There will likely be a moment at some point next year when Drew Brees looks to his left, and then to his right, and is met by the site of several players who will either be new to the offense or did not log many snaps last season.
Those players, at least at this early juncture, have proven capable throughout the offseason program when the offense is being installed and everyone is working to get on the same page. It’s a safe environment and everything is controlled. The defense is firing blanks, not live rounds, and the offense is yet to take the training wheels off.
The players who used to be on either side of Brees knew what it was like to stand in a huddle with him when he changes a play or how to dissect a defense through the same eyes as the quarterback when running an option route.
The ability to do things or adjust with Brees will determine how successful some of those new targets like Brandon Coleman, Seantavius Jones, and running back C.J. Spiller are next season as individuals, and how the Saints perform as a team.
It’s not overstating things when saying that knowing the playbook isn’t enough. Having everything memorized and following the routes as they’re drawn won’t cut it. You have to be able to color outside the lines and still bring everything together into a cohesive, improved picture.
Wide receiver Marques Colston knows this better than most. He’s been standing in huddles with Brees since 2006, and he can’t remember the amount of times he’s had to adjust or change his role within an offensive concept based on what the quarterback or a coach is seeing.
“There’s times when a play is drawn up a certain way and (Brees) may see something different in the defense and want a different look and adjust it on the fly,” Colston said. “The same thing with Sean (Payton). That’s one of the qualities that makes this offense good. It’s not set in stone. It’s really about putting people in the best position to succeed.”
As New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick once said, it doesn’t make sense for offenses to run routes to simply be covered. So, flexibility is good, but it also makes chemistry more important and requires a higher level of understanding for the receivers.
But Payton is also careful not to put players in situations where they will feel over their heads. Unlike in New England, where nearly every receiver will have options on their route, sometimes up to four on one play, the Saints pick their spots and try not to overload players who can’t handle it or lack a certain feel for things.
Most of New Orleans’ option routes are limited to the running backs and inside receivers. When asked to run one of those routes, guys will be required to make the right reads and make the right decisions based on certain keys.
If there’s a weak spot in zone coverage, the receiver might be asked to sit down in a soft spot instead of continuing on his primary route. Or, depending on if the defense is playing with inside or outside leverage, a receiver might be asked to break to the outside or inside to exploit the defense.
These things might not sound difficult, but if the receiver doesn’t see things the same way as Brees, it could result in a missed connection and put the offense at risk.
“It’s just a mastery of the offense, a mastery of the route schemes and what we are expecting at the quarterback position,” Brees said during organized team activities. “The little nuances that come with each concept, some of the adjustments according to leverage, to feel.”
How does one conquer all of those things? Time on task.
“Repetition, experience, feel,” wide receiver Nick Toon said. “You got to be able to read coverage, got to know the defense and got to have a good feel for what the defensive back and safeties are doing.”
Right now, it’s a work in progress. The new players are working to learn the playbook and build chemistry with Brees. The incumbents are trying to further hone their crafts.
Wide receivers coach John Morton said he’s never worked with a group of receivers this young and raw during his time in football. But that might not necessarily be a bad thing.
“I think it’s great,” he said. “You get to mold these guys the way we want them to be.”
The early progress is good and everyone is confident they’ll get there, but there’s still work to be done, even for veteran players like Spiller.
“I’m trying to take down every note I can take from him, how he wants certain routes run and looking at as much film as I can from previous guys and seeing how they done it,” Spiller said. “It’s a lot of film study and note-taking right now and just a lot of communication. Hopefully, once the season starts, hopefully, we’ll be clicking on all cylinders.”
The success of the offense will depend on all the new or young guys accomplishing that task.