Those of you who read CSC regularly know that I am a fan of Sports Illustrated and have had a subscription to the magazine for quite a while now. Every year at this time the good people over at SI put out their NFL Season Preview issue which includes off-season analysis, scouting reports and predictions for every single team in the league. 2009 is no different and Sports Illustrated has just come out with this years edition. Though the hard copy hasn't actually arrived at my house yet, the online version is already available for everyone's reading pleasure, or displeasure, as the case may be. It seems the SI team doesn't think too highly of the Saints this year and actually predict them to finish third in the division.
I have focused this summer on interviewing sports journalists (Jeff Duncan, Kenny Wilkerson) to not only learn more about the Saints but also to gain some insight about the world of sports journalism at all levels. With the summer officially winding down and the start of the season so close now, it's only fitting to finish it all up with one last interview. This week I had the distinct pleasure of posing a few questions to Sports Illustrated writer, Damon Hack, who was responsible for covering the Saints' section of SI's season preview. We discussed his thoughts on the team this year, the NFC South, his time with Sports Illustrated and the world of journalism in general. Enjoy.
CSC: What's the process for compiling these season previews for Sports Illustrated?
DH: I and several other reporters travel to training camps, talk to players and coaches, and try to get a feel for the strengths and weaknesses of a team going into a season. It's a good way to make contact with teams, learn their personnel, and predict how will they might do.
CSC: Did you get to choose your teams or were they assigned? Does Peter King get first choice?
DH: My teams were assigned by my football editor. I'm not sure if Peter gets first choice, but if he does he deserves it! He is a great football writer, a wonderful teammate, and a reporter whose work I've admired for a long time.
CSC: Did you get a chance to visit training camp?
DH: I did visit New Orleans for the second straight training camp, but I actually missed practice this year (delays at New York 's LaGuardia Airport - never fun). I was still able to catch up with Jon Stinchcomb and Jonathan Vilma and both guys were tremendous interviews. It was great getting perspective on the Saints offense and defense from two of the team leaders. Both players were quietly excited about the prospects for the Saints in 2009.
CSC: What do you consider to be the Saints biggest off-season acquisition?
DH: Gregg Williams, the Saints new defensive coordinator. No doubt about it. The Saints' defense cost the team too many games last year with mistakes and breakdowns. The unit just seemed to lose confidence as the year went on. Williams brings know-how, passion, variety and an attacking, turnover-creating 4-3 defense (though he'll often present different fronts). He's been a Mr. Fix-It for NFL defenses his entire career. Williams loves smart players and the Saints have two of the best in linebacker Jonathan Vilma and new safety Darren Sharper, another key acquisition. With Williams as coordinator, the Saints should climb back into the top 10 in total defense after last season's dismal 23rd ranking.
CSC: If you think the defense is so improved, surely it will be enough to get the Saints into the playoffs?
DH: I do think the Saints defense will be better. Gregg Williams and a few other new faces on defense will be the difference between a team that went 8-8 a year ago to a team that should win no less than 10 games this year. I don't know if the Saints will be the best team in the NFC South, but I think they will finish ahead of Tampa and Atlanta this season.
CSC: So that's how you think the NFC South will shake out?
DH: I'm picking the Panthers to win the division, the Saints to finish second, the Falcons third and the Buccaneers last.
CSC: We know the defense needs improvement, but will the offense maintain it's high level for another season?
DH: I think it will, and I think a better defense will actually make the offense even better by turning the ball over and giving Drew Brees and co. more short fields to work with. The offensive line is underrated, and if Colston and Shockey are healthy, this offense can be what it was in 2008.
CSC: Do you think Reggie Bush can stay healthy for the full season?
DH: It's an unknown, really, but his history says no. When a doctor keeps cutting into the same (left) knee, it's going to take a toll. I'm sure the Saints will continue to split the load among the running backs, using Bush in space more than between the tackles, but he's going to get hit. That's the NFL.
CSC: What's your take on the Saints running game? How does Mike Bell figure into it?
DH: Depending on your perspective, it is either a deep position or an unsettled one. I've looked forward to seeing what Pierre Thomas can do as the No. 1 guy, but I also have some questions. He put on eight pounds during the offseason to better handle the load, but will that slow him down, too? Some guys don't operate as well at a higher weight. We'll see how Thomas does. I see Mike Bell the same way I saw Pierre in '07 and '08: an intriguing and talented, but largely unknown running back who will be more of a third guy behind Thomas and Bush.
CSC: Are there any surprise players on the roster that might be primed for breakout seasons this year?
DH: I'm interested in watching cornerback Jabari Greer, who the team signed from Buffalo . He's the kind of player whose athleticism will be rewarded in Gregg Williams's system. I'd expect a couple of INTs returned for touchdowns from Greer.
CSC: Is Coach Sean Payton on the hot seat if the Saints finish with a mediocre record...again?
DH: I think Payton might need a winning season to save his job, after winning only 7 games in 2007 and 8 last year. A lot of expectations were raised when the Saints won 11 games in 2006. Part of the pressure on Payton has to do with all of the big-name coaches waiting to take over teams in 2010 - Mike Shanahan, Bill Cowher, Mike Holmgren, Jon Gruden.
DH: I'd put Drew below Brady and Manning - those two deserve their own level - but ahead of Romo. Drew's production the last two years has been incredible, but he needs to limit his INTs and take the Saints to the Super Bowl before even being in the discussion with Brady and Manning. It doesn't mean Drew can't get there, but those two are Hall of Famers and all-time greats.
CSC: It seems the media loves to focus on the usual teams, New England, New York, Pittsburgh, Dallas etc. Do you think the Saints are under-appreciated by the media? If so, why?
DH: I think the Saints suffer from the geography of playing in the NFC South. New England , New York and Pittsburgh all play in larger markets of the Northeast, and Dallas is Dallas - America 's team. But I know one thing: Nothing brings attention like winning football games and playoff games, so the Saints will get plenty of pub if they win.
CSC: How long have you worked for SI?
DH: I joined SI in 2007 after working for the New York Times for 5 years. I covered the PGA Tour for the Times in 2005-07 and the NFL from 2002-05.
CSC: What was your background? How did you get started? How did you wind up at SI?
DH: Growing up, I always wanted to be involved in sports - playing, writing about it, talking about it. After majoring in history at UCLA and earning a Master's degree in journalism at UC Berkeley, I worked at the Sacramento Bee, where I covered the San Francisco 49ers for three years. (I worked at the Bee with Times-Picayune Saints writer Mike Triplett, who replaced me on the 49ers beat when I took a job covering the Knicks at New York Newsday in 2000. After working at Newsday for two years, covering the Knicks and PGA Tour, the New York Times offered me a job to cover the NFL in 2002. Sports Illustrated offered me a job to cover the NFL and PGA Tour in 2007. I was flattered, humbled and jumped at the opportunity. I cover the NFL from July to Feb and golf from Feb to July.
CSC: Personally, which NFL team do you root for?
DH: I grew up a Raiders fan. As a kid, I had a bunch of silver and black in my room. Rooted hard for that team. As you can imagine, I don't root as hard for them anymore.
CSC: Which sports writers do you admire or read often?
DH: This is a long list and it will still be incomplete. I used to read the late Jim Murray at the Los Angeles Times. What a columnist! I read everyone at SI and admire the talent and skill of each one of my colleagues. It is a brilliant shop. Outside of the magazine, I read Scott Ostler, Harvey Araton, William Rhoden, Michael Wilbon, Art Spander, Sally Jenkins and a ton of other great columnists. I also like reading fiction and the odd sports book from time to time. Michael Lewis and John Feinstein are two of the best.
CSC: How does working for a national publication like SI differ from the local scene?
DH: The biggest difference is that I am writing for a national audience, but you still have to report the news and know what is happening on the ground. As a former newspaper scribe, I am lucky to have a good relationship with many beat writers on teams throughout the country so I can ask them questions. It can be tough following the entire league, but I do my best to read reports in newspapers, blogs, whatever I can get my hands on!
CSC: How many NFL games do you attend in a year? Will you be attending any Saints games this season?
DH: A lot of my coverage is dictated by who is playing well or who has an interesting story to tell. At this point, I have no idea how often I will see the Saints. It could be zero, it could be five or six times. It's all a guess at this point, which makes it exciting. Since I live in New York , there is a good bet I'll see Giants, Jets, Pats, Eagles, and other teams close to me, especially if they are playing well. I don't write for the magazine every week, so I end up attending about 8 games during the regular season and then I find a postseason game a week, including the Super Bowl.
CSC: Has the internet and/or blogs had any effect, negative or otherwise, on SI's readership?
DH: The face of journalism is definitely changing. Thankfully, Sports Illustrated has adapted with a strong web site, si.com, that also attracts a dedicated readership. I still think our magazine is our bread and butter though. It's what made us who we are and, in my opinion, it still defines us.
CSC: Do you ever read blogs like those found on SB Nation?
DH: I've checked out Waggle Room on SB Nation from time to time, and I imagine I will only add more to my daily reading as time goes on. I look forward to checking out Canal Street Chronicles this season!