We've all heard the saying, History repeats itself. And this could be a very good thing for the New Orleans Saints, with head coach Sean Payton making a concerted effort to balance his offensive attack this offseason.
I was part of a dynamic, balanced Saints offense in 2009, the season in which the franchise won its first-ever Super Bowl title. Before suffering a season-ending knee injury in late October, I shared the backfield with Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush and Mike Bell. Oh, and someone named Drew Brees was under center.
An in-depth look at that championship season reveals that Payton led the most balanced offensive unit of his tenure in New Orleans, running the ball on 45 percent of snaps and passing 55 percent of the time. This was the best version of the Saints' offense, with the play calling of Payton, the execution of Brees and the diversity of the backfield. Some might argue the Saints were better statistically in 2011, but we could do anything at any time to any defense in '09. And winning the Lombardi Trophy proved it. Whereas the '11 team couldn't come from behind in the Divisional Round, ending its chances at the franchise's second title two years later.
When you look at the way Payton's 2017 offense has been built this offseason, it's clear the blueprint is very similar to the '09 unit -- but this time, there's a first-ballot Hall of Fame-caliber back in the mix. Adrian Peterson, the best running back of the last decade, has joined Mark Ingram in a ground game that ranked 16th in the league a year ago. New Orleans also added promising Tennessee product Alvin Kamara in last month's draft, creating a new three-headed monster to line up behind Brees, who led the league's No. 1 total offense and passing offense in 2016.
As good as the offense was last season, there was a notable lack of balance, with the team throwing on 63 percent of its offensive snaps and running on just 37 percent. This has been consistent with the offensive formula for most of the Payton-Brees era, with New Orleans running the ball on more than 40 percent of snaps just twice in the last 11 seasons -- in 2006, when Brees was coming off shoulder surgery, and in '09.
I love the fact that the Saints signed Peterson and drafted Kamara, but there are only so many carries to go around. With all this talent on the field, how will Payton utilize it?
Well, if there's one thing I know about Payton, with whom I had a very candid conversation in the days leading up to Peterson's visit in April, it's that he's not worried about making everyone happy, no matter what the player's status or paycheck might be. (Both undrafted, Bell and Thomas competed from Day 1 for the starting RB job in 2009. That season, they both more than doubled the amount of carries of former No. 2 overall draft pick Bush.) Payton is tired of being 7-9 (three straight seasons now), so you had better believe it's going to be an open-door competition at the position.
Back in '09, the amount of carries everyone received changed from week to week, and the approach worked because we all understood our roles. At times, two backs would be assigned four first-quarter carries apiece, and Payton would ride the hot hand in the second and third quarters. We were challenged to make our touches count. But, to be honest, I don't see the amount of carries changing from week to week as much this time around, provided Peterson is fully healthy. A lot of people think the 32-year-old, who is coming off another major knee injury, has lost a step, but I don't believe it -- and I think he'll prove me right. Our league hasn't seen anything like Peterson since Barry Sanders -- a player who will, quite simply, rack up 100 yards if you give him the rock 20 times. Like a machine.
Payton is never going to completely show his hand. And just because Ingram, who will likely back up Peterson as a spell back, is better in pass protection, that doesn't mean Peterson won't be asked to contribute in that area. That said, I expect Payton to keep Peterson -- who does struggle at times with pass pro -- in his comfort zone, because the Saints do run some very difficult schemes. Payton covers up the inadequacies of his players with how he structures the game play, formations and play calls. I predict Peterson is going to be on the field for 45-50 snaps a game, but that doesn't mean Ingram won't be out there 25-30 times, too. Payton loves putting two backs in -- the defense doesn't have enough personnel to defend the Brees-led passing game and both Peterson and Ingram.
So, where does Kamara fit in? He's going to be the player Reggie Bush was for us in 2009: a chess piece used to dissect the defense. Back in that title campaign, Payton created a package based on Reggie's dynamic abilities to exploit the weak link. That's exactly how I see Kamara being used. Given Kamara's versatile skill set and how he could be used in the offense, Payton told me he was anxious before the draft about whether the RB would be available for the taking. When Kamara was still there in the third round, the Saints traded up to put him in black and gold. Gifted as both a runner and pass catcher, Kamara will create a lot of mismatches. If the rookie can pick up the offense, it'll be fun to see how Payton uses him.
With the Saints appearing to achieve more balance on offense from roster reconstruction, they are poised to get out of their 7-9 rut and perhaps back into the playoffs -- depending on how the budding defense stacks up. Even in a competitive NFC South, I like their chances.