Driven by the prolific Brees, Saints are drawing comparisons with ’07 Patriots
METAIRIE, La. - New Orleans Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey is a 6-foot-5-inch, 251-pound player with tattoos etched along his forearms and a reputation for speaking his mind. He can appreciate an opinion. So when he describes Saints quarterback Drew Brees, Shockey starts with leadership, citing Brees as the player often first to the practice facility. Then Shockey describes his vocal leadership.
“I often say he’s a defensive guy playing an offensive position,’’ Shockey said. “He’s very vocal. If you do something wrong, he’ll tell you about it.
“It’s great to have at that position because you never know who’s going to gripe you out worse, coach [Sean] Payton or No. 9. It’s good to play with him. It’s a blessing.’’
In the days leading up to tomorrow’s matchup against the Patriots, the spotlight focused on Brees, who has led the Saints to their best start in franchise history. The Saints are 10-0 and on pace to break some of the offensive records set by the Patriots in 2007. The statistics and the success have stretched on long enough to boost Brees into the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning debates about the league’s best quarterback.
The building process that began in Payton’s first year in 2006 is blossoming into a historic season for Saints fans, who once wore brown bags over their heads to games in shame.
“It’s an honor to be put anywhere near the same category as [Brady],’’ Brees said. “I think he’s an exceptional player and has been for a long time. He will go down as one of the best of all time.
“I definitely think that if you just stood the two of us next to each other, we wouldn’t look anything alike, so maybe you’d say that our styles are a little different. But in the end you want the result to be the same: You win football games and you win championships.
“Obviously he has three and I’m still trying to get that first. I have a lot of respect for him.’’
In comparing Brees and Brady, Saints fullback Heath Evans, who has played with both, said they have “everything’’ in common. Statistically, the numbers are similar this year: Brees has completed 218 of 320 passes for 2,746 yards and a league-high 22 touchdowns. Brady has completed 261 of 393 passes for 3,049 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Evans, who is on injured reserve, played four seasons with the Patriots, including 2007, and said both quarterbacks are smart and have “been blessed by God with a great brain, end of story,’’
Evans added, “Most people don’t think as accurately or as quickly as they do. The stuff they can see and process in a 15-second window of time . . . I wish I could think like that. At the end of the day, they’re smarter than everybody else.’’
Smarts can help when you’re running an offense with the numerous combinations the Saints employ. Patriots coach Bill Belichick said the Saints have “about 20 things you have to stop, and that’s what makes it tough.’’
The biggest improvement can be seen in the Saints’ running game. Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas, and Mike Bell handle most of the rushing duties and also are targets for Brees. A team that was ranked 28th in rushing last season with an average of 99.6 yards a game has improved to 154.3 yards a game.
“The offensive line has been doing a phenomenal job all year protecting Drew and opening up lanes, so it’s been pretty easy for us,’’ Bell said. “They’re making it real easy by just opening up the holes.
“Also, since we’re all different types of running backs, we all have different styles and I don’t think the defense can really catch on to each different style of running, so it makes it hard for them.’’
Bush presents myriad options when he is healthy. He has played in nine games this season, rushing for 277 yards on 55 carries and adding 207 yards on 29 catches. But a knee injury kept him out last week and he has been limited at practice this past week.
Bell describes Bush as “probably the best pass/catch running back in the NFL.’’ He said Thomas has similar skills to Bush and also runs great routes. And he said he considers himself a downhill runner who can pick up tough yards.
“You combine all of us and we all look at each other and pick parts that we like from him and him and just try to make each other better each and every single day,’’ Bell said.
ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer said the running game is the biggest difference between these Saints and the 2007 Patriots.
“The Patriots didn’t have that type of balance that the Saints have this year,’’ Dilfer said. “I think they’re a better offense than the Patriots in 2007 because, offensively, they don’t have a hole. They don’t have any weaknesses.’’
With an unpredictable offense, the Saints are putting up impressive numbers. They are averaging 420.5 yards a game, which leads the league, along with 36.9 points.
Through 10 games in 2007, the Patriots led the league in overall offense. They averaged 41.1 points a game, which was best in the league, and were first in passing yards (305 a game) and total yards (1,318). Their rushing yards per game of 131.8 were fifth in the league.
The fact that the Saints are on pace to break some of the Patriots’ records from that season doesn’t concern Brady.
“I’ve seen a lot of great offenses since I’ve been in the league, like the Rams and the Colts,’’ Brady said. “We were one of them. The Saints are obviously one of them this year.
“But there’s always going to be another great offense. There are always going to be great receivers and quarterbacks that finally come together under a coach that’s been with them for a few years that really understands the strengths and weaknesses. The schedule aligns right and the scores of the games come out a certain way, so they’re always going to be broken.’’
With the success of the Patriots the last few years, the Saints don’t mind the comparisons. There are plenty of lessons to learn from them, Payton said.
“I don’t think you look to duplicate, or try to duplicate,’’ he said. “We spend more time doing all the right things and trying to pay close attention to what New England’s done as an organization.
“Certainly, they’ve been at the forefront of our league and, I said this earlier, if you’re in business, it would be silly not to pay attention to how they’ve been successful, their formula and their recipe.
“We tried when we came in in ’06 to begin to change the culture. We’ve got all the film at our disposal, so we spent a lot of time looking through the top teams, not just offensively, but on defense and the kicking game.
“They’re an organization that’s done a lot of things well, overall, for a long period of time. We pay close attention each year to the different things that they’re doing to have success.’’
Monique Walker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.