Analysis  

 

Sean Payton will lead Drew Brees to MVP; more bold predictions

As a man coming off a season-long banishment that sent his franchise into an extended patch of turbulence, Sean Payton wouldn't seem to be a likely candidate for a Wanna Get Away? experience.

Trust him, or anyone else in The Crescent City: He was away far too long.

Yet there was Payton on Sunday afternoon in Houston, in his third preseason game since resuming his role as the New Orleans Saints' head coach, wishing he could cut a hole through the Reliant Stadium turf and disappear after an uncharacteristic time-management gaffe.

Upon misinterpreting a hand signal from rookie quarterback Ryan Griffin, Payton burned the Saints' final timeout with eight seconds left on the play clock -- and two seconds remaining in the third quarter of a 31-23 victory over the Houston Texans.

"That's one of those 'senior moments,' I guess," Payton said Monday evening, shortly before completing a trade with the San Francisco 49ers for linebacker Parys Haralson. "Shoot, I had the play clock down pat with the Liberty Christian sixth graders last year, when the ref would give you 30 seconds that you'd count in your head."

That was a reference to the Dallas-area team on which his son, Connor, played last fall. Payton, suspended by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for his role in the Saints' pay-for-injure scandal, served as an "offensive assistant" for the Liberty Christian Warriors while New Orleans fell from the ranks of the NFL's elite and staggered to a 7-9 season. It was a collapse I saw coming, largely because of my estimation of Payton's prodigious presence, or lack thereof.

Now Payton is back in the cockpit, and many expect to see a return to the audacious aerial attack that helped the Saints soar to unprecedented heights from 2009 through 2011, a run that included a 41-13 record, three playoff appearances and a Super Bowl XLIV victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

I could easily play devil's advocate and bring up the team's historically bad defense in 2012, its rash of significant training-camp injuries and the Atlanta Falcons' emergence as an NFC South power.

However, as Payton prepares for the team's preseason finale against the Miami Dolphins on Thursday -- and I prepare to set myself up for ridicule by kicking off "Prediction Week" at NFL.com with a bunch of educated guesses about the 2013 campaign, right up there with last September's declaration that "Aaron Hernandez will have a better year than Rob Gronkowski" (oops) -- I'm forecasting a robust revival in the Big Easy.

Yes, coaching matters, particularly to an organization whose fortunes were transformed largely by one man's vision and tone-setting direction. To say the Saints missed Payton last season is like proclaiming that The Office missed Steve Carell.

For all of Payton's obvious brilliance as a game planner and play caller, it was the absence of his attitude and leadership style which left an even bigger void. As several players told me last season, without Payton, the Saints' edge was gone -- and that manifest itself in sloppy play and poor attention to detail. If you think I'm overstating the scope of Payton's involvement, consider one example of "being on top of all aspects of the program" that he shared with me Monday.

"On Saturday, we had our (45th annual Meet the Saints Luncheon) downtown, and then we got on a bus and went straight to the airport to fly to Houston," Payton said. "As the speeches went on and on and I realized we'd been sitting there for two hours, I thought, 'We've never been here this long.' "

Here's one fairly safe prediction: At the 46th annual luncheon, Payton's (and the Saints') appearance will be short and sweet.

And a year from now, I expect the Saints to march into that luncheon with their swagger restored. I believe that new coordinator Rob Ryan will help stabilize a defensive unit that floundered under predecessor Steve Spagnuolo, and I think Payton will crank up his offensive approach to excel in an era that now includes a slew of read-option-based innovation.

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For one thing, look for Payton to experiment with the use of a no-huddle attack and to try to control the tempo by varying the length of snap counts, much the way Tom Brady did for the New England Patriots in 2012. Similarly, look for the Saints to have more balance -- at the very least, an ability to run the ball effectively when protecting a lead. Look for football's best tight end, Jimmy Graham, to shake off a subpar season and become an absolute monster in a contract year.

And look for Payton's alter ego, Drew Brees, to be a huge beneficiary of these changes.

Though Brees piled up 43 touchdown passes and 5,117 yards (the third-highest total in NFL history, and only 299 fewer than in his record-setting season of 2011), he also served up 19 interceptions, and his completion percentage plummeted from 71.2 in '11 to 63.0 during Payton's absence.

This year, even with some untested receivers in the mix, I think Brees will blow it up. I'm picking him to lead the Saints back to the playoffs, and in the process, earn his first regular-season MVP award -- the first of eight timely predictions for the 2013 campaign.

In a nod to the post-traumatic stress Payton and his players might still be experiencing in the wake of their lengthy luncheon, I'll try to keep the other seven relatively brief:

Rex Ryan won't make it through the season

A year ago, New York Jets owner Woody Johnson objected to media depictions of the team's training camp as a "circus." As Johnson's team heads into the 2013 season looking like more of a mess than Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards, I wonder if train wreck is a more appropriate description, and if Johnson even sees it coming.

With rookie Geno Smith struggling and incumbent Mark Sanchez adding a sore shoulder to a severe confidence deficit, the Jets' summer-long quarterback competition is a fiasco. The team's only proven receiving threat, Santonio Holmes, may or may not return to action anytime soon, while last year's first-round draft pick, outside linebacker Quinton Coples, is out indefinitely with an ankle injury, depleting an already suspect defense.

Throw in the fact that there seems to be a massive disconnect between first-year general manager John Idzik and Ryan, the team's bombastic fifth-year coach, and you have all the makings of a midseason coaching change.

Ryan's brash personality, which seemed admirable as he led Gang Green to a pair of AFC championship games in his first two seasons, won't help him in this regard. Disturbingly, he's already starting to crack. On Saturday, after his decision to play Sanchez late in a preseason victory over the New York Giants (and the quarterback's subsequent injury) provoked a charged postgame press conference, Ryan went all Troy Polamalu-at-the-line-of-scrimmage and turned his back to his questioners.

This won't end well.

The Raiders will pick first next May ... without GM Reggie McKenzie

While the Jets' struggles promise to be more spectacular, the Oakland Raiders look to me like the worst team in football. And if Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville's dynamic young quarterback, and/or Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina's ferocious defensive end, decide to declare for the 2014 NFL Draft, I see one of them standing onstage next May in a silver-and-black cap.

What I don't envision is McKenzie making the selection. Though the current general manager seems to be behaving as though he's all but guaranteed a third year of rebuilding by owner Mark Davis, I think he's on shakier ground than he realizes, and that coach Dennis Allen likely wouldn't be the only casualty of another atrocious campaign, let alone one that yields the No. 1 overall pick.

Though offensive coordinator Greg Olson is a vast improvement from last year's Greg Knapp-directed debacle, right now the Raiders' best offensive strategy seems to be shaping up thusly: Snap the ball to Terrelle Pryor and hope he can run around and make something happen.

Good times.

The fact that I predicted all of this in the wake of Davis' decision to fire coach Hue Jackson following the 2011 season has not endeared me to Raiders fans, but they might want to stop writing me off as a "hater" and start regarding me as a "realist."

Michael Vick will rise again

For all the melodrama surrounding Tebowmania in 2011, I thought Vick's stunning rebirth the previous season was one of the most exceptional storylines I've experienced in nearly a quarter century of covering pro football.

And because memories tend to be short in this 140-character-or-fewer era, let me remind you how ridiculously good Vick was after replacing Kevin Kolb as the Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback midway through the 2010 season opener: He was MVP good (though Brady won the award after an equally stellar regular season). He was transcendent. Among other things, he played a space-age game (against the Redskins on Monday Night Football) that blew people's minds and led a crazy comeback (against the Giants) that turned the NFC East the Eagles' way.

Given that it's possible no professional athlete has ever lost more than Vick did following his involvement in a dog-fighting scandal, and that he seemed to be a genuinely changed man on and off the field, this was a captivating plot twist. And then, just as the excitement began to peak ... pfffffft. You know the story: The Dream Team tanked amid heightened expectations, and Vick struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness. He finally was benched during the Eagles' miserable 2012 campaign and seemed to be finished in Philly, but the hiring of Chip Kelly gave him another chance.

Now, having beaten out Nick Foles in a surprisingly protracted quarterback competition, Vick has a chance to reinvent himself again, this time as the director of Kelly's fast-paced, user-friendly offense. Certainly, it could be boom or bust. I'm going with the former. I see Vick getting rid of the ball quickly, making plays with his feet and giving us yet another cool comeback story.

The Cowboys will win the NFC East

The Eagles entice me because of Kelly's presence, and I obviously think his offense will function at a high level. The Redskins, as defending division champs, should be poised for success -- assuming Robert Griffin III and his surgically repaired knee hold up. And the Giants, who won a Super Bowl 18 months ago, are surely capable of summoning another magical playoff run (if they are fortunate enough to qualify).

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So why am I picking the Dallas Cowboys, a team that sent out some Jets-like signals over an offseason in which head coach Jason Garrett was stripped of his play-calling duties (but didn't seem inclined to admit it) and quarterback Tony Romo was paid Peyton Manning money (and told by owner Jerry Jones to start preparing like Peyton Manning)?

Call it a hunch. The Cowboys have been close during the Romo era -- two seasons ago, they were a Miles Austin lost ball in the lights from taking out the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants and cruising into the playoffs -- and I don't think they're that far from putting it all together. Also, Romo is a better quarterback, and less of a liability in the clutch, than the common perception dictates.

I just have a feeling that it's the Cowboys' turn.

Wes Welker will have a bigger year than Danny Amendola

You know the story: Last March, Patriots coach Bill Belichick chose Amendola, a Welker clone who'd been quietly slicing up defenses with the St. Louis Rams the past few seasons, over Welker, who responded by running his best Brady-to-Manning route and signing with the Denver Broncos.

Hilarity ensued.

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Though the 32-year-old Welker is nominally Denver's No. 3 wideout, I see him catching plenty of balls from Manning, especially on third down. While Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker challenge cornerbacks on the outside, Welker should be sublime in the slot.

Knowing Brady, he'll find a way to make a relatively seamless transition from Welker, his close friend, to Amendola. There's a big difference between the two receivers, however: Welker, who takes more direct shots than most NFL players, is an exceptionally tough dude who bounces back with the best of them. Amendola, though nearly five years younger, isn't as durable: He has played in just 12 games combined over the past two seasons.

The real question is this: If these two teams meet in the playoffs, which wideout will still be standing at game's end? I'm going with the original, rather than Welker 2.0. If that happens, Belichick will surely speak graciously of his former player in his postgame press conference.

Yeah, right.

Jay Cutler will be this year's Joe Flacco (minus the ring)

As with Flacco last season, and Eli Manning the year before, Cutler knows there's an easy way to convince people that he's elite: Lead his team to a Super Bowl championship.

I'm not saying that will happen -- though I do have Cutler guiding the Chicago Bears to an NFC North title -- but I do believe he'll have a tremendous season and, like Flacco in 2012, set himself up to command a massive new contract after being franchised by his team.

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Why am I so high on Cutler? Well, I've long been an admirer of his ability and toughness, and I believe the biggest reason he hasn't had more success in Chicago is dubious offensive line play. Though the Bears' line might not be stellar in 2013, the man running the offense -- newly hired head coach Marc Trestman -- has the tools to overcome that potential deficiency.

An inspired, out-of-the-box hire, Trestman has had great success coaching the likes of Steve Young and Rich Gannon. His play calling is smart, innovative and full of purpose. He'll protect Cutler by installing a high-percentage passing attack that features a preponderance of short drops and quick reads.

If Cutler buys in -- and I fully expect him to -- his powerful right arm will do the rest, and he'll make those folks who have him on their fantasy teams very, very happy. With a plethora of enticing weapons (Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, intriguing second-year man Alshon Jeffery and talented offseason addition Martellus Bennett), the Bears' offense could be downright scary.

The Bengals will win the AFC in spite of Andy Dalton

Last week, when I picked the Seattle Seahawks to win Super Bowl XLVIII, I made a passing reference to the Cincinnati Bengals as my projected AFC champions.

Many of you reacted thusly: Seriously? You think Andy Dalton's a Super Bowl quarterback? Was it really a good idea to drink and write?

Those sentiments didn't bother me, largely because I believe the questions are valid ones. (Well, maybe not the one about drinking and writing ... unless we're talking about Peet's iced tea abuse. But I digress ...) In the two seasons since the Bengals drafted him in the second round, Dalton has displayed some very nice qualities, but unlike so many of his peers (Russell Wilson, RGIII, Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton), he has yet to convince anyone that he's special.

So yes, I realize that I'm asking many of you to take a leap of faith when I size up the ultra-talented Bengals as championship contenders, despite my lack of conviction that they have a championship quarterback. And to be fair, most of the people I've talked to inside the Bengals organization have no quarrel with that assessment, though they absolutely hope Dalton can prove all of us wrong.

The weird thing is, the best approach Dalton can employ is a minimalist one. If he takes care of the ball, doesn't try to do too much and is willing not to be the star, he may well cement his status as the team's quarterback of the present and future. He has one of the league's top receivers in third-year star A.J. Green, and the injection of a pair of high 2013 draft picks (versatile tight end Tyler Eifert and elusive halfback Gio Bernard) into the offense should make the Bengals' attack far more formidable than in 2012.

Defensively, Cincy is flat-out stacked, with former Pittsburgh Steelers star James Harrison joining an underrated unit that includes one of the best players in football at any position: fourth-year defensive tackle Geno Atkins.

Realistically, if Dalton's teammates play to their potential, all the quarterback has to do is not screw it up. If so, he might not be regarded as special a year from now, but I still think he'll be Super come February.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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