It’s probably kind of fitting that The Who will be playing halftime of this season’s Super Bowl, one in which the scoreboard could easily resemble that of a pinball machine. Indeed when the Colts and Saints assemble in Miami in just under two weeks, it may be time not only to throw out the record books, but also a step toward rewriting conventional NFL logic across the board.
If you’re going to challenge one time tested NFL axiom, you might as well challenge them all. In beating a path to Super Bowl XLIV, the Saints and Colts are not only proving that NFL success may no longer be as simple as a stout defense and clock consuming running game, but also challenging the conventional NFL model on how championship teams are assembled.
The most glaring similarity between the two clubs obviously begins at the quarterback position. Alas, if finding quarterbacks the caliber of Peyton Manning or Drew Brees were easy, then every franchise would have one, and the Colts and Saints would likely be suddenly much more mediocre by comparison. Since quarterbacks like that don’t grow on trees, let’s begin by saying that both franchises are somewhat lucky in that regard.
How they came by those quarterbacks on the other hand, is another matter altogether. While the Colts found themselves in the enviable position of picking first in the 1998 draft, and did manage to avoid the potential Ryan Leaf trap, picking Manning was as much of a no-brainer as there has likely been in the history of the NFL draft. The Saints on the other hand took a leap of faith on a quarterback in Brees, who never quite won the confidence of the staff in San Diego, and who suffered a pretty daunting shoulder injury on basically the eve of his free agency. In fairness, Brees did eventually find a little success in San Diego, but not before being benched for Doug Flutie for a season, and seeing the team draft their heir apparent at quarterback in Phillip Rivers. Still, a season ending shoulder injury as he went into free agency only added to the questions in an already lukewarm at best market for Brees.
With afranchise QB in place, NFL wisdom would lead you to believe that protecting that investment would become priority number one, and that doing so with highly regarded offensive linemen or prospects would be in order. For the Saints and Colts however, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Colts’ offensive line boasts Charlie Johnson a 6th round draft choice in 2006 at left tackle (where he’s backed up by ’07 2nd rounder Tony Ugoh) and Ryan Diem, a 2001 4th rounder at right tackle. Between them, the Colts start 3 un-drafted free agents, left guard Ryan Lilja, signed and released by Kansas City in 2004, center Jeff Saturday, once property of the Ravens as an un-drafted free agent, and right guard Kyle DeVan an un-drafted free agent in 2009 have all done an admirable job at keeping Manning upright and healthy.
On the Saints side, right tackle John Stinchcomb, a second rounder in 2003, comes with the highest credentials. He’s joined by a pair of 4th rounders in left tackle Jermon Bushrod (2007) and right guard Jahri Evans (2006), and a pair of fifth rounders in left guard Carl Nicks (2008) and center Jonathan Goodwin, drafted by the Jets in 2002, and signed by New Orleans as a free agent in 2007.
In both cases it would seem that the prowess of the quarterback offsets whatever shortcomings the offensive line may have to deal with. There’s also little doubt that both clubs benefited from good scouting, and probably wound up with talent beyond where player’s draft positions would suggest. Still, it would seem that a true franchise quarterback earns his salary by allowing the team to cut corners in his protection.
Instead of spending big money to protect their quarterbacks, it seems that both the Colts and Saints have placed a priority on stocking the skill positions with talent, and have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to do so through the draft.
The Colts have spent countless draft picks on offensive skill position players, and have had success on a lot of them too. Reggie Wayne (2001), Dallas Clark (2003) and to a lesser degree Joseph Addai (2006) have all been first round hits for the Colts and their offense. Additionally though, the Colts have spent recent first rounders on Anthony Gonzalez (2007) and Donald Brown (2009) who although the book is nowhere closed on either, have thus far provided little to justify their lofty draft positions.
For their part, the Saints have tried as well to bolster their offense with high draft picks, but with far less success. Reggie Bush, ordained by many to be the top overall talent in the 2006 draft, has proven to be little more than a fragile special teams ace so far, who can provide some interesting, if not consistent, wrinkles on offense when healthy. Without the spirited efforts though of un-drafted free agent (2007) Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell (signed by Denver in ’06 as an un-drafted free agent, and signed off waivers by New Orleans in ’08) the Saints wouldn’t likely be anywhere close to the peaks they’ve reached already this season.
In the receiving game, it’s much the same story for the Saints. They spent a first rounder in 2007 on Robert Meachem and a second rounder in 2004 on Devery Henderson, who both remain buried on the depth chart behind Marques Colston (7th round 2006) and Lance Moore (un-drafted free agent by CLE in 2005, signed by NO in 2007). And at tight end, it’s former first rounder Jeremy Shockey, cast off from the Giants as a potential locker room distraction (to put it mildly) and former third rounder David Thomas gotten from the Patriots in exchange for a 2009 7th rounder.
On defense, both sides seem to benefit from the security in knowing that even if they allow a score, they have an offense capable of getting it back. There’s probably a lot more inherent freedom to gamble on defense when you know that the offense will spot you a mulligan or two. What’s more, even if gambling on defense leads to a quick score for the opposition, all that means is a quick turnaround for the opposing defense to have to deal with the likes of Brees or Manning again.
For the Colts, their defense, much like their offensive line, is a who’s who of late round draft choices and un-drafted free agents. Amongst their starters on defense, the Colts boast only one first round draft choice (Dwight Freeney 2002) and one second rounder (Kelvin Hayden 2005). The rest of the defensive line consists of 5th rounder Robert Mathis (2003) and un-drafted free agents Antonio Johnson (2005), Daniel Muir (2007) and Eric Foster (2008). At linebacker they have two 3rd rounders in Phillip Wheeler (2008) on the outside and Freddy Keiaho (2006) on the inside, along with 4th rounder Clint Sessions (2007) and un-drafted free agents Cody Glenn (2009), Ramon Humber (2009) and Gary Brackett (2003). And in the defensive backfield, Hayden is complimented with un-drafted free agent corner Jacob Lacey (2009), un-drafted free agent safety Melvin Bullitt (2007) and 6th round safety Antoine Bethea (2006). That’s how you build a defense on a budget, and by putting an offensive juggernaut in front of them, set them up for success.
The Saints too have opted for defense on a budget, but have done it somewhat differently. In addition to a number of their own draft picks, some very highly, on defense especially, the Saints have done a great job at raiding the cabinets of other teams for talent.
On the defensive line they have first round draft choices in Sedrick Ellis (2008) at tackle and Will Smith (2004) and end, and have complimented them with a trio of un-drafted free agents, cast of by other teams in Paul Spicer, Remi Ayodele and Bobby McCray, along with Anthony Hargrove the former 5th round draft pick of the Rams (2004) who had worked his way off of a couple of rosters due to drug and character issues.
At linebacker, the Saints have corralled a trio of free agents cast of by other clubs too in Jonathan Vilma (NYJ), Scott Fujita (KC) and Scott Shanle (acquired for picks from St. Louis). And in the defensive backfield the Saints have mixed it up, with un-drafted free agents Jabari Greer and Randall Gay (via NE) and 2009 first rounder Malcolm Jenkins and 2008 second rounder Tracy Porter. At safety they sport 2006 second rounder Roman Harper and compliment him with Darren Sharper, drafted by Seattle in the second round in 1997, and acquired through free agency after a stay in Green Bay.
At the end of the day, when you have to pay quarterbacks as highly talented and well regarded as the likes of Brees or Manning, it means having to cut corners elsewhere in order to facilitate it. Conventional (salary cap era conventional) NFL logic used to point to the draft as the best place to find those players. Hitting on early draft picks has long been the formula for keeping the budget under control. It seems that the Saints and Colts may have found an even cheaper, and possibly more efficient way to fit that need.
If these teams had done a better job though at drafting in the early rounds over the last few seasons, the results could have been much more dramatic than the show that we’re likely to see on the field in Miami. Either way, they’re likely to change the way teams look at doing business.
Maybe The Who said it best:
“Not trying to cause a b-big s-s-sensation,
I’m just talkin’ ‘bout my g-g-generation”