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Sean Payton on Saints Running Game: "It's still a work in progress"

Sean Payton understands better than anyone the importance of the running game and the positive affect it can have on his prolific passing offense.

Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints don't need a running game to win the Super Bowl. Well, that seems to be the opinion of a few media folks and bloggers leading up to the Saints game against the Bears.

Sean Payton does NOT agree.

That's the thing about the running game. You keep hitting it.

It has been his intention since day one when he came back from suspension that he was going to run the ball. He didn't like what he saw last year and he was determined to change it.

When you tell me a team is last in the league in defense and last in the running game, I'm telling you the quarterback's job description is entirely different. I'm telling you he's having to play and press and try to do certain things that his counterpart may not have to do based on the way that team is running the ball or playing defense. That's the first thing that I saw. You get one-dimensional, you find yourself in these games where you're not controlling the game.

But, Drew Brees can do it all by himself, right Coach? After all, that's the way the Saints have always done it. Right?

I think oftentimes it appears that we are throwing the ball a lot and, yet, when we have been really successful, we have had good balance and I think that's important.

Uh, oh. He said the "b" word. Coach Payton is a balance-truther. I wonder if he also thinks Drew Brees is an effing midget.

Anyway, blog cattiness aside, Payton understands that in order for his offense to reach its maximum level of kick assedness, the Saints are gonna have to run the ball. That DOES NOT mean taking the ball outta Drew Brees' hands or changing the high-octane passing offense into some run-oriented plow-horse that would rival the Oklahoma Wishbone of the 1970's. Which is how hysterical some Saints fans can get whenever anyone mentions the need for the Saints to run the ball more or better.

It simply means EXACTLY what Sean Payton said in his statement above. He doesn't want to be one-dimensional. Mainly because one-dimensional offenses get their asses kicked in the playoffs. One-dimensional teams either don't make the playoffs or they go home early.

That's why he made sure that everyone on the team understood exactly what he wanted to get done as soon as he got off suspension. Well, at least until after he had his coffee and donut and then ran Spagnuolo's hump outta the building ("coffee and donut" line courtesy of DrunkWino).

Pierre Thomas described it in an interview.

When we had our first team meeting, he talked about that. There's going to be more focus this year on that ground game than any year. He said we've got to get back to running the ball, having 100-yard games nonstop. I can't wait. I'm excited, and I know everybody else is excited.

Um....I guess Brett Ingalls missed that meeting.

It's funny how Sean Payton coaches the team, runs the offense, and has a very specific philosophy for how he wants to do things, but yet, fans and media can have opinions so completely opposite from what Payton actually says and does. It's as if they're watching a completely different football team from the one Payton is actually coaching.

For example, this line of thinking which has been gaining momentum that the Saints don't need a running game. That's not what Payton's says. That's not what his history with the club indicates. That's not even NFL history.

NO TEAM has won a Super Bowl without averaging at least 25 rushing attempts per game during the regular season. That's 400+ rushing attempts in a 16 game season. In all the talk about how the Saints don't need a running game to win the Super Bowl, the same examples of the 2010 Packers and the 2011 Giants are always used as teams who didn't have a running game but still won a Super Bowl.

Not true.

That's because these examples are based on the teams' rankings by total rushing yards. The 2010 Packers were ranked 24th in rushing yards and the 2011 Giants were ranked 32nd. But rankings according to rushing yards don't tell the whole story. It shows how many yards they gained in comparison to other teams in the NFL, but it does not show if those yards helped those teams win. Which is the only thing that's important

In 2011, the Giants had 411 rushing attempts, 1427 yards, and 17 touchdowns. The Packers had 421 attempts, 1606 yards, and 11 touchdowns in 2010.

A team can't NOT run the ball all season long and then expect it to just pop up like magic whenever they need it.

Does that seem like two teams that DID NOT have a running game?

The problem is, in this 21st century of Fantasy Football and lazy pundits on television who don't take the time to explain anything (DESPITE the fact that they have MULTIPLE 24 hour channels specifically for that purpose) and who use tired, worn out clichés to describe what's happening on the field, quite a few fans have a difficult time understanding the importance of the running game and how it benefits the passing game.

Mostly everyone today is concerned about "most". Most passing yards, rushing yards, touchdowns, points scored, yards allowed, most touchdown dances, most indictments without a conviction. And if a team or player is not at, or near, the top of a list, then they can't possibly be any good.

It is because of this emphasis on fantasy stats and rankings, along with a sports media that mostly uses hyperbole in 20-30 second sound bites, which has too many folks thinking you can judge the running game the same way. That is not how the running game works. Having an effective running game is not determined by a Top 5 or Top 10 NFL ranking. Especially, in the pass happy 21st century of the NFL.

The only thing that really matters is if your team's running game is serving the purpose of your offense. A team that has Christian Ponder at QB and Adrian Petersen at RB is probably gonna have to rush for more yardage than a team with Eli Manning or Aaron Rodgers at QB in order for them to win games. The true purpose of the running game is to provide cover for the passing game. Particularly, if you're one of the few teams in the NFL with an "elite" QB. Even though a team may not have to rush for as much yardage as Minnesota or San Francisco to win games, if you just happen to have a dominant running game, say Top 5 or Top 10, then that is a luxury which makes your offense that much more potent and damn near unstoppable. You know, kinda like the 2009 and 2011 Saints who had the #6 rushing offense in the league each season along with a prolific passing attack.

Football has always been about blocking and tackling. It was that way in the 1800's and it's still that way now in the 2000's. I don't care how much of an "elite" quarterback or "stud" running back a team may have, it doesn't mean anything without the guys upfront blocking for them. Likewise on defense, it doesn't matter how big, strong, fast, or how much of a "motor" a guy has, if he can't tackle anybody. He's just another clown whiffing on tackles in the backfield or falling on his ass in the open field while some cat is heading into the end zone.

When a team can run the football it means they're physical, tough. The lineman don't just have to backup and take shots from defensive lineman while pass blocking. They can fire off the ball and go deliver some blows to those same guys. It means that they can go anywhere against anybody on any field and win. The running game determines who is actually controlling the line of scrimmage. It sets the tone for a running team that wants to punch you in the mouth and it provides cover for a passing team which allows them to keep the heat off their QB so they can open up the playbook and light up the scoreboard.

The key to having a successful running game is not total yards or average per carry, it's the rushing ATTEMPTS. The running game, when it's not going well, can be a war of attrition. But, it has always been about consistency and repetition. If you're running the ball enough, total yards and average per carry will take care of themselves. That's why you hear coaches talking about sticking with running the ball and not giving up on it. They KNOW. They know damn well that outside of pass blocking upfront, the best way to keep a relentless pass rush off of your QB is an effective running game. And notice I said, "effective". I'm not talking about changing over to John McKay's "Student Body Right" back when Orenthal The Bus Driving Murderer was tearing up the playing fields of good Ol' USC.

Since 1978, when the NFL expanded to 16 games and changed the rules to open up the passing game, 146 teams have had less than 400 rushing attempts during the regular season. Of those teams, 108 had losing seasons, 13 broke even at 8-8, and only 25 had winning seasons. Of those 25 teams with winning records, only 9 of them won a playoff game. The rest were kicked out on their butts in the first round or didn't make the playoffs.

A few of the teams that lost in their first game of the playoffs are very familiar.

2011 Packers

2011 Lions

2010 Colts

2008 Colts

2010 Saints

2000 Rams

These are all teams which had prolific passing attacks during the regular season. Remember the 2011 Packers? They were 15-1 and Aaron Rodgers won the MVP over Drew Brees that year. They were bounced on their rears at home by the Giants. It would appear that some folks have picked the wrong Packers team as an example of a team with no running game. The 2010 Packers, the team who supposedly had no running game, had 421 rushing attempts and won a Super Bowl. The 2011 Packers dropped below 400 and were sent home.

Of the 146 teams which had less than 400 rushing attempts only three made it to the Super Bowl.

2009 Colts

2008 Cardinals

2004 Eagles

Each of the teams above had top caliber NFL QBs (Manning, Warner, McNabb). But, they ended up losing in the Super Bowl against teams who also had top caliber QBs (Brady, Brees, Roethlisberger) and they also had better running games during the regular season.

The three most successful teams during the Payton era all rushed the ball 400+ times during the regular season.




NFC Champ Game




Super Bowl Champion




Divisional Rd Loss

Three Payton teams along with a Vitt/Kromer squad all had less the 400 attempts




No Playoffs




No Playoffs




Wild Card Loss




No Playoffs

This is not some magic formula. Getting to 400+ attempts does NOT guarantee winning a Championship. But it's sure better than some notion to give up on the run and just pass the ball. I'm not claiming that a team with 398 rushing attempts has no running game. I'm simply pointing out that the more a team runs the ball, the more effective they can be. Every season is different. There are various factors which can play into why a team doesn't run the ball as much as it should. But, it the end, regardless of the why, it all boils down to the same thing. Teams that give up on the run, for whatever reason, usually end up paying for it with a losing season or early playoff losses.

During the 2010 season, the Saints had running backs dropping like flies. It's not that they didn't want to run the ball, but their options were limited by who they had in the backfield. Fortunately, the Saints had a tough veteran defense which was ranked #4 that season so they could win more games than other seasons in which they weren't running the ball as much as their most successful seasons.

2007 and 2008 were almost mirror images of each other in that Sean Payton was a young coach who hadn't yet learned his lesson from the NFC Championship Game and the Saints passed the ball more during those two seasons than in any other season during Payton's "learning" years. These two seasons featured lots of passing yards and interceptions by Drew Brees. Gary Gibbs' defense was leaking all over the field and Jason David was Dan Kelly's favorite player. So, the Saints found themselves in some shootouts.

2012 needs no explanation.

An old-timer on this blog said the other day, "yes, you can win without a running game".

Individual games, yes. Sure, a team can win a few games during the regular season and look good doing it. Each game is different. Some games, against certain teams, Brees can afford to spray the ball around all over the place without much of a rushing attack and still win the game. In other games, against teams like the Bears on their home field, that kind of approach will send the team home with a loss. Like it did in three previous trips to Chicago. Or, like when they had their asses handed to them in St. Louis in 2011. Or, any number of games in 2007 and 2008. Let's not even talk about the mess that was 2012.

Yup, you can win individual games without running the ball. But, you don't want to make that your game plan for an entire season. To intentionally give up on running the ball? That may win some games but it won't win Championships.

The Saints had 28 rushing attempts in their game against the Bears. Some fans will look at their rushing yards and average per carry in that game, and on the surface, it can seem that they did not do very well.

Again, not true.

The Saints were able to control the tempo, keep the heat off Brees, and minimize passing mistakes because Brees didn't have to heave it 45-50 times in the game. Which, of course, leads to his "WTF?" interceptions. They kept the Bears defense off balance because they were expecting the same Saints team which had been there on three previous trips and thrown the ball 43, 49, and 60 times - all losses.

The last two times the Saints and Bears have played (Dome 2011, Chicago 2013), Brees' pass attempts were under 40 (37 & 35) and the games were not close. The ball was NOT taken out of Drew Brees very capable hands, he just didn't have to throw it as much against a defense which thrives on mistakes.

Do you really want to see Drew Brees attempting 45-50 passes in the Super Bowl? Outside? In March? In New Jersey? Sean Payton sure doesn't. He's been through the nightmare of trying to matchup with tough physical football teams and having to do it with a one-dimensional offense. That's why he is so committed to running the football. He knows that Drew Brees is MUCH BETTER at directing his passing offense if he has cover by the running game.

Yes, I know. It can be very frustrating watching PT and Sprolesy struggling behind that line. And not to mention the fact that Mark Ingram sucks. No, really....Mark Ingram sucks (Hey, gotta get another "Ingram Sucks!" thread going somehow). But, that's why Payton wants to fix it now. In the regular season. A team can't NOT run the ball all season long and then expect it to just pop up like magic whenever they need it.

As long as Payton keeps calling running plays and mixing them in with his passing game, the rushing yards WILL eventually come. Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles are far too good at running the football. All they need is the touches. That's the thing about the running game. You keep hitting it. You don't stop just because it's difficult in the beginning of the season. Payton knows this. He understands the stakes involved. He also knows that if he takes a one-dimensional passing team into the playoffs, his chances of getting a second Lombardi are not good.

The man is the best coach in the game. He has the highest winning pct of any coach in the NFL since 2009 and he hasn't lost a regular season game since October 30, 2011. The Saints are 5-0. Right back among the elite teams in the NFL as if 2012 never happened. I think, maybe, his opinion on what should be done with the running game just might have a little something to it.

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