From the outside, the Saints offense might look like it’s in the middle of a major philosophical shift this offseason.
New Orleans traded away Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills, added a Pro Bowl center from the league’s best rushing offense, and made its big offensive splash in free agency on a running back, prompting speculation the Saints might be shifting to a more run-oriented attack next season.
Sean Payton bristles a little bit at the suggestion.
“Each year, what we’ve tried to do is take our personnel and apply it the best way we see fit to move the football,” Payton said. “The key will be how we utilize this group of players. I do not envision this drastic change, if you will.”
From the inside, the Saints’ playmakers seem almost as surprised as their coach at the suggestion that New Orleans might alter its approach.
No matter who the Saints might have traded or brought into the fold, the rest of the roster has learned to trust Payton’s system.
“This offense has worked since they got here in 2006,” wide receiver Joe Morgan said. “It doesn’t matter who’s at what position, it’s always going to work.”
In Payton’s eight seasons in New Orleans, the Saints have never finished lower than sixth in the NFL in total offense, never lower than fourth in the league in passing, and never lower than 12th in the league in scoring. Expecting an offense that has finished first in the NFL in passing five times in the past nine seasons to suddenly take the air out of the ball is probably a fool’s errand.
The running game is the only component that swings back and forth. New Orleans has finished as high as sixth (in 2009 and 2011) and as low as 28th (three times), and Payton knows that the running game has often been a harbinger of good things to come for the team’s win-loss record.
“When we’ve been good, we’ve run the ball,” Payton said. “In 2009, we ran the ball really well; in 2006, we ran the ball really well; and in 2013. Back to (the) question, I don’t see this whole major shift in a certain direction. We’re going to try to move the football and score. And some weeks, it may be running the ball well; and in some weeks, it may be throwing the ball more. That’s just the truth.”
Payton wants to be able to take advantage of any weakness a defense presents.
Veterans who have been in the Saints offense know the scheme can change in big ways week to week. Payton’s offense might look like a hard-set foundation at this point, but it’s also capable of changing its shape on a week-to-week basis, sometimes even in the middle of the game.
“It depends on the team,” left tackle Terron Armstead said. “A lot of teams like to stack the box, so there’s more opportunities with the receivers being 1-on-1, so it kind of depends on who you’re playing. But you also have your plays, regardless of who you’re playing, that you’re going to run in the game. You’re going to run your zone plays, you’re going to pass the ball, but the game plan kind of swings to which method will be favored.”
After re-signing Mark Ingram, adding C.J. Spiller, and packaging those two with Khiry Robinson, seventh-round draft pick Marcus Murphy and other options, New Orleans appears to be capable of piling up yards on the ground.
But the Saints are also high on unproven youngsters like Nick Toon, Brandon Coleman and Seantavius Jones at receiver, plus Josh Hill at tight end, the pass-catching abilities of Spiller, the rare running back who can be a deep threat, and a bevy of other options added to the mix this offseason.
And the spectre of Drew Brees under center makes it hard to see New Orleans suddenly shifting into a ground-and-pound team. Elite quarterbacks have a way of making young, unproven receivers into key contributors.
“It’s kind of hard to predict what you’re going to do,” left tackle Terron Armstead said. “With the stable of backs we have, you would think we’re going to go run-heavy, but at the same time, we’ve got a Hall of Fame quarterback.”
Graham and Stills were obviously talented, core members of the Saints offense the past two seasons, and a veteran like Pierre Thomas was invaluable to the organization for the better part of a decade.
But what Payton does best is find ways to emphasize the skills of the playmakers he has, all within the framework of his offensive scheme.
“Every year it’s different,” tight end Benjamin Watson said. “Every year it takes on its own character, and it has its own flavor. ... This organization will always be a good offensive football team. As far as how those reps go, pass offense, run offense, I don’t know, but the goal is to win games.”