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
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
“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
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
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 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
“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
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
“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
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