There are many reasons Jairus Byrd doesn’t want to talk about last season.
It was disappointing. His team finished 7-9. He was injured and only appeared in a handful of games. And in those handful of games, which constituted his first season with the Saints, the safety did not perform up to the standard he set for himself during five seasons in Buffalo.
So, as Byrd fielded questions for the first time since last season after a minicamp practice last week, his answers were what you’d expect. Last year is over. Both he and the team need to perform better. He feels good and is eager to start a new season.
The routine was broken up when he was asked if he still believes he’s a Pro Bowl player and if achieving that status is one of his goals for the upcoming season.
Byrd wouldn’t bite.
“No,” he said, pausing a beat. “No.”
It wasn’t long ago Byrd was being hailed as one of the best free-agent signings in franchise history after signing a six-year, $54 million deal with the Saints. Now, a year later, he was indirectly being asked to defend his credentials.
It seems doubtful Byrd no longer sees himself as one of the better safeties in the league. It’s more likely he’s tired of hearing the negatives about last season and wasn’t willing to eat out of the hand of someone who was putting it in his face.
While the three-time Pro Bowl safety wasn’t willing to talk about last season, in an interview with ESPN earlier this year, Byrd admitted he never felt right during his inaugural season with the Saints and that last season wasn’t up to par.
The year probably felt cursed. There was the back surgery that sidelined him for most of the offseason and robbed him of the ability to build chemistry with his teammates.
Then, once he got back on the field, he tore the meniscus in his knee during practice and missed the final 12 weeks of the season.
And even when he was on the field, it was evident he was still trying to figure things out as he struggled through the first month of the season.
“I don’t think it was up to the standard with anything that we were trying to do,” Byrd said. “But like I said, this is a new year, and (we’re) moving forward.”
The Saints are confident that Byrd will bounce back. Several members said they built a level of chemistry they did not achieve during last year’s offseason program and that things feel more natural this year.
Communication has improved and the timing feels better.
Players are learning one another’s tendencies and gaining a better understanding of how to play off one another. All of those things should help this much-maligned group improve on last year’s results.
“The more reps you take, the more communication picks up,” Byrd said. “You’re being more vocal, guys are giving more feedback back to you, what they like, where they’re getting the calls.”
On an individual level, defensive coach Dennis Allen, who has been working closely with the safeties, said there are a handful of things Byrd can do to improve as a player.
Upon taking the job earlier this year, Allen went into the film room and studied his new group of players. He identified a handful of things that could help Byrd, who is known to be on of the NFL’s better ball hawks, become even more fearsome.
He said Byrd could do a better job of reading quarterbacks and gain a better understanding of route combinations. And after missing seven tackles in four games last season, Byrd received some advice from Allen on how to improve in that regard.
“This guy has been a heck of a football player in the National Football League,” Allen said. “I don’t expect anything less than that.”
There’s a quiet confidence springing up around the members of the secondary. Few will go on the record with proclamations about how good they expect to be. Instead, publicly, all most will say is that this group needs to be better than it was last year.
Part of that process will be getting Byrd back to playing like himself. That doesn’t seem to be major a concern. His talent is still there and he, like everyone else on the defense, should be aided by working out of a simplified defensive scheme.
Byrd can say what he wants. But if everything works out the way the Saints envisioned it, nothing he says — sarcastic or otherwise — will be able deny the product.