Just in time for the Thursday night kickoff against the Vikings in the Superdome, the promoters of a TV show called “America’s Game 2009 New Orleans Saints” will be airing Wednesday a hairy behind-the-scenes vignette of the Saints’ mental preparations for battle.
The production on the NFL Network includes a tutorial in which the blitz master of the New Orleans defense, Gregg Williams, inspires his red-eyed combatants by showing video outtakes of wild animals bringing down their prey and, in the delicate conclusion of Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, “devouring their victims.”
This sounds serious. It leaves the Vikings in a dilemma. Should they put Brett Favre in shin pads or inoculate him against rabies. The Saints want you to know that they play football out of the jungle. Intimidation. Keep the ambulances running. Unsurprisingly, no sounds of fright were reported today from the Viking offense tooling up for the game.
Nobody enjoys choreographing the perfect football storm as joyously as the National Football League. To reach the Super Bowl and to win it, the New Orleans Saints overcame Katrina, decades of misery and mediocrity and armies of fans burying their heads in grocery bags. Chopin’s “Funeral March” was the music du jour on Bourbon Street on Sunday nights. And then there was redemption after Brett Favre threw an improbable interception with a Viking victory at hand in the run-up conference championship game against the Saints.
So a sequel on the first week of the new season was inevitable, too good to be cluttered with competition from a dozen other NFL games and scrambled TV networks. And Thursday night it will be Favre and his bodyguards against Williams’ blitzers; the Saints’ quarterback Drew Brees against the best defensive line in football; Adrian Peterson craving the ball and a national television audience of tens of millions wondering if it can possibly be as good as promoted.
It may be. New Orleans and the Vikings rank with the top five or six best teams in pro football in the advance calculations but the Vikings are only one serious injury to Favre from slipping back among the grinders. And New Orleans is fundamentally Brees and the pass-rushing furies of its defense. The coaches know this, which ironically may mean that the officials — especially the referee who calls the action involving the quarterback — may be wearing the most significant uniforms on the field.
A year ago the Saints candidly mauled Favre, both before and occasionally after he threw. Penalty flags were scarce. The Vikings should have left one of their 22 coaches at home and brought a prosecutor. Favre isn’t crying about it. “It’s football,” he said.”If you’re able to get the opposing quarterback out. Are there cheap hits that happen occasionally? In every game. The ones against the quarterback are more obvious, people see them…Do they take their toll over time? Sure they do. As far as a mental hurdle, no. But I’m not worried about it.”
His coach, Brad Childress, clearly is. In the days after the Viking loss to New Orleans, he railed against the non-calls, plays in which Favre was battered after throwing or was the victim of virtual assault. This week Childress cooled it but made it clear that the people truly under the spotlight’s glare this week will be the officials. The players may not be that cool. After the game last year several of the Vikings including Visanthe Shiancoe accused the former Viking, Darren Sharper, of playing dirty. Perhaps providentially, Sharper won’t be in the game Thursday, having been hurt in practice. But Viking pass rushers like Jared Allen and Ray Edwards will be hard for Brees to ignore or escape. Ironically, Favre is uniformly admired by opposing players and has been throughout his career. Brees is almost as popular and just as dominant a figure in his team’s success as Favre has been. Which means that when they get hammered Thursday night, they may hear a few expressions of regret but nothing to be confused with apologies.
It will be that kind of game, for the Vikings a pronounced change from 2009 when they began the season with a soft schedule and the benefit of one near-miracle, Greg Lewis’ leaping end zone catch with two seconds left in their second game against San Francisco; and then a blown point-blank field goal in the last minute by Baltimore that saved another game. After which they took off. But their schedule this year includes New Orleans, the New York Jets, Dallas, New England, Green Bay twice, Arizona, New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles.
So what are the Vikings bringing to New Orleans?
Jerry Burns is a serial football man, once the Vikings head coach, the architect of the Viking offenses that reached the Super Bowl four times. His offenses were the forerunner of the West Coast offense that revolutionized that game 25 years ago. He is a scowling but loveable little guy with a huge heart and a limitless fondness for the game. Add insight.
“The thing about Favre that still amazes me,” he said, “is that arm. I know he’s had injuries, and that makes him vulnerable when he’s moving around, but he can still drill it. And he knows the game so well…”
Meaning the blitzes that are coming, his reads on the fly and his willingness to gamble.
The players see that, and respect it. The oafish side to him the last few years, his burlesques and ego melodramas, annoy the media folks and amuse the audiences. But in the huddle, nearing 41, there aren’t many today who could replace him.
“They also have that defense, ” Burns said. “Jared Allen and the other guy, Ray Edwards is practically as good, and the Williams guys in the middle take care of six yards apiece. There just aren’t many better ones than Kevin Williams. And then you have the great runner in his prime, Adrian Peterson, just the best. So they’re going to move the football. The difference is the schedule.”
The more casual assessor might look at it this way: If Favre stays healthy, and they play somewhere close to their form of 2009 and Sidney Rice returns, and Favre restrains his impulses to second-guess the head coach, their tougher schedule would probably carve a game or two off their 12 and 4 record of last year.
The offensive line, stable last year behind Steve Hutchinson, might be less if Bryant McKinnie reverts to the former Bryant McKinnie. Antoine Winfield on the corner in the defensive backfield is older but still one of the best in football. E.J. Henderson, the core of the defense, is back miraculously at middle linebacker after a broken leg. The defensive backfield has questions, although whose doesn’t? Sidney Rice won’t catch passes for another six weeks, Percy Harvin, the sensational rookie receiver, is battling migraines but will play, and Ryan Longwell will kick a ton of field goals. But when they give the ball to Adrian Peterson, the goal line is never too far away.
Whatever happens in New Orleans, you probably don’t want to wager hugely against this team.