It’s never too early to start talking football, in particular the Who Dat brand, despite it being 105 degrees outside.
I was quick to hit overload on the U.S. women’s national soccer team. Nice World Cup victory, and yes, the ladies should be paid more, but enough already. An ESPN ESPY award for the year’s best team over the likes of the Super Bowl champion Patriots or best of the NBA Raptors? That’s a stretch.
The NBA’s free agent off-season has been the most intriguing in a decade, with headline-making moves, trades and deals on a daily basis. There’s interesting drama, back stories and star pairings. But those summer tales have run their course.
It’s time for pigskin — and I’m not referring to cracklins.
The Saints will beat the college boys to training camps by a week, so I figured what better place to start than at this point in early August, when many of you are either still coming from or going to the beaches.
We had our first hurricane, a quirky one that started over land, which was a first for this storm veteran. So with Barry behind us, I think it’s safe to wade onto the turf.
The Saints opened training camp on July 26 at the team’s headquarters in Metairie. I, for one, am curious about the motivational slogan head coach Sean Payton will put on that 30-foot-high wall banner this year.
Last season it was “Prove Them Right,” as the Saints were tabbed one of the NFL’s Super Bowl favorites coming off that stellar 2017 year. Quarterback Drew Brees knew what mental levers Payton was trying to pull during training camp last year. “Everybody’s going to want to bounce back with their best effort after failure, and yet, after success, and people picking you to be one of the top teams, it’s easier to get complacent. I think Sean has done a great job on making sure that there’s always a sense of urgency with us in the way that we practice and the way that we prepare, but also embracing that role a little bit and challenging ourselves to see how good we can be.”
That was Brees during the 2018 rallying cry of “Prove Them Right.” Let me suggest a 2019 theme of “Something To Prove.”
Yes, I am one of those who just won’t let the blown call in the NFC Championship game against the L.A. Rams go.
After all these months, after the endless replays, after media analysis and commentary and after the NFL’s admittance of guilt but balanced with a heavy dose of CYA, I am still of the mindset that the non-call of pass interference inflicted on Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis denied New Orleans a place in the Super Bowl against New England.
Do you realize that neither head ref Bill Vinovich, side judge Gary Calaletto nor back judge Todd Prukop has been fined, sanctioned or penalized in any way over their egregious lapse in vision, competence and refereeing from that irrefutable brain fart?
Their professional reputations have been sullied. But that’s a small price compared to what the Saints paid.
New Orleans was the best team in the NFC last year, but was denied the opportunity to play the best of the AFC by actions they could not control.
So, in 2019, this team has something to prove to the NFC, the league and maybe themselves. Another Super Bowl run is in them, and if they have to rinse, repeat and rinse again, so be it.
Two years ago the “Minneapolis Miracle” against the Vikings kept the Saints from matching up against Philadelphia in the NFC Championship game. The Eagles went on to win the Super Bowl over the Patriots.
A year later, the worst blown call in the history of the NFL ended their quest for another Super Bowl trip.
There will be some who believe these two dramatic endings and defeats that close to a Super Bowl will be too difficult for Payton and the Saints to overcome. The thought is the heart, mind and gut of anyone wearing the Black and Gold surely can’t muster the needed will and desire to go up against what the gridiron gods have stacked against them the last two years.
I’ll admit it won’t be easy. But this team did come back from that shocking last-second loss in Minnesota to post a 13-3 regular season record in 2018 and the top seeding in the NFC.
At the risk of being a homer, I’ll assert the Saints have the best top-to-bottom roster in the NFL.
Is there better talent at specific positions on other teams? Absolutely.
Are there more skilled position groups in total in other organizations? Sure.
Is there more depth on other NFL rosters? Probably.
But when you dissect each position group, each quarterback, the offensive and defensive line-ups, experience, talent in critical spots, coaching staff and lack of locker room drama, the Saints rise to the top of the NFL.
It starts at quarterback with Brees. He started every game, made 32 touchdown passes with only six interceptions and had the league’s best completion percentage rate again at an amazing 74 percent.
New Orleans has one of the best receivers in the game today in Michael Thomas, whose biggest asset may be his availability. That goes with his 125 catches for 1,405 yards, nine scores and one of the lowest drop to pass attempts ratios in the NFL. No wonder Thomas is seeking a new contract that would make him the highest paid receiver in the league.
Alvin Kamara returns at running back. I don’t really need to recite how good he is, do I?
The Saints’ offensive line lost center Max Unger to retirement, but returns with at least three All Pros.
New tight end Jared Cook is a physical beast and will finally fill the void left by Jimmy Graham five years ago.
The secondary returns four quality cornerbacks, led by All Pro Marshon Lattimore, who is entering his third season. And the safety group will get a rookie boost from Florida’s Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.
The defensive line has perennial All Pro Cam Jordan. And last year’s No. 1 pick Marcus Davenport is getting healthy.
The linebackers are seemingly always a concern. But not this year. Veteran lions Craig Robertson, Demario Davis and A.J. Klein return. Young stars Alex Anzalone and Colton Jumper will get plenty of reps. And expect the Saints to add another veteran linebacker during training camp.
The special teams include veteran punter Thomas Morstead, who is one of the best. And Will Lutz, who had the third highest field goal percentage in 2018, just signed a contract extension. This kicking duo is among the top 3 in the NFL.
Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen will return a top 15 overall unit this season — and one that will be younger and faster in some critical spots.
Head coach and play caller Sean Payton may have gotten a bit cute at times last year. But his 81-percent fourth down conversion rate once again puts him in a different league from opposing coaches. Payton was the hot Sean before the arrival of L.A.’s young prince Sean McVay.
Every team in the league has questions and concerns, as do the Saints. How will the loss of center Max Unger affect the offensive line? Will the depth in secondary be good enough to step in if a starter goes down? And how will the running game return without veteran Mark Ingram, now with the Baltimore Ravens?
The early schedule doesn’t offer any breathing room, with one of the toughest four-game stretches in the league. The Saints will face four straight playoff teams from last year, beginning at home with Houston, then a West Coast swing at the L.A. Rams and Seattle, and a return home for a Sunday night primetime game against the Dallas Cowboys.
If the Saints are out to show they were rightful Super Bowl finalists last season, then this September will be the ultimate test to prove their point.
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 Monday through Sunday evenings at 9 pm on Suddenlink cable channel 4 and Saturday and Sunday on CBS Lake Charles/KSWL. Check local listings.