After a deserved day off, the New Orleans Saints headed back to the practice field Monday afternoon for a closed practice.
With a week of work and a scrimmage in the rear view mirror, here are some notes I had from some under-reported events from the first week of training camp:
August is not only time for training camp for players and coaches, but for officials as well. Last week there were two events that demonstrated how hard officials prepare for a football season. They do not simply show up at game time and start throwing flags.
The NFL had the officiating crew of referee Walt Coleman in town for three days. While the presence of two female officials created the most notice, the return of Louisiana native Carl Johnson to the field was the most meaningful to me. Carl started in the Homa-Thibodaux Officials Association, and worked his way up into the NFL. For the last four years, Johnson was the Chief of Officials for the league, until he got tired of living in New York.
Carl has now returned home to South Louisiana as the very first full-time official in the league. While he is happy to be back home, we are almost as happy to see him back on the field.
Walt Coleman is known for the Tuck Rule game between the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders, the Thanksgiving Day call against Detroit for improperly challenging a call and the Saints-Cowboys catch and fumble call in overtime last year. He also came up with the quote of the week: "We want to be perfect. But there has been only one perfect person in the history of the world. And he did not have to officiate an NFL game."
High School officials were also going through their paces with the River Parish Football Officials Association sponsoring an official's clinic. Rules interpretation and mechanics were a large part of both lecture and on field demonstrations, while player safety got extra attention.
The emphasis on safety is especially true in recognizing when a player is in distress. This distress can occur from either heat or contact related situations; the symptoms of these conditions closely resemble each other. Officials were admonished to be able to recognize when a player needs aid without diagnosing his condition.
We often criticize officials when we do not agree with their calls, and coaches all too often get in an adversarial relationship with them. However, it needs to be recognized that officials take pride in their responsibility and work hard in their preparation. This is true whether they are working in high school or the NFL.
The quickest way into Sean Payton's doghouse as a running back is to 1) fumble the ball or 2) miss a pass protection assignment. If you leave the ball on the ground or jeopardize Drew Brees, you will be standing next to Payton on the sidelines. Or get traded to the Jets.
The kicking game receives a great deal of emphasis in practice, and New Orleans will have to excel in that phase of the game to be a playoff contender. Two special teams' areas concern me: 1) the accuracy of kciker Garrett Hartley and 2) the return game.
When all you do is place kick, and do not kickoff, an NFL kicker needs to be close to 100 percent accurate, especially inside 40 yard attempts. Hartley has not been that accurate. After missing the entire 2011 season with a hip injury, Hartley returned last year and was successful on 18 of his 22 field goal attempts for 81.8%. While perfect on his PATs and inside 29 yards, for attempts from the 30-39 and 40-49, Hartley was only successful 67 percent of the time.
Although he is in a competition with Jose Maltos, Hartley will win the job. Since kickoffs are handled by Thomas Morestead, Hartley needs to be more accurate.
The Saints have shown consistency in the return game, but no game breaking ability. In the NFL when you have the field spread, as it is on kick returns, there is the potential for a big play. You only have to look back at the Super Bowl to see how a return can change a game. When you do not create an explosive play when the opportunity arises, you are giving your opponent an edge.
When Sean Payton says "we will see when we look at the tape," he is not joking. We can all see the great plays and the bad ones; we really cannot see how consistent someone is from play to play over a number of snaps. Consistency is more important to a coach than spectacular plays. If a player follows a good play with a poor one, his grade will go down. Coaches need the video to judge that consistency.
Also, by not scheming in things like pass protection, the Saints allow one-on-one matchups to occur. This concept is especially true at the offensive tackle position. Coaches are leaving them on an island right now in order to fairly judge them against each other. There will be a lot of help for the tackles in-season, where New Orleans is one of the very best teams in the league at game planning pass protection.
The Saints have changed the concept of pass protection throughout the league. They put great emphasis on the center and guard positions, creating a solid front to the pocket so Drew Brees can "climb the pocket" and step up. It is difficult to scheme the internal area, so the three interior linemen have to be able to man up.
On the other hand, the edge of the pocket can be bolstered by scheme. Tackles can be helped by formation variation as well as tight ends and running backs helping them by "chipping" the rushers before they check out on pass routes.
When you look at the number of guards drafted in the first round this pass year, it appears that much of the league is adopting this philosophy.
The preseason schedule is all about determining the best 53-man roster. Overall, you do not necessarily win with your top 22 players, but with numbers 23 through 50, since you keep three specialists. The preseason may be boring to some, but not to the players and coaches involved. Careers are created or lost during this time, while the foundation of a championship team is established.
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