WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — We just have to keep waiting.
We waited all offseason to see if C.J. Spiller was going to serve as the missing piece of the offense that was missing an element last season. We waited all offseason to see if Jairus Byrd was going to be Jairus Byrd and serve as the missing piece of a defense that was missing too much last season.
Training camp was supposed to provide answer. Instead it’s only provided questions. So much rides on Byrd, last year’s marquee free-agent signing, and Spiller, who is this year’s headliner. Both are now missing from the field.
We at least know what’s going on with Spiller, even if the Saints aren’t willing to acknowledge his injury. Well, here it is: While his teammates flew to Baltimore for the preseason opener, Spiller snuck down to Florida to have a procedure performed on his knee.
A source called it maintenance. Should be back by Week 1 if all goes well, they say. But be warned: These optimistic timelines have ways of bloating and lingering and causing issues much longer than initially expected.
So the Saints potentially have a problem to deal with and need to at least be prepared if things don’t work out as hoped.
As far as Byrd goes, well, we’re told he’s still around. Working behind the scenes. Doing his rehab. We’ve seen a guy who looks like him a few times jogging in the end zone with a sweatshirt on, hood over his head, with the strings as tight as they can fasten around his head.
On the couple of days we saw him, when someone would try to get a glimpse of him, he’d pull the strings tighter, as if he were trying to conceal his identity.
Who he was hiding from is anyone’s guess. Was it from the media? Himself? The expectations that come with the six-year, $56 million deal he signed last winter? It doesn’t matter. We haven’t seen him in a week.
Football is the ultimate next-man-up game. Someone falls, they’re forgotten. So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that defensive assistant Dennis Allen dismissed talk of Byrd recently, and that safety Kenny Vaccaro told people not to sleep on Rafael Bush, who has been standing in for his injured comrade.
But as an observer, it’s not so easy to forget Byrd hasn’t been out there. The same now goes for Spiller. Maybe the worrying is unwarranted. As Payton pointed out during his news conference, every team in every city is fighting through injuries.
But for a team with so many questions to answer, and two of the biggest pieces of the puzzle on the shelf, it’s impossible not to feel concern with the season on the horizon.
Spiller was supposed to be the guy who brought back an element that was lacking after Darren Sproles’ departure.
Spiller was supposed to make it difficult on defenses, forcing them to bring a safety down to contain him, which would open things up for everyone else. He was the guy who made it OK that the top weapons in the offense go by the names of Marques Colston, Brandin Cooks, Brandon Coleman and Ben Watson instead of Colston, Cooks, Kenny Stills and Jimmy Graham.
Spiller is supposed to be a guy who collects 1,000 yards from scrimmage and can move around the formation to create mismatches.
Will he still do those things when he returns? Maybe, but he makes his living with his legs, and one of them is now compromised.
It’s something to worry about — especially because the offense is still installing things and, from the looks of things, the Spiller protocol hasn’t been fully put in. He’s going to have to catch up.
And while Bush isn’t someone who should be slept on, Byrd is the guy who has one of the richest contracts for a player at his position. He was an All-World talent in Buffalo. He’s the guy who was supposed to transform this defense and end the turnover drought and help the Saints start harvesting results in that area.
No disrespect to Bush, but he’s no Byrd. Few people are. I know we’ve only heard rumors about his greatness down here in New Orleans, but I promise you it exists, even if we haven’t seen it. But there’s no question we need to start seeing something. Soon.
But for now, we have to wait. It’s the smart thing. You don’t rush players back for the preseason. That would be foolish. It might even be foolish to rush them back for Week 1. The season is long. Who cares if someone misses a week or two or four if they’re out there for the rest of the season, performing well.
Still, this is going to require patience. And after a season like last year’s, it’s difficult to sit back and wait and hope everything works out well. No one can blame you if things don’t look positive right now. But you have to wait. That’s all anyone can do right now.