NFC South: John Kasay

One theme emerged in Friday’s NFC South chat that really surprised me.

Multiple readers seem unable to forgive former Carolina kicker John Kasay for his out-of-bounds kickoff late in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

Andy in Durham wrote: “I've had mixed feelings about John Kasey for a while. I understand what he's meant to the team, I understand that he's a good guy. But I have a really had time forgiving him for botching a kickoff that ultimately gave Tom Brady the ball at midfield on the final drive of Super Bowl 38. I know you like the guy, but what are your thoughts on that?’’

Jeff in Virginia followed with this: I have to agree with Andy (Durham). Kasay was a good kicker, but he totally choked during the Super Bowl that handed the game to the Patriots (which I cannot stand the Patriots). It's hard to forgive for something like that.’’

I’m surprised because I didn’t realize there is such lingering bitterness toward Kasay, who officially announced his retirement last week. I was under the impression that Carolina fans had long ago let the memory of that kickoff fade and accepted Kasay as one of the franchise’s icons.

As I thought more about it, I can certainly understand that some people still are upset about the kickoff. It very well might have cost the Panthers a Super Bowl championship. It certainly wasn’t a shining moment in franchise history.

But two thoughts come to mind here.

First, I think the rest of Kasay’s career overshadows one botched kickoff. The guy made a lot of big kicks throughout a very long career. He also was a class act. Perhaps most importantly of all, Kasay might have had more influence in the locker room than any kicker in history. He was a leader, which was unusual for a kicker. He also had an uncommon relationship with Steve Smith. I don’t think there was anyone with the Panthers that did more to cool off the mercurial wide receiver when his emotions ran hot.

Second, I grew up a Red Sox fan and have always thought it was unfair to blame Bill Buckner for the 1986 World Series. Other people made mistakes in Game 6 that had just as much to do with the Red Sox losing as Buckner’s error did. I think it’s the same way with Kasay. Yes, he made a mistake. But there were other mistakes and plays that weren’t made in that Super Bowl. If one of those mistakes wasn’t made or if someone had made a big play, the Panthers could have won that Super Bowl and we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

NFC South afternoon update

May, 9, 2013
5/09/13
5:01
PM ET
Time for a run through some odds and ends from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

The team waived kicker Casey Barth and cornerback Momo Thomas, a pair of undrafted free agents.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

A lot of people are asking why kicker John Kasay wasn’t immediately put into the Panthers’ Hall of Honor upon his retirement this week. Scott Fowler has the answer. The Panthers said, sometime about a decade ago, they put in a rule that there is a five-year waiting period after the retirement of a player. I’m not sure that’s really necessary, but it does help make their Hall of Honor pretty elite. And I have no doubt Kasay will go in as soon as the five years are up.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Terrance Harris has a feature on rookie receiver Kenny Stills’ relationship with his father. Kenny Stills Sr. is a former NFL player. That is kind of a theme in the Saints’ locker room. Running back Mark Ingram, defensive end Cameron Jordan and receiver Nick Toon all have fathers who played in the NFL.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

In honor of Ronde Barber’s retirement, Stephen Holder has a look at the five best games of the defensive back’s career. Obviously, the NFC Championship Game against Philadelphia is on there. If you had to pick the best moment in franchise history, it might have come in that game when Barber returned an interception for a touchdown as the Bucs went on to their first, and only, Super Bowl.

Around the NFC South

May, 8, 2013
5/08/13
8:53
AM ET
Time for a morning run through the headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

With the retirement of center Todd McClure and the release of right tackle Tyson Clabo, the Falcons have to revamp their offensive line. D. Orlando Ledbetter writes that it looks like Peter Konz will move from right guard to center. That’s an obvious move since Konz was a center in college. But the other two moves aren’t quite as clear and Mike Johnson could end up being the deciding factor. He could end up challenging Lamar Holmes at right tackle or Garrett Reynolds at right guard.

Quarterback Matt Ryan, who went to Boston College, threw out the first pitch at Tuesday night’s Gwinnett Braves’ game as part of the team’s Boston Strong night.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

David Monroe, one of the few people to be employed by the Panthers longer than John Kasay, has a fine tribute to the retiring kicker. Monroe had an inside view of Kasay’s career and he knows that it was about a lot more than what the kicker did on the field. During Kasay’s time in Carolina, he might have had more of an impact on the locker room than any kicker ever has.

Quarterback Cam Newton had been bouncing back and forth between the team’s offseason program and classes at Auburn in recent weeks. But Newton recently took his final exams and is now focused solely on football.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Nakia Hogan has an in-depth profile of rookie offensive tackle Terron Armstead. The thing that stood out to me most was Armstead’s performance at the college scouting combine. His numbers were off the charts and he ran the 40-yard dash faster than any offensive lineman in the history of the event (4.71 seconds). I think Armstead is going to get a long look in training camp and could have a shot to beat out Charles Brown and Jason Smith at left tackle.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Defensive end Da’Quan Bowers said he’s focused on becoming a dominant player. He hasn’t been that in his first two seasons, but Bowers refused to blame that on injuries. He said it’s time to step up in his third season. That’s what the Bucs are counting on. They let Michael Bennett, who led the team in sacks last year, leave via free agency because they believe Bowers is ready to take the next step.
John Kasay's career will end exactly the way it should, on a rather understated note and with a lot of dignity.

The Carolina Panthers just sent an email to the media saying a “retirement reception’’ will be held at Bank of America Stadium on Tuesday afternoon. I’m a little surprised Kasay is allowing even that much fanfare.

I covered Kasay for much of his tenure in Carolina and the kicker didn’t like a lot of attention. Even though he has a journalism degree from the University of Georgia, Kasay didn’t spend a lot of time talking to the media. When he did speak, he was polite and insightful, but those opportunities were rare.

I always got the feeling that Kasay was much more focused on doing his job (and doing it very well), and I respected him immensely for that. That approach worked quite well for Kasay during an NFL career that began with Seattle in 1991.

Kasay joined the expansion Panthers in 1995 and stayed through the 2010 season. He kicked for New Orleans in 2011 and spent last season out of the NFL after being released by the Saints in training camp.

Kasay ends his career with 1,970 points. I’m glad Kasay is at least letting the Panthers hold this reception. Kasay deserves a proper send-off from the Panthers.

NFC South afternoon update

May, 6, 2013
5/06/13
5:14
PM ET
Time for a run through some odds and ends from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

The Tennessee Titans reportedly could sign defensive end John Abraham this week. As I keep saying, I don’t think Abraham is going to end up re-signing with the Falcons. Atlanta now has a bunch of young defensive ends and needs to start getting them on the field.

D. Orlando Ledbetter writes that rookie cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford looked good in the weekend minicamp. That’s a good thing because I don’t get the sense the Falcons used their first two draft picks on these guys to bring them along slowly. The hope is one of them can start opening day opposite Asante Samuel and the other can compete with Robert McClain for the job at nickel back.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Max Henson writes that cornerbacks D.J. Moore and Captain Munnerlyn have a friendly rivalry that goes back to their college days. That’s a good thing because the Panthers need all the competitive spirit they can get at cornerback. They don’t have any blue-chip players at that position, but the competition may help some of the cornerbacks to step up.

Former Carolina and New Orleans kicker John Kasay will be the featured speaker at Wingate University’s graduation.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Speaking of colleges and graduations, coach Sean Payton received an honorary doctorate degree from his alma mater, Eastern Illinois University.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Joe Smith has a nice feature on rookie running back Mike James and the relationship he shared with his late mother. The Bucs drafted James because he’s an all-purpose back and could end up being the top backup to Doug Martin.
Click here for the complete list of New Orleans Saints roster moves.

Most significant move: The Saints have a history in recent years of finding obscure running backs (see Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory). They’ve done it again. Undrafted rookie Travaris Cadet made the roster. So did Thomas, Ivory, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles. That leaves the Saints very heavy at running back, but that’s not a bad thing. Cadet almost forced the Saints to keep him by having a tremendous preseason. Now, the Saints have the upper hand on any team looking for a running back. Sproles is likely untouchable, and I don’t see the Saints parting with Ingram, who joined them as a first-round pick last year. But Thomas and Ivory have shown they can do a lot of good things, and the Saints could add a future draft pick if a team that’s desperate to add a quality runner is willing to make a trade.

Onward and upward: One of the best kicking battles in NFL history was won by Garrett Hartley, who spent the summer kicking against veteran John Kasay. Both have kicked in the Super Bowl and both kicked well this summer. I don’t think there really was a clear winner. Kasay and Hartley finished in a dead heat, and the Saints made the logical decision. They went with the homegrown guy, who still has four seasons remaining on his contract. As long as Kasay, 42, wants to keep playing, he should be able to find another place to kick because he showed no signs of slipping with his preseason performance.

What’s next: The linebacker corps remains a question mark. Starters Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne have been injured, and it’s unclear whether they’ll be ready for the season opener. The only other linebackers on the roster are Scott Shanle, Jonathan Casillas, Will Herring and newly acquired Barrett Ruud. I’ve got a strong suspicion the Saints will bring in a linebacker (maybe two) from somewhere else in the next few days.
Let the speculation begin in the Carolinas. Kicker John Kasay has been released by the New Orleans Saints, Mike Triplett reports.

That means Garrett Hartley won out over Kasay in what was perhaps the most interesting position battle in all of the NFC South.

You know what the next question is: Could Kasay, one of the most popular players in Carolina history, be headed back to the Panthers?

I get the romance of it all. Kasay joined the Panthers in their 1995 expansion season. He lasted way longer than any of the original Panthers. He was a fan favorite and well-liked by everyone in the organization. When the Panthers released Kasay last year, many fans were irate. They became even angrier when replacement Olindo Mare missed some big field goal attempts last season.

Now, throw in the fact that Justin Medlock, who beat out Mare in the preseason, missed two long attempts in Thursday night’s preseason finale and it’s easy to understand why a lot of Carolina fans are calling for the Panthers to bring back Kasay.

But that’s a real long shot. First off, the Panthers aren’t going to judge Medlock just on one game. The two field goals he missed were from 56 yards and 50 yards and they came in Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field. No NFL kicker ever has made a field goal of more than 50 yards in that stadium. Medlock kicked very well during training camp and the first two preseason games.

Even if the Panthers aren’t totally comfortable with Medlock, I think they’d sign another kicker before bringing back Kasay, 42. Remember, when the Panthers decided to let Kasay go, it was because they didn’t feel he could handle kickoffs and they didn’t want to use up another roster spot on a kicker. Rookie punter Brad Nortman doesn’t kick off. If the Panthers do make a move for a kicker it will be for someone who can handle kickoffs and field goals.

I’m guessing the next time you see Kasay in a Carolina uniform will be when the Panthers unveil a statue of him outside of Bank of America Stadium soon after he retires.

Around the NFC South

August, 28, 2012
8/28/12
10:14
AM ET
Let's take a look at the headlines from around the NFC South:

ATLANTA FALCONS

The cause and nature of the foot injury that is sidelining defensive tackle Corey Peters for the first six games remain mysteries. The Falcons have been very guarded about Peters’ situation. But they’ve had the inside information on it for some time and the fact they haven’t gone out and brought in an alternative must mean they feel good about what they have seen out of Peria Jerry. A first-round draft pick in 2009, Jerry’s career has been limited by injuries. But he’s looked good throughout training camp and the preseason.

Speaking of the Falcons and their tendency to stay quiet on injuries, coach Mike Smith now is admitting defensive end Ray Edwards was dealing with more serious injury issues than the public knew about last season. All indications are that Edwards is healthy now. If that’s the case, that could be a big boost for the Atlanta pass rush. Edwards never really made an impact in that area last season, but the Falcons signed him to complement John Abraham and believe he can fill that role now that he’s healthy.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

With the Democratic National Convention coming to Charlotte and Bank of America Stadium, the Panthers are hitting the road. They’re leaving their stadium and practice facility to the politicians and all the accompanying logistical issues to head to Florida. They open their season Sept. 9 at Tampa Bay. The team will leave next Tuesday and settle into IMG Academies in Bradenton, where they’ll practice for three days. The team is treating this like an extension of training camp or an extended road trip. The Panthers will do all their on-field work and weight lifting at IMG and hold their meetings back at the team hotel. They could have stayed in Charlotte, but I think getting out of town – and avoiding all the potential distractions – is the smart move.

Carolina’s release of kicker Olindo Mare on Monday has some fans rooting for the New Orleans Saints to release John Kasay and the Panthers to bring back their original kicker. I wouldn’t count on that. The team is serious about going with former Canadian Football League kicker Justin Medlock. Kasay is still with the Saints and could end up winning the job over Garrett Hartley. Even if he’s available, it doesn’t make sense for the Panthers to bring back Kasay. The main reason he was let go in the first place was because the Panthers didn’t think he could handle kickoffs and they didn’t want to carry a kickoff specialist. Medlock can handle kickoffs and field goals.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Akiem Hicks might not be the only rookie defensive tackle on New Orleans’ opening-day roster. Mike Triplett points out that Monday’s release of Remi Ayodele means there’s a chance that undrafted rookie Tyrunn Walker could make the regular-season roster. If he does, it probably will mean the Saints will carry five defensive tackles.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Gary Shelton runs through the list of college coaches moving to the NFL and the quarterbacks they went with in their first season. In a lot of cases, the coach and the quarterback didn’t succeed. But Greg Schiano and Josh Freeman might be able to be an exception to this. Freeman obviously had some issues last season, but I think he still is more talented than a lot of quarterbacks and Schiano and his staff have spent their entire time in Tampa Bay trying to set things up to make Freeman’s life easier.

The Bucs say they were aware Amobi Okoye had a history of knee issues when they signed him. But the fact Okoye has missed a big chunk of the preseason is a bit concerning because the Bucs don’t have a lot of other depth at defensive tackle.
Olindo Mare, who received a huge contract from the Carolina Panthers last year, won’t be handling the kickoff duties for the team this year.

The Panthers announced Monday that Mare has been released. Presumably, that means former Canadian League player Justin Medlock has won what was a competition for Carolina’s kicking job throughout the preseason.

Mare’s signing last year caused controversy because the Panthers released John Kasay, the final remaining player from their 1995 expansion team, to make room for Mare. The thinking was that Mare was as accurate as Kasay and could also handle kickoff duties. But Mare had a disappointing 2011 season and missed some crucial field-goal attempts. The Panthers brought Medlock in as competition and decided to let Mare go.

Although the Panthers gave Mare a four-year, $12 million contract last year, the salary-cap implications of his release are minimal. Mare was scheduled to count $3.2 million against this year’s salary cap. By releasing him, the Panthers still will be responsible for $3.1 million.

The kicker job isn’t the only area where the Panthers are going in a younger direction. They also released veteran Nick Harris. That means the Panthers are ready to go with rookie Brad Nortman as their punter. The Panthers drafted Nortman in the sixth round. They brought in Harris to compete with him and Nortman won the job.

As Carolina trimmed its roster to 75 players, there were several other moves of note.

Receiver David Gettis, who missed last season with a knee injury, has been placed on the physically unable to perform list. Gettis, who had been considered a candidate to start, wasn’t able to get healthy enough during the preseason. By going on PUP, Gettis now can be activated after six games. The Panthers also placed cornerback Brandon Hogan on the reserve/injured list. Hogan had been considered a candidate for significant playing time, but he also was slow in recovering from a knee issue. In the next five days, it will be decided if Hogan will take an injury settlement, be placed on injured reserve for the entire season or be released.

The Panthers also waived receiver Darvin Adams, guard Roger Allen, receiver Michael Avila, receiver Brenton Bersin, guard Will Blackwell, defensive end Eric Norwood, running back Lyndon Rowells, tight end Greg Smith, running back Josh Vaughan and receiver Rico Wallace.

NFC South afternoon update

August, 23, 2012
8/23/12
5:50
PM ET
It’s time for our afternoon look at what’s going on across the NFC South:

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

The Bucs have rearranged their locker room so that players are no longer surrounded by their position group. Coach Greg Schiano wouldn’t go into a lengthy explanation. But I think you can read between the lines with one example -- LeGarrette Blount's locker is now next to Ronde Barber's. I think it’s fair to say that Blount’s a guy that hasn’t always been completely focused, while Barber’s a veteran with a reputation for being a dedicated professional. It’s pretty obvious the Bucs are hoping some of Barber will wear off on Blount.

The first wave of roster cuts (to 75 players) don’t have to come until Monday. But the Bucs went ahead and released three of their undrafted free agents.

Although he’s only practiced three times since being claimed off waivers, receiver Jordan Shipley is expected to get some playing time in Friday night’s preseason game. The Bucs might as well throw Shipley out there and see what he’s got because they’re going to have to be making more roster decisions pretty quickly.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Mark Bradley looks at the Falcons schedule and projects how they’ll fare in the regular season. He has them going 12-4 and winning the NFC South. It’s at least possible. One thing to note -- Bradley has the Falcons going 6-0 against division opponents.

Safety Shann Schillinger will miss the preseason game with the Dolphins due to a foot injury. This is somewhat significant because Schillinger seemingly is in a battle with rookie Charles Mitchell for the final safety spot.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Running back Mark Ingram said he doesn’t think that his development has been hurt as the Saints have limited his practice time during the preseason. Ingram said he still does mental reps during practices. The Saints have been cautious with Ingram because he dealt with several injuries as a rookie last year. I think the goal is to just make sure Ingram is totally healthy for the start of the season.

Special teams coordinator Greg McMahon said the kicking battle between Garrett Hartley and John Kasay will go right down to the wire. This is one of the best kicking battles I’ve ever seen because it features two guys who have made some very big kicks. Whichever one loses out in New Orleans will end up kicking for someone else this season.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Coach Ron Rivera said receiver Steve Smith’s injured foot is improving, but the team will be cautious on when he returns to the field. That’s the only way to go on this one. Smith’s a veteran and doesn’t need preseason games to prove anything.

Around the NFC South

August, 13, 2012
8/13/12
7:40
AM ET
Time for a look at the top Monday headlines from around the NFC South:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Chase Coffman’s NFL career never has come close to fulfilling the promise he showed in college at Missouri. Injuries held him back in Cincinnati and a short stint with the Bucs came to an end when Tampa Bay brought in Dallas Clark. But I think Coffman at least has a chance of developing into something after signing with Atlanta. He’s a pass-catching tight end with limited blocking skills. This could be the final season for veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez, who has been a brilliant pass-catcher, but rarely is asked to do much as a blocker. Maybe after serving as an understudy to Gonzalez for a year, Coffman could take his place.

Drew Davis may have moved ahead of Kevin Cone in the battle for Atlanta’s No. 5 wide receiver spot. Davis has had a nice camp and he also is showing signs he can contribute on special teams, which ultimately could earn him a roster spot.

Left tackle Sam Baker, who dealt with some major back issues last year, said he’s healthy. Baker needs a strong season because he’s in a contract year.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Coach Ron Rivera repeatedly used the word “disappointed’’ when talking about his team’s preseason opener. It wasn’t a great performance by any means, but it was far from the worst preseason effort I’ve ever seen. So why was Rivera so upset? He said his team didn’t play with a sense of urgency. In that light, his sentiments are understandable. The Panthers have high expectations for themselves and they should be playing with a sense of urgency, even if it’s only a preseason game.

Sam Farmer takes an in-depth and off-beat look at Carolina safety Haruki Nakamura. Although he was raised in Cleveland, Nakamura’s parents made sure he was exposed to the Japanese culture. His father was the former coach of the Japanese Olympic judo team and Nakamura was involved in that sport, which he said helps him as a football player.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Larry Holder has status reports on some of the top position battles. One of the biggest is kicker, where Garrett Hartley and John Kasay are squaring off. They appear to be even so far, but that means Hartley probably gets the nod because he has four years remaining on his contract.

Although many thought the fact he played college football in Canada would make him a developmental project, New Orleans defensive tackle Akiem Hicks is showing signs he might be able to contribute immediately in the NFL.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Receiver Tiquan Underwood has been one of the brightest stars of Tampa Bay’s preseason. He attributes his strides to increased confidence, after getting an important tip from training partner Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals.

Dory Leblanc has a review of what Tampa Bay’s rookies did in the preseason opener. Top draft pick Mark Barron was held out due to a minor injury, but the next two picks -- running back Doug Martin and linebacker Lavonte David -- showed they should be able to make an impact right from the start.

Observation deck: Saints-Patriots

August, 9, 2012
8/09/12
10:34
PM ET

Do not be discouraged that the New Orleans Saints scored only three points in the first half of Thursday night’s 7-6 preseason loss at New England.

You know the points will come in bunches when Drew Brees is getting more than a few snaps in the regular season.

What you should be encouraged about is that the New Orleans defense didn’t allow a point in the first half. That came with Tom Brady, who has been known to put up huge numbers, playing almost the entire first quarter. That’s a huge accomplishment for a New Orleans defense that still is adjusting to coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme.

New Orleans' first and second defenses regularly stopped New England’s first and second offenses. The Patriots didn’t score until the third quarter, when both teams were playing third-stringers. That’s huge improvement over what we’ve seen out of the New Orleans defense in recent years.

Let’s take a look at some other observations on the Saints:
  • Spagnuolo’s defense relies heavily on getting a strong pass rush from the front four. There were signs that was working. Defensive end Will Smith put a nice hit on Brady and the ball popped loose. Linebacker Curtis Lofton recovered the fumble.
  • Brees attempted only four passes and completed one for 4 yards. Like I said, don’t read anything into a very short and quiet night for Brees. You know he’ll show up for the regular season.
  • Rookie defensive tackle Akiem Hicks had a flash play in the second quarter. He swatted down a pass by Ryan Mallett, which is even more impressive when you remember Mallett is 6-foot-6.
  • Martez Wilson has done a nice job making the switch from linebacker to defensive end. But Wilson needs to clean things up on special teams. He was flagged for roughing the kicker and gave the Patriots a first down after lining up offside as New England was about to punt.
  • Cornerback Marquis Johnson has had a nice camp and his momentum is carrying over into the preseason. Jackson, thanks to some more pressure from up front, came up with a second-quarter interception.
  • We all know Garrett Hartley and John Kasay are competing for New Orleans’ kicking job. The Saints let Kasay attempt a long field goal in the first half and he showed he has some leg left by connecting on a 46-yard attempt. Kasay missed a 41-yard attempt in the fourth quarter that could have given the Saints the lead. This might end up being the toughest call of all when the Saints have to trim their roster to 53. They might be wise to shop one of their kickers for trade. Kasay and Hartley both are better than a lot of guys who currently are projected as No. 1 kickers elsewhere.
METAIRIE, La. -- As he prepares for his third NFL season, it sounds as if New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham has figured out the secret to NFL success.

"I was told to never tug on Superman’s cape," Graham said.

He was talking about quarterback Drew Brees. Graham noted how the quarterback challenged him to a sprint race at the start of training camp and said he let Brees win. Graham was partly joking, but there was some deep wisdom in his words.

More than ever, the Saints are Brees’ team. They’ve been through an offseason unlike one any other team has faced. They’ve been through the painful drama of the bounty scandal and they’ll move forward without coach Sean Payton, who is suspended for the season, and general manager Mickey Loomis, who is suspended for the first eight games.

Brees, the league's highest-paid player, is coming off a season in which he set a NFL single-season record for most passing yards. No, let other teams try to tug on Brees’ cape. If the Saints really are going to endure all this adversity successfully, they need Brees’ skill and leadership more than ever. They need to ride the coattails of the most positive thing they have at the moment.

Brees knows this high-flying offense as well as anyone, including Payton. The Saints remain loaded at offensive skill positions. There’s little doubt this team still is going to score a lot, and that alone will keep it competitive.

But Brees can’t do everything by himself. Even before the word "bounty" started flying in March, the Saints knew they had to overhaul their defense. That became clear in last season’s playoff loss to San Francisco. That’s why defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was hired. Predecessor Gregg Williams had a gambling philosophy, going all-out to produce turnovers. The negative side effect was that the Saints gave up too many big plays.

Spagnuolo brings a more balanced philosophy. Sure, he wants turnovers, but he also wants to be able to shut down offenses from time to time. A big theme of this camp is the installation of Spagnuolo’s defense. Even though that’s not his side of the ball, Brees shows a lot of interest in the defense. Even in camp, the Saints are implementing game plans.

“[Spagnuolo] is going to try to find every flaw, just like we are going to do to them,’’ Brees said. “Along the way, I am certainly going to be picking his brain as to what he is seeing with our offense, how we can improve. That is how you help one another. That is a habit that we got into, me talking to the defensive guys, even if it is just the secondary guys, saying, 'You give away that blitz whenever you do this.' We are competing against each other, but in the end we are on the same team. I want them to be able to go out and have as much success as possible, just like they want us, on game day, to have as much success as possible.”

Maybe that’s the best way to improve the New Orleans defense. Practice against Superman every day. After you’ve been through that, everything else should be easy.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Mark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PRESSWIREMark Ingram rushed for 474 yards and five touchdowns during his rookie season with the Saints.
THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Mark Ingram’s playing time. Fan expectations for Ingram might be significantly higher than the team's. That’s somewhat understandable, because the Saints traded back into the first round in 2011 to draft Ingram. He played at a college powerhouse (Alabama) and won a Heisman Trophy. Instant stardom was expected by fans, but it didn’t turn out that way in Ingram’s rookie season.

He finished with 122 carries for 474 yards and five touchdowns. Injuries were part of the reason his numbers weren’t bigger. But even before the injuries, Ingram shared playing time with Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, and Chris Ivory did a nice job joining the rotation after Ingram’s injury problems started. Ingram had a couple of offseason surgeries and said he’s completely healthy.

But that doesn’t mean Ingram suddenly is going to become a 300-carry guy. New Orleans’ offense is based on diversity, and that’s not going to change. The Saints aren’t going to take playing time away from Sproles, who set an NFL record for all-purpose yards last season, and Thomas is going to play because he has earned it with his performance.

Assuming Ingram stays healthy, I expect him to get more carries than last season, but a 200-carry season for about 800 yards is a reasonable expectation.

2. Will the linebackers be better than last season? I think they’ll be markedly better. Many believe the season-long suspension of Jonathan Vilma is going to hurt the Saints. If this were two or three years ago, I’d agree. But Vilma was bothered by knee problems last season, and his age seemed to be catching up to him. I think free-agent addition Curtis Lofton is an upgrade over Vilma in the middle. In fact, I think Lofton is pretty similar to what Vilma was two or three years ago. The Saints will be just fine in the middle.

Plus, the Saints didn’t sit still at outside linebacker. They signed free agents David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain. It looks as if Hawthorne is well on his way to winning a starting job. That leaves Chamberlain competing with Scott Shanle, Will Herring and Jonathan Casillas for the other starting job. There’s no true favorite here, and Shanle is the fallback option as the safe choice because he’s smart and dependable. But Chamberlain, Herring and Casillas are more athletic and at least come with the possibility of producing big plays. The hope is that one of those three can step forward to win the starting job.

3. Can the offensive line, minus Carl Nicks, be as good as last season? Nicks took the big money and left for Tampa Bay in free agency. Losing a player many scouts consider the best guard in the NFL must take a toll. But the Saints already had Jahri Evans, who might be the closest thing to Nicks. Loomis did a nice job getting Ben Grubbs to replace Nicks. Grubbs isn’t quite on the Nicks/Evans level, but he’s an above-average player and came at a much lower salary than Nicks. The Saints build their offensive line around the interior, and Evans and Grubbs will form a very strong guard tandem.

Brian de la Puente did a nice job taking over at center last year and should be fine with Grubbs and Evans surrounding him. The tackles are more of a question. The Saints are sticking with Jermon Bushrod on the left side and Zach Strief on the right. They’re serviceable, but Bushrod and Strief aren’t all-pros, and the presence of Evans and Grubbs should be enough to keep this offensive line among the better ones in the league.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Spagnuolo’s history. There is legitimate concern about the pass rush, because Spagnuolo likes it to come mostly from his front four. Aside from defensive end Will Smith, who will serve a four-game suspension at the start of the season, the Saints don’t have a proven pass-rusher. Many fans are worked up about the potential of Junior Galette and converted linebacker Martez Wilson. Those guys could turn into something, but maybe fans aren’t looking in the right direction.

Second-year pro Cameron Jordan might be a big factor. Yeah, I know that sounds like a stretch because Jordan had one sack as a rookie, but he was a first-round pick and still has plenty of untapped potential. There’s more than that, though. Look at Spagnuolo’s past. When he became defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in 2007, Justin Tuck had gone through two NFL seasons with one sack. In Spagnuolo’s first season, Tuck had 10. In 2008, Tuck recorded 12.

If Spagnuolo can get anything close to double-digit sacks from Jordan, he may have short- and long-term answers for his pass rush.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

How much adversity can one team take? The Saints will use all that happened to them in the offseason as a rallying cry, providing strong motivation. But it’s tough for any team to ride one emotion (anger, in this case) for an entire season. This franchise has been through a lot, and you have to worry about that taking a toll at some point.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Drew Brees and Tom Benson
Derick E. Hingle/US PRESSWIREWith a new contract and instability in the coaching staff, Drew Brees will be asked to be even more of a leader for Tom Benson's Saints.
You also have to worry about the Saints being a target for opponents, especially those who spent the past few months hearing that the bounty program had targeted some of their own players. Then throw in the fact that assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who has run the team in Payton’s absence, must serve a six-game suspension at the start of the season. At that point, the Saints are expected to make another of their assistants the acting head coach. Yes, this is a veteran team with outstanding leadership, but it sure looks like a lot of things are stacked against the Saints.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • There was a lot of buzz about cornerback Marquis Johnson in the first few days of camp. He made some nice plays and usually was around the ball. The Saints hope second-year pro Johnny Patrick can be their No. 3 cornerback after starters Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson. But Johnson has a chance to compete with Patrick and may have one slight advantage. The third-year player spent his first two seasons in St. Louis, where Spagnuolo was the coach. Johnson knows the system, and that might be why he’s off to a fast start in camp. If he can sustain it, he’ll have a chance to move past Patrick. At worst, Johnson has a chance to be the fourth cornerback and a key player on special teams.
  • The Saints have almost an embarrassment of riches at kicker. They have Garrett Hartley back from an injury that kept him out last season and veteran John Kasay, who filled in nicely for Hartley. Hartley and Kasay each have made a lot of big kicks in their careers. Although Kasay is 42, he’s not showing signs of slowing. Hartley has the stronger leg, but Kasay has been a model of consistency throughout his career. The Saints will let this competition play throughout camp. If it ends in a dead heat, it might be the toughest call of all when it’s time to trim the roster. Brought in by Loomis, Hartley has earned a spot in franchise history with some clutch kicks. But Loomis and Kasay go all the way back to the early 1990s, when they were together in Seattle.
  • There’s been a lot of talk about New Orleans’ young wide receivers early in camp. Adrian Arrington, Nick Toon, Joe Morgan, Andy Tanner and Chris Givens have made spectacular catches. But let’s keep that in perspective. Those catches came before the Saints put pads on and before defenders could hit. The Saints are looking for fourth and fifth receivers, but let’s not anoint any of these guys yet. The preseason games will determine who wins the final roster spots at receiver. Arrington’s entering his third season, and it’s time for him to start showing something. Toon comes in after a solid career at Wisconsin. They probably are the favorites to make the roster at this point. But Morgan, Tanner and Givens might be able to change the pecking order if they can make catches in traffic in preseason games.
  • The Saints thought they might get an eventual starter when they drafted Charles Brown in 2010. There was even hope that he might turn into the long-range solution at left tackle. That hasn’t come close to happening. Bushrod has settled in nicely at left tackle. The Saints hoped Brown at least would be able to start at right tackle. But that hasn’t happened, either. Strief beat out Brown for the starting job last season. When Strief was injured, Brown got playing time, but his play wasn't pretty. (If you don’t believe me, look at the tape of the loss to the Rams.) The Saints still say that Strief and Brown are competing for the starting job this season, but Strief has received all of the first-team work, and I didn't hear any buzz at all about Brown from coaches. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure Brown even will be on the roster when the regular season starts.
  • Speaking of offensive linemen who could be on the bubble, don’t forget Matt Tennant. The Saints drafted Tennant in 2010, thinking he'd be the heir apparent to Jonathan Goodwin at center. It hasn’t worked out that way. When Goodwin left via free agency last year, the Saints took an early look at Tennant and quickly signed Olin Kruetz, the former Bears star. When Kruetz abruptly decided to retire, the Saints didn’t turn back to Tennant. They turned to de la Puente, who now has a strong grip on the starting job. Like Brown, Tennant could be fighting for a roster spot. The Saints used to have a good reputation for finding offensive linemen beyond the first round of the draft (Evans, Nicks and Bushrod), but Brown and Tennant may have eroded that trend.
  • The Saints appear set with Graham and David Thomas at tight end. Graham is a great pass-catcher, and Thomas is a jack of all trades. But keep an eye on Michael Higgins, who spent much of last year on the practice squad before getting promoted to the regular roster late in the season. Higgins already has demonstrated he can block, and showed signs of being a good receiver early in camp. Thomas has had injury problems, and the Saints may not want to overuse him. Higgins could provide another alternative.
  • There has been talk that strong safety Roman Harper might not be a great fit in Spagnuolo’s defense because he isn’t known for great coverage skills. But I believe Spagnuolo will find a way to make this defense work for Harper. There’s really not an alternative behind him. His backup is Jonathon Amaya, whose only claim to fame is that he was part of the Reggie Bush trade.
I’m just glancing through the NFL’s official Record & Fact Book for 2012 and I stumbled up on an area that I think is worth discussing: retired numbers.

The NFC South has only eight of them. The Chicago Bears have 13 retired numbers. The San Francisco 49ers have 12 and the New York Giants have 11.

I realize the four NFC South teams haven’t been around as long as some of the storied franchises. But only one team has more than two numbers retired and two teams have only one.

Atlanta retired the numbers of Steve Bartkowski (No. 10), William Andrews (No. 31), Jeff Van Note (No. 57) and Tommy Nobis (No. 60).

New Orleans retired Jim Taylor’s No. 31 and Doug Atkins’ No. 81.

Carolina’s only retired number is Sam Mills’ No. 51 and Tampa Bay’s lone retired jersey is Lee Roy Selmon’s No. 63.

I think you could make a case that Atlanta should retire Deion Sanders' jersey, even though he wasn’t with the Falcons that long. He changed the game and put the Falcons on the map in Atlanta. I think New Orleans should have retired Mills’ jersey long ago. Mills spent more time and had a bigger impact in New Orleans than he did in Carolina. For that matter, I’d say the Saints should retire the numbers of Rickey Jackson and Willie Roaf. They were, after all, good enough to get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame

I’m not sure Carolina has another realistic candidate right now. But John Kasay and Steve Smith should have their numbers retired the second they quit the game.

Tampa Bay? The Bucs weren’t exactly a dynasty in their early days. Some would make the case that Doug Williams should have his number retired even though his Tampa Bay career was relatively short. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon because Williams left the team’s personnel department on bad terms. He’s been passed over for the team’s Ring of Honor twice. Tampa Bay has some potential candidates on the horizon. I think you can at least make a case for Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Ronde Barber and Elbert Mack (I’m only kidding on Mack) to have their numbers retired. But when do you do that? I’m thinking you make those calls when you put those guys in the Ring of Honor.

Checking in on the Saints

May, 14, 2012
5/14/12
7:46
PM ET
We’re finally reaching the point where there’s some football news out of the New Orleans Saints.

The team had its rookie minicamp over the weekend and assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who is stepping in for suspended coach Sean Payton, and the coordinators met with the New Orleans media Monday afternoon. There was no major news, but I’m looking at the transcripts and seeing several items that are worth discussing.

The veteran Saints have yet to hit the field in their offseason workouts, but that will come next week. With the contract situation of quarterback Drew Brees still very much up in the air, the Saints have to prepare to take the field without their leader. The Brees situation could change with a phone call, but the Saints are preparing to begin their on-field workouts with Chase Daniel and Sean Canfield as their quarterbacks.

“We’re going to throw the volume of offense at them that we would in a normal week,’’ offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. said. “It won’t be any different in that aspect.”

The Saints aren’t ruling out the possibility of adding another quarterback before they hit the field. They had Brian Brohm in for a tryout during the camp and could possibly sign him or someone else in the coming days. But, for the moment, they’re looking at proceeding with the quarterbacks they have under contract.

“This is going to be an opportunity for Chase and Sean to get more reps and get a good look at those guys,’’ Carmichael said.

There have been reports the Saints and Brees have made no progress toward a long-term contract. Vitt said the negotiations are between general manager Mickey Loomis and Brees’ agent, but still remained optimistic that the quarterback will have a contract before training camp.

“I’ve never been a math major and I’m not an accounting major so there’s nothing I could advise Mickey to do that what he already knows how to do,’’ Vitt said. “Those guys are both on the same page and have the same aspirations and same goals. This is going to get done. I don’t (believe) anybody ever thought it was going to be easy. I think they’re both working to the same goal.”

Vitt and the coordinators also addressed several other topics of significance.

The Saints have re-signed veteran kicker John Kasay, who stepped in last year when Garrett Hartley was injured. Special teams coordinator Greg McMahon said neither kicker is guaranteed a roster spot.

“We’re going to make it competitive, absolutely,’’ McMahon said. “All phases of our team are. We re-signed John for a reason. Garrett knows that and it will certainly be good competition. It’s healthy. It’s good for us.”

Uncertainty remains about the status of linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith. The NFL has suspended Vilma for the entire 2012 season and Smith is scheduled to be suspended for the first four games of the season for their roles in the bounty program. But those suspensions are on hold because both players have appealed.

“Both of those players were in the building today and we’re moving forward,’’ Vitt said. “We had a great film session with these guys. I think I have to go back to what we said a couple weeks ago. We’re trying to win today. Today, we got a little bit better than yesterday. This weekend we got a little bit better than the previous weekend. We’re going to adjust those challenges when we have to face them.”

Vitt also said the Saints will open training camp at their facility in Metairie, but suggested they will spend some time practicing against one of their preseason opponents. The Saints open the preseason by playing in the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio against the Arizona Cardinals. They follow that with a road game in New England, home games with Jacksonville and Houston and close out the preseason with a game at Tennessee.

“We’ll open up (camp) a little early because we have the Hall of Fame game and then we’ll probably go and practice against one of our upcoming opponents in training camp,’’ Vitt said. “I think Mickey’s ready to talk about it in a week when it gets settled, but we’ll go away, kind of like we did in California (last preseason) for a week. We did it two years before that in Houston. We’ll go away and practice with an opponent that we have in our preseason schedule.”

Vitt also addressed the status of running back Mark Ingram, who recently had arthroscopic knee surgery.

“I think anytime you see a player limping around with a late-season offseason surgery like he had, you’re concerned,’’ Vitt said. “What I’m not concerned about is his dedication to getting better and his accountability to his teammates. He’s shows up to treatment on time every day. He’s not late. He’s taken a good business approach to this thing. The surgery is probably something that he didn’t have to get done, but as an organization we all agreed that he should get it done to make him a stronger player. Mark a dependable guy now. He’s not going to miss his treatment. He gets his work done. You’re concerned obviously with this, but not much with him.”

Vitt said the Saints may proceed cautiously with Ingram at the start of training camp, but have no doubt he’ll be ready for the beginning of the regular season.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

NFC SOUTH SCOREBOARD