzie and Tracy Porter, and starting defensive end Charles Grant to injuries.

Payton did suggest that improvements need to be made across the board on defense — from scheme to personnel to individual performance.

But he said those same improvements need to be made on offense and special teams, even though the Saints’ offense ranked first in the NFL in yards gained and points scored. The team ranked 23rd and 26th in the league in those categories on defense.

“It would be easy to say, with where we finished offensively, we’re going to point to defense. Some of that might be true,” Payton said. “But there are some things that we have to be better at offensively. We had an opportunity to really put the game away at Washington (in Week 2) and were unable to run the football in a key situation. We were unable to get that key yard in Denver (in Week 3). So this doesn’t all just shift to one side of the ball or the other, (even though) it’s easy to do that. It’s still looking closely at how we can improve our overall team.

“This is an important part of the year, because this is where a mistake made can set you back, or the right decision can set you forward. So we take it very seriously.”

An opening among coaches

That decision-making process has already begun for Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and the Saints’ front office. Assistant coaches will be given the rest of this week off before returning to work next week to review the season and plan ahead to the 2009 campaign.

Payton said he has no timetable for making any decisions about his coaching staff.

Even if the Saints decide to keep all of their current assistants, they do have to replace former offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Doug Marrone, who left to become head coach at Syracuse University this month.

Most likely, current quarterbacks coach Pete Carmichael will be promoted to offensive coordinator and current line coach Aaron Kromer will remain in the position, leaving a vacancy at the lower-assistant level.

Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron has been a rumored candidate for assistant coaching jobs at LSU or the University of Tennessee, though he said Monday that he has no plans to interview with either school.

“I’m with the Saints,” Orgeron said.

Most of the defense’s current players should be back in 2009. Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, so re-signing him will be the team’s top priority. A handful of backups will also become free agents: safety Josh Bullocks, cornerback Aaron Glenn, defensive tackle Antwan Lake and linebacker Troy Evans, among them.

Grant, Porter and McKenzie all could return to the starting lineup if their recoveries go according to plan. McKenzie, who fractured his right kneecap last month, is the biggest question mark because of his age, 32, and recent injury history. But he said Monday that he is ahead of schedule and plans to be 100 percent before the start of training camp.

Missed plays

McKenzie was one of several defensive players polled Sunday and Monday who suggested that the Saints need to play better on defense, but drastic changes aren’t necessary to either the scheme, the coaching staff or the personnel.

“I don’t think so. But nothing in this league surprises me,” linebacker Scott Fujita said. “On one hand, you can expect change. Year in and year out, you can always expect to see new faces. That’s part of the game. But I like the guys, and we’ll be getting a lot of guys back from injury.”

“You can’t really say the scheme is wrong, because obviously it worked eight times. We won eight games,” said cornerback Randall Gay, who joined the Saints this past offseason after four years in New England. “And we were close in a lot of games, so you can’t really blame anything on the scheme. What it comes down to is the players making plays. That’s what it is.

“You can blame it on us being in position to make plays and not making them, which really doomed us this season. Almost every game, when a big play was made, it wasn’t like we were getting ran by and getting beat with 80-yard bombs. We were in position to make plays, and we just didn’t make it.”

That was certainly the case in the Saints’ final two defeats, when they lost in overtime at Chicago on a deep pass interference penalty in Week 15, and when they lost Sunday at home to Carolina after receiver Steve Smith caught a 39-yard jump ball against two defenders to set up the Panthers’ game-winning field goal.

If the Saints had just won those two games — or any other two games along the way — they’d be in the playoffs.

“The one thing that’s been noticeable, we’ve got to tackle better and we’ve got to cover better,” said defensive end Bobby McCray, who joined the Saints this year as a free agent from Jacksonville. “We had a good scheme this year. I would rather see if we could just give them some new looks, just mix it up a little bit, kind of confuse the offense a little bit, just do some different things at times. Other than that, Gary Gibbs did a good job calling the plays. We’ve just got to execute our assignments.”

Payton took ownership of the Saints’ defensive philosophy, saying it’s the defense both he and Gibbs chose to install when they arrived in 2006 from the staff of the Dallas Cowboys.

“It’s a similar scheme that we see in Atlanta and a similar scheme that we see in Tampa Bay,” Payton said. “It’s a 4-3 scheme that a good portion of the league implements and uses, and now it’s finding the pieces to make it go.”

Valuable additions

Although it didn’t lead to substantial improvement on defense, the Saints were actually quite successful with each of their defensive additions in 2008. Veteran newcomers Vilma, Gay and McCray were all productive, as were rookies Porter and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, the team’s first-round draft pick, who missed significant time because of injury.

The Saints no doubt will look to add significant upgrades in free agency and the draft, where they hold the 14th pick in Round 1. They aren’t expected to have picks in the second or third rounds, though, based on trades they made this past offseason.

Payton said he and Loomis have always shared a philosophy of being “judicious” when it comes to “so-called high-priced free agents,” which suggests that the Saints aren’t looking to break the bank for one defensive star.

Undoubtedly, they would show interest in Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha if he becomes available, because he is regarded as one of the best players in the league at one of the Saints’ greatest need positions. But chances are they won’t be in the market for someone like Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis or Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers.

Among some of the intriguing names on the next tier of potential defensive free agents are Philadelphia safety Brian Dawkins, Chicago safety Mike Brown, St. Louis safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, Houston cornerback Dunta Robinson, Baltimore linebacker/end Terrell Suggs and Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby.

Dec

29

Saints to select No. 14 in NFL Draft

Posted by Jeff Duncan, The Times-Picayune December 29, 2008 10:01AM

The NFL has not released the official order for the 2009 NFL Draft, but the Saints will pick No. 14 in the April 26-27 event.

The Saints finished at 8-8, tied with Denver, Houston, San Diego and Washington but earned the middle spot of the five .500 teams because of the strength-of-schedule tie-breaker.


The Saints have picks in the first, third, fourth and seventh rounds, but will likely surrender their third-round pick to the Jets in exchange for the Jet’s fourth-round pick because of terms of the trade for Jon Vilma. That would leave the Saints with a first-rounder, two fourths and a seventh-rounder in the draft.

The league will not announce the entire draft order until Tuesday.

Dec

28

Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints come up short against Carolina Panthers

Posted by Jeff Duncan, The Times-Picayune December 28, 2008 11:48AM


John Kasay’s 42-yard field goal with one second on the clock gave the Carolina Panthers a 33-31 victory. Carolina drove 57 yards on seven plays for the game-winning score. The big play was a 39-yard pass to Steve Smith, yet another jump ball into double coverage that the Pro Bowl receiver came down with for a big gain. He finished with 134 yards on five catches.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees came up 16 yards short of setting the NFL season passing yardage record set by Dan Marino in 1984. Brees finished the season with 5,069 yards, second best in NFL history.
Because of a botched kickoff by Carolina the Saints got the ball with one second left. Brees tried to hit receiver Lance Moore with a pass that would have set the record but he bounced it into the Superdome turf.

“We’re trying to figure a way to put the ball in play and come up with a win,” Saints Coach Sean Payton said of the play.

Brees finished the day with 386 yards and four touchdowns and led the Saints back from a 30-10
deficit to a 31-30 lead. He was 30 of 49 but was sacked twice for 19 yards. He needed 402 yards to set the record.

“Obviouisly it’s a disappointing loss,” Payton said. “We had our opportunities but we couldn;t come up with big plays when we needed it.”

Panthers win on last-second FG (0:01, 4Q)

The chase is on (5:33, 4Q)

Amazingly, the Saints have fought back to within a touchdown. Lance Moore’s 9-yard touchdown reception has trimmed the Panthers’ lead to 30-24. Now the defense needs a stop. The Saints have just one timeout left so they can’t afford to give up more than a couple of first downs if they hope to get the ball back with enough time to challenge for the lead. It’s on the defense. One addendum: If the Saints do get the ball back, depending on where they get it, Brees is going to have a shot at Marino’s record. He needs 62 yards to set the record.

Brees passes 5,000-yard mark (5:38, 4Q)

Drew Brees might not catch Dan Marino for the NFL single-season passing yardage mark but he did reach another milestone. He became only the second quarterback in NFL history to pass for 5,000 yards. He reached the benchmark on a 15-yard pass to Billy Miller. He now has 332 yards, 72 short of Dan Marino’s record of 5,084 set in 1984.

Carolina extends lead (10:02, 3Q)

Well, it took two quarters, but that bomb to Steve Smith finally happened. Jake Delhomme fired a 54-yard bomb to Smith on the Panthers’ first drive of the third quarter and Jonathan Stewart capped the march with a 2-yard touchdown run. Panthers have regained control: 30-10. The Panthers are bullying the Saints on both sides of the ball. On the bomb, Smith beat double coverage by Jason David and Josh Bullocks. Both defenders were in position to make a play but, as has happened so often this season, neither did and Smith came down with the ball. It was a great catch but good defensive backs knock that ball down.
Saints show life (0:40, 2Q)
No one can accuse Marques Colston of packing it in. He just made a spectacular leaping 26-yard touchdown grab to keep the Saints within striking distance before halftime. Colston outleaped a pair of Panthers defenders to make the catch at about the Carolina 5, then kept his balance and trotted into the end zone. The touchdown came a few plays after Colston appeared to lose a fumble at the end of a long catch. But after a review, officials overturned the call on the field and ruled that Colston did not have possession with two feet down before the fumble occurred, thus giving possession back to the Saints. It was a 50-50 call and the Saints got a break on this one.
.

The rout is on (3:03, 2Q)

Before I could finish typing the note about Muhammad’s touchdown, the Panthers scored another one. Landon Johnson stripped backup return man Skyler Green of the football on the ensuing kickoff return and Dante Wesley scooped up the loose ball and rambled 12 yards for the touchdown. Any chance Green had of making the Saints’ roster next season might have just evaporated in the blink of that fumble. The Saints trail 23-3. The Panthers have scored two touchdowns in six seconds. The sellout crowd at the Superdome is shell-shocked.

Panthers taking control (3:09, 2Q)
This one is starting to get ugly. Chris Harris’ interception set up a short touchdown pass to Muhsin Muhammad. It’s now 16-3.
Field-goal fest continues (6:56, 2Q)

John Kasay might need to ice down his left leg after this game. He’s already kicked three field goals. His latest, a 34-yarder, gave the Panthers a 9-3 lead. The Panthers are controlling the line of scrimmage but the Saints have stiffened up some on defense. They’re tackling better and preventing the big play. Still, you get the feeling the Panthers are going to hit a big play down the field to Steve Smith soon. The running game is causing the Saints to cheat up on defense and leaving them vulnerable on the back end.

Saints answer with a field goal (12:35, 2Q)

The Saints finally put some offense together and marched down the field for a short field goal by Garrrett Hartley. Carolina is getting good pressure on Brees, but when he has time the Saints receivers are able to get open. Still, Carolina has come close to picking off a couple of passes already so the Saints better start balancing out the attack with some ground game. One other note: After starting the game and dropping a pass, Deuce McAllister has been relegated to the bench. It looks like the Saints are going with Mike Bell at running back for most of the carries with Pierre Thomas sidelined.

Panthers add another field goal (2:21, 1Q)

The Saints held Carolina to another field goal, this one a 26-yarder. The bad news is Carolina has established dominance along both fronts. They’ve rushed for 106 yards on their first two drives. The Saints, meanwhile, went three-and-out on their first drive. The good news is, despite all this, the Saints trail only 6-0. They are going to need to get their offense on track, though, because the defense is going to get worn down.

The pounding continues (5:19, 1Q)

The Panthers are just lining up and pounding the Saints’ defense. DeAngelo Williams ripped off a 30-yard run, then one play later his backfield mate, Jonathan Stewart ran through three Saints tackles en route to a 16-yard gain. All three Saints linebackers — Jon Vilma, Scott Shanle and Scott Fujita — missed tackles on the run. Williams already has 80 yards on six carries.

Panthers grab early lead (8:00, 1Q)

The Saints’ defense bowed up and held Carolina to a field goal on their opening drive. John Kasay, who seems to never miss, split the up rights from 45 yards. Still, it was a minor victory for the Saints’ defense. They expect to score touchdowns with their high-powered offense. The bad news is the Panthers were blowing the Saints off the line of scrimmage from the opening whistle. That’s not good this early in the game. Usually, the running game takes a while to take effect. This one looks like a shootout. Now on to Drew Brees’ chase at history.

Not a good sign (10:40, 1Q)

The Carolina Panthers have taken the opening drive and are marching right down the field on the Saints. Their line is blowing New Orleans off the ball. If this keeps up, it’s going to be a long day for the Saints. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have combined for 45 rushing so far.

Sleepy atmosphere (pre-game)

Maybe everyone is still in a post-holiday slumber, but there’s a decided lack of buzz to the game. Although things have picked up in the minutes right before kickoff thanks to an inspired rendition of the national anthem by local musician Theresa Andersson. Gov. Bobby Jindal was also on hand to participate in the coin flip. The house is full, though, so everything is in place for an exciting game.

Dec

28

New Orleans Saints’ rally, Drew Brees’ bid for Dan Marino’s record come up short in 33-31 loss to Carolina Panthers

Posted by Mike Triplett, The Times-Picayune December 28, 2008 10:31PM

Drew Brees insisted that he didn’t know how close he had come to the NFL’s single-season passing record until after the Saints’ 33-31 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at the Superdome.

When someone informed the Saints quarterback that he missed tying the mark by just 15 yards, he realized that his final pass attempt would have put him over the top — a desperate 20-yard throw toward receiver Lance Moore that was supposed to turn into a series of laterals with no time on the clock.

The pass fell short when Moore didn’t turn around as quickly as Brees expected, leaving Brees short of Dan Marino’s 24-year-old record of 5,084 yards.

And maybe, Brees said later, that was appropriate.

“I don’t know. I’m not sure that’s necessarily the way the record deserves to be broken,” said Brees, who finished with 386 yards Sunday and 5,069 yards for the season, the second-highest total in league history, while the Saints finished with a disappointing 8-8 record.

“I sit back and look at it, that record’s stood for a long time. One of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game owns it. And it’s a huge record,” Brees said. “And so maybe the fact that we were 8-8 meant that it wasn’t meant to be for us to get it.”

For a short while Sunday, it seemed that perhaps the exact opposite might be true.

Brees made the crowd erupt late in the second half while rallying the Saints from a 30-10 deficit to take an improbable 31-30 lead with 3:11 remaining.

He threw for 201 yards and three touchdowns in a span of 15 minutes to come within striking distance of the record and the victory, both of which had seemed impossible for much of the day.

But like Brees said, it clearly wasn’t meant to be. The Panthers rallied back for a clinching 42-yard field goal by John Kasay with one second remaining, thanks largely to a 39-yard pass from quarterback Jake Delhomme to receiver Steve Smith.

Delhomme’s pass seemed almost like a Hail Mary. He heaved the ball after scrambling around in the pocket on first-and-10 from the Panthers’ 18-yard line, allowing it to hang in the air above Smith, cornerback Jason David and safety Roman Harper.

Smith, the Pro Bowl receiver who has made a career out of killing the Saints, came down with it.

David and Harper commended Smith’s skills but said they believed they were in position to make a play. David said he went for the interception and would do it the same way again if given the chance.

“We’ve had too many games like that this year. You have to make the plays to win the game in situations like that. Wins are too hard to come by in this league,” said Saints linebacker Scott Shanle, who broke free for a huge sack to force a punt on Carolina’s previous drive. “Steve Smith is a great player, and he made a great play. That’s the one play you have to make somewhere along the way.”

The Saints were granted one more chance when Kasay’s kickoff scooted out of bounds with one second remaining. They considered a Hail Mary throw for the end zone, but especially after they were pushed back 5 yards by a delay-of-game penalty, Brees realized he couldn’t throw the ball 70-plus yards. So they devised an impromptu play, with Brees telling his receivers to turn and look for the ball after about 20 yards.

“He told us to look for it early,” said Moore, who caught the final two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. “Obviously, we didn’t look early enough.”

Coach Sean Payton and several players suggested that Sunday’s loss was a microcosm of the season:

The Saints shot themselves in the foot with early mistakes, including an interception by Brees and a fumbled kickoff return by Skyler Green that was returned for a touchdown in the second quarter, and they allowed the Panthers to run for 174 yards in the first half.

They came back with their offense firing on all cylinders and their defense stepping up big on three consecutive drives.

They found a way to lose in the end.

“This has been somewhat the story of the season, and that’s not a good thing,” said Payton, who lamented the early miscues and the late ones. “Like the Chicago Bears game (which ended in part because of a deep pass interference penalty in overtime), here’s a lead with three minutes left and we need to make a play above our head on the football. That’s everyone. That’s not one specific person. We need to hurry the passer. We need to be able to get our hands on the football. Those are the things that we weren’t able to do and the result ends up in a loss.”

The Saints lost six games in the final minutes this season — at Washington in Week 2, at Denver in Week 3, vs. Minnesota in Week 5, at Tampa Bay in Week 13, at Chicago in Week 15 and vs. Carolina in Week 17. Those six losses came by a total of 18 points.

Payton reminded his team of that exact theme Saturday night, insisting they need to place an emphasis on finishing strong.

“This is another one you lump into (that group),” Saints linebacker Scott Fujita said. “You’re proud of the fight. But again, to come up short, it’s tough.”

“This definitely isn’t an average football team,” Moore said. “But we’ve had too many games get away from us in the last seconds.”

Heading into Sunday’s game, the Saints believed that a victory over Carolina could help put a positive spin on this season and provide some momentum heading into next year.

After all, they insisted, they were just a few plays away from being a 10- or 11-win team that could have been right in the thick of the playoff race.

However, the way things transpired in the season finale didn’t provide clarity either way.

Brees said “it’s not every day that you can come back from three touchdowns to take the lead in the fourth quarter against the team who is going to be the No. 2 seed in our conference, so I think that’s saying a lot. We can draw a lot of positives from that.”

But once again, New Orleans proved to be a team that was so close this year … yet so far away.

Dec

25

New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees has one eye on victory, one on record

Posted by Mike Triplett, The Times-Picayune December 24, 2008 5:30PM

It will take a perfect storm in the Superdome on Sunday for the Saints and quarterback Drew Brees to accomplish both of their objectives against the Carolina Panthers, which they have clearly ranked as:

1. Win the game.
2. Throw for 402 yards.

That agenda would seem absurdly difficult on the surface, considering the Panthers are 11-4 and shut down the Saints’ passing game 10 weeks ago. But the Saints have captured this kind of lightning in a bottle before.
Last season Brees threw for 445 yards in a 41-24 rout of the Jacksonville Jaguars — a playoff-bound team that couldn’t be considered a pushover.

The season before that, Brees threw for 384 yards at Dallas, leading New Orleans to a 42-17 romp that remains one of the signature victories of their current era.

Brees, who needs 402 yards to break Dan Marino’s NFL record for yards passing in a season (5,084, in 1984), has made it clear that the win is the most important goal for him this week.

But he also has made no bones about his desire to accomplish both.

“Absolutely, ” said Brees, who could become the second quarterback to throw for 5,000 yards if he throws for a more manageable 317 yards. “The win is more important than the record, but I think any competitive person, you get this close to a record like that, of course you want to break it.

“I think if we could have both, what that record would mean to this organization and our team and this city and everything. I had 10 people come up to me on the street Monday, just going out to eat (at Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse). And every single one of them said nothing other than, ‘We hope you break the record.’ So obviously people are thinking about it. Obviously it means something to people. So if it happens, then great, because they deserve it.”

Teammates, too, said they want to go for the record this week, along with the victory. Receiver Marques Colston said it would be special to be a part of NFL history, and guard Jahri Evans said Brees has been playing so well this season that he deserves it.

But it won’t come easy — especially because the Saints don’t have the element of surprise on their side.

The Panthers are well aware of Brees’ record chase.

“Well, I think the numbers are 400-plus yards or 402 yards. It would be pretty tough to get that against our secondary, ” said Carolina Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jon Beason, who said the record has been mentioned this week but that he doesn’t expect the Saints to change what they do to get it.

“I mean, if they’re going to play for a record vs. the game, I don’t think that’s a good recipe to win, ” he said. “And they’ve got a young guy in the backfield, Pierre (Thomas), you’ve got to get him the ball if you’re going to be successful.”

Even last week against the struggling Detroit defense, the Saints stayed balanced throughout the game, with Brees throwing for 351 yards. His teammates ran for 184 yards (not counting Brees’ three kneel-downs at the end of the game).

“They throw the ball a good bit anyways, ” Carolina Coach John Fox said. “I think they are going to have a game plan just like they do every week, and we’re going to have a game plan. That’s part of the art of all this. We’ll have to figure out when they are going to run or going to pass.”

The Panthers had perhaps the best game plan all season to shut down Brees and the Saints’ versatile offense in their 30-7 victory at Carolina in Week 7.

They held Brees to 231 yards, no touchdowns and forced one interception, bringing consistent pressure and aggressively jumping in front of the receivers’ anticipated routes to bat balls away.

Brees wasn’t giving away any secrets when he suggested the best way to get to 400-plus yards Sunday would be to do everything the right way on offense.

“I can’t be thinking about (the record). I’ve got to figure out ways to move the football, ” Brees said. “And in my mind, the more that we have the ball, the more that we have the opportunity to do that.

“So how do we keep the ball? We do well on first down, you’re not taking sacks, you convert on third down, you’re scoring points and keeping the defense off the field so they’re rested and they get you the ball back. All those things. So I guess to figure out how to do it, you go back to step one, and that’s what we’ve tried to do all year.”

Brees has thrown for 400 or more yards four times in his career — all of them with the Saints. Aside from the Jacksonville victory, he lost the other three games, which isn’t surprising since most of the yards came in frantic catch-up mode.

He threw for 422 yards in a loss at Atlanta this season in Week 10 and 421 yards in a Week 3 loss at Denver. In 2006, he threw for 510 yards in a home loss to Cincinnati. He threw for 398 yards in a loss at Pittsburgh that season.

Perhaps the task wouldn’t be so monumental this week if Carolina had beaten the New York Giants last Sunday to lock up the No. 1 seed in the NFC and clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Then they might choose to rest some of their starters or play a more vanilla game plan.

Instead, the Panthers need a victory to ensure that they win the NFC South title and earn a first-round bye.

“I wouldn’t want to have it any other way, ” Brees said. “They’re going to come in, and obviously they have a lot to play for, just like we do. So it should be a heck of a game.”

Dec

23

MVP talk should include New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees

Posted by Jeff Duncan, The Times-Picayune December 22, 2008 10:54PM

Saints quarterback Drew Brees will complete one of the greatest seasons by any player in NFL history Sunday and likely will have nothing to show for it.

No division title.

No playoff berth.

Not even an individual honor, other than a run-of-the-mill backup spot in the Pro Bowl.

How unjust.

Not since Eric Dickerson ran for an NFL single-season record 2,105 yards in 1984 and was snubbed for MVP and Offensive Player of the Year honors has an individual player accomplished more and been rewarded less.

And that year, Dickerson had the misfortune of breaking the rushing record the same year Dan Marino set the single-season mark for passing yards in a season with 5,084 yards.

But there’s no one close to having a Dickerson- or Marino-like season this year. Yet Brees still is being dismissed.

Heck, Brees wasn’t even selected to start for the NFC in the Pro Bowl. That honor went to the Arizona Cardinals’ Kurt Warner. Has anyone seen Warner play the past month?

Even more amazing, Brees isn’t even being mentioned in the discussion about finalists for the award. Has the entire media corps who covers the league lost its collective mind?

The only quarterbacks in NFL history to pass for more than 4,800 yards in a season are Marino (5,084 yards in 1984), Warner (4,830 in 2001) and Tom Brady (4,806 in 2007) and Dan Fouts (4,802 in 1981). All but Fouts were chosen MVP.

With 4,683 yards, Brees might not catch Marino’s hallowed record against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at the Superdome, but he almost certainly will pass the other three for second. He has a decent chance to reach 5,000 yards, which would be a significant milestone in itself.

Yet, thanks to some squandered games earlier this season, the Saints’ failure to make the playoffs will cost him the award that rightfully should be his.

And that’s flat-out wrong.

The voters should be ashamed.

Journalists pride themselves on mining for facts and researching subjects in-depth, but when the major awards come along these days — seemingly regardless of sport — the process follows an almost mindless process.

The voters scan the league standings for the teams with the best records, then pick the players on those teams with the best stats. The last MVP to play for a non-playoff team was Boomer Esiason in 1987. The last Offensive Player of the Year from a non-playoff team was Priest Holmes in 2002.

I understand the thought process. The best players lift their teams to victory and championships.

Fine.

But if anyone has followed Brees even remotely this season, they would know he has almost single-handedly — single-armedly? — lifted an injury-riddled, fair-to-middling outfit to within one win of the playoffs.

Take him off the Saints, and they win, what, three or four games, maybe?

The Saints do not have a Pro Bowler at any other position and have 17 players on the injured reserve list.

Brees’ two projected main receiving targets — Marques Colston and Jeremy Shockey — missed five games each because of injury. His main check-down receiver Reggie Bush will have missed essentially seven games after next week. Deuce McAllister, who is coming back from double knee surgery, and fullback Mike Karney also have missed games because of injuries.

The lone phase of the team that is primarily responsible for passing is ranked No.¤1 in the league. The Saints’ offense is ranked No.¤1 in scoring and yardage.

No other phase of the team is ranked in the top half of the league except for the return games.

Yet, Brees hasn’t missed a beat — or an open receiver. He’s completed 65 percent of his passes and thrown for at least 216 yards in every game this season. He’s passed for 300 or more yards nine times; 400 or more yards twice. He has been sacked a league-low 11 times and thrown a club-record 30 touchdown passes.

And he has done it all while competing in the toughest division in the NFL. If the Saints defeat the Panthers on Sunday, the NFC South will become the first division to finish with four teams with winning records since the league went to the 16-game schedule in 1978.

His detractors might point to Brees’ high interception total (16) or sub-par fourth quarter efficiency rating (82.4 with six interceptions). But other than that awful fourth quarter against the Buccaneers, he has been a model of consistency all season. It’s the body of work that counts.

But Brees’ season has been about more than just numbers.

His leadership has been one of the key reasons the Saints have avoided the locker dramas that have beset other similarly disappointing teams (See: Dallas, San Diego). The sheer force of Brees’ personality in the locker room will not let it happen. Brees is the best kind of leader. He talks the talk then walks the walk — Monday through Sunday.

Clearly, his spectacular season deserves to be recognized, if not with the MVP then at the very least with the Offensive Player of the Year award.

Dec

22

New Orleans Saints provide no relief for winless Detroit Lions

Posted by Teddy Kider, The Times-Picayune December 21, 2008 11:04PM

DETROIT — For the Saints, Sunday was billed as a potentially momentous letdown. They were out of the playoff hunt for the first time under their current coach and quarterback, and the Detroit Lions, trying to avoid the worst NFL season ever, had seemingly been creeping closer to a win.

The Saints, however, made it very clear early on they would steer clear of embarrassment.

New Orleans won its easiest matchup of the season 42-7 against Detroit at Ford Field, and the Lions became the first team in NFL history to start a season 0-15.

The Saints moved to 8-7, with the season finale at home against the Carolina Panthers coming up next week, and Saints Coach Sean Payton stressed what he thought still was at stake.

“We want to finish 9-7,” Payton said. “That’s important. It’s important as it relates to next season. It’s important for our team. And I’m sure, if you ask Drew Brees, it’s important to him.”

Brees agreed, after leading the NFL’s No.¤1-ranked offense to an efficient performance. The Saints scored touchdowns on their first six drives, and didn’t give up the ball up without scoring until the fourth quarter. They went 11-for-11 on third down until kneeling on the final play, tied a team record with 32 first downs, and didn’t punt.

And on a day when many eyes were focused on Brees and his potentially record-breaking season, the Saints’ running game was at its best. All four of the Saints’ first-half scores were rushing touchdowns, and they came from four players — running backs Pierre Thomas, Deuce McAllister and Mike Bell, plus receiver Robert Meachem.

The Saints finished with 181 rushing yards, 112 of them from the first half, and Thomas — 13 carries for 77 yards — and McAllister — nine carries for 61 yards — led the way. McAllister’s effort pushed him past 6,000 yards rushing for his career. He has 6,056.

“Going into this game, we felt positive,” said Thomas, who also had three receptions for 26 yards. “We felt like we could go out here and take it to them, we’ve just got to stay focused.”

Brees completed 30 of 40 passes for 351 yards, two touchdowns — both to Marques Colston — and no interceptions, finishing with new single-season franchise records for passing yards (4,683) and passing touchdowns (30).

The main record Brees has been chasing all season — 5,084 passing yards in one season, set by Dan Marino in 1984 — still is within reach, but Brees will need quite a game against Carolina. He heads into the final week of the season needing 402 passing yards to break the record.

Even with Sunday’s score out of hand before the midway point of the third quarter, Brees continued to play. Payton said he was “a little conflicted” about how to handle the record and Sunday’s blowout, noting the Saints did not have too many snaps in the fourth quarter.

“I thought we handled that part of it well in really just playing the game the way we’re supposed to, and that’s to win and to attack the defense the way we see best fit to score,” Payton said. “And those things happened today.”

With no shot at a postseason berth, Payton used a few plays and players that might not have made it into any other game. Skyler Green, the former LSU receiver who has spent most of 2008 on the Saints’ practice squad, was activated before the game and used on kickoff and punt returns.

Green had a 60-yard return on the opening kickoff, and the drive ended with a 20-yard touchdown run from Meachem, who has rarely been used, on an end-around. The Saints led 14-0 after the first quarter and never trailed.

“In the games that they’ve played real well this year, they’ve gone ahead of teams,” Payton said about the Lions, who lost to Indianapolis by 10 points the previous week and Minnesota by four points before that. “And last week they got off to a good start. So we talked a lot about starting well. I thought offensively, when we won the toss, we had a good series of plays, a good drive.”

The Saints’ defense gave up 255 yards and forced two interceptions. The Lions’ lone touchdown was on a running play in the second quarter. It was set up when Saints safety Roman Harper was called for pass interference on fourth-and-goal.

Brees joked that taking a knee on three plays at the end of the game killed his team’s average of converting on third down, but he also seriously addressed a relatively new experience for him — winning without playoff implications.

“Maybe one other time in my career I’ve been in this situation, where you’re not playing for anything right at the end of the season,” Brees said. “So it’s frustrating. But we have a lot of highly motivated, self-motivated guys on our team. And we’re playing for a lot. We’re playing for each other. And we’re playing to finish the season the right way, with pride, and this is what we’re paid to do.”

Dec

20

Some suggestions for Reggie Bush to consider during his down time

Posted by Jeff Duncan, The Times-Picayune December 19, 2008 10:41PM

Reggie Bush has some down time now, as he will miss the Saints’ final two games this season with a knee injury.

Now that you have some unexpected down time, here are some things to consider while you’re mending your left knee in southern California with Kim.

I’m one of the confederacy of dunces that gathers around your locker each week to assault you with mind-numbing repetitive questions about life, love and football.

The last thing you probably need right now is more advice. Heaven knows your ears are bent daily by folks who think they have your best interests at heart — doctors, agents, coaches, teammates, girlfriends, family members.

But just in case, here it is anyway. It’s the truth. The talk, unlike your runs, is straight.

First and foremost, relax.

From the minute you arrived in the NFL, you’ve run around, to borrow a phrase from Hokie Gajan, “like a sprayed roach.”

You hit the ground running with endorsements and guest appearances and TV ads and charity drives, and you’ve never stopped.

Slow down, take a deep breath and assess your situation.

You might not know it, but your career is entering a crossroads. Next season will be your fourth NFL season, and you haven’t exactly set the world on fire these first three seasons. You haven’t been a bust. Then again, the bust in Canton isn’t being poured either.

The next 12 months of your life could define your future and determine your legacy.

I know you were upset about the way your third NFL season ended, how, for the second time in three games, Sean Payton banished you to the sideline while your teammates fought the good fight out on the field. You looked as mad as a hornet as you sat alone on the frigid sideline at Soldier Field.

Don’t sulk. Don’t complain. Learn from the experience. Payton made the right decision. It might not seem like it now, but the experience will pay off down the road — if you respond the right way.

Don’t just take my word for it. Listen to what the best player on your team, Drew Brees, had to say this week.

Brees raved about your competitiveness and drive. He relates to your frustration with injuries. And he empathizes with your struggles to live up to expectations that he says “have been higher for (you) than any guy maybe in the history of the league.”

He knows how much you want to be “the guy.” But he’s quick to add that, “this team isn’t about one guy. It’s about a group of guys working together.”

His advice to you: “Forget what people think, media or otherwise, and just worry about getting better every day and worry about what you need to do to help this team win.”

Translation: Get healthy and get your act together. Forget about everything else, such as the things that don’t matter, like your image, your legacy, your sponsorship portfolio.

Put that stuff on the back burner. The only endorsements you should covet are those of your coaches and teammates.

Listen to them. They care about you and want you to succeed.

Listen to backfield-mate Pierre Thomas when he says that players in the locker room can’t relate to the lifestyle you live, and many don’t want to. This is the life you have chosen. There are no guardrails in life’s fast lane.

“Honestly, if I was in that situation, I don’t know if I could handle it, so much is getting thrown at you, ” Thomas said Wednesday. “His name is like Times Square, lit up: Reggie Bush! It’s tough when everybody is looking at you to be that guy every day.

“People are still looking up to him, expecting him to do things he did in college. And this is not college. This is the pros. It’s different. That’s a lot of pressure to put on somebody. It’s a big pill to swallow, but you’ve got to take it on. The route he took (in life), that’s what it has created. He’s got to deal with it. Somehow he’s got to learn how to deal with it.”

The first step is admittance.

So let’s start there: You’re not going to be the next Gale Sayers.

That’s OK. Few are. That doesn’t mean you can’t be a very, very good NFL player, even a Pro Bowler.

But you won’t get there if you keep trying too hard to be something that you’re not.

Stop trying to be the next Barry Sanders.

Stop trying to be the next anybody for that matter.

Stop trying to be better than Mario Williams.

Stop worrying about keeping up with Chris Paul.

And forget the Reggie Bush from Southern Cal. That guy’s gone. Those days are over. The Heisman Trophy won’t help you now. Ask Matt Leinart.

There aren’t any Fresno States in the NFC South. You’re not going to rack up 513 all-purpose yards in a game, like you did against the befuddled Bulldogs on that magical night three years ago. So stop trying to do it in the NFL.

Stop trying to score a touchdown, make “SportsCenter” highlights and save post-Katrina New Orleans on every play.

Stop running backward on punt returns and sideways on toss sweeps. Find a hole, put that gold Adidas cleat in the ground and follow your blocks.

Learn to love the 4-yard gain. It won’t sell video games, but it will help win football games.

Remember the end and the means it takes to get there.

Forget everything else.

But remember the Grossmont La Mesa Mitey Mites.

Remember what it was like when you started out in Pop Warner as a diminutive 9-year-old in suburban San Diego? You didn’t worry about girls or agents or sponsors or legacies. You just played ball. You worried about the game, the next play, the kid in front of you and not much else. When you were a boy, you didn’t worry about being The Man. And you eventually became Him.

That’s how it works.

So stop trying to be “the guy” and just be one of ’em.

Life, and your NFL career, will be better once you do.

Dec

18

New Orleans Saints’ offseason plans may look at safety position

Posted by Mike Triplett, The Times-Picayune December 18, 2008 10:22PM

Saints safeties Josh Bullocks and Kevin Kaesviharn, along with Roman Harper, have combined for only three interceptions, zero forced fumbles and zero sacks this season.
When the Saints sit down in two weeks and start evaluating where they can improve in 2009, it’s safe to assume the safety position will be at the top of the list.

It’s not just that the Saints defense has given up too many deep passing plays this year, as it has in years past. The blame for that falls on the entire defense, from the coverage to the pass rush to the schemes.

But there also has been a lack of big-play impact from a position that breeds some of the league’s most dynamic difference-makers — guys like Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu, Baltimore’s Ed Reed and Indianapolis’ Bob Sanders.
The Saints’ top three safeties, Roman Harper, Kevin Kaesviharn and Josh Bullocks, have combined for three interceptions, zero forced fumbles and zero sacks this season.

Harper, a third-year strong safety, has shown the most promise of the bunch, though he has been much more effective in run support than in coverage.

Bullocks, a fourth-year free safety who is set to become an unrestricted free agent in March, has been more inconsistent, though coaches say he played his best game of the year last Thursday at Chicago.

Both young safeties can still use these final two games as a platform to prove they deserve to stick around, with two of the most dangerous receiving threats in the league on the schedule — Detroit’s Calvin Johnson and Carolina’s Steve Smith.

Kaesviharn, who has two years remaining on his contract, is out for the year with a neck injury.

“Every game, you’re putting your resume out on tape, ” said Harper, a second-round draft pick out of Alabama in 2006. “You’ve got to understand that. You’ve got to show up and play hard. And if you’re not playing well, then in the offseason you’ll recognize that people will be talking about it.

“But I’m not going to get too worked up about it. I know I’m not young, but I’m a young guy in the league. I’m still learning, too.”

Harper said he would be the “first one to stand up and say if I’m messing up or not, ” and he pointed out some lowlights, like when he got flagged for the game-clinching pass interference penalty last week at Chicago (still questionable in his mind), when he let Smith get behind him for a 39-yard touchdown at Carolina in Week 7, and when he dropped at least three or four catchable interceptions.

But he said he doesn’t think the Saints need a drastic overhaul on defense or in the secondary, where he believes newcomers like cornerback Randall Gay and injured rookie corner Tracy Porter have already given the Saints a boost.

“I think we have a really good group of guys. I don’t look at any other defensive backfield and think, ‘Wow, they’re so much better.’ ” Harper said. “I think we’ve improved since last year, and I think we’re going to continue to improve. And I think a lot of that comes from just jelling and playing together, you know, having a couple pieces being around each other and learning what this person and that person are thinking. Not just every year, just, ‘Oh man, shake up the pieces. We’ve got to build a new puzzle. Break it up.’ ”

There are some intriguing names on the list of potential free agents at safety this offseason — starting with veteran free safety Brian Dawkins, who has been dominant for 13 seasons in Philadelphia. The 35-year-old just earned his seventh invitation to the Pro Bowl this week.

Perhaps Dawkins will re-sign with the Eagles, try to finish out with a more proven contender or even consider retirement. But he’s exactly the kind of difference-maker the Saints are lacking. When the Saints prepared for two pivotal showdowns against Philadelphia in 2006, Coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees singled him out as the guy to worry about.

Chicago Bears veteran free safety Mike Brown also could hit the open market, as could two young up-and-coming free safeties, St. Louis’ Oshiomogho Atogwe and New England’s James Sanders.

At strong safety, Miami’s Yeremiah Bell, Cleveland’s Sean Jones, Tampa Bay’s Jermaine Phillips and Minnesota veteran Darren Sharper all could make a difference.

The draft, too, is an option, though the Saints will likely have just one first-day pick, a first-rounder.

“When the season ends, like always, we’ll sit down and begin to evaluate first internally, our own players. That’s not something you just go through quickly, ” Payton said, lumping in the safeties with every other area of the team. “We have to look at it like, ‘Do we feel like there’s growth potential? Do we feel like the player is improving?’

“Then after that process takes place we move on to free agency, then the draft.”

It’s not like the Saints have ignored the safety position in recent years. Bullocks was a second-round draft pick in 2005, and Harper a second-rounder in 2006. In 2007, the Saints took a long look at several of the top safeties in the free agent class and aggressively pursued Kaesviharn, beating out Cincinnati and Arizona for his services.

It’s just that none of those players has consistently panned out so far.

“No different than our entire defense, I think we’ve had our moments, ” defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs said, “I think they’ve had their moments where they’ve made some good plays, and I think there’s been times when we’ve seen the ball over our head and our inability to make the play down the field.

“You know, when you play back there, it’s a high-wire act. And when you can’t make a play on the ball down the field, a lot of times bad things will happen, and that certainly was the case the other night (at Chicago).”

“I think there’s no doubt there has been improvement. But it certainly isn’t to the extent that we need it to be, ” secondary coach Dennis Allen said of the deep-ball defense, which has been the Saints’ biggest area of vulnerability in their current era. “The fact of the matter, really at the end of the day we’ve still given up a big play or two big plays a game, which really kill you. That’s coaching, that’s playing, that’s the whole deal. And we’ve just got to continue to work in that area.”

Bullocks lost his starting job to Kaesviharn in the offseason but seems to have benefited from the step back, based on his play in the past two games after Kaesviharn got hurt.

Allen said Bullocks lost a little bit of his focus at first when he wasn’t playing as much, but he has really started to come on lately.

“It was frustrating, but it was a big learning experience for me, ” said Bullocks, who made a game-changing interception in the third quarter at Chicago last week, his first pick of the season. “Sometimes when you’re in the driver’s seat you can’t always see everything. Sometimes just being in the passenger’s seat, you can see a lot of things differently. And I did. And so far, so good. I’m just happy to be back out there and get that feeling back.”

Bullocks said he would like to be back with the Saints next year but understands the decision will be in the team’s hands.

Allen said that Harper, too, has been “up and down at times, but that’s to be expected with a young player.” He said one of the things he likes best about Harper is his dedication.

“You see him out here right now doing extra work, ” Allen said after Thursday’s practice. “The guy wants to be a good player. And we’ve just got to continue to work with him and continue to get better.”

Harper said if he had just caught half of those potential interceptions, people would be talking about him “as if I’m some kind of hero, ” and he said his uncle told him he would spend the offseason throwing balls at him in the back yard to help him with the “problem.”

But he also talked in a more serious vein about working to improve.

“Roman Harper’s going to continue to be who he is. He’s going to work. He’s going to have a big smile on his face. He’s going to have fun. And he’s going to come downhill and hit people, ” Harper said. “That’s just what I do. And I’m going to continue to do that and get better.”