METAIRIE, La. -- There are plenty of good reasons to expect the New Orleans Saints will shift to a more run-heavy offense in 2015. But, based mostly on the past nine years of the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era, I’m not totally buying into that theory.
And more importantly, the Saints aren’t selling it.
Payton dismissed the idea of any “drastic change” or “major shift” in store for New Orleans’ offense this year, despite the fact that it traded away top pass-catchers Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills while investing in center Max Unger and running backs Mark Ingram and C.J. Spiller.
Throw in the fact that Brees is now 36 years old and coming off a down year marred by 20 turnovers and 29 sacks, and you can see why so many folks are projecting a scheme change.
But as longtime offensive tackle Zach Strief said while pointing to Brees’ locker on Wednesday, “Look, we’re always going to throw the ball. As long as that guy’s in here, we’re going to throw the ball,” Strief said. “Because we’re good at it.”
Indeed, Brees tied for the NFL lead with 4,952 passing yards last year, despite the offense’s overall inconsistency. And New Orleans has ranked in the top 4 in NFL passing yards in each of the past nine seasons.
“Each year what we’ve tried to do, honestly, is take our personnel and apply it the best way we see fit to move the football,” Payton said. “So I don’t envision this drastic change, if you will. …
“When we’ve been good, we’ve run the ball. In '09 we ran the ball real well, in '06 we ran the ball real well, and '13, last year. So I don’t see this whole major shift in a certain direction. We’re going to to try to move the football and score. And some weeks it may be running the ball more, some weeks it may be throwing the ball more. That’s just the truth.”
The Saints’ 406 rushing attempts last year were the fourth most in the Payton-Brees era (ranking behind their most successful seasons of 2009, 2006 and 2011). Their average yards per rush (4.5) actually ranked third best, behind only 2011 and 2009.
The idea has always been the same, though. It’s not about running the ball more. It's about running it better -- and being able to run it when needed, such as running out a clock with a lead.
The dream example was the Saints’ 2011 season, when they set the NFL record with 7,474 total yards. Brees threw for 5,476 of them (the team had a net total of 5,347 subtracting sack yardage). And they still ran for 2,127 more.
“I don’t think we’re going to make some drastic change and we’re a ‘three yards and a cloud of dust’ offense,” Strief said. “That’s not who we are, that’s not how we’re built. I think the focus this offseason has been, ‘Let’s make sure that guys understand what they need to do to be in position to be successful at what we do.’”
Strief acknowledged that the offense lost its way early in 2014 -- and lost some confidence and momentum along with it.
“And now all of a sudden you’re in a scramble position,” Strief said. “But I don’t think it’s going to change the mentality of the offense or the direction that the offense is going.”
But what about the fact that Brees is so light on proven receiving options, with Marques Colston and Cooks leading the way?
My answer, as I’ve mentioned before in some fantasy outlooks, is to look to 2008 for inspiration.
That was the first time Brees threw for more than 5,000 yards -- and he did it with Colston injured much of the year and Graham still in college. The Saints’ leading receiver in 2008 was Lance Moore with 79 catches for 928 yards. No one else had more than 52 catches or 793 yards.