Last year, about this time, Jim Henderson and I both went public with the shocking news that the Saints were going to win the Super Bowl. I'm not sure what made Jim think so, but I'd almost bet the house that he had the same reason I did: Gregg Williams.
Last season, Gregg Williams was the Difference Maker. We all knew it, as soon as he was signed, though as Saints fans some of us didn't want to believe. Already blessed with the best offense in the league, we knew the Saints could be championship contenders if Williams could make only moderate improvements. In the event, things worked out exactly as planned; and in retrospect, it should have been obvious to everyone.
So: what will be this year's Difference Maker? What has changed, from last year to this, that will be sufficient either to make or to break the Saints' 2010 season? After the jump, I suggest some candidates, and come to my own conclusion. Yours may differ...but that's what blogging is about.
1. Jimmy Graham. This one is the current darling, the sloe-eyed cutie that everyone wants to hold in their lap and cuddle. Jimmy is going to be an instant Antonio Gates, and his Rookie of the Year campaign will catapult the Saints back to the top of the football world.
Hell, it could happen. I haven't been this excited about an offensive prospect since Reggie Bush, at least. So far in camp, he's looked like exactly what we thought we got: a raw but incredibly talented offensive weapon. If anyone can raise him up in the way he should go, it's the Saints' coaching staff.
The problem with this candidate is that there's still too much to find out. Graham certainly looks like the real deal so far; but is a part-time tight end (in the absence of a major injury to Shockey, he's not starting anytime soon) really going to have that much impact on what is already the best offense in the NFL? I doubt it. This one looks intriguing, but I'm nowhere near ready to pull the lever.
2. Patrick Ramsey. A lot of you may be surprised by this candidate. After all, the prophets of WhoDatdom have all decreed (I've said as much myself) that if anything bad happens to Drew, the season is shot. But on further review, that may be going too far.
Think of last year. In Week 10, Tracy Porter went down with a knee injury, and it looked as though our secondary was toast. But they somehow muddled through; and five weeks later, Porter was back. And in the playoffs, he was really back. When we worry about Brees getting hurt, we tend to envision catastrophic, season-ruining injuries. But what if it's only something that knocks him out four or six weeks? Can the offense somehow muddle through that period without Drew?
That's where Ramsey comes in. Thus far, we haven't seen anything to assure us that he can handle the job; but we also haven't seen anything to suggest he can't. Historically, Ramsey isn't all that bad--he's just not a legitimate starter. His completion percentage isn't outstanding; but at least he's ahead in the TD-to-interception ratio. If all we need from him is decent production and a 50% win rate for a short period, we may yet bless the day we got him.
The problem with this candidate is, again, we simply don't know enough yet. Not only that, but he'll have an impact only if Brees goes down. If nothing bad happens, Ramsey rides the bench, holds the clipboard, and picks up a cheap and easy championship ring at the end. Not a bad job if you can get it, but not a Difference Maker, either.
3. Confidence. Not that the Saints weren't confident last year; but the biggest difference between 2009 and 2010 is that last year's team believed they could be champions, and this year's knows it for a fact. That could work either for or against us. If they approach the season with the appropriate confidence that they can win a championship, I'm convinced they will. If, on the other hand, they start out overconfident and with a feeling of entitlement, the entire NFL will be waiting to disabuse them of the notion.
So far, I haven't seen, heard, or read anything that makes me believe the Saints are approaching the season overconfident. Both Sean Payton and Gregg Williams have lauded the players for their attitude in OTAs and in training camp so far. If what we hear is true, the rest of the NFL should be shaking in their cleats. A Saints team that calmly, confidently knows they can succeed will be the most dangerous team in the league.
But is it that much of a difference from last year? This was a pretty confident bunch, and they learned as they went that their self-confidence wasn't misplaced. By the end, surely their confidence level at least approximated a perfect assurance that they could achieve a championship. As important as this variable may be, and as much as I'm convinced the Saints do have their heads on straight, I can't say this is the single factor that will make all the difference this year.
4. The loss of Fujita. What a difference a year makes. Last season, we desperately needed an upgrade over the journeyman Scott Fujita. This season, we're wondering how we're going to replace him.
There have to be negative candidates; and this one, so far, seems to be the leading one. Fujita was solid and smart, a good fit in Gregg Williams' system. Could losing him be the factor that ruins the Saints' season?
In a word: no. In two words: child, please. As much as I'll always love Scott Fujita because of his association with our first championship, the only way the next season comes down to Fujita or no Fujita is if we get into an Oreo-eating contest with Peyton Manning. I have no doubt at all that we have someone--or more likely, a combination of someones--who can fill the gap. In fact, Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Troy Evans did fill the gap last year in five games which Fujita missed because of injuries. Evans, Dunbar, the intriguing-but-untried Stanley Arnoux, Jonathan Casillas, and Clint Ingram, taken together, represent an almost perfect assurance that the Saints have somebody capable of stepping up. I'm not worried.
5. The loss of Bell. This is a similar situation: as important as Mike Bell was to us at times last year, he was, after all, only the third running back. Does anyone seriously think his production cannot be accounted for by another player? Lynell Hamilton is the front-runner to replace Bell's 3.8 yards per carry (Hamilton had 3.6), but P.J. Hill and Chris Ivory will have a chance to step up in training camp. There are two other possibilities: adding another veteran, or giving more carries to Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush. Either one sounds like a viable strategy. Again, I'm not worried.
The Difference Maker
So, if it's none of these, what might the Difference Maker be? Alex Brown for Charles Grant? Malcolm Jenkins to safety? Junior Galette?
After a lot of thought, I have to admit to cheating. I asked above, what has changed from last year that will make the difference. Actually, nothing: I believe the Difference Maker this year will be the same as last year, Gregg Williams. And the reason is, he hasn't nearly finished his job of improving the Saints' defense.
When Williams was hired in 2009, we expected he would instantly transform a defense that was bad both actually and statistically into at least an average one. He pretty much proclaimed as much, declaring that he would emphasize causing turnovers and taking the ball into the end zone before Drew Brees and the offense so much as got on the field. He was famously quoted last season as saying the Saints' front seven was not good enough to dominate opponents if takeaways were removed from the picture.
The point is, though: however he managed it, he succeeded in what he set out to do. He turned a bad defense into a good one. But still, not good enough.
Throughout the playoffs, herds of "experts" bleated and re-bleated the truism that the Saints had "the 25th-rated defense in the NFL." That much was true...if you rate the defense according to yards allowed. In fact, the Saints defense last year was worse than the 2008 version under Gary Gibbs...if you rate the defense according to yards allowed. We dropped from 23rd to 25th, and rose only slightly in points allowed, from 26th in 2008 to 20th in 2009. So where was the improvement?
In three areas. First, of course, in takeaways. We improved in fumble recoveries, from 26th to 5th. We improved in interceptions too, from 11th to 3rd.
Second, in pass defense--which, you may remember, was an enormous concern coming into 2009. Last season, the Saints were 3rd in the league in opponents' passer rating.
Third, in red-zone defense. The Saints gave up a lot of big plays, especially in the running game, and that hurt them in some games. But when the game was on the line, when it really counted, when the defense was backed up to the end zone, only Washington and San Francisco were better at stopping their opponent.
Those three improvements were sufficient to propel the Saints to the podium in Miami. But there were still real problems: where the Saints' defense really fell down was in stopping the run--from 16th in 2008 in average yards per rush to 21st in 2009. Yet surely Williams knows this; and with the long-standing problems in the secondary fixed in the most dramatic manner possible last season, surely Williams will make it a priority to stop the run this year. And, because he's Gregg Williams, surely we will see improvements. The situation is analogous to the decision Payton made in training camp last year to concentrate on running the ball better. We ran the ball better. This team, bit by bit, step by step, accomplishes what it sets out to do. Next on the agenda is stopping the run, followed by hoisting a Lombardi in Dallas.
In the end, this is actually an easy determination to make. New Orleans has the best offense in the league, and barring anything unforeseen--injuries, psychotic breaks, crooked officials--we'll have one of the best in the league again. The only chance for serious improvement has to come on the defensive side...and the biggest factor in our defensive success is the man running the show. As Gregg Williams succeeds or fails in 2010, so will the Saints succeed or fail. My own guess is that we'll be chanting "Two Dat!" in February. I don't know yet what Jim Henderson thinks.