I’m on record as not being a huge fan of soccer, but I am however a HUGE fan of Team USA - no matter what sport! I would watch and pull for the Stars and Stripes in an ice sculpting competition.
So I watched the World Cup match between USA and Germany today. Germany defeated team USA 1-0. Sure, there were moments of excitement and energy - not enough, but some. After the game, I got a text from T-Bob that summed it up: “Greatest loss ever!” I’ve never heard that. I guess it’s a soccer thing. Team USA is moving to the elimination round even without a win. So I started thinking, is it ok to celebrate a loss? I guess it is in this case, but it goes against everything we’re taught about competition, doesn't it? “Who won?” is usually the first question we ask.
In this instance, it’s “Who won? America lost! But it’s OK because Portugal won.” The best thing about most sports is there is a clear winner. You get rewarded for wining, not losing. It’s absolute! Don’t get me wrong, I love that Team USA is still alive, but it comes with a “yeah but” or a “blah” connotation. There are many things about soccer that make it a magnificent game but the 'lose and advance' approach is not one of them.
If soccer wants to rope in more fans, a good way to do it would be to change the reward structure for advancing. It’s in America's DNA to win and get rewarded, not lose and settle for a spot. I’m having a hard time getting excited about a loss, even if it keeps you alive and into the next round.
What if Team USA goes onto win the World Cup? Would the critics say "yeah but in the group stage USA had a tie (2-2 vs Portugal) and a loss (1-0 vs Germany)!" The soccer junkies will tell me “Kristian, you don’t get it. It’s the system.” Well, yeah, it's the system, and the system needs to be changed. What about the Saints losing the final three regular season games in 2009 before winning the Super Bowl? That's a valid argument to an extent, but the Saints also stacked up 10 more wins than losses that season, and advanced in the playoffs because of their wins, not their losses. The Saints didn’t lose and move on.
In American football you don’t celebrate losses, you languish over them. Watch the video below to see what Bobby had to say about it.
The Saints wrapped their offseason program with a spirited and productive practice in the indoor facility. The Black and Gold have worked their way through organized team activities without sustaining any major injuries. Jarius Byrd had back surgery last month, but is expected to be healthy for training camp on July 24th.
Rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks returned to the Saints this week for the first time since rookie mini-camp in May. “He has an elite gear of speed,” said linebacker Junior Galette. Cooks ran a reverse in practice today that completely fooled the defense in the team portion of practice. “I didn’t even see him, it happened so fast!” Galette said. In shorts and helmets, they’re all fast, but Cooks’ speed is very very noticeable right away.
He was able to stay in the playbook during his time away from the Saints by attending internet sessions with the coaching staff. “I’ve been extremely comfortable due to the fact that I was able to go over plays with Coach Carter in the morning three times a week getting the playbook down, so I was real comfortable getting back,” Cooks explained.
I caught up with linebacker Curtis Lofton on the final day of organized team activities. Lofton says the defense really got some good work in during the off-season. “It was a smooth transition; everyone knew their assignments, where to line up. We took a step in the right direction. If we keep taking these steps, the sky’s the limit on how good we can be as a defense,” Lofton said.
“On paper, this is the best team I’ve ever been on, from offense to defense, and that excites me. Watching the NBA finals, we took notice of that. The Heat had the best players, but the Spurs had the best team” Lofton explained.
The Saints defense made dramatic improvement last season, going from 32nd overall in 2012 to 4th overall in 2013 under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. “We don’t want to be second to anyone” said safety Rafael Bush.
New Orleans has added a few playmakers to the defense from a year ago. Returning are the leading sack guys in Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, but the Saints lacked the ability to force turnovers last season, and that’s been the coaching staff’s point of emphasIs this offseason. The Saints forced just 19 turnovers in 2013, last in the NFC.
Considering their inability to turn the ball over, ranking 4th in total D was a major accomplishment! This year Bush says the next step is give the ball back to Drew Brees and company more often. “We just want to give the ball back to our high powered offense, to give them more opportunities. I’m excited to see what we bring to the table this season.”
The addition of safety Jairus Byrd and cornerback Champ Bailey should help the defense force more turnovers. “Byrd's arguably the best safety in the game, it’s going to be exciting to see how we mesh. I’m really excited to see how it’s going to play out this season” said Bush. Byrd is the ballhawking safety New Orleans lacked a year ago. Byrd has 22 career interceptions and has averaged over 4 interceptions a season. Compare that with former Saints safety Malcom Jenkins' 4 career INT’s over the same span. Get the point?
“We just want to be the best,” Bush explained. The best might not be a total numbers improvement in overall rankings. The Saints defense might slip from fourth overall to say 8th, but if the turnovers increase by 10, the defense will be better.
A player to watch this season is defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. Entering his third NFL season, Hicks is a prime candidate for that “breakout year." Offensive lineman Zach Strief said Hicks is a handful: “He’s a strong man. If he gets guys extended I don’t know how they’re going to block him.” Hicks joined the Saints in 2012 as the teams 3rd round pick. “He’s really using his hands well this year. He’s explosive. If that guy gets his hands on you it’s not good for business. You better hope he guesses wrong. He’s a tough block,” Strief said. “I’m glad he’s on my team!” Strief added. Look for Hicks to add to the 4.5 sacks he registered a year ago. This is the next rising start on the Saints defense.
Saints Center Jonathan Goodwin is back with the team that gave him a chance to be starter. Goodwin played with the Saints from 2006 to 2010, and won a Super Bowl with New Orleans in 2009. Following the 2010 season, Goodwin left in free agency for the San Francisco 49ers, where he played three seasons.
Last week, Goodwin came back to New Orleans on a 1 year contract "It doesn't happen a lot in this league. I'm blessed and overjoyed about finishing my career in the place I had the most success" Goodwin said. The Saints are trying to fill a void at the center position with Goodwin and second year pro Tim Lelito "That's my understanding, and so far what I've seen from the coaching staff, that's my belief. Either way we'll have a good player at that position".
Goodwin helped solidify the 49ers as one of the top teams in the NFC during his time in the Bay area, and provides a tremendous amount of experience and leadership at center. Familiarity is what Goodwin has going for him in his second stint with the Saints: "It's been easy to transition for me. I am familiar with the terms and play calls. I've been able to play fast because I know the system."
Goodwin joked Guard Jahri Evans has been driving him crazy to return to New Orleans once Brian de la Puente left in free agency to the Chicago Bears. It's way too early to tell who has the edge between Goodwin and Lelito, and this position battle won't be determined until training camp and the preseason.
Since the Saints traded up in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft to select running back Mark Ingram, he's been a polarizing player in New Orleans. Ingram's career has been sidetracked by spotty play at times since his rookie season. Last season was Ingram's best as a Saint; he averaged 4.9 yards per carry on 78 attempts last season while hobbled by a foot injury causing him to miss five games.
Ingram is probably the most scrutinized player in a Saints uniform. The expectations for Ingram were high entering the league in 2011. He tore the SEC up in 2009, winning the Heisman trophy with the Alabama Crimson tide program. Were the expectations unfair or perhaps oto high? Maybe, but then again, Ingram isn't paying much attention to them: "As far as myself, I do what I do. It was a blessing to win the Heisman. That's in the past, I'm trying to focus on being in the NFL. Just because you win the Heisman doesn't mean you're going to be great in the NFL. That's my main goal, to be the best that I can be."
It's hard not to hear the whispers, the rumblings and the criticism. As the Heisman trophy winner and a running back in an offense that has so many weapons, conventional wisdom lends you to believe it's a match made in heaven. Saints head coach Sean Payton was asked if Ingram was pressing too much during his first three seasons in the NFL: "When he gets comfortable and he’s playing and trusting his instincts as a running back, he does a very good job. The big plays will come, trust the technique and the path, and he did that, and then all of a sudden his foot was better, you saw that. You saw him begin to put together good football games and he knows that.”
Entering his fourth season, Ingram finds himself at the crossroads at his career with the Saints. New Orleans declined to pick up the 5th year option on Ingram, making him a free agent after the 2014 season. Defensive End Cameron Jordan who was also selected in the first round in 2011 had his 5th year option excercised by the team this past April. Ingram is on notice to contribute more this season, and is very much under the microscope from the coaching staff, and the fans.
Here's my five key takeaways from Saints mini-camp today.
World Cup: I’m on the record saying soccer is not my favorite sport in the world, but that’s all the Cajun Cannon Bobby Hebert could talk about today. Hebert asked Sean Payton about the cup and his policy on pre-game sex. Yeah, I can’t make this up. Listen to the audio!
Taste of training camp: The Saints got a good taste on what training camp would be like here in Metairie if it were held at Saints headquarters in July, as the team wrapped up mini-camp on the hottest day of the week. Saints coach Sean Payton was pretty pleased with the four practices this week: “I’m encouraged with how they’re practicing. One of the challenges without pads is having the right tempo and staying off the ground.”
Cooks on-line: Saints rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks is still in school because of Oregon State on the “quarters system,” and thus hasn’t been with the team during OTA’s and mini-camp. Payton explained how Cooks is staying up to speed learning the Saints offense. “We’ve got kind of an on-line time where we’ll go through practice tape and installation. He was here for the rookie camp, and then he’s able to take the book back with him. What we’ve done is set aside an hour, or an hour and half with him to go on-line and have him go through the tape with the coaching staff.” Cooks will join the Saints again on Monday for the final week of OTA’s. Payton also said Cooks is a quick learner: “I think so based on the time we had him on the rookie camp.”
Playmakers: The first play of team vs team started poorly for the Saints offense, when safety Kenny Vaccaro stepped in front of a Drew Brees pass for an interception. It’s difficult to draw conclusions in shorts and helmets, but I said it yesterday and will reiterate today that Drew Brees and Robert Meachem have hooked up on a number of passes during OTA’s and this week’s minicamp, and you can see the chemistry building between them.
Roll Wave: Tulane’s Derrick Strozier has raised eyebrows at times in practice this off-season. Strozier was the MVP as nickel defensive back this season with Tulane. With the Saints, he’s working at running back. Strozier worked out before the draft as a running back and it’s hard to notice that just last season he was playing on the opposite side of the ball. “He’s really, really sharp” Payton said of Strozier. “His work out here on the local day was fantastic. He’s sudden he has good hands. The transition with him has gone very quick. He’s one of those guys that has very good football instincts” Payton explained.
Here's what I thought were the key takeaways from Wednesday's mini-camp.
The 12th man: I’m not talking about Seattle’s vaunted “12th man” home field advantage, but the crowd noise system used by the Saints to simulate a hostile and raucous road environment. The Saints used that system today in mini-camp. Typically the crowd noise simulator is used during the regular season, or late in the pre-season. It’s a huge speaker system that creates a similar noise level that the Saints would encounter on the road or at home when they’re on defense. “It really is the reality of our game; obviously it changes the dynamics with communications on both sides of the ball. We felt like we wanted to implement it here, and will do it again next week during organized team activities,” Saints coach Sean Payton explained. We’ve talked about the emphasis on forcing turnovers on defense this off-season; the Saints are clearly placing a bigger emphasis on communication in hostile and loud environments on both offense and defense.
Oh Goody: Saints Center Jonthan Goodwin re-united with the team last week after three seasons in San Francisco. I caught up with Goodwin, who admitted the competition at center between him and Tim Lelito is very much an open one. “That’s my understanding, so far from what I have seen from the coaches, that’s what I believe... either way, we’ll have a good player at that position,” Goodwin said. Lelito and Goodwin are alternating reps with the first team offense during camp. Goodwin told me he was able to recall a lot of what he had to learn a few years ago when he was with the Saints offense.
Offensive Observations: Saints wide receiver Robert Meachem looks like he is moving much better this off-season than he did a year ago. “I was never banged up (last year), I don’t know why everyone keeps saying that. I am moving better though. I think I might be faster than I was. It just comes with experience though, you’re not thinking as much, and I know what Drew wants on certain plays,” Meachem told me.
Undrafted rookie free agent Brandon Coleman had a rough day. Coleman dropped two consecutive passes in team drills, but bounced back with a couple of nice grabs later in the practice period. You can see the intriguing element to Coleman's game, and it’s obviously his size. He’s a huge target and quarterbacks love throwing the ball his way. “Sure, you love the big target if you’re a QB, because you have a higher margin for error with your throws; but if he can’t catch the easy ones, that won’t matter,” explained Saints color analyst Hokie Gajan.
Defensive Observations: The Saints secondary continues to get their hands on a lot of footballs, batting the ball away, and punching the ball out. It’s been a common theme this off-season for a turnover-starved unit from a season ago. I know they’re in shorts in helmets, and they all look fast but it looks like the windows for the quarterbacks to throw the football have gotten even smaller. “That’s also just familiarity with the scheme. We can play faster not thinking and digesting the scheme so much now that we’re in the defense for over a year,” said cornerback Keenan Lewis.