In his rookie season, Stephone Anthony played 990 snaps and totaled a team-high 112 tackles. In his sophomore season, last year, Anthony played 116 snaps and finished with a mere 16 tackles. His meteoric rise in 2015 was followed by a head-scratching crash to Earth in 2016.
Many fans and sports writers alike have wondered what transgression could have possibly caused Anthony’s tumble down the depth chart. Some assume a lack of coaching is the main culprit, and those of us who have followed former linebackers coach Joe Vitt’s career know very well he failed to develop a single drafted linebacker in 10 seasons with the Saints.
Some attribute Anthony’s shift from middle linebacker to strong side linebacker as another reason for his sophomoric slump. Perhaps he was not ready to serve as the quarterback of the defense, calling plays and aligning players at the snap. But again, it’s up to the coaches to put players in the best position to succeed with regard to their own strengths and weaknesses.
Others blame his lack of skill in coverage over the middle as the defining weakness in his game. Sean Payton, himself, said that Anthony needed to work on his “instincts.” I hate to say it, but if a predator’s instincts at catching prey suck, the predator will die as it cannot feed itself. Still, I don’t think Anthony is to blame for any of these theories, even if one or more of them is true.
There were times in my athletic career when I listened to my instincts. Sometimes they were dead on, but sometimes they were wrong. I learned listening to my coaches and implementing their game plans was the best road to victory, even when I sincerely disagreed on their methods and tactics.
I learned that even if I thought I needed to be somewhere else on the court, no matter the sport, the more I improvised, the less we played as a team. If I was asked to hug the endline on the volleyball court, I did it. Maybe I wouldn’t get as many digs because that area of the court wasn’t hit to as much, but man did it feel good when I was in position to make the play every time the ball was hit my way.
I think it might be the same with Anthony. He is, without a doubt in my mind, the most athletic linebacker on the roster. If his instincts suck, it’s up to his coaches to put him in position to make the play. If he’s in the right position, his instincts should be less necessary to make the right play. It takes practice and repetition, but poor instincts can be minimized with excellent coaching, especially with a talented athlete like Anthony.
Thankfully, the Saints front office finally axed Vitt this offseason and hired NFL coaching journeyman Mike Nolan. Nolan has developed all-time great linebackers, including Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis. He turned poor defenses into good, if not great, ones in Denver and then Miami.
After taking last year off from coaching in lieu of commentating, Nolan should bring a fresh and rejuvenated perspective to the Saints linebacking corps. He has already picked Anthony out of the crowd as a player who owns impressive athleticism and football I.Q.
One quote from Herbie Teope’s NOLA.com article that Nolan made about Anthony stood out in particular. "Look, all the guys want to play, and I think all of them would tell you if that's what it takes for me to get on the field, they'd probably say yes and that's probably the best answer. You usually have your more versatile guys on the outside," Nolan said. "But again, I'm excited about Anthony.”
To me, this is a not so subtle jab at Vitt. And I like it. Of course, players are going to try to play whatever position the coach asks them to play. It sounds better than riding the bench. You think I should have been a middle blocker at 5-foot-7? Hell no, but my coaches asked me to play the position because we were thin there, and I was athletic enough to pull it off, so I did.
Clearly, Nolan sees that Anthony should have been in the middle rather than at the strong side. There will be an open competition at all linebacker positions this offseason, and I’m more confident than before that Nolan will put the best linebackers on the field, and in their best positions for them to succeed.
I like that Nolan specifically cited Anthony’s lone start in the middle against Tampa Bay in Week 14 last season as good tape that shows what Anthony is capable of. He played fantastic that game, even though the Saints eventually lost. He was quick and decisive on his way to nine tackles (seven solo) in all 66 defensive snaps.
That’s the kind of production this player is capable of; and no one in the Saints linebackers room should benefit more from Nolan’s fresh perspective and developmental coaching strengths than former first-round pick and hopefully not future bust, Stephone Anthony.
Can Stephone Anthony be salvaged with Mike Nolan on the scene?
This poll is closed