Seeds of Saints’ dominance were planted in ’06

It all began with the hiring of a rookie head coach and the

signing of a quarterback with an injured throwing shoulder.

Making Sean Payton and Drew Brees the foundation of the

rebuilding Saints may have looked a little risky in 2006, but it

started New Orleans on a path from disarray to dominance.

Along the way, there have been a slew of fruitful late-round

draft picks and unheralded free-agent signings that have combined

to make the Saints what they are – the eighth team in NFL history

to start a season 12-0.

“We’ve got a coaching staff that has a mentality that we’re

going to bring them guys they can work with and they do a great job

of coaching them up and getting the most out of what they have,”

Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said this week. “Sean has a

particular talent of being able to look at someone and say, this

guy’s got this strength and I can use that.”

The Saints, for example, never had to get into a bidding war

over 34-year-old safety Darren Sharper or recovering drug abuser

Anthony Hargrove. Both signed one-year league minimum contracts

with the Saints this year and have played key roles.

Sharper is tied for the NFL lead in interceptions this season

with eight, three of which he’s returned for scores. Hargrove has

become a regular on the defensive line with a few highlights of his

own, including a fumble recovery for a touchdown. His three sacks

rank second on the team.

They joined a roster where small colleges players that few knew

of when they were drafted became immediate starters and eventually

household names in the NFL.

They joined a roster with small-college players few had heard of

when they were drafted, but who went on to become starters and

eventually household names in the NFL.

Marques Colston played for Hofstra, an FCS school that recently

announced it will disband its football program. The former

seventh-round choice has 854 yards and eight TDs receiving this

season, putting him on pace to surpass 1,000 yards receiving for

the third time in four years.

Offensive guard Jahri Evans played at Division II Bloomsburg. He

has started every game since being drafted in the fourth round in

2006.

Then there were the players that Payton kept from the team that

had gone 3-13 while displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Right

tackle Jon Stinchcomb appeared in only 10 games as a reserve in his

first two seasons after being drafted out of Georgia in 2003. He

spent 2005 on injured reserve. Payton made him the starter after

training camp in 2006, and he’s started every game since on an

offensive line that has kept Brees among the NFL’s least-sacked

quarterbacks.

“He had a good picture of what he wanted to create from a core

group of guys and then began to supplement in areas each year, just

building a program,” Stinchcomb said of Payton. “I think he would

tell you he based it on good character guys that put team first and

that had talent in almost that order.

“It was important for him to start with a guy like Drew Brees

who has the highest character. He really embodies the type of

player the coach talks about wanting on this team, and you look

around this locker room, top to bottom, and that’s what he’s been

able to find.”

Given Payton’s background as a college quarterback and offensive

assistant in the NFL, it made sense that the Saints initially were

strongest on offense. Brees proved his doubters wrong and rewarded

Payton’s faith by fully rehabilitating the torn labrum in his right

shoulder. Then, with Payton designing and calling offensive plays,

and Brees executing them with precision, the Saints led the NFL in

offense in two of their first three years together. This year, New

Orleans leads the NFL in offense again.

What the Saints needed was better defense, and they’ve gotten it

with the help of new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and

several new players.

Although Jabari Greer is injured now, he quickly became the

Saints’ top cornerback after signing as a free agent in the

offseason and performed well in the first eight games. The Saints

hope to have him back for the playoffs. With Greer and fellow

starter Tracy Porter (sprained knee) both out, the Saints took a

chance on Mike McKenzie, a player they had cut last winter because

he’d had two serious knee injuries in the previous two seasons. In

his first game back, he intercepted Tom Brady and broke up a

fourth-down pass in the Saints’ resounding 38-17 victory over the

Patriots.

Loomis is quick to say there’s been some luck involved, holding

up Sharper as an example.

“We certainly didn’t expect eight interceptions and three

touchdowns,” Loomis said. “Those older veterans – sometimes it’s

good to get them when they feel like they’ve still got something to

prove. To Darren’s credit, he came in with that kind of

attitude.”

Loomis said there is a tendency in pro sports for coaches and

personnel departments to butt heads sometimes. Loomis and Payton

meet four to five times a day to make sure they’re working in

lockstep. Meanwhile, scouts are invited to sit in on team meetings

during the season to hear “what coaches are talking about to the

players and understand what they’re asking our players to do,”

Loomis said.

Loomis credits the chemistry between the coaching staff and

personnel department for numerous roster decisions that have paid

off handsomely in past few years. In 2008, the Saints acquired

middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who was coming off a knee injury,

from the Jets for a fourth-round draft pick. He’s started every

game since and is among the team leaders in tackles.

In 2006 the Saints acquired linebacker Scott Shanle from Dallas

for a late-round draft pick. He’s started all but one game since

and has two interceptions this season. This season, the Saints got

tight end David Thomas from the Patriots for a future seventh-round

draft choice. He’s come through with repeated third-down catches

and a touchdown while also filling in at fullback.

The Saints top two rushers, Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell, both

were undrafted players. Thomas was signed as a rookie in 2007 and

was kept instead of Saints fourth-round draft pick Antonio

Pittman.

“You’ve got to give credit to (Payton) for keeping an undrafted

guy over a fourth-round pick,” Shanle said. “Even though he was

better, a lot of teams don’t do that. Coach Payton and Mickey,

since we got here, they’ve said, ‘We’re going to keep the best

players. We don’t care what round you’re drafted in, how you got

here.’ So when they do that and prove to guys on the team they’re

really serious, that makes a huge difference.”

Bell was without a job when the Saints brought him in during the

2008 season. He and Thomas have combined for 1,264 yards and nine

TDs so far this season. The Saints’ running game ranks fifth in the

NFL.

Then there’s starting offensive guard Carl Nicks, whose draft

status was hurt by an arrest while he was at Nebraska. The Saints

usually avoid players who’ve had trouble off the field. Loomis,

however, said pro scouting director Ryan Pace and college scouting

director Rick Reiprish have been good at gauging when it’s worth

taking a measured risk on such players. The Saints drafted Nicks in

the fifth round in 2008 and he became a starter during his rookie

year.

“We go in with our eyes wide open and we’re not going to make a

big investment on those types of things up front,” Loomis said.

“A fifth-round pick, you’re hoping he makes your team and if he’s

a contributor all the better. If he’s a starter you’ve hit a home

run.”

Even the high draft picks that initially looked like busts have

worked out. After being drafted in the first round in 2007, Robert

Meachem did not play a down in his rookie season and played

sparingly in his second year.

This season, he’s emerged as the Saints’ top big-play threat,

with a team-leading nine touchdowns.

“Acquiring the player is one thing, but at the end of the day,

we’re relying on our coaching staff to take young guys and develop

them and recognize when they’re ready to play,” Loomis said.

“That’s one of the great talents we have on our staff right

now.”