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Saturday, November 28, 2009
'09 Saints battling legend of '07 Patriots

By Pat Yasinskas

Brees
Drew Brees and the Saints have scored at least 30 points in seven of their 10 games this season.
Someday, probably in two or three decades, Randall Gay just might have the luckiest grandchildren ever.

They’ll get to hear stories about two of the best NFL offenses of this era -- or maybe ever. They’ll get to hear stories about two of the greatest quarterbacks of recent times and maybe in history.

Most of all, they’ll get to hear those stories from the man with the single-best vantage point of the 2007 New England Patriots' offense and this year’s New Orleans Saints offense. Gay had to face the New England offensive machine in practice every day during the 2007 season and he’s gone against the closest thing since every day this season as a cornerback for the Saints.

It’s safe to say no other human being has been on the defensive end of as many passes by Tom Brady and Drew Brees.

“In some ways, I guess you could say I’ve been cursed because I’ve had some of the toughest practices in history,’’ said Gay, who left the Patriots for the Saints after the 2007 season. “But I think I’ve also been blessed because game days are a lot easier. After you go against those two offenses, there’s not much out there that even compares.’’

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A franchise that's never been to a Super Bowl and a quarterback who has been accused of not winning big games went out and destroyed the closest thing we've seen to an NFL dynasty in recent times, writes Pat Yasinskas. Blog

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No, there’s really not. Maybe the Indianapolis Colts of the Peyton Manning era deserve to be in the conversation, but that’s it. In just about every way, the 2007 New England offense and this year’s Saints are incomparable to every other offense.

But the Patriots and the Saints play each other Monday night in the Superdome, and that means it’s time to compare two of the greatest offenses of our time -- and, maybe, any time.

Let’s start with some very broad statistics. The 10-0 Saints are averaging 36.9 points a game. The 2007 Patriots, who are the only team to go through a 16-game regular season undefeated, averaged 36.8. For context, the 1999 St. Louis Rams, who became known as the “Greatest Show on Turf’’ for their offensive exploits, averaged a mere 32.9 points.

Through their first 10 games, the 2007 Patriots scored 411 points -- the most in NFL history. The Saints have scored 369 points -- No. 4 in NFL history.

“There are some numbers there that are unbelievable,’’ New Orleans coach Sean Payton said of the Patriots. “I’ve used this analogy before. If you come into a program a few years back like we did, you have to pay attention to the Microsofts of the world if you’re someday wanting to compete in that industry.’’

Heck, you could call the 2007 New England offense Microsoft -- or IBM, U.S. Steel or the New York Yankees of their prime. They set a standard somewhere beyond gold. They scored an NFL-record 589 points and sailed through their first 10 games averaging 41.1 points.

Brady set an NFL record with 50 touchdown passes and receiver Randy Moss did the same by catching 23 touchdown passes in the regular season.

Brady/Moss
Tom Brady and Randy Moss were instrumental during New England's 2007 season.
Those individual records are probably safe, but the Saints are on pace to be better than the 2007 Patriots in some categories and close to them in others. The Patriots set an NFL record with 75 touchdowns that season. The Saints are on pace for 76.8. Those Patriots and these Saints each scored 40 or more points four times in their first 10 games.

“Each of those offenses and each of those quarterbacks have a lot of differences,’’ Gay said. “But they also have similarities, and the biggest one is that they both score a lot of points and do it in a lot of different ways.’’

No one has scored more points in more ways than the 2007 Patriots. They tied an NFL record by having 21 players score touchdowns. The Saints have had 18 players score touchdowns this season. That includes defensive touchdowns, but this story is about offense. Lots and lots of offense.

The Patriots had been one of the dominant teams of this decade, but just saying that doesn’t explain why the offense suddenly became so great in 2007. You first need go back to 2006, when New England receiver Deion Branch had a contract holdout that eventually forced his trade to Seattle. That left Brady with Reche Caldwell as the No. 1 receiver and guys like Jabar Gaffney and Doug Gabriel suddenly being asked to be big contributors.

The Patriots headed into 2007 knowing they had to get better at receiver. They signed Donte' Stallworth and traded for Wes Welker and, at first, thought that would be enough. Then Moss became available and a guy who had trouble in Minnesota and Oakland suddenly found paradise.

New England decided to basically copy what the Colts had done in using a three-receiver offense most of the time. The chemistry was instant between Brady and Moss, and Welker quickly became one of the league’s elite slot receivers.

It all clicked perfectly behind an offensive line that was so good the Patriots only had to use five or six players in protection. They didn’t have a great running game, but it wasn’t something they really needed or wanted because Kevin Faulk was a big part of the passing game out of the backfield.

The Patriots steamed through their first 10 games with a plus-254 point differential. Things got tougher down the stretch, but the Patriots won their final six regular-season games.

“They had the bull's-eye on their back every game,’’ New Orleans running back Reggie Bush said. “Everybody wanted to knock them off. Everybody wanted to be the team that beat them. I’m sure it was tough for them, but just watching it, it was kind of magical just to see everything they were doing.’’

The magic ran out in the Super Bowl when the Patriots were upset by the New York Giants. But even that stunning loss couldn’t diminish all of the amazing offensive accomplishments of that season, and the Patriots still have plenty of remnants of that team on the current roster.

“You have a coach [Bill Belichick] who is going to be a Hall of Fame coach,’’ Payton said. “You have a quarterback [Brady] who’s going to be a Hall of Fame player. You have a receiver who is going to be a Hall of Fame player in Moss and the way Welker plays, if he continues the same thing.’’

In any comparison between the 2007 Patriots and the current Saints, you have to look closely at Brady and Brees. They’ve put themselves with Manning in any conversation about the league’s elite quarterbacks. But unlike Manning, they didn’t start out with the pedigree.

“There are a lot of similarities above the neck,’’ ESPN commentator and former NFL head coach Jon Gruden said. “Both guys lead the civilized world in effort. They’re there before sunrise and they’re there after dark. They are tempo-setters and leaders. They are both crunch-time performers, but physically they are different.

“Tom is 6-[foot-]4, 6-5, while Brees is 6-feet tall and came up the hard way. The interesting thing about both of these guys is that they came into the league kind of obscure, and that has a lot to do with where they are today. Brady was a sixth-round draft choice -- really came out of nowhere and wasn’t the go-to-guy at Michigan. Brees was considered too short. People said his career was over when he left San Diego -- nobody wanted him. Both guys use that as fuel to prove to everybody they made a grave error.”

Although Belichick’s a defensive guy and has relied on assistants such as Charlie Weis and Josh McDaniels to run his offense, the head coach ultimately sets the tone for everything. Gruden said part of the reason the offenses for New England and New Orleans are so good is because Brees and Brady allow Belichick and Payton to do things other coaches wouldn’t dare.

Bush
The Saints have converted Reggie Bush into more of a hybrid receiver/running back.
“Anytime you coach a guy like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, you tend to be aggressive as a playcaller,’’ Gruden said. “They just have tremendous confidence in their quarterback, and they should. These guys complete 70 percent of their passes; they're NFL MVP candidates. Brees threw for 5,000 yards last season, and the other guy’s won three Super Bowls. They are aggressive playcallers, but I don’t know if they would be that aggressive with just any other quarterback, but their history and their trust levels with these quarterbacks is special, and in key situations they rely on them.”

It’s hard to find a team that relies on its quarterback more than Brees. Like Brady in 2007, Brees has plenty of talent around him. Where he excels most might be in spreading the ball around. There’s little difference from top to bottom in a New Orleans group of wide receivers that includes Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Lance Moore and Robert Meachem. Jeremy Shockey fits the prototype for a pass-catching tight end. Bush, Mike Bell and Pierre Thomas all can catch the ball out of the backfield.

Somehow, Brees manages to keep them all happy and productive. Like Brady in 2007, Brees gets outstanding protection from his offensive line. The Saints have top-notch guards in Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks, but what has been most surprising about the offensive line this year is that it’s been able to function so well with Pro Bowl left tackle Jammal Brown out the entire season because of an injury. The Saints have been able to flourish using Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief at left tackle.

“They have a great combination of coaching, players, diversity,’’ Belichick said of the Saints. “They put a lot of pressure on you in all fronts. They use so many different people. They line them up in all different spots. It’s really hard defensively to match up to the scheme, and then on top of that you have a lot of great players that can make plays, running backs, tight ends, receivers, everybody, quarterback. They are a very experienced team. There are no rookies on the offense. They’ve all been there before and have some experience in the NFL. They don’t make many mistakes. They make you go out there and beat them and execute against them. It’s very difficult to match up against the players and the scheme.’’

The Saints weren’t easy to defend in 2008 when Brees threw for more than 5,000 yards. But they didn’t have Colston, Shockey and Bush at full health for most of the season. They also had a bad defense that since has become good. Those were all reasons the Saints finished out of the playoffs last year.

But the biggest difference between last year’s offense and this year’s just might be the sudden discovery of a running game. After spending a fruitless season throwing Bush, Thomas and Deuce McAllister out there, but having no serious commitment to the running game, the Saints have made one.

They let McAllister walk, made Bush into more of a hybrid receiver/running back and let Thomas and Bell share most of the running duties. That has worked, and these days the Saints have something that even the 2007 Patriots didn’t: A consistent running game that takes pressure off the passing game, eases the time the defense has to spend on the field and has been able to run out the clock late in games.

That’s led to some weighty praise from Belichick, who has said several times that the Saints are more balanced than the Colts, who are also undefeated, on offense.

“[The Saints] have an outstanding running game,’’ Belichick said. “The Colts were a more pass-oriented team. They were real good too. I just think the Saints are more balanced in terms of their run-pass ratio with the different running schemes they present, the time you have to work on the running game defensively and the production they’ve had with it, they’re more balanced than the Colts are.’’

More balanced than the Colts. But are the Saints better offensively than the 2007 Patriots?

We’re about to find out, and it's only fitting that the 2009 Patriots will have a say in that.