Last night I had the opportunity to speak with Saints starting linebacker Scott Shanle. But when I asked him who he thought was the most underrated player on the team, he struggled for a name.
That's probably only because the most underrated player might actually be him and I'm sure the idea of naming himself in response to my question never even crossed his mind.
Scott Shanle is, arguably, the most underrated player on the Saints defense; possibly the entire team. For five seasons now, he has started at outside linebacker despite multiple efforts to replace him. Shanle's Cinderella story takes him from Nebraska walk-on to 7th round draft pick to Super Bowl champion starter. He was even named team defensive MVP in 2008. Yet ask any Saints fan to list their favorite players and chances are, Shanle's name won't make the cut.
And that's just criminal. Hopefully it changes after today. Our entire conversation makes up the two-part, in-depth interview that follows below and later this afternoon. After reading, I think those that have always liked Shanle will be reminded why and those that haven't will realize why they should.
I want to thank Scott for taking time away from his busy family life to speak with me and for giving me some wonderfully honest answers. I hope the lockout ends soon and the Saints get him re-signed quickly.
Dave Cariello: What have you been doing this off-season?
Scott Shanle: Just trying to stay in shape. Free agency can start anytime so I want to make sure I'm 100% healthy and don't have any type of injuries.
Dave: Have you been in New Orleans?
Scott: I've been in New Orleans for a majority of this off-season. My oldest son goes to school and we've pretty much made it our home here.
Dave: But you haven't been going to the player organized practices, obviously, because you're not under contract. How does it feel not being at those practices?
Scott: It's kinda hard because it would normally be something that I would do. I've never been a me-first guy but in this situation it makes sense for me. If you get hurt in these player organized workouts, I don't care who you are, especially an unrestricted free agent, teams aren't going to look past the fact that you are participating in those workouts and give you a second chance, they want to make sure you're healthy.
Dave: What is the status of contract negotiations with the Saints? Are there any with the lockout?
Scott: That's the hard part. There's absolutely nothing going on. The only conversation I can have is with my agent. I can't have a conversation with any general manager or coaches. My agent can't talk to any teams general managers or coaches or anything like that so when they say it's locked out, it's strictly shut down. Everyone's forbidden from dealings with anybody.
Dave: When was the last time you talked with coach Payton or Gregg Williams?
Scott: I would probably say I was texting back and forth with coach Williams last February. Right before the whole lockout started.
Dave: In talking to a lot of the rookies, I know they've been watching film with Vilma in lieu of receiving a playbook. Have you been involved in any of the rookie education?
Scott: No, I haven't met any of those guys yet. If I was under contract I would be at Tulane everyday doing the workouts, too. For me, I think it's a little weird getting to know all these guys or going down there. If free agency were to start and my agent were talking to other teams, I just think it would be a conflict of interest as far as my contract status.
Dave: In the off chance the Saints decide not to bring you back, are there other teams that you would prefer to play for?
Scott: I would definitely like to play in a 4-3 defense. That would be the first thing. That's what most other teams would be looking at me for. If the Saints didn't want to bring me back, I think there's a handful of teams out there that are looking for a guy with my experience, who have won a championship, to help build their organization. I look at St. Louis, obviously they are close to home, so if I'm on the back turn of my career they'd be an interesting team for me. I really have a lot of respect for their head coach. Detroit's kind of a team on the rise. When I came to New Orleans, I was excited because it was a city who loved their team but never really had a lot of success. I kind of look at Detroit the same way. They deserve a championship and a winning way around there. Those are a couple of teams just off the top of my head who I think are going to be looking for outside linebackers who I wouldn't mind playing for I guess.
Dave: You have been pretty vocal about the lockout on Twitter. How are you currently feeling about the situation?
Scott: I'm kind of like everyone else. As it continues to go on longer I grow more pessimistic. I think it's because we've seen, now that it's in the hands of the courts and judges, nothing really seems to work in a matter of seconds and minutes and hours. It seems to be in a matter of weeks and months, which is discouraging because there are so many people that this effects. And it's not just football players and coaches and owners, it's people who have jobs in the stadium. It's cities who rely on a lot of revenue on Sunday's. So I think the fact that the courts are taking their sweet time is not good. I think that's the frustrating part; mediation is not happening, these two sides are not sitting in a room 24 hours a day trying to get a deal done. That's the most frustrating part for me.
Dave: On a scale of 1-10, ten being highly optimistic, how hopeful are you that the lockout will end before games are lost this season?
Scott: If you would have asked me two weeks ago I would have said a "10;" that I didn't think any games were going to be missed. I would move it to a "9" right now. I really don't feel like any regular season games are going to be missed. But I think both sides have their heals dug in the ground and having a stare down contest right now waiting for someone to blink first. I think both sides are pretty set in their ways. I just hope it doesn't get in the way of missing any regular season games.
Dave: Do you prefer the strongside or the weakside?
Scott: I think it really depends the way the defense is structured. When Gary Gibbs was the defensive coordinator here I was listed as a weakside linebacker but I played to the strong side of an offensive set so it's kinda backwards. I really liked that defense a lot as far as the way we ran the coverages. That defense maybe fit me more than any other defense we ran. In Gregg Williams' defense, the weakside linebacker is a true weakside linebacker, always to the bubble, to the weakside of the offensive formation. But I think I would prefer the old weakside linebacker in the Tampa 2 scheme. That's what we used to run. I just feel like it fit my abilities the most.
I have always been gameplanned to cover the opponents' best receiving threat. Whether it be a tight end or running back, I have drawn the responsibility. You can even go back over the last couple of years and see weeks where I actually switched to the other linebacker spot for a particular game to be closer to certain receiving threats. For instance the last two years with Tony Gonzalez in Atlanta, I have actually played the strongside a majority of the time to mirror him. In actuality, a WILL linebacker should not be on a tight end as much as I am. In nickel situations, I am always asked to take the better running back in coverage as well. Many times these changes go unnoticed but have gone on my entire career here in New Orleans.
Dave: Just out of curiosity, if Jonathan Vilma went down with an injury, would you be able step in and play MLB if necessary? Or would that be too foreign and uncomfortable?
Scott: Well, it is definitely a lot harder to go from one of the outside linebacker spots to the middle. And it's completely different going from the middle to the outside. There is no doubt in my mind I think I can do it. It would feel a little different to me because I've never done it. The only time I've ever played inside, at really a Mike position, is in a 3-4 defense. I've never played the middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense but I think it definitely would feel weird to me.
Dave: Is it fair to pigeonhole the Saints defense as a 4-3 when you guys switch defensive fronts so often?
Scott: I would definitely say, if you're going to talk about Gregg's scheme, you'd say it's multiple. Last year we ran a lot of 4-3 defense and it felt like a true 4-3 defense. Whereas two years ago, in 2009 when he first got here, we were much more multiple. We ran a lot more different looks. I don't know if we did it because he liked the personnel better or why he did it but I think we switched up the fronts a lot more two years ago than we did last year.
Dave: Do you personally miss Scott Fujita to play alongside?
Scott: Yeah. I think it was a bigger adjustment than I thought. I remember talking to Scott when he was in Cleveland and he called and he said he thought he was going to end up signing with Cleveland. He kinda told me what the numbers were that they ran across him, compared to the Saints. I remember saying it was a no-brainer as far as what you've got to do for you and your family. It was kind of weird going through the first off-season without him there. But I think the first time it really hit me was when we got into the regular season and week in and week out, not having him at the other spot, it did get a little weird because we kinda have the same personalities and we kinda feed off each other. We keep things light, even during games.
Dave: There's a certain amount of adoration among Saints fans for underdog players like Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Pierre Thomas, who have become successful despite being late round draft picks or undrafted free agents. But you have a similar background, passing up full scholarship offers to other schools just to walk on at Nebraska and becoming a starter despite being a 7th round draft pick. Yet you don't seem to garner as much respect. Why do you think that is?
Scott: I think part of that goes with the fact that I played in two other places before coming to New Orleans. You look at Pierre, Marques and Lance; this is their first go. There's more pride in fans when they follow a player from the moment that player first got there. Whereas I got here in the middle of my career. So there's not as much loyalty as there is toward a guy who starts their entire career with a team. So I think that's why you kinda see the fanbase show a little more love for those guys, because they started their careers here.
Dave: Do you know how many games you've missed since 2003? I know, but do you?
Scott: Maybe ten?
Dave: Seven. You missed seven games.
Dave: Yes. So my question is: how have you remained injury free? What's the secret? And can you share it with the running backs?
Scott: [Laughs] Well, we'll start with the running backs. That's a different animal as far as the beating they take. To play that position in the NFL, I have a lot of respect for those running backs who can go through an entire year. It's unbelievable. I think for me, I've always understood what my body responds to in the off-season when I need to get ready. As far as what is my proper weight? What weight do I feel comfortable playing at? What do I feel good at strength-wise? How much stronger do I need to get in the weight room? Flexibility, what do I need to do? Those three things, but you've also got to throw in a little bit of luck. I mean a lot of times injuries are just somebody standing around a pile and somebody jumps on the pile and hits your wrong. I haven't had anything like that happen to me, which I'm fortunate for.
Dave: Among the current linebackers on the team, who would you want starting opposite you at the other outside linebacker position?
Scott: I think last year the mix that we had in training camp when I was playing strongside, the way Casillas was playing in pre-season, I was excited about seeing the three of us on the field. Obviously, he got hurt and so you really don't know what he can do yet because he's so young. He had a great pre-season game but then we haven't seen much of him since. If I stayed at weakside, I wouldn't even know who to say at strongside because obviously they drafted a rookie in the third round but there's a learning curve and obviously that learning curve is going to be even more drastic without a real off-season as far as OTA's and minicamp and getting adjusted for the regular season. So I don't even know, if they brought me back, would they have me play the weakside or would they have me play the strongside so it's kind of a difficult question for me to answer.