29 August 2013

Stoking The Fire

"Part of me is more cynical now."

courtesy of nola.com
That was Sean Payton's response (in part), during a sideline interview before the Saints-Texans' preseason game on Sunday, when asked how he had changed as a person over the past year.

Consider the circumstances.

Just prior to kickoff of a nationally-televised game on a Sunday afternoon, when a large audience was watching, Payton shed his oft-rehearsed reticence, set aside the coachspeak and the otherwise carefully-crafted "message," and displayed noteworthy candor. His answer wasn't a bland script from the Saints' media relations department. No. This was an emotional response, however ephemeral, that defied containment.

Payton's newfound cynicism, or his revelation thereof, is a reflection of a discontent with the events of 2012 and an indirect refutation of the NFL's Bountygate claims.

Added to that, days earlier on Fox Football Daily, Payton expressed a similar sentiment. He talked openly about Bountygate and revealed that he didn't learn of the allegations until the days immediately preceding their public disclosure. He said, in so many words, that he was blindsided.

Payton said this with a matter-of-factness that attempted, but was unable, to mask his still-lingering disbelief, an assertion that again delegitimized the NFL's stated intentions in that whole sordid mess. It was an ugly reminder of events past, and Payton spoke in a way that diverged from the NFL's preferred, benign company line when discussing issues controversial or unfavorable. No more meek regurgitations.

Saying he's now more "cynical" is just another way of saying he got a raw deal.

This stance from Payton isn't random or accidental.

Aside from his simply reacting to being railroaded and scarlet-lettered, Payton, perhaps, more specifically intended to illustrate publicly that he hasn't rolled over, that he hasn't lost his nerve, that he hasn't been neutered by Goodell, and that when the moment necessitates, he's capable of acting not out of fear, but instead out of fearlessness, intact with that familiar intrepid streak encapsulated by Ambush, the ballsiest of decisions in the most precarious of situations, with the biggest of prizes on the line.

It's that disregard for the downside of risk that (partly) separates Sean Payton from the Mike Smiths of the league, and if Payton is still capable of periodically operating with that fearlessness, then he can more effectively build a supreme confidence among the players he leads.

For Payton to reveal that fearlessness outwardly is crucial, because simply telling his players privately is not enough. Breeding an ultimate confidence may elevate his players during the pressures of the big moments that lie in wait.

Only Payton can fully foster that fortitude, and his deliberate, candid stance reflects where this "new" Sean Payton is heading this season. It's "follow the leader," something that was sorely missing in 2012.

Where Payton has in the past been aloof with the media, where he has been previously reluctant to divulge too much substance, he's now making it a point to obliquely express (what should rightfully be perceived as) his displeasure with Bountygate. These slivers of openness are telling. I'm sure Joe Vitt is proud.

The reveal here is a window into Payton's mindset, and it blunts his corporate-ish, PR-driven contention that the Saints aren't using 2012 as a cheap motivational ploy this season. Payton might not want 2012 to be a crutch, but he can certainly use it as a ladder in some capacity. And he might well be doing so already ...

... Anyway, circumstances aren't all that foreign after the experiences of 2006 and the omnipresence of Katrina. Then, whether Payton chose so or not, the ghosts of Katrina were always there, hovering at a distance, threatening as an easy excuse for failure, but also often propelling the team onward. Only with the proper balance of eliminating Katrina as a rationalization for failure, yet embracing it as an opportunity for growth, did Payton fully channel the power of circumstance to his team's maximum benefit.

Like with many single entities in life, harnessing the beneficial and minimizing the destructive can make all the difference. Fire can heat your house without burning it down.

Though it's certain the fallout from Bountygate won't translate into mindless sloganeering like "Do Your Job" or "Finish Strong," it would be the essence of naiveté to think Payton and the Saints are not using the grand theft of 2012 to their collective advantage.

Something, after all, induced the surely-beneficial 100% player participation in the team's offseason programs.

"Never Forget," or what-have-you, might not be the central message, but there's an elemental aspect to it that's undeniably present. They might not say it publicly. They might not even say it to each other. But they're sure as shit thinking it.

Aren't you?

Let there be no doubt about it, there's a little more at stake, a little more to prove, this year. It's inescapable. And so maybe Payton is strategically employing the past discord, injecting it sporadically for the purposes of keeping his team at a heightened state of motivation without distracting their focus.

"Moving on" isn't as simple as we like to think it is, at least not until suitable closure arrives to facilitate the transition.

There's a chapter that's yet to be authored.

If we're lucky, that will deliver all the closure we'll ever need.

12 August 2013

A New Core

There's a new cast of characters in town.

This season, moreso than any other under Payton, feels markedly different.

The Saints' roster has inevitably and steadily turned over since 2009. The coaching staff has undergone a series of transitions. The core base is aging. The expectations are high. Time is of the essence.

Now, if postseason appearances will remain the norm, a new core of players will have to emerge to buttress the exploits of the usual, excellent suspects.  

courtesy of The Advocate

Leading up to the Saints-Chiefs' preseason game on Friday, I was most interested in watching the performance of a nucleus of younger players on the team whose roles, now and in the next few seasons, seem more important than ever. 

With a more precarious salary cap position in the aftermath of Brees' (then) landmark contract, it's incumbent upon the team to generate maximum output from the less-onerous contracts on the roster. In 2011, we saw an ideal intersection of in-house talent, relative contract value, and flexible free agent acquisition lead to a roster loaded with talent, much of it in its prime. 

Going forward, if the Saints are going to approach that confluence of value and talent again, it mandates significant contributions from a core group of younger players whose on-field production outpaces its value on the open market, and whose prime years will arrive in time to supplement the efforts of an aging base.

The braintrust at the Black and Gold Review recently wrote about the need for a youth movement, and I'm supportive of that notion as well.

With that in mind, I noted six players (three offense, three defense) that I think can help the Saints develop a new base of talent immediately and into the coming years.

Those players are: Nick Toon, Kenny Stills, Mark Ingram, Cam Jordan, Akiem Hicks, and Kenny Vaccaro. This is far from a complete list or exhaustive analysis, and more of an exercise rooted in speculative bias.  

Below are some random thoughts on each above-noted player as it relates to the preseason, the coming season, and the future.    

Nick Toon
The best way I can describe Nick Toon is that he looked like a polished veteran on Friday night. 

Granted, many of his snaps came against backups and players otherwise marginal in NFL-level talent. But no matter, Toon's fluidity, the ease with which he glided across the field, the calmness he exuded, the sureness of his hands--catching everything thrown his way--all lead me to believe Toon is slated to play a meaningful role this year, a snap count similar to that of Devery or Meachem in years' past.

If Friday is any indication, I believe we'll be elated with Toon's addition to the offense. Injuries notwithstanding, Toon looks like he'll be the next in a line of reliable, consistent receiving threats developed by Sean Payton. 

Kenny Stills

After watching Kenny Stills for one half of football, the predominating thought was "Reggie Bush." 

At this point, I'm not sure if that's good or bad. But it's probably good so long as Payton deploys Stills with some measure of moderation. In the first half of Friday's game, we saw Payton repeatedly call Stills' number in much the same manner he often did with his once prized weapon, Reggie Bush. 

It wasn't all good or all bad for Stills, but really, that seems mostly irrelevant right now. 

It's the earliest of "early" in Stills' development process. The smartest takeaway from Friday is that Payton feels strongly enough about Stills--immediately and extensively testing him--that we should trust Payton's actions as indicative and not focus on the illusory aspects of a tiny sample size of results in Stills' still most-nascent state. 

Further, Stills is a wide receiver different from the distinct prototypes of receivers employed by the Payton-era Saints. Since 2006, we've mostly seen three specific receiver types: possession (Colston), deep threat (Devery, Meachem, Morgan), and slot (Moore). 

Stills isn't distinctly any of these three. 

He doesn't possess the top-end speed of someone like Desean Jackson whose chief purpose is to singlehandedly dismantle the last line of the opponent's defense. He's not a classic slot receiver, a designation limiting in its own right, like Wes Welker. And he doesn't boast the measureables of "big targets" in the mold of Colston, et al. 

Stills, at 6'0, 194 lbs. with 4.38 speed, appears to be a promising amalgam of skill sets and, as such, presents the Saints with a potential weapon at wide receiver that they've not yet had under Payton. This also might explain Payton's presumed fascination with him.

Think Greg Jennings (I'll wait while you either mock me or fist-pump). 

That's what the optimal upside offers, and we're on our way to finding out if Stills is of that caliber. 

Mark Ingram

By now, Ingram has been analyzed ad naseum and I'm not going to rehash it. I did it here a few months ago anyway. 

Suffice it to say, Ingram's contribution to the offense--now and in the next few years--is important if the Saints' offense aims to transition seamlessly as the championship window draws narrower. Pierre Thomas won't stay young forever. In the Payton offense, a runningback capable of adapting to a variety of situations, like PT does rather effortlessly, is a luxury and, perhaps, a necessity.

At present, we might take for granted the plentiful talent at the runningback position, or the ease with which the Saints have discovered runningbacks in free agency, but it wasn't long ago under Payton that the absence of functional talent at the position was a glaring issue.

Ingram is equipped to be more than a one-dimensional back, and it's his time to prove that the future of the Saints' runningback group is secure.  

Cam Jordan

In a similar vein to that of Ingram, I see this perhaps as a defining year for Cam Jordan. 

I don't mean that Jordan needs to prove his worth because he's already done that admirably. Without question, Jordan has developed nicely over two seasons and is probably the best player on the Saints' defense. 

What I mean, more specifically, is that this year will probably be a reliable indicator of Jordan's ceiling. Will he make another noticeable leap in impact as he did from 2011 to 2012? Can he be a consistent 10+ sack threat? Or will he plateau and settle into a steady, though not all-pro, performer reminiscent of an in-his-prime Will Smith? 

Either way, Jordan will capably anchor the defensive line for the foreseeable future as the Saints work to renovate their defense. 

Akiem Hicks

A few weeks ago when Ralph asked me to name a player who might surprise us and make a big impact, I said Cam Jordan. 

I want another chance to answer that question. 

With some time to think about it, I would now answer Akiem Hicks. 

Considering Hicks' youth and physical prowess (this motherfucker is both huge and noticeably athletic), taking into account he's only recently been under the tutelage of top-level coaching, and factoring in the season-long loss of Kenyon Coleman, Hicks will have every opportunity to stage the grandest of arrivals in 2013. 

Much like Jimmy Graham, Hicks came to the Saints bare in experience yet flush with promise. And like Graham in 2010, Hicks unfurled flashes of his skills in his first season. As his second campaign draws near, Hicks, similar to Graham in 2011, finds himself more readily developed and in (mostly) sole possession of a starting role. 

While in 2011 we knew Graham possessed that vast potential, we probably didn't expect a near-all-time record-setting season from him. In a similar way, we see Hicks bountiful with potential and now ready to clarify the muddied perceptions. 

Certainly Hicks doesn't need to be otherworldly to help lift the Saints' defense from the depths of its recent incoherency. But the closer Hicks comes to fulfilling his potential, the faster the defense will improve, and the more sustained its contributions will be to the team's winning ways. 

Kenny Vaccaro

And finally ...

... big shot ... heavy hitter on the mainstream 

If you didn't know, Keenan Lewis calls Kenny Vaccaro "The Tasmanian Devil." 

By all indications, Vaccaro--tattooed and brainy, confident and defiant, and the center of attention at Saints' camp thus far--is poised to emerge as the Saints' most polarizing hellraiser in quite some time.  

I couldn't be more excited. 

Vaccaro is yet another in a long-line of heralded high defensive draft picks under Payton, none of who have even sniffed "star" status. If there was ever a time for a true defensive superstar to arrive in New Orleans ... well ... this would be it. 

Not only are Saints' fans ravenous for a defensive player to rally around, the Saints are in dire need of a player who can mainline a stormy dose of ferocity into a defense that curled softly into a cocoon of futility last year.

With Vaccaro, it appears that the defense is about to get its fix. 

Moreover, with the brash Rob Ryan channeling his outsized personality and defensive vision onto the field in the form of the smart, capable, physical Vaccaro, the Saints may be lucky enough to eventually develop a coordinator/player symbiosis that will further elevate the defense, much like the Payton/Brees tandem has done for the offense.  

At this point, we don't even know exactly what position(s) Vaccaro will be playing, though it presumably will be a variety of roles. We do know that he's well-versed at raising ire, that his coaches have praised him, and that his teammates have welcomed his arrival. 

A few years from now when we size up the state of the Saints' defense, the likelihood is that evaluation will be heavily influenced by Vaccaro's fortunes in the black-and-gold. 

The guess here is that, after several attempts at drafting star defensive players in the first round, the Payton-era Saints have finally landed a kill shot on defense.