NFL Nation: Julius Jones

What to make of DeMarco Murray?

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
8:00
AM ET
IRVING, Texas -- With the way the NFL has morphed into a passing league, finding the so-called "franchise" running back is less important.

Murray
Unless it is Adrian Peterson or LeSean McCoy, are there any other "franchise" running backs? There are solid runners. There are teams that win with OK runners.

Cleveland traded its 2012 first-round pick, No. 3 selection Trent Richardson, to Indianapolis during the regular season. The Colts gave up a lot to get Richardson, but he did not put up big numbers -- 458 yards, three touchdowns. A runner wasn't taken in the first round of the 2013 draft.

The Cowboys don't have to worry about DeMarco Murray's future until 2015. A third-round pick in 2011, Murray is coming off his best season. He finished 10th in the NFL with 1,124 yards. Of the backs with 200 carries in 2013, Murray had the highest yard-per-carry average (5.2).

After getting over a knee injury that cost him two games, Murray became a difference maker for the Cowboys down the stretch. He upset the coaches some by not gaining the extra yards, but they did not use him enough at times.

The Cowboys are 5-6 when he does not play in his first three years. They are 11-0 when he gets at least 20 carries in a game.

"We've always felt good about DeMarco," coach Jason Garrett said. "If you think about his rookie year, when he had opportunities to play, he played well right from the start. He made a big impact on our team. He, like some of the other guys on our team, has dealt with injuries. When he's been out of the lineup over the course of his career, we haven't played as well. When he's been in the lineup and going and playing well and feeling healthy and playing like himself, he has been a really, really effective player for us and helped our team create some of that balance we haven talking about."

Murray's play late in the season started to alter what I thought he could be. I viewed him as just another back, one whom you could find every year in the draft. But he developed a feel for the zone scheme as the year went on, is solid as a pass catcher and can block.

Is he the heir apparent to Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith? No. But he looks as if he could be what Julius Jones never developed into after a strong start to his career.

I'm not sure you commit big bucks to him after next season, but he might have more value to the Cowboys than to another team.

How do you view Murray? Is he an elite back, just below the Peterson/McCoy level? Is in an average back with one good season? Is he someone the Cowboys should lock up long term?

Rapid Reaction: Dallas Cowboys

December, 22, 2013
12/22/13
4:11
PM ET

LANDOVER, Md. -- A few thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys' 24-23 victory over the Washington Redskins:

What it means for the Cowboys: They’re alive. For the third straight year, the Cowboys will play a Week 17 game for the right to win the NFC East and make the playoffs. Somehow.

Trailing 23-14, the Cowboys rallied on Tony Romo's 10-yard touchdown throw to DeMarco Murray on a fourth-and-goal play with 1:08 to go. The defense was able to come up with a stop, and now the Cowboys welcome the Philadelphia Eagles to AT&T Stadium next week to try to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009. The Cowboys are 5-0 in the NFC East for the first time since 1998 and snapped a two-game losing streak.

It was not pretty, but it will do. It also continued to show the team’s ability to bounce back from tough losses. The Cowboys did it earlier in the season against the Redskins after their 51-48 loss to the Denver Broncos, and they did it after their 31-30 loss to the Detroit Lions when they beat the Minnesota Vikings.

Stock watch: Terrance Williams, rising. On the winning drive, Williams caught two passes for 66 yards, including a 51-yarder that set up Murray’s touchdown catch. Williams finished the day with four catches for 84 yards, which is his second-most in a game this season.

Murray hits mark: It should have happened last week against the Green Bay Packers, but DeMarco Murray went over 1,000 yards on the season with a 43-yard run in the second quarter.

Murray finished with 96 yards on 22 carries and enters the final game of the season with 1,073 yards, which is even more impressive considering he missed two games earlier in the season with a knee injury. He is the first Cowboys running back with 1,000 yards in a season since Julius Jones had 1,084 in 2006. Murray also had his ninth rushing touchdown of the season when he bulled his way in from the 3 on the Cowboys’ first drive. It’s the most rushing touchdowns by a Dallas back since Marion Barber had 10 in 2007.

Oh, by the way, he scored the winning touchdown.

Defense comes up with stops: The offense did the defense no favors by starting out the second half with turnovers on consecutive possessions that led to Washington touchdowns and a 20-14 lead.

The Cowboys were able to overcome a bad penalty by J.J. Wilcox on a third-down play to hold Washington to a field goal, then came up with the only punt of the second half when Orlando Scandrick broke up a Kirk Cousins pass to Pierre Garcon. They also flustered Cousins into poor throws on the final drive.

What’s next: The Cowboys close the regular season at AT&T Stadium against the Eagles. The Cowboys beat Philadelphia 17-3 on Oct. 20 at Lincoln Financial Field with what was their best defensive effort of the season. They kept LeSean McCoy in check (55 yards), limited Nick Foles to 80 yards passing before knocking him out of the game and intercepted Matt Barkley three times in the fourth quarter.

A look at where Steven Jackson stands

February, 26, 2013
2/26/13
10:13
AM ET
No NFL player has more offensive touches or yards from scrimmage since 2004 than the St. Louis Rams' Steven Jackson.

That is both good and bad for the Rams' career rushing leader.

Jackson, who plans to void his contract to become a free agent March 12, has accomplished a great deal since entering the NFL as the 24th player chosen in the 2004 draft. He also has high miles as his 30th birthday approaches in July, raising questions about how much longer he can produce.

The two charts show where Jackson ranks in scrimmage yards and rushing yards over the course of his career. Note that NFC West rivals Frank Gore and Larry Fitzgerald also rank among the top five in scrimmage yards over the same period.

Separately, Jackson's rushing total (10,135) is easily best among players who also entered the NFL in 2004. Michael Turner (7,338), Willie Parker (5,378), Julius Jones (5,068) and Kevin Jones (3,176) trail him on that list.

Jackson ranks 26th on the NFL's all-time rushing list after posting his eighth consecutive season with at least 1,000 yards rushing. He needs 509 yards to overtake Ricky Watters for 20th. He needs 1,561 yards to overtake Fred Taylor for 15th. He needs 2,145 yards to overtake former teammate and Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk for 10th on the list.

Jackson would need 3,550 yards to overtake LaDainian Tomlinson for fifth.

There is no way to know, as we sit here in July of 2012, whether Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray is going to be the next Emmitt Smith, the next Julius Jones or where he will eventually fall on the vast spectrum in between. But as Calvin Watkins writes for ESPNDallas.com, what we do know is that the Cowboys seem to trust Murray as their workhorse back in a way that they haven't trusted very many lately:
Jason Garrett doesn't mind running the ball, as long as the offensive line and fullbacks make the necessary holes to get it going.

[+] EnlargeDeMarco Murray
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireThe Cowboys are counting on DeMarco Murray to be a workhorse this season.
The numbers indicate that Garrett trusts Murray. He had five games with 20 or more carries, the most for any running back since Garrett became offensive coordinator in 2007. Murray also became the first back under Garrett to have four consecutive games with 20 or more carries. Felix Jones, Murray's backup, has had just two games with 20 or more carries since he was drafted in 2008. Marion Barber, a former starter, had four 20-carry games in 2008, but he only reached that mark once more before being released.

When I watch Murray run, I see a guy who looks like a workhorse back -- who enjoys contact, who runs hard and who isn't afraid of the workload. Now, a guy like that might not be able to hold up, long-term, in today's NFL. But the Cowboys see in Murray a back who can be their starter in the short-term -- and in a way that fewer and fewer teams are using starting running backs. This is not a time-share situation in Dallas. If Murray is recovered from his ankle injury and fully healthy, he's going to get the carries, and Jones is going to be the backup, as he was last season before Murray got hurt. How long that can last is anyone's guess, but at least for right now, Murray's the back in whom the Cowboys have put their trust.

Four 1,100-yard rushers in one division?

December, 7, 2011
12/07/11
12:15
PM ET
Passing is generally the key to victory in the NFL.

This helps explain why quarterbacks earn the most money, why teams often draft pass-blocking tackles over top runners and why fullbacks have become endangered.

Teams still value running the ball, of course. Defenses would have an easier time defending quarterbacks if they knew with certainty a run was not coming. And every team seeking support for young or average quarterbacks would be better off with a strong ground game.

NFC West teams fall into this group. Each team in the division is on pace to produce a 1,000-yard runner.

One division has produced four 1,000-yard rushers in a season five times since divisional realignment in 2002. Each NFC West team's leading rusher is on pace for at least 1,100 yards. Only one division, the AFC North in 2010, has produced four players with at least 1,100 yards since realignment.

Frank Gore's yardage production for the 49ers has leveled off in recent weeks. Continued strong defense and increased production from quarterback Alex Smith have helped the team keep winning. Facing two backup quarterbacks -- Arizona's John Skelton and St. Louis' A.J. Feeley -- simultaneously lowered the bar for the 49ers in recent weeks.

I would expect the Seattle Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch to gain the most rushing yardage in Week 14 among NFC West backs. Seattle wants to field a run-first offense, which makes sense this week.

The Rams rank second in most sacks per pass attempt, a threat now that Seattle's best pass protector, Russell Okung, has landed on injured reserve. The Rams are averaging fewer than one offensive touchdown per game. That gives Seattle a good chance to win without taking as many chances through the air. The Rams have allowed more rushing yards than any team in the NFL.

Note: With an assist from Anicra in the comments, I updated the projected totals for Jackson, Lynch and Wells to reflect their participation in only 11 games this season. I had previously divided their rushing totals by total team games (12 apiece), using the average to project totals for the remaining four games.
The Arizona Cardinals think rookie running back Ryan Williams tore a patella tendon in his right knee.

That was the preliminary word from coach Ken Whisenhunt following the Cardinals' 28-20 preseason defeat at Green Bay on Friday night. Williams would miss the 2011 season if that were the case. He would then face a grueling rehabilitation.

St. Louis Rams running back Cadillac Williams has had torn patella injuries, one to each knee, while with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He returned the next season in each case and hasn't missed a game over the past two seasons.

This would be a costly injury for the Cardinals because their other primary back, Beanie Wells, remains unproven. Wells has also missed time with injuries during his two seasons in the NFL.

The Cardinals used a second-round draft choice on Williams this offseason. Whisenhunt said they had him rated as one of the 15 best players available. Williams did not disappoint during training camp, either. He showed an ability to change directions without sacrificing much speed. I thought he had a chance to supplant Wells in the starting lineup at some point during this season.

This injury could lead to more playing time for LaRod Stephens-Howling. The Cardinals have used Stephens-Howling increasingly over the past couple seasons, sometimes with three wide receivers and another running back.

Arizona has stocked up on tight ends this offseason, giving the team additional flexibility with its personnel groups. But just about every grouping includes at least one running back. Wells hasn't been consistent in pass protection and he missed a block against Green Bay.

Among the running backs available: Laurence Maroney, Kenneth Darby, Julius Jones and Brian Westbrook.
To all those who think the four NFC South teams are so set at running back they don’t need to touch that position in the upcoming draft, I give you DeShawn Wynn.

In the second half of the New Orleans Saints' playoff loss to Seattle, Wynn was getting much of the playing time and serving as the last-resort blocker for Drew Brees as the Saints tried to come from behind and keep their dream of back-to-back Super Bowls alive. It didn’t happen, and that’s largely because the Saints simply ran out of running backs.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireThe Bucs and Saints brought in Alabama's Mark Ingram for a pre-draft visit.
Wynn, who had been with the Saints earlier in the season, had been re-signed in the week leading into the game. Same for Joique Bell, who didn’t make the active roster that day, but the Saints could have used him. They went into the game with Julius Jones and Reggie Bush as their running backs.

Jones was a retread from coach Sean Payton’s Dallas days and was with the Saints only because there already were problems at running back. Bush spent much of last season on the sideline, but was healthy enough to at least set foot on Qwest Field. That’s more than can be said for Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory, who weren’t available because of injuries.

Jones and Bush quickly got banged up by a Seattle defense that didn’t scare too many people last season. That left the Saints with Wynn and a loss.

There’s a lesson in that for the entire NFC South. No matter how set you think you are at running back, you’re probably not as well off as you think. As they head into the draft, the Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers all seem to have at least an immediate feature back, and the Saints look to have plenty of options in an offense that relies on playing a variety of running backs.

But none of the NFC South teams can afford to ignore running back in this draft. Here’s a team-by-team look at why:

Falcons. Michael Turner's coming off a season in which he ran for 1,371 yards and 12 touchdowns and Jason Snelling's a solid backup with the ability to function as a power runner and catch passes out of the backfield. But that’s not enough.

The Falcons got only two games out of Jerious Norwood before he went down with a season-ending injury. Norwood is the guy the Falcons always have envisioned as their speed back, but he’s never been able to stay healthy, and his time in Atlanta looks to be over.

[+] EnlargeMichael Turner
Al Bello/Getty ImagesMichael Turner logged over 700 carries combined during the 2008 and 2010 seasons and could be wearing down.
The Falcons could look for a pure speed back like Kentucky’s Derrick Locke or North Carolina’s Johnny White in the middle rounds. But there’s been talk in mock-draft circles that Alabama running back Mark Ingram could be available when the Falcons pick at No. 27. There are seemingly larger needs at defensive end and wide receiver, but would the Falcons be wise to pass on Ingram if he’s available?

Ingram’s not a pure speed back and he’s not a true power back. He’s somewhere in between, and he’s the closest thing to a surefire feature back in this year’s draft. The Falcons have been pushing their luck with Turner. He carried 334 times last season and 376 times in 2008. He missed five games because of injury in 2009. There were times last season when Turner seemed to lack the pop he showed early in his Atlanta days, and you have to wonder if he’s starting to wear down.

It might be time to get an heir apparent in Atlanta. Even if Turner stays healthy, the Falcons could use someone to pick up some of his carries or else they might end up with an empty backfield like the Saints in Seattle.

Buccaneers. Tampa Bay fans are excited about LeGarrette Blount and rightfully so. The undrafted rookie was cut by the Titans in training camp, and Tampa Bay took a shot by picking him up. By midseason, Blount was Tampa Bay’s feature back. He ran for 1,007 yards on just 201 carries.

Blount’s role and statistics should only continue to improve next season. But it’s tough to look objectively at Tampa Bay’s backfield situation and say the Bucs are just fine. Cadillac Williams is a potential free agent. If he returns, it will be only in the role of third-down back he filled the second half of last season. There’s a chorus of fans in Tampa Bay who believe Kareem Huggins is the perfect complement to Blount.

Kareem Huggins
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaKareem Huggins, who figures to be LaGarrette Blount's backup, is coming off a major knee injury.
He might be. Huggins is one of those guys who flashes promise in the preseason. But he has only four regular-season carries in his career and he’s coming off a major knee injury. Before the lockout, the Bucs weren’t overly optimistic Huggins would be ready for the start of training camp.

Then, there is Blount. His physical style and habit of trying to hurdle defenders could leave him open to injury. Also, Blount went undrafted for a reason. He had a violent altercation with an opponent after a college game, and questions remain about his ability to keep his emotions in check over the long haul. Maybe that’s why the Bucs had Ingram in for a pre-draft visit earlier this week.

Panthers. On paper, they’ve got the best backfield in the division. They’ve got DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and either one could be the feature back for most teams. They also have Mike Goodson, who emerged last season when there were injuries in the backfield.

But, depending on how the labor situation plays out, Williams will be either a restricted or unrestricted free agent. Stewart came into the league with foot problems and rarely has been completely healthy. If Williams goes, the Panthers suddenly are on thin ice. They’d be one Stewart injury away from having to use Goodson, who is ideal as a part-time player, as their full-time running back.

Saints. This circle started and will end with New Orleans. The Saints re-signed Thomas before the lockout. They’ve given indications they plan to extend Bush’s contract and keep him. All signs are that Thomas, Bush and Ivory should be recovered from their injuries. Promising young running back Lynell Hamilton also is coming back from injury.

The numbers say the Saints are just fine at running back. But recent history tells another story. The Saints also had Ingram in for a visit, and he has to be a consideration if he’s available at No. 24. Even if it’s not Ingram, the Saints need to add a running back somewhere in the draft.

Of all the NFC South teams, the Saints know best that you never can have enough good running backs. If they had one more last year, they might have gone back to the Super Bowl.

Leading Questions: NFC West

February, 14, 2011
2/14/11
1:00
PM ET
With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each NFC West team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:

ARIZONA CARDINALS

What happens to the offensive line?

We've been asking, answering and asking some more questions about the Cardinals' quarterback situation for months. Let's tap a few brain cells to discuss the guys up front.

Center Lyle Sendlein and right guard Deuce Lutui are without contracts for 2011. Left guard Alan Faneca might retire. Right tackle Brandon Keith is coming off hamstring and knee injuries that shortened his first season as a starter. The Cardinals do not have fresh talent in reserve. They have drafted only one offensive lineman in the first four rounds since Ken Whisenhunt became head coach in 2007. Twenty-seven teams have drafted more. As much as the team trusts assistant head coach Russ Grimm to get the most from its offensive line, Arizona could use fresh young talent for him to groom.

The Cardinals went through the 2010 season with the NFL's oldest offensive linemen, counting backups. That wouldn't matter so much if left tackle Levi Brown were meeting the Pro Bowl expectations that came with his status as a top-five overall selection in the 2007 draft. Brown was underwhelming at right tackle to begin his career and a liability at left tackle last season. His salary balloons in 2012, so this could be his last season in Arizona.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

Can the defense take the next step?

The Rams allowed 328 points last season, tied for the third-lowest total since the team moved from Los Angeles for the 1995 season. They allowed seven rushing touchdowns, their lowest total since 1999 and down from 50 combined over the previous two seasons. But with starting defensive linemen James Hall and Fred Robbins turning 34 this offseason, and with questions at linebacker, the Rams' defense will not automatically go from competitive toward dominant.

Hall will be looking to become the 14th player since 1982 (when the NFL began tracking sacks as an official stat) to collect 10 sacks in a season at age 34 or older. The others: Trace Armstrong, Chris Doleman, William Fuller, Kevin Greene, Rickey Jackson, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Tony McGee, Steve McMichael, John Randle, Warren Sapp, Bruce Smith, Michael Strahan and Reggie White.

Robbins is coming off one of his finest seasons. He joined Keith Traylor, Jeff Zgonina and Ray Agnew among defensive tackles to set career highs for sacks at age 32 or older in the free-agency era (since 1993).

Getting similar production and continued good health from two older players is no given. The Rams also need to find help at outside linebacker after losing 32-year-old Na'il Diggs to a torn pectoral muscle 12 games into the 2010 season. The Rams are set at middle linebacker with James Laurinaitis, but they could stand to upgrade around him.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

How well can Jim Harbaugh coach up a quarterback?

When the 49ers' new coach needed a quarterback at Stanford, he recruited one. Andrew Luck set records and led the Cardinal to national prominence. Recruiting isn't a significant part of the equation in the NFL, so Harbaugh will have to settle for the best quarterback he can draft or otherwise acquire. He might even have to give Alex Smith a shot.

The 49ers will need Harbaugh to do what his recent predecessors could not: get good production from limited or flawed talent at the most important position.

Rich Gannon was well-established as an NFL quarterback when Harbaugh arrived as his position coach in Oakland for the 2002 season. The pairing reflected well on all parties. Gannon set career highs for completed passes, attempts, completion percentage, passing yards and passer rating. Gannon was already a good quarterback and the Raiders were already a good team, so it's tough to measure Harbaugh's impact.

Gannon is long since retired. Harbaugh is back in the NFL for the first time since the two were together on the Raiders in 2003. The 49ers don't have a legitimate starting quarterback under contract. Harbaugh has been meeting with Smith and keeping open his options. The stakes are high in the short term because the 49ers have enough talent elsewhere on their roster to compete for a playoff spot.

Outside expectations for Smith are so low that Harbaugh could appear heroic if he could get even a 9-7 record out of the 49ers with Smith in the lineup.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

How much more roster turnover lies ahead?

The Seahawks were fearless in overhauling their roster during their first year under general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll.

The team added Marshawn Lynch, Leon Washington, Chris Clemons, Stacy Andrews, Tyler Polumbus, Kentwan Balmer, Kevin Vickerson, Robert Henderson and LenDale White, though Seattle parted with Vickerson, Henderson, White and 2009 regulars Deion Branch, Julius Jones, Owen Schmitt, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Josh Wilson, Lawrence Jackson, Rob Sims, Darryl Tapp, Deon Grant and Seneca Wallace. The Seahawks watched a couple other starters, Nate Burleson and Cory Redding, leave in free agency.

If those were the moves the Seahawks felt comfortable making right away, I figured there would be quite a few to come after the team's new leadership watched players for a full season. And there still could be, but similar wheeling and dealing could be impractical or even impossible if the current labor standoff continues deep into the offseason.

Teams cannot make trades without a new labor agreement. They cannot know for sure whether or not a salary cap will come into play as part of any new deal. It's just tough to act as decisively as Seattle acted last offseason without knowing the rules. That's a disadvantage for Seattle and other teams with much work to do this offseason.
Marshawn Lynch and Tracy PorterMike Nelson/US PresswireMarshawn Lynch pushed Tracy Porter and the Saints' defense around on his 67-yard score.
SEATTLE -- The memories of their Super Bowl season will last forever. The magic did not.

The feel-good story of last season -- or maybe the past decade or two -- is over. It ended unexpectedly and more than a little embarrassingly for the New Orleans Saints. The defending Super Bowl champions came into Qwest Field on Saturday to play the first team in NFL history to make the playoffs with a 7-9 record.

It ended with the Seattle Seahawks, a team that stumbled to the NFC West championship, defeating the Saints 41-36. Just like that, the magic and miracles that carried the Saints all the way to Miami and last year’s Super Bowl are over.

“After you experience raising that trophy, you don’t want to see anyone else lift it,’’ New Orleans linebacker Scott Shanle said. “There wasn’t a person in this locker room that didn’t think we would be lifting that trophy again.’’

That’s not going to happen. Some other team will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February and it will come in a season in which the Saints generally looked like they were avoiding “the curse’’ that has dethroned so many recent Super Bowl champions.

They went 11-5 in the regular season, again riding the arm of Drew Brees and using a defense that looked better overall than it did a year ago. Then, against a team the Saints handled easily in the regular season, it all fell apart.

Instead of looking like the Saints of the regular season or the champion Saints of the 2009 season, the Saints looked a lot more like the New Orleans teams of 2007 and 2008. Those teams could move the ball, but didn’t play much defense. Those teams were mediocre, sort of like the Seahawks.

“We’ll have a chance to look at the film,’’ Saints coach Sean Payton said when asked to explain why his team suddenly collapsed.

Payton’s right. There will be no Super Bowl parades or even any more games this season. The Saints will have months to reflect on what happened.

There will be painful weeks to watch the film of Matt Hasselbeck throwing for 272 yards and four touchdowns. That’s a lot of time to see safety Darren Sharper looking like he waited too long to retire. Time to watch strong safety Roman Harper looking even worse than Sharper and time to watch rookie cornerback Patrick Robinson making a season’s worth of rookie mistakes.

That’s not going to look good on the résumé of Gregg Williams. He’s the defensive coordinator and the man many credit for putting the Saints over the top last season. He has been mentioned as a possible head-coaching candidate in other places in recent weeks. He now will have time to interview. If Williams doesn’t get another job, he and Payton can watch the horror movie together.

[+] EnlargeSaints' Drew Brees
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesA season after winning their first Super Bowl, Drew Brees and the Saints were ousted in the wild-card round.
“Our eyes were not very good in coverage,’’ Sharper said.

Throw in their legs and their minds too, and don’t limit the blame to the secondary. The front four and the linebackers also got destroyed. Hasselbeck, who couldn’t even play a week ago because of a hip injury, completed 22 of 35 passes and finished with a 113.0 passer rating. Marshawn Lynch ran over the New Orleans defense for 131 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.

“I think we might have taken for granted the success they had throwing against us earlier in the season,’’ Sharper said.

That’s a reference to the Nov. 21 regular-season game in the Superdome. Hasselbeck threw for 366 yards in that game, but the Saints won 34-19. So what changed between the regular-season game and now? And what happened between last year’s Super Bowl and now?

A team that took pride in saying the only real losses from the Super Bowl were linebacker Scott Fujita and backup running back Mike Bell somehow lost a lot more. Yes, injuries were a factor. The Saints were forced to play Sharper because starting free safety Malcolm Jenkins was injured. Running backs Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory didn’t play because of injuries and fellow running backs Reggie Bush and Julius Jones got so banged up in the second half that the Saints had to play DeShawn Wynn, who was signed last week.

But the problems started long before Bush and Jones got hurt. The Saints, who had to fly across the country and had only six days between games, started off playing like champions. They jumped out to a 10-0 lead and Seattle was looking every bit the part of a 7-9 team. Then everything changed.

“It’s only appropriate to start off with congratulating [coach] Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks for a big win,'' Payton said. “They played a real good game.’’

Yes, give the Seahawks credit, but the Saints gave them a whole lot of help. Although Brees threw for 404 yards on 60 attempts, any attempt at offensive balance was abandoned in the second and third quarters when the Seahawks outscored the Saints 27-10.

Lynch and the Seattle receivers ran all over Williams’ defense. Things got so bad that Payton had to call for a desperation onside kick near the end of the game instead of using it as a surprise as he did in the Super Bowl win.

The Saints, who danced their way out of Miami after the Super Bowl and posed for pictures on the Atlanta Falcons’ logo in the Georgia Dome a few weeks ago, lost their swagger in Seattle.

The locker room was quiet.

“We knew we had a team we thought could repeat,’’ Sharper said.

“This stings a lot,’’ cornerback Jabari Greer said.

The silence and the sting will last the long flight back home and probably spill over into the coming weeks and months. The Saints lost more than just a playoff game.

They lost their chance at repeating as Super Bowl champions and they did it against a team that had a losing record in the regular season. Instead, they’re left to think about preventing a repeat of what happened in Seattle.

“If we’re ever in this position down the road, we have to remember this experience so it doesn’t happen again,’’ Shanle said.

Saints-Seahawks by the numbers

January, 8, 2011
1/08/11
10:04
PM ET
SEATTLE – ESPN Stats & Information just sent along a big package of information on the 41-36 victory by the Seahawks against the Saints. Warning to New Orleans fans, this isn’t going to be pretty.
  • Marshawn Lynch’s 67-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter no doubt will be available on television highlights for several days. But we’ll save you the trouble of counting. The Stats & Information people reviewed the play on video multiple times and concluded that eight different New Orleans defenders at least got a hand on Lynch.
  • In 16 regular-season games, the Saints allowed only two passes that were thrown 21 yards or more downfield to go for touchdowns. On Saturday, they allowed Matt Hasselbeck to throw two such passes that went for touchdowns.
  • New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is known for being aggressive, but that tactic didn’t really help against Hasselbeck. The Saints sent six or more pass rushers on eight of Hasselbeck’s dropbacks. He completed four of those passes for a touchdown and a 118.2 passer rating. That’s not unprecedented. In the regular-season meeting between the Saints and Seahawks, Hasselbeck completed all six of his pass attempts when New Orleans sent six or more pass rushers.
  • With running backs Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory out with injuries, the Saints tried to keep some balance in the offense early. They got Julius Jones and Reggie Bush some early carries as they led 10-0 and 17-7. That allowed the Saints to have some early success with play-action passing. Drew Brees was 6-for-6 on his first six-play action passes. That added up to 56 yards, a touchdown and five first downs. But the Saints got away from the run and that took away the play-action success. On his next eight attempts, Brees was 5-of-8 for 20 yards and one first down. For comparison, Hasselbeck was 6-for-6 for 48 yards two touchdowns and a 139.6 passer rating on play action.
  • Although recent opponents had some success when throwing a lot of blitzes at Brees, the Seahawks didn’t take that approach. They sent five or more rushers on only five of Brees’ 62 dropbacks (8.1 percent). Throughout the entire regular season no team used the blitz less frequently than the Seahawks did Saturday. The Cardinals used a similar strategy in a Week 5 meeting with the Saints, using the blitz on just 9.8 percent of Brees’ dropbacks. There’s a theme here. The Cardinals also beat the Saints.
SEATTLE -- I’m heading down to the locker room for interviews and will be back with much more. But, first, here’s Rapid Reaction on New Orleans' 41-36 loss to the Seahawks.

What it means: There will be no "Two Dat." The Saints went on the road to play a 7-9 team and didn’t look anything like defending champions. There were flaws scattered throughout the season, but they all showed up Saturday. Injuries were a factor, but far from the whole problem. The defense had an absolutely horrible game and the offensive line didn’t play well at all. Drew Brees couldn't pull off any miracles without a running game. Give the Seahawks credit for pulling off a huge upset. But put plenty of blame on the Saints.

Goats: Take your pick. Roman Harper, Darren Sharper, Gregg Williams, Julius Jones and Devery Henderson. They’re all candidates. Harper got burned repeatedly. Sharper looked like it’s time to retire. Williams couldn’t come up with a way to stop a mediocre offense and that might cost him a shot at head-coaching jobs. Jones lost a fumble and Henderson dropped a crucial pass in the fourth quarter.

What’s next: Assuming there is no lockout, the Saints will start training camp in late July.

Final Word: Saints-Seahawks

January, 7, 2011
1/07/11
4:00
PM ET
» Wild-card Final Word: NY Jets-Indy | Baltimore-K.C. | N.O.-Seattle | G.B.-Philadelphia

Three nuggets of knowledge about Saturday’s Saints-Seahawks wild-card game:

A game made for Brees. A lot is being made of the fact the Saints will be without injured running backs Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas. That’s a legitimate concern, and Reggie Bush and Julius Jones will have to pick up the slack in the running game. The Saints are going to need some balance in their offense if they advance in the playoffs. But this is one game where, despite the possibility of less-than-ideal weather, I think they’ll put everything on the shoulders of quarterback Drew Brees. By himself, Brees is good enough to beat a team like the Seahawks.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma
AP Photo/Gail BurtonLinebacker Jonathan Vilma (51) and the Saints defense have been solid all year, but could do a better job forcing turnovers.
Don't forget the defense. The story about the Saints that has sort of been underplayed this year is the defense. It’s not producing the turnovers and big plays it did in last year’s Super Bowl season. But overall, this defense has been much better and much more consistent. Rather quietly, middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma has had another outstanding season, and he is the Brees of the defense. This unit might not be spectacular, but you don’t see a lot of defensive mistakes by the Saints.

Prediction time. Those who have read this blog for a long time know I generally don’t make predictions. That’s because I think they’re meaningless. My opinion on that hasn’t changed, but I’m going to break tradition because I’ve got a strong feeling on this one. I’m saying the Saints win 31-14, despite all their injuries. Yeah, the Atlanta Falcons got the bye. But the Saints got the next-best thing. They drew a 7-9 team.
Reggie Bush and Drew BreesAP Photo/Patrick SemanskyWith a depleted backfield, Reggie Bush might take a lot more handoffs than usual in the playoffs.
If you go by record or reputation, you can look at Saturday’s playoff game and say the New Orleans Saints should be able to win with one arm tied behind their back.

That might be exactly what the Saints have to do.

They’re heading into Seattle’s Qwest Field without running backs Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas. Both were placed on injured reserve this week. Ivory has a foot injury that will require surgery. Thomas has an ankle injury that kept him out much of the season and finally sidelined him after a brief, but promising, late-season comeback.

On the surface, Ivory and Thomas aren’t superstars, but they were important cogs in an offense that’s known more for the passing game than the running game. Thomas was the closest thing to a complete running back the Saints had during last season’s Super Bowl run. With Thomas and Reggie Bush injured early in the season, Ivory, an undrafted rookie free agent, stepped up and was the team’s leading rusher during the regular season.

Quarterback Drew Brees might be good enough to put the team on his back and simply use the passing game to get by the 7-9 Seahawks, who are in the playoffs only because they were slightly less mediocre than the rest of the teams in the NFC West.

As good as Brees is, though, that’s a lot to ask. Qwest Field is known as one of the league’s loudest outdoor venues, and weather frequently can be a factor. Scratch the running game out of New Orleans’ offense, and Seattle’s defense simply will load up against the pass.

Even when Bush and Thomas were hurt early in the year, New Orleans coach Sean Payton made it a point not to abandon the running game completely. Even Brees needs help and balance, and the Saints will have to turn to some unusual suspects to provide at least some threat of a running game.

“We’ve gone through this before and really it’s not uncommon,’’ Payton said. “It’s more of the norm and making sure that through preparation that the players that maybe haven’t played more significant roles at one point or another are now ready to play those roles. More than anything else, I think it’s the preparation and the teaching and the coaching that goes on. The players work week-to-week regardless of what their status might be that week, and it’s understanding that all of these guys are on hand and ready to contribute.”

What the Saints have on hand is a unique collection of running backs, all with different strengths and weaknesses. They have Bush, who could be more important than ever, Julius Jones, DeShawn Wynn and Joique Bell. Wynn and Bell were signed this week to fill the roster spots of Thomas and Ivory. Wynn had a brief stint with the Saints this season, and Bell was signed off Philadelphia’s practice squad.

At least one of them will be active Saturday, but it probably will be only as a third running back. That leaves Bush and Jones as New Orleans’ two best options in the running game and, as the only two backs with much experience, they’ll also be needed in the passing game.

“The protections are the big issue,’’ Payton said.

In recent weeks, opponents have been trying to beat the Saints by blitzing Brees frequently. That strategy worked well for Baltimore and Tampa Bay, and you can bet the Seahawks have studied film of those games closely.

Neither is an exceptionally big back and neither is known as a blocker. Jones, who was signed by New Orleans this year after three mostly disappointing seasons in Seattle, hasn’t done much with the Saints. Ivory vaulted over Jones on the depth chart. In a backup role, Jones has carried 48 times for 193 yards and caught 17 passes for 59 yards. He has not scored a touchdown.

The Saints might use Jones as a blocker, but it’s not likely they’ll suddenly put the entire running game in his hands. That’s why Bush could be the wild card in this game.

The No. 2 overall pick in the 2006 draft, Bush never has been the type of running back to handle 20 or 25 carries a game. Instead, he’s been used in tandem, first with Deuce McAllister, then with Thomas and most recently with Ivory. Bush has been part running back, part wide receiver and part return man throughout his career.

But this could be the one game where the Saints use Bush almost exclusively as a running back because they really don’t have many other choices.

“We just have to package him the right way and look at the snaps and what we’re trying to do when we put him in that position,’’ Payton said.

Bush missed eight games earlier this season with a broken leg, and the Saints have gradually worked him back into the rotation. But it might be time to take the limitations off Bush, and there were some encouraging signs in the regular-season finale against Tampa Bay. Bush had season highs with 70 rushing yards on nine carries.

“I thought he played well last week,’’ Payton said. “He’s healthy and is doing well. Coming back off of the injury, he’s fully recovered now and I thought the carries and the touches he had last week were encouraging.”

Although Bush finished the regular season with just 36 carries for 150 yards, there is a precedent for his stepping up in the postseason. That’s what happened last season as the Saints won the Super Bowl. The Saints were cautious with Bush, who was dealing with a knee injury most of the regular season.

But he was healthy for the postseason, and the Saints unleashed him. Bush averaged 6.9 yards per carry in the postseason and was at his best in a divisional round victory against Arizona in which he ran for 84 yards, including a 46-yard touchdown run. Bush also returned a punt 83 yards for a touchdown.

Still, the Saints were pairing Bush with a healthy Thomas throughout the postseason, and Bush never got more than seven carries in a game.

The Saints aren’t going to suddenly hand the ball to Bush 25 times on Saturday, but it’s pretty safe to assume he’ll get more than seven carries. Jones probably will get more carries than usual, and Wynn and/or Bell could end up handling a few carries.

The Saints have used Bush basically as a hybrid throughout his career. On Saturday, they might have to ask him to be just a running back.

Saints regular-season wrap-up

January, 5, 2011
1/05/11
1:00
PM ET
» NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow denoting whether team is trending up or down.

Final Power Ranking: 5
Preseason Power Ranking: 2

[+] EnlargeChris Ivory
Frank Victores/US PresswireSaints rookie running back Chris Ivory stepped into a prominent role during the regular season.
Biggest surprise: Chris Ivory. The undrafted rookie running back saved the Saints from a potentially catastrophic situation. With a preseason injury to Lynell Hamilton and early-season injuries to Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush, the Saints were desperate for help at running back. They brought in veterans Julius Jones and Ladell Betts, but neither did much. Instead, it was Ivory who stepped up and gave the Saints enough of a threat in the running game to keep opposing defenses from loading up on the passing game. Ivory probably has secured a spot in the running back rotation for the foreseeable future, though he will miss the playoffs with a foot injury.

Biggest disappointment: Thomas. He emerged as New Orleans’ most steady running back in last year’s Super Bowl season and turned down a contract offer to play for the restricted free-agent tender this year. Thomas injured his ankle early in the season, and it initially was thought he’d miss only a few weeks. But the injury lingered and Ivory continued to emerge. Thomas came back and contributed a bit late in the season, but the coaching staff and front office might have come to the conclusion that he’s expendable because of the presence of Ivory and the expected return of Hamilton. Those two can work with Bush in tandem in the backfield.

Biggest need: A pass-rusher to play opposite Will Smith. The Saints brought in veterans Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson after letting Charles Grant go. Neither has had much impact as a pass-rusher, and other teams have loaded up their blocking to tie up Smith. The Saints still have generated plenty of pressure because defensive coordinator Gregg Williams isn’t shy about bringing the blitz. But the Saints could be even more dangerous defensively if they had a pass-rusher to complement Smith.

Team MVP: Drew Brees. This season was not nearly close to the perfect season Brees had while leading the Saints to last season's Super Bowl victory. Brees threw a career-high 22 interceptions, double the amount he threw last year. But Brees still put up big numbers, with 33 touchdowns and 4,620 passing yards, and he carried this team through periods when other parts of the team were struggling. Brees’ leadership also was a big part of the reason why the Saints never really had problems with the “Super Bowl hangover’’ that has prevented so many Super Bowl teams from returning to the playoffs the following season.

Changing of the safeties: If there was a true breakout player in the NFC South this season, it was safety Malcolm Jenkins. With Darren Sharper out for almost the first half of the season while recovering from knee surgery, the Saints moved Jenkins to free safety after he spent his rookie year at cornerback. Jenkins stepped right up, and there was no drop-off at safety. When cornerbacks Jabari Greer, Tracy Porter and Randall Gay were injured, Jenkins briefly shifted back to cornerback. Later in the season, the Saints shifted him to nickelback in passing situations and inserted Sharper at free safety. It didn’t matter where Jenkins lined up. He made big plays all season.

Saints enter playoffs thin at RB

January, 4, 2011
1/04/11
4:38
PM ET
The New Orleans Saints, who have struggled with injuries in the offensive backfield all season, will be without leading rusher Chris Ivory in the playoffs.

The team announced Tuesday that Ivory has been placed on injured reserve. They filled his roster spot by signing DeShawn Wynn, who was with the team in training camp.

This leaves the Saints thin at running back and the status of Pierre Thomas for the playoffs is uncertain. Thomas missed much of the season with an ankle injury. He returned briefly, but missed the regular-season finale with lingering ankle problems.

The Saints also have Reggie Bush, who they’ve been easing back in slowly after he suffered a broken leg earlier in the year. Veteran Julius Jones also has gotten limited playing time.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider

NFL SCOREBOARD