SAN FRANCISCO - SEPTEMBER 20: Reggie Bush #25 of the New Orleans Saints is consoled by Jeremy Shockey #88 before Bush leaves the field due to an injury during their game against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on September 20 2010 in San Francisco California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
The five year span of the Sean Payton era has been without question the most successful span in Saints' history. The last two years, especially, have seen a very high percentage of wins and a Lombardi Trophy. The Saints are 21-6 in the regular season over the last two years, and while that record has been achieved with quality coaching, preparation, and elite players, the depth of the roster is most responsible in my mind for the consistent success. If you asked me what's changed the most in the organization's business model in the last 5 years that's allowed them to be so much better than before, I'd say unequivocally that the improved talent evaluation has been the determining factor.
If you look at most NFL teams, they are built with a fairly proven, or at least promising, starting lineup. Teams either have starters they consider elite, serviceable, or with loads of potential. In the end football is an extremely physical sport, and the question that's always asked is how well a team will be able to absorb injuries. The problem is one never knows going into a season which positions will be most affected by a rash of hurt players. Assigning depth to each position becomes a challenge in finding diamonds in the ruff and it becomes a guessing game.
If you look at the Saints' roster today, the "superstars" are clear. You've got Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas, Marques Colston, Jeremy Shockey, Jahri Evans, Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Darren Sharper, Tracy Porter. Sure, you could add or subtract a few from the names I just listed, but these are the players most widely known around the league as the driving force behind the Saints' success the past 5 years. Of all those listed players, they have all missed games due to injury with the exceptions of Jahri Evans and Drew Brees. Now granted, keeping your starting quarterback healthy is a must. No top team can absorb a long term injury to a star quarterback and stay on the same level of competitiveness. The Saints have, however, had to absorb an injury to pretty much every other "superstar" or "elite player" on their roster during this blissful span. So as much as these guys are crucial to how well the Saints do, here's some other names that have made a difference: Jermon Bushrod, Usama Young, Malcolm Jenkins, Bobby McCray, David Thomas, Robert Meachem, Lance Moore, Marvin Mitchell, Chris McAlister, Mike McKenzie, Lynell Hamilton, Zach Strief, Chris Ivory. There's too many to list.
The point is, there's all these role players and they are performing on an extremely high level when they are thrust into a more prominent role. People around the NFL are a lot less familiar with these names, but they represent the difference between a team being good when healthy, and a team competing for a Super Bowl.
Last year, the Saints lost perennial Pro Bowler and reliable left tackle Jammal Brown. If you've been a fan of the NFL, you know that losing a left tackle can be one of the most devastating injuries a team can suffer. It's the most important position on the offensive line, and the number of high quality players at that position out there can be counted on two hands. In fact, an injury at that position often leads to an injury at the quarterback position, because of the severe drop off teams experience in pass protection. In step Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief, who hold down the left tackle position all the way to the Super Bowl. Star running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas have both missed time the last two years, and people by the names of Mike Bell, Lynell Hamilton and Chris Ivory have picked up the slack and held down the fort during their absence. At one point, with Darren Sharper and Malcolm Jenkins both out this year, the Saints were relegated to starting Usama Young, their 3rd string free safety. He turned in a masterful performance on the back end and played at a very high level. How many teams in the NFL can feel good about their third string free safety? You can count them on one hand. When Lance Moore went down for an extended period of time last year, or when Shockey went down, did the Saints suffer? Nope. Guys like Robert Meachem and David Thomas stepped in, filled in nicely, and the Saints kept winning games.The Saints were down to starting their 5th string cornerback at one point this year, Leigh Torrence, who turned in the game of his life and registered his first career interception. Last year, they were down to their 7th string guy as they brought in Mike McKenzie off the street, who intercepted future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady, and they brought in veteran Chris McAlister, who caused a game winning forced fumble in an overtime game.
There is no question the Saints are at their best when their best players are healthy. What I am saying is that the drop off when those player get hurt is much less than almost every other team in the NFL. That's a tribute to Sean Payton, Mickey Loomis, and the scouting department they have assembled. In the NFL, you're only as good as the players that can fill in for your injuries, and it's a given those injuries will happen. You can hope for relative health, and that your quarterback doesn't go down, but injuries to important players are unavoidable. The Saints are more prepared than ever for a rainy day, and because of that, it's been raining a lot less lately.