Please read Dave Cariello's insightful piece regarding Pierre Thomas if you haven't had the chance already. It really had me thinking about this issue for the Saints. They clearly have a problem with the deepest rotation on their roster. There are just too many options at halfback, too many specialists. Even with Sean Payton's deft hand they were never rotated for optimal output. Now under assistants and interim coaches no one has any idea how to deal with the depth or their particular skills.
Since last season with the drafting of Mark Ingram and the acquisition of Darren Sproles, the Saints have been viewed as having an embarrassment of riches at halfback. An envy to the rest of the league in an era where the 1-2 running back system is dying. Teams like Minnesota with Adrian Peterson, once the standard, are now the exception to the rule. Unless you have a rare and undeniable force like Peterson, very few teams will run out one back for 80% of their running game just to be spelled for a breather. The feat of the 2,000-yard season may not be seen again for a very long time.
Although the Saints decisions appear to be clearly in line with the changing face of rushing in the NFL, maybe even leading the charge, I feel there are other motives involved. I believe the Saints are still scarred from the perception of an opportunity lost. While appearing to be proactive, the Saints decisions at halfback are actually reactive. The Saints have been reacting to the playoff loss at Seattle and the 2010 season that preceded it.
Putting Julius Jones and DeShawn Wynn in the backfield late in a playoff game that the Saints had no business losing was an organizational embarrassment. A position Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton clearly never wanted to find themselves in again. Four months later the Saints reacted by trading up to draft the Heisman Trophy winner and clear-cut best tailback in the draft, Mark Ingram. Three months after the Ingram drafting, the Saints signed Darren Sproles to replace the role left by Reggie Bush's departure. The Saints responded swiftly and loudly. Thomas, Ingram, and Sproles to start the season sounded a hell of a lot better than Bush, Jones, and Wynn to end the last one.
The 2011 season was a success for the experiment even though Ingram struggled with performance and injury, Thomas, Sproles, and the welcome surprise of Chris Ivory shined with balance and results. The reaction by Loomis and Payton worked and the scars began to heal. Then, another playoff run and another halfback disaster hit. Pierre Thomas was lost to injury in the first drive of the playoff loss at San Francisco. With Mark Ingram already out due to injury, the Saints faced the Niners with Chris Ivory "The Power Back" and Darren Sproles "The Shifty Back." Neither would do any good against San Francisco's defense that day. By putting either in, the Saints were telegraphing their punches. Truth be told though, the Saints could've put in Mack Truck and Bull Dozer at that point and it wouldn't have made any difference. Turnovers and missed defensive assignments had already sealed the Saints fate. The freshly sealed scars from Seattle had been re-opened.
Since the Haslett to Payton transition, the Saints have never really had that one back to lead the charge. Deuce McAllister was truly the last one, the last halfback you could bank everything on. By the end of the 2006 playoff run, McAllister's best days were behind him. Reggie Bush was to assume the role, then undrafted Pierre Thomas crashed the party. Since 2008 many halfbacks have tried but no one has been able to make the singular impact Deuce McAllister had left. The Saints don't need to go back to those days to succeed at rushing but they do need to pair this thing down from five halfbacks on the roster to a manageable three.
Since the arrival of Sean Payton in 2006 the Saints have employed fourteen halfbacks. They are as follows:
Deuce McAllister, Reggie Bush, Aaron Stecker, Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell, Lynell Hamilton, Ladell Betts, Julius Jones, DeShawn Wynn, Joique Bell, Chris Ivory, Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles, and Travaris Cadet. If I've forgotten anyone I'm sure Hans will back me up. He is the Jedi master around these parts!
Since Deuce rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2006 not one back has individually rushed for over 800 yards in a season under Payton. The Saints have set themselves up with pieces that do some things great but not everything well. When some backs are put in the game you, the opponent, the fans in attendance, and everyone watching on TV know what type of play is coming. Pierre Thomas is the one true jack-of-all-trades back on the Saints roster. The Saints can run virtually any play needed with him in the backfield. The one problem going forward with Pierre is that he is, best case scenario, at his peak. To be perfectly honest he may be now past it. Ivory, Ingram, and Sproles cannot provide the overall versatility of PT although they can do great things in their own right.
Quite frankly this isn't as much a talent decision to be made as it is a game planning decision. With the current talent the Saints have proven they can be a solid and reliable rushing team. But they need to decide how they want to attack teams consistently. They've got to stop evaluating talent in-season and switching up game plans and personnel week to week to fit the opponent. The Saints allow the opponent to dictate how they will run the ball. It is reactive decision making. Conversely, the Saints have imposed their passing game onto their opponents since day one under Payton, using a firm proactive approach. That's why ultimately passing has been the strength and rushing has been an "area of opportunity."
What do the Saints want to be? A power rushing team, between the tackles with power and authority? A speed rushing team, hitting the outside with decisiveness and elusiveness? A fundamental decision has to be made this offseason. The Saints have to tailor the offensive line and blocking schemes to a particular style and attitude to succeed. With Brees and his skills at the helm, the Saints will never be a top rushing attack, but they need to be a dependable and consistent one. They need to know who they are and how they are going to succeed in each and every game.
The Saints have tried for too long to have it all. Sometimes you need to re-evaluate things and realize it's not taking you where you need to be to reach ultimate success. Decisions need to be made and the time is upon us. The pieces are in place, there's just too many of them. With the right pieces in the right places and a fundamental identity at the line and in the backfield the Saints will find their way.