NFC South: New Orleans Saints
"Much like we expected," Payton said of Byrd, who underwent a minor back surgery this summer to alleviate a nagging disc issue.
Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis declined to make any official announcements about whether any veterans will be placed on the physically unable to perform list after they underwent their physicals and conditioning tests on Thursday.
But Payton compared Byrd's situation to that of second-year defensive tackle John Jenkins, who was placed on the PUP list earlier this week when the younger players reported to camp early for their conditioning tests in Metairie. Jenkins underwent minor pectoral surgery this summer and is also expected back soon.
Payton did, however, specify that receiver Joe Morgan is "a go" after Morgan missed all of organized team activities and minicamp this summer while still recovering from last year's knee surgery. Payton said Morgan has healed enough now to do everything, but it will just be a matter of the Saints deciding how quickly to bring him back up to speed.
Payton also addressed the injury that landed rookie offensive tackle Tavon Rooks on the non-football-injury list earlier this week. Payton said it was a minor back issue that he doesn't believe is significant and shouldn't keep Rooks off the field for long.
"Fortunately for us, that's not a big list right now," Payton said of the injuries. "And hopefully it can remain small."
Obviously there’s a good chance the Saints will take a cautious approach with their prized free-agent acquisition. But all along, they expected Byrd to recover in plenty of time to participate in training camp and be fully healthy for the regular season.
At the time, Saints coach Sean Payton described the surgery as “something that didn’t need to be done” and said it wouldn’t have been done if it were the regular season. But Payton said all parties, including doctors, felt it would be the best approach for Byrd’s long-term health.
Byrd, 27, was a three-time Pro Bowl selection during his first five seasons with the Buffalo Bills. The Saints signed him to a six-year, $54 million contract, in large part because of his ball-hawking history. Byrd’s 22 interceptions over the past five years rank second in the NFL during that span. He also forced 11 fumbles.
As for other injuries, it remains unclear if defensive tackle John Jenkins (pectoral) and receiver Joe Morgan (knee) will remain sidelined or be limited at the start of training camp. Both players were also held out of OTAs and minicamp, but both are also expected to participate in training camp.
Watson said there are too many variables when it comes to making any kind of NFL Rookie of the Year predictions -- things such as injuries, grasping the offense and adjusting to NFL defenses.
But like everyone else on the practice field when Cooks first showed up this summer, Watson couldn't help but be taken aback by what he saw from the 5-foot-10, 189-pound speedster out of Oregon State.
"When you see a guy catch a pass and you see his first two steps look like he's about to run a 40-yard dash, you know that the guy is quick and fast. And when you get the ball to him and he learns what to do, there might be problems [for opposing defenses]," Watson said. "And that's what we all saw from the first pass he caught.
"Everybody looked at each other like, 'Wow, this kid is definitely at a different speed.'"
Cornerback Keenan Lewis nicknamed his new teammate "Lightning" after Cooks torched him down the field on an end-around, even pausing to playfully let Lewis try to catch up for a moment.
Outside linebacker Junior Galette added, "I haven't seen that kind of speed in a while," which is saying an awful lot since Galette has played across the field from Darren Sproles, Reggie Bush, Joe Morgan, Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson while in New Orleans.
"I didn't even see when he got the ball on that handoff," Galette said. "Just moving around, he can get into that last gear quick. His speed is obviously top tier in the league."
Like Watson, I usually consider myself a voice of reason when it comes to predicting the level of impact any rookie can have in the NFL.
But even my practical, sensible side believes Cooks can become the Saints' first offensive rookie of the year in nearly three decades, joining Rueben Mayes (1986) and George Rogers (1981).
Cooks was the 20th pick in the draft, and no other offensive weapon landed in a better place to immediately showcase his skill set. Even if Cooks is only the third or fourth option in New Orleans' versatile offense, you know coach Sean Payton will find a way to create mismatches for him and quarterback Drew Brees will find a way to exploit them.
Cooks boasts a stunning combination of athleticism and actual college production. Last year, he led the nation and set Pac-12 records with 128 catches for 1,730 receiving yards. He set a school record with 16 touchdown catches. Then he went out and ran the fastest 40-yard dash of any receiver at this season's NFL scouting combine (4.33 seconds) and the fastest 20- and 60-yard shuttles of the past decade (3.81 and 10.72 seconds).
“Watch highlights of Cooks tearing up the Pac-12 and you see glimpses of both Sproles and Lance Moore, two of the longtime playmakers that the Saints released this offseason. You also see a lot of Payton-level creativity in former NFL coach Mike Riley's offense at Oregon State. Cooks burned defenses on reverses, screen passes, passes over the top, passes in traffic and punt returns.
Just moving around, he can get into that last gear quick. His speed is obviously top tier in the league.” -- Saints LB Junior Galette discussing his first impressions of rookie Brandin Cooks
Former NFL general manager Phil Savage -- who scouts college talent as the Senior Bowl's executive director and analyzes the game for ESPN, among other outlets -- said Cooks' exposure to a pro-style offense should help him make the transition to the NFL. Savage also believes the "perfect marriage" with the Saints' offense could give Cooks a better chance to thrive quickly than even the top receiver taken in this year's draft, Sammy Watkins of the Buffalo Bills.
"If he's in the slot, Drew Brees literally can raise up, flip him the ball and let him go," Savage said of Cooks. "They can do that in Buffalo with Watkins, and I'm sure they will. But I feel certain that the Saints can guarantee getting the ball to Brandin Cooks, and I'm not 100 percent certain and convinced the Bills will be able to consistently get the ball to Sammy Watkins.
"I could see Watkins having some of those one-catch, 15-yards kind of games, just because EJ Manuel didn't play well or they double up Watkins and he's gotta go other places with the ball. Whereas with Cooks, I think there's gonna be probably three or four automatic completions in every game plan."
The Saints' history under Payton and Brees indicates they won't have any trouble trusting Cooks. Last year, rookie Kenny Stills caught 32 passes for 641 yards and five touchdowns, leading the NFL with 20.0 yards per catch. And he was just a fifth-round pick. As rookies in 2006, Marques Colston caught 70 passes for 1,038 yards and the versatile Bush caught 88 passes for 742 yards.
Payton and Brees also were adept at getting running backs Bush and Sproles in open space on screen passes or tosses -- a role Cooks could help fill even though Payton insisted he's a wide receiver, first and foremost.
"You hope that whenever you add speed to the field, it stretches the defense both in the passing game and the running game," Payton said. "It will just be finding that balance and fitting it into what we are doing."
Cooks has drawn favorable comparisons to versatile players such as Sproles, Percy Harvin and the player Cooks said he likes to model his game after, Steve Smith.
Another comparison I particularly like came from NFL analyst Matt Bowen: Az-Zahir Hakim, who thrived in a similar role in an offense with a similar attitude, the St. Louis Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf."
"That guy is Az Hakim, Part 2. You don't want to cover him in the slot," said Bowen, a former NFL safety who now analyzes the league for Bleacher Report among other outlets. "With his change-of-direction skill set, plus electric talent in the open field, Cooks has the opportunity to produce big numbers with Drew Brees in Payton's scheme."
Added Savage: "You're basically gonna have in one slot Jimmy Graham, and in the other you're gonna have Brandin Cooks. In and of itself, that's gonna create problems. Because how do you match up with a 6-foot-7, 255-pound tight end and a 5-foot-10, 185-pound quick-as-a-cat speed merchant?"
I'm not necessarily predicting blockbuster numbers for Cooks, since the Saints spread the ball around so much. But even if he catches something like 70 passes for 800 yards, he'll be doing it for a Super Bowl contender. And he's likely to hit a lot of "home runs" on a variety of screens, reverses, deep balls and punt returns.
The kind of highlight-reel stuff that will attract the attention of voters.
Luke McCown from this roster. He has been a great fit in the Saints locker room. But if the Saints can trust the younger Griffin in that backup role, they don’t need to keep three quarterbacks.
RUNNING BACKS (5)
I’m going out on a limb and predicting that this is the year an undrafted rookie running back doesn't make the roster (though Timothy Flanders will probably shine in the preseason). All five names on this list are virtual locks, with backup fullback Austin Johnson also a dark horse.
I actually think it will be tough for all six of these guys to make the roster. But they have all shown enough in the past to earn the benefit of doubt for now. Morgan is the big wild card. His uncertain health and the addition of fellow speedster Cooks places him firmly on the bubble. But if Morgan shines in camp, he could pass up Meachem or Toon. ... The Saints have some talented undrafted rookie receivers, but the practice squad seems more likely for them.
TIGHT ENDS (3)
This is a spot where I could definitely see an undrafted rookie such as Je'Ron Hamm or Nic Jacobs cracking the roster. But the Saints went with only three tight ends last season, so I'll stick with that for now.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (8)
- Jahri Evans
- Ben Grubbs
- Zach Strief
- Terron Armstead
- Tim Lelito
- Jonathan Goodwin
- Bryce Harris
- Tavon Rooks
The top seven seem pretty safe. After that, it's wide-open for one or two more backup spots. I'll go with the rookie Rooks for now because the Saints invested a sixth-round pick in him and like his growth potential. But former draft pick Marcel Jones and undrafted rookie Matthew Armstrong are among several other possibilities.
DEFENSIVE LINE (7)
- Cameron Jordan
- Akiem Hicks
- Brodrick Bunkley
- John Jenkins
- Glenn Foster
- Tyrunn Walker
- Rufus Johnson Jr.
The top six are about as safe as it gets. Johnson’s future is uncertain, but the second-year pro has great athleticism and potential. And now he’s being cross-trained as a defensive lineman, which adds versatility for the pass-rusher. Veteran Brandon Deaderick is a more experienced possibility for depth.
- Junior Galette
- Curtis Lofton
- David Hawthorne
- Parys Haralson
- Victor Butler
- Ramon Humber
- Kevin Reddick
- Khairi Fortt
- Ronald Powell
My most difficult cut on the defense was veteran outside linebacker Keyunta Dawson, whom the Saints really liked last season and re-signed this offseason. I also like pass-rusher Kyle Knox as a dark horse. But this is suddenly such a crowded group with the arrival of enticing rookies Fortt and Powell.
This position is even deeper. Six cornerbacks is a lot, but it’s hard to cut any one of these guys at this point. And I still had to leave off some talented candidates such as Trevin Wade, Terrence Frederick and Derrius Brooks.
These four seem like a pretty safe bet. But this is another spot where an undrafted rookie such as Pierre Warren or Ty Zimmerman could earn his way into the mix, especially if he shines on special teams.
The only competition is at kicker, where Graham will have to fend off young contender Derek Dimke.
NFL Nation's Mike Triplett examines the three biggest issues facing the New Orleans Saints heading into training camp.
Offensive line: After ranking among the NFL’s elite units for half a decade, the Saints’ offensive line has suddenly become one of the team’s biggest question marks. It still has a chance to be one of New Orleans’ strengths -- led by Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs and veteran right tackle Zach Strief -- but the Saints need to clean up the inconsistency they displayed up front last season while also breaking in two new full-time starters at left tackle and center. The line is the key to the Saints’ two biggest priorities on offense this season: running the ball with more consistency and giving Drew Brees time to hit some more explosive plays down the field.
The good news is there’s plenty of reason for optimism: Second-year left tackle Terron Armstead has the potential to be a great player; the Saints have two strong candidates for the center job in youngster Tim Lelito and veteran Jonathan Goodwin; and the line was playing terrific by the end of last season. This was especially true during the playoffs after Strief said they got better at identifying their strengths and weaknesses. They need that progress to continue.
Cornerback: The Saints might be building the NFL’s best secondary east of Seattle, led by young stars such as cornerback Keenan Lewis, safety Kenny Vaccaro and newly signed safety Jairus Byrd. However, they need to find out which other cornerbacks they can rely on among a group loaded with both talent and question marks. None of the candidates are sure things. But with so many options, one or two of them are bound to emerge.
The most intriguing is probably future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey, whom the Saints signed in free agency in hopes that he still has a standout season left in him. Third-year pro Corey White has shown promise, but also some growing pains, so far. Former first-round draft pick Patrick Robinson had a great start to his career but needs to bounce back from his 2012 struggles and a knee injury that wiped out his 2013 season. Second-round draft pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste is a big corner with big potential, but he might need time to develop. Throw second-year pro Rod Sweeting into the mix, and a few other young guys, and this should easily rank as the most compelling position group to watch this summer.
Road woes: If it’s possible to address this issue during training camp, the Saints will find a way. Their struggles on the road last season derailed their Super Bowl chances. They’ve got to find a way to win enough road games in the regular season to make sure they’re playing at home in the playoffs -- where they are truly dominant inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints’ road performance will be especially important early on since they play three of their first four games on the road, including a critical Week 1 showdown at division rival Atlanta.
Coach Sean Payton and Brees were already stressing the importance of their road performance this summer. Although they’re confident in their ability to travel (especially after a playoff win at Philadelphia last season), they’re well aware of the need to handle things such as communication better. Payton broke down statistics for the team this summer and even pumped crowd noise into practices during OTAs -- something he had never done so early in the offseason. If nothing else, they’ll get used to hotel living, as they’ll spend three weeks at their new training camp site at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia.
Right about now, both Jimmy Graham and the New Orleans Saints should be spiking footballs over the goalpost.
This is how it was always supposed to end, with the two sides finding a way to keep Graham where he belongs.
I'm sure one side or the other might feel like it got the better end of the deal. From where I sit, the Saints got a bit of a bargain by having to pay Graham "only" $10 million per season over four years, with $21 million in guarantees, according to ESPN Insider Adam Schefter.
But obviously Graham won't be sulking after becoming the highest-paid tight end in NFL history. And the four-year deal will give him a chance at another huge payday when he's just 31 years old.
Graham sure seemed happy (on Twitter, anyway) when he was the one who actually broke the news Tuesday morning with this declaration:
It's official I'm bleeding black and gold this morning! Thank you WhoDatNation for all the support.— Jimmy Graham (@TheJimmyGraham) July 15, 2014
Is he a tight end? A wide receiver? Who cares? Graham gets to stay in a Sean Payton offense that has proved it can exploit him as one of the biggest matchup nightmares in the NFL.
Remember when Graham said he wanted to retire whenever Drew Brees retires, so he wouldn't have to play with any other quarterback? Sure, he was probably at least half-joking, but that's how Graham should feel. There's not a better combination of coach, quarterback and unique offensive weapon in the league than Payton, Brees and Graham. Now they can get back to the business of piling up touchdowns, adding to Graham's league-leading total of 36 touchdown catches over the past three years.
And they can start working together toward winning a Super Bowl -- a goal that just became more doable.
It would be easy to sit here and say the two sides should have signed this deal six months ago. Or a year ago. Because it always felt inevitable that they would find a way to get it done before the July 15 deadline.
However, I don't blame Graham's camp for trying to maximize his earning potential through the franchise-tag grievance he filed, trying to be declared a receiver instead of a tight end. Neither will the Saints. They understand the business, and this was a unique deal with a groundbreaking type of player.
I'm not sure if Graham will feel any lingering resentment toward the Saints for aggressively shooting down that grievance, with both Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis testifying against him. But he shouldn't, for the same reasons. That's what they had to do to keep his price tag from soaring above $12 million per year.
In the end, it was up to both sides to make sure they didn't stretch their leverage too far. It was up to both sides to make sure they were flexible enough to get this deal done and try to make everyone happy. And this one seems to fit the bill.
For that, both sides should be congratulated.
Watson, who visited ESPN’s campus in Bristol, Connecticut, on Friday to serve as a guest analyst on a variety of programs, admitted Graham’s negotiations have been more public than most because of his franchise-tag grievance hearing. But he said it’s really no different than typical contract situations, which can also get heated at times.
“And it’s unfortunate that it came to that and that it was so public. But I really think -- I know, I don’t think -- I know that Jimmy loves New Orleans and I know that he loves our team and the organization and he loves playing here. And we love him, everybody wants him here, coaches included. So when it comes down to contract situations, that’s just a necessary evil. ... Not even evil, but just a necessary progression of getting a player here.”
Watson was asked specifically by host Robert Flores on the Football Today podcast about the unique situation where Saints coach Sean Payton essentially testified against Graham during Graham’s grievance hearing. And Watson admitted that he found that interesting, but he still classified it as part of the business side of the game.
“Welcome to the business side of football,” Watson said. “And a lot of times we don’t see this part because rarely does a situation make it all the way to arbitration. But that’s the business side of football. And it’s kind of no different than a contract situation where there’s a heated discussion over contracts, things are said back and forth. And in the end, both sides are able to amicably move on and back to the business of football once there’s an agreement in place.
“But I’m with you. I was thinking much the same thing when I heard that Coach Payton was having to testify, and I don’t know if he was testifying on his own accord or was being forced to, and I also don’t know what conversations he’s had with Jimmy since then and where their relationship stands. But I do know that if and when Jimmy makes it back, and hopefully sooner than later, things will be smoothed over and we'll get to trying to play Saints football and winning championships.”
Graham and the Saints have until Tuesday to work out a long-term contract agreement. Otherwise, Graham can only sign a one-year deal this season under the league's franchise-tag rules. If a long-term deal is not reached by Tuesday, the "business" could get even uglier since it could lead to a lengthy training camp holdout. But many times, deals get done at the 11th hour before these mid-July deadlines -- as was the case with the Saints and Drew Brees in 2012.
As for how the grievance hearing played out -- with arbitrator Stephen Burbank ruling that Graham is, in fact, a tight end instead of a wide receiver -- Watson said he always thought it would be a 50-50 proposition. But he thinks it will be important for the NFL and NFLPA to better clarify things in the future since the new breed of hybrid tight/end receiver is only growing around the league.
“You can even see with the decision, he kind of just had to make a line of demarcation when he talked about the four yards away from the tackle. So it’s still kind of vague,” Watson said of Burbank’s ruling. “I think that Jimmy is somewhat of a pioneer in that area because it got all the way to arbitration, but I think it’s going to come up again with other tight ends, especially because so many tight ends are coming up and being used as more traditional wide receivers, kind of in that in-between area. The NFL goes through change a lot and things evolve. And as the game changes and as players change, there has to be different conversations.”
Watson also talked about topics ranging from Brees to LeBron James on ESPN’s “First Take.” However, James’ signing began to dominate the news as the day went on, cutting short some of Watson’s appearance schedule.
This was the second time Watson has gone through the ESPN “Car Wash” during his 11-year NFL career. He has also served as a guest analyst frequently on the NFL Network and previously did some local TV work while with the Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots.
Watson, who took part in the NFL’s “Broadcast Boot Camp” last year, said he “definitely” has an interest in broadcasting as a post-football career and just wanted to get in some “reps” during the offseason.
Date: Feb. 7, 2010. Site: Sun Life Stadium
Voting for the most memorable play in New Orleans Saints history was, as I expected, a tight race. The three nominees finished within percentage points of one another: The "Ambush" onside kick in Super Bowl XLIV won with 38 percent of the vote, followed by Tracy Porter's Super Bowl interception return (33 percent) and Steve Gleason's blocked punt in the Superdome re-opener after Hurricane Katrina in 2006 (29 percent).
Former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, who was around for all three of the nominated plays, said via Twitter: "Without Gleason's blocked punt, none of the other stuff happens. That moment was much bigger than just football."
I suspect that "Ambush" earned a number of votes from non-Saints fans as well as Who Dat Nation; it was such a memorable play that has since ranked on many lists of the top moments in Super Bowl history. The gutsy surprise play that started the second half also perfectly symbolizes the Saints' personality throughout the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era.
It was the first time a team had ever attempted an onside kick before the fourth quarter in a Super Bowl -- and it paid off big time. The Saints immediately followed with a touchdown, sparking their rally from a 10-6 halftime deficit.
And for those reasons, it probably gives the Saints the best chance to keep moving on in the overall "playoff" that ESPN will kick off next week among the winners from all 32 teams. I'm not sure it can top plays like "The Immaculate Reception," "The Catch" or "The Helmet Catch." But when it comes to unique moments throughout the game's history, "Ambush" certainly belongs in the conversation.
The key for the Saints will be to keep reshaping their offense the same way, particularly at the line and receiver positions. The Saints need recent draft picks such as left tackle Terron Armstead and receivers Brandin Cooks and Kenny Stills pan out so they remain an elite offensive unit.
For now, veteran standouts such as receiver Marques Colston and linemen Jahri Evans, Ben Grubbs and Zach Strief are still in the tail end of their primes. But it’s possible that one or more will need to be replaced over the next three seasons due to a drop in production, a rise in salary or both.
The offensive line, in particular, is going through one of its biggest transitions right now. Armstead is taking over the vital left tackle spot, while second-year pro Tim Lelito and veteran Jonathan Goodwin are battling over the vacated center job. The Saints’ line showed more inconsistency this past season than usual before finishing strong. They need to prove they're still a strength and not a question mark going forward.
This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in New Orleans Saints history. The others are Steve Gleason's blocked punt on the night the Superdome reopened following Hurricane Katrina and the “Ambush” onside kick to start the second half of Super Bowl XLIV. Please vote for your choice as the Saints' most memorable play.
Score: Saints 31, Colts 17
Date: Feb. 7, 2010 Site: Sun Life Stadium
Tracy Porter's game-clinching 74-yard interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIV wasn't as crucial as some others during that playoff run because the Saints would have won the game anyway.
And maybe that's true. The Saints were already leading the Indianapolis Colts 24-17, with 3:24 remaining and the Colts facing a third-and-5 on New Orleans' 31-yard line.
But it sure didn't feel like the game was anywhere close to being clinched at the time -- not with the ball in the hands of one of the NFL's all-time greatest quarterbacks, Peyton Manning.
What made Porter's pick even more remarkable was the fact he beat Manning at his own game -- winning a battle of wits based on countless hours of film study. Porter aggressively jumped in front of receiver Reggie Wayne to steal the ball after instantly recognizing the play when he saw fellow receiver Austin Collie going into motion. Porter said the Saints' coaching staff had prepared them all week for a certain play the Colts liked to run in that situation, and when it happened, it looked just like he was watching it on film.
Porter then sprinted untouched 74 yards for the touchdown, needing only one key block from defensive end Will Smith against Manning to clear his path. And the reaction from the Who Dat Nation everywhere from Sun Life Stadium to bars on Bourbon Street to living rooms throughout the Gulf South was unforgettable. It's the only moment in Saints history that can truly be described as a Super Bowl-winning play.
To strengthen Porter's case, he also played the role of game-clinching hero two weeks earlier when he intercepted a Brett Favre pass to force overtime in the NFC Championship Game after the Minnesota Vikings had entered scoring territory. In fact, some of the people suggesting Porter's Super Bowl pick shouldn't be the No. 1 play in Saints history were trying to argue for Porter's other all-time great clutch moment instead.
@MikeTriplett Gleason's block washed away a bad year; Ambush washed away a spotty half; Porter's pick washed away DECADES of misery.— Charles (@Ugarles) June 10, 2014
ProFootballTalk unearthed that interesting nugget after obtaining a portion of the testimony from Graham’s recent franchise-tag grievance hearing.
“We took Mark Barron in the first round simply because of Jimmy Graham,” said Davis, who served as a special assistant to the head coach.
Davis was testifying on behalf of the position that Graham was a wide receiver. But as PFT pointed out, the testimony was actually turned against Davis on cross examination by the NFL, when Davis admitted that the Buccaneers didn’t draft a cornerback to cover Graham and that they would never have drafted a safety to cover Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson.
This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in New Orleans Saints history. The others are Steve Gleason’s blocked punt on the night the Superdome reopened following Hurricane Katrina and cornerback Tracy Porter’s game-clinching interception return for a touchdown against Peyton Manning in Super Bowl XLIV. Please vote for your choice as the Saints’ most memorable play.
Score: Saints 31, Colts 17
Date: Feb. 7, 2010 Site: Sun Life Stadium
Although it can be debated which Super Bowl moment was more exhilarating for Saints fans (Porter’s game-clinching interception is a fellow nominee), the onside kick was clearly more unique. It has since appeared on many lists of the top moments in Super Bowl history. And the play, named “Ambush,” cemented Payton’s reputation as one of the NFL’s all-time boldest coaches.
The idea -- which was inspired by Payton’s mentor, Bill Parcells -- actually started out as a fake punt. Parcells had once run a fake punt to help win a NFC championship game, and Payton wanted to do the same thing as a way to “steal” a possession away from the potent Colts offense. However, Payton later admitted that coaches and even players had to talk him out of it because there were just too many unpredictable variables.
Instead, special teams coaches Greg McMahon and Mike Mallory suggested the solution -- an onside kick, similar to one that had worked for the Saints two years earlier in a regular-season game. This time, everyone got on board after it worked perfectly in practice. And Payton decided the time was right during the extra-long Super Bowl halftime, because his offense had started to finally get some momentum going late in the second quarter and he wanted to keep it rolling.
Then-rookie punter and kickoff specialist Thomas Morstead had practiced the play successfully all week, but he had a great line after the game about his reaction when Payton told him they were actually going to do it: “I wasn’t worried. I was terrified.”
The Saints had calculated the odds of success at 68 percent -- but it quickly turned into a 50-50 scramble after Morstead’s kick bounced off Indianapolis receiver Hank Baskett, then through the legs of Saints safety Chris Reis. After an assist from linebacker Jonathan Casillas, Reis ultimately was able to hold on to the ball for somewhere between 90 seconds and an eternity while officials sorted through the pile.
@miketriplett Man..you almost HAVE to go with 'Ambush.' It still to this day was one of the ballsiest calls of all time, and so exciting.— kevindeleon (@kevindeleon) June 4, 2014
Burbank's ruling was widely interpreted as though he suggested that Graham was a tight end when he was within 4 yards of the nearest lineman and a wide receiver when he was further out.
Burbank specifically wrote that he didn't consider or make a ruling on any plays in which Graham was lined up further away because he didn't need to. The reason: Graham was lined up within 4 yards of an offensive lineman on the majority of his snaps -- 54.6 percent of them, to be exact.
"I need not decide whether Mr. Graham was a tight end for purposes of Article 10, Section 2(a)(i) when he was in a wide-out alignment," Burbank wrote. "Stipulated evidence establishes that, at the snap, Mr. Graham was aligned (in relationship to the nearest offensive lineman) in the slot for 51.7% of the plays ... and within four yards for 54.6% of the plays. ... I will confine my analysis to those plays."
Immediately in the wake of Burbank's decision, some analysts and players widely criticized the seemingly arbitrary use of the 4-yard benchmark. Former Saints receiver Lance Moore tweeted:
"Four yard split from tackle = a TE huh? Well I guess @MarquesColston and myself played a lot of TE last yr too! The nfl wins again. Smh!!!"
And on Sunday, Pro Football Talk reported that even the Saints themselves weren't thrilled with the way Burbank reached his decision.
PFT cited a source as saying that the Saints disagree with the notion that the question of tight end versus receiver boils down to whether the player lines up within 4 yards of an offensive tackle. The Saints instead feel that a tight end is a tight end no matter where he lines up, since they like to shift their players around to gain information about defensive alignments.
According to PFT, "The Saints see three key factors for determining tight end status: (1) the player's size; (2) the player's position group for practice and meeting purposes; and (3) the manner in which the opponent defends him in man coverage."
When reading Burbank's 12-page decision, though, it seems apparent that he actually agreed with the Saints' logic on all three of those points.
Burbank repeatedly referenced Graham's physical dimensions in how he was evaluated by the Saints before being drafted and how he is used by the team. And the evidence that appeared to weigh most heavily into Burbank's decision was that Graham was often defended as a tight end even when he lined up in the slot (i.e., by a linebacker or a strong safety).
Wrote Burbank: "The evidence also supports findings that, like tight ends, wide receivers and running backs often line up in the slot ... and that the defense employed against any player so aligned turns on the player's position, not his alignment, because of the physical attributes and skill sets of the players in those positions."
Burbank then cited testimony from Saints coach Payton, who said, "When our receivers are lined up widest in formations, they are never covered by safeties or linebackers ever. ... Never ever ever ever ever does a linebacker match up with a wide receiver ever."
Burbank immediately followed with his concluding paragraph, which led to all the confusion:
"In sum, I conclude that Mr. Graham was at the position of tight end for purposes of Article 10, Section 2(a)(i) when, at the snap, he was aligned adjacent to or ‘arm's-length' from the nearest offensive lineman and also when he was aligned in the slot, at least if such alignment brought him within four yards of such lineman. ..."
There is no indication yet of whether Graham and the NFL Players Association plan to appeal Burbank's ruling, which much be done within 10 days.
However, it will almost certainly be too late to affect the long-term contract negotiations between Graham and the Saints. Franchise-tagged players have until July 15 to work out long-term contracts with their teams. After that date, they can only sign one-year deals.
You won’t find a much better perspective -- or stronger commentary -- on Jimmy Graham's contract negotiations with the New Orleans Saints than the column Tony Gonzalez wrote for CBSSports.com.
Gonzalez is arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history, and he was the same kind of hybrid receiver/tight end that Graham is now. Gonzalez agreed that Graham is not, in fact, a wide receiver. And Gonzalez even suggested a great term for their shared role: “Tighty Widey.”
On a much more serious note, however, Gonzalez expressed his own past frustrations with how tight ends get shortchanged when it comes to contract negotiations – even going so far as to label it as “discrimination.”
Gonzalez went into detail about his past contract negotiations with the Kansas City Chiefs, who twice made him the highest-paid tight end in NFL history. Gonzalez said that of course he was thrilled with both deals. But at the same time, he said he was frustrated with how he was always paid according to his roster position instead of his actual production.
“The Chiefs' GM at the time was Carl Peterson, and his battle cry during the lengthy negotiation was, ‘you're not a receiver so I can't pay you like one,’” Gonzalez wrote. “It didn't seem fair that no matter how many passes I caught or how many touchdowns I scored, I was considered a ‘lowly tight end’ and would never be paid anywhere close to a salary as high as the elite wide receivers.”
Gonzalez argued that the NFL is the only major professional sports league that slots players' salaries by position. And he said changing the system should be a top priority for the NFL Players Association going forward.
“I can think of a few terms to describe what's going on in the NFL like ‘backward,’ ‘lack of common sense’ or ‘behind the times’ but the one that makes the most sense is ‘discrimination,’” Gonzalez wrote. “Salaries should be set based on production and contributions, not positions.”
This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in New Orleans Saints history. In the next two days, we’ll feature two plays that helped the Saints win Super Bowl XLIV: the “Ambush” onside kick to start the second half and cornerback Tracy Porter’s game-clinching interception return for a touchdown against Peyton Manning in the fourth quarter. Please vote for your choice as the Saints’ most memorable play.
Score: Saints 23, Falcons 3
Date: Sept. 25, 2006 Site: Louisiana Superdome
The building was already at a fever pitch on that incredibly emotional night, when the Saints returned to their home stadium for the first time on a national stage on “Monday Night Football.” The Superdome, which had been a symbol of the devastation the city endured a year earlier, now stood as a symbol of New Orleans’ rebirth after a remarkable effort by NFL, team and city officials to renovate the Superdome in such a short span of time. A spectacular pregame concert featured U2 and Green Day.
The excitement continued to grow when the Saints’ defense forced a quick three-and-out against their most heated divisional rival, the Atlanta Falcons -- highlighted by Scott Fujita’s sack of quarterback Michael Vick. Then the place absolutely exploded when beloved special teamer Steve Gleason flew in to block a punt and teammate Curtis Deloatch scooped up the loose ball for a touchdown and an instant 7-0 Saints lead. One of the NFL’s loudest venues has never been louder than that moment.
To make things even more special, the play helped spark the Saints to an unlikely 3-0 start that year in the first season under new coach Sean Payton and new quarterback Drew Brees after they had gone 3-13 the season before. The Saints went on to the NFC Championship Game that season, officially kicking off the greatest era in franchise history.
A statue of that block was later erected outside of the Superdome, further immortalizing Gleason, who became an adopted son and cult hero in New Orleans long before he was diagnosed with ALS and began an even more remarkable worldwide campaign to fight the disease.
@MikeTriplett Gleason's block ushered in the golden age of Saints' football and the rebirth of a city— Debbie ulrich (@ulrich_debbie) June 10, 2014