Photo by: USA Today Sports
I don’t often do opinion pieces here but I wanted to throw this out there after sitting on it for quite some time. Every now and then, there are players or teams that become synonymous with their generation. Lawrence Taylor in the 80’s, Deion Sanders of the 90’s, the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 70’s, etc. I’m here to say that the 2018 New Orleans Saints could be a team that is remembered as “generational.” Not just because of their play on the field. Yes 10-1 with 10 straight wins is impressive, but the players on this team open new windows and access to the fans in ways we haven’t seen before.
But let’s start with the on-field attraction the Saints present. Every generational team needs a QB. The Steelers had Bradshaw, the Dolphins – Marino, Patriots – Brady. Check. The Saints have future Hall of Famer Drew Brees who is on pace to break the few records he doesn’t already hold and finally take home his long-overdue MVP award. Brees has been with New Orleans since 2006 and he’s somehow still finding ways to transcend the game sitting on 29 touchdowns to only 2 interceptions so far this year. Not to mention, he’s coming off of a game in which he threw four touchdowns to receivers no one outside of New Orleans has ever heard of. Brees has shown the league that he and, also worthy of being considered “generational” coach, Sean Payton can win games regardless of who’s on the field because Brees can militarize anyone on his side of the ball.
Photo by: USA Today Sports
Let’s stick with Sean Payton. Payton is a mastermind coach and innovative offensive genius. He spent his time with his own once-in-a-generation coach Bill Parcells as his mentor. During that time, he’s learned approaches to coaching that bridge the gap between today’s player and fan with yesteryear’s. For instance, Coach Payton continues the long-standing tradition of remaining mum on in-house matters until they’re absolutely necessary to discuss. Much unlike some other coaches in the league, Mike Tomlin and Pete Carroll for instance, who tend to have more open-door approaches. However, one can’t call Coach Payton archaic by any stretch of the imagine. He’s not one of those autocratic coaches you see wandering the sidelines at practice in your favorite football movies. He’s open to taking feedback from his players, resting players on short weeks and great performances, and even takes the time to meet with Drew Brees before every single game to have a good ole’ “what if” session to help create a gameplan together with his signal caller. In a world now so focused on collaboration and feedback, this vibes well with the current culture. However, Payton isn’t going to rely on any laissez-faire approaches to lead his football team, leaving empty gas cans in players’ lockers to let them know they’re running out of gas and need to step it up, delivering cheese plates to the locker rooms encouraging players not to “take the cheese” the media is dangling, and he certainly doesn’t take crap from the media during his press conferences. Coach Payton does a fantastic job of blending the traditional coaching style of hard work and hard knocks with the today’s approach of care, collaboration, and sheer savagery. Don’t forget this is also the same coach that danced with a broom in the post-game celebration following sweeping the Panthers in 2017’s playoffs, destroyed a fire alarm in Cincinnati Week 10, and called a deep shot on a 4th and 7 against the Eagles up 31 points. All of which, are the same kinds of stories that any of today’s NFL falls will either love or hate. Either way, Coach Payton garners attention and bridges the generational gap among NFL fans.
Now let’s look at the playmakers around the team not named Drew Brees and Sean Payton. We’ll start with 2017 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara who is as exciting a player as the league has to offer right now. Kamara carries several accolades with him through his second year in the league including the aforementioned Rookie of the Year award as well as being one of the first running backs to top 500 yards in both receiving and rushing in both of his first two years. He’s also well on his way to etching his name in the Saints’ record books as he’s on pace to take the franchise crown for most rushing touchdowns in a season. So, anyone that’s a long-time NFL fan can appreciate his on-field achievements. As for football fans like myself who love to see players interacting with fans, expressing themselves, and finding ways to entertain as a fully realized human being, you need not look much further than Kamara. Remember, Kamara is the guy that threw an airball at a Drake concert trying to win a fan a prize, has his own specially crafted and distributed Airhead flavor, and wore the sickest Christmas cleats anyone’s ever laid eyes upon in his revenge tour win over the Atlanta Falcons last year on Christmas Eve. Oh, and his brotherhood with fellow RB Mark Ingram just makes these guys even more likeable. You also need not look any further than Ingram when you want to know how an NFL player can excel in a world of social media. On-field after the Thanksgiving game, the homie was taking selfies while eating a turkey leg. He’s done Instagram takeovers for major national coverage profiles and has even developed a new catchphrase for himself: “Look at the detaaaaails!”
Speaking of social media, that’s another way these players have transcended local fame. Cam Jordan, Marshon Lattimore, Mark Ingram, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Demario Davis and others all have must-follow status on Twitter and Instagram. Michael Thomas in particular if you want to see someone get savage on opponents and all challengers. He carries the humble nature of a player that’s looking to improve week-by-week like any fan of the game would love, but also doesn’t shy away from showing his teeth when someone steps to the plate to contend with him – see his merciless takedown of Josh Norman. Both he and Kamara have found ways to represent the New Orleans culture as well. Wearing Cash Money and No Limit garb, blaring Choppa Style in the locker rooms, appearing in the Nice for What Drake music video, paying tribute to fallen local artists, and also showing homage to New Orleans Saints legends like Joe Horn. Despite the fact that some of these things can draw criticism from media, it’s the fun part of Drew Brees’s go-to comment about being on a team that loves to have fun but knows when to go to work. This is one of the elements of this group that makes them this generation’s perfect team. Although they’ve excelled on the field, their reach and effect away from it have helped them become household names regardless of fandom. Doing it too, never with a holier than thou mentality and with a strict attitude of consistent improvement in the midst of their outreach, separates them from the other 31 teams in the league.
You can also look to players like Ben Watson and Demario Davis who have also used their platforms to help fight for positive change in the world. Both Davis and Watson helped to push House Bill 265 to pass in Louisiana, restoring the voting rights of over 2,000 people in March and possibly tens of thousands more soon after depending on the success of other VOTE efforts according to NFL.com’s Jim Trotter. The two NFL Players’ Coalition members did this by drafting and publishing an op-ed to the state urging them to consider the bill. Watson and Davis have been the shining examples of players who can use their platform to affect change in the community. Neither has stopped there, supporting other movements like reducing mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent offenders while also providing rehabilitation for those already in prison coined the First Step act, fighting for unanimous jury protocols (Louisiana Amendment 2), helping children separated from their families by teaming up with Washington CB Josh Norman to purchase and deliver over $10,000 of food and supplies. Davis has also been vocal about due process for children who are behind bars in adult prisons supporting the #SchoolsNotPrisons act. But from his own words, he’s just commenting behind a screen. He’s taking action. Action that has been recognized across the nation as he was recently honored by the Bronx Defenders with the Pursuit of Action award. If you think the social action doesn’t go any higher than the players, you’d be wrong. Saints Owner Gayle Benson herself showed up to that very award ceremony where Davis was being honored to support him.
Photo by: NOLA.com
This is a team that has mastered class from the top down and is doing so while having fun and, perhaps most important to some fans, winning football games. The Saints are traveling to Dallas this week on a ten-game win streak, undefeated away from the dome, garnering one of the NFL’s top offenses, the league’s best run defense, an improving pass defense, and some of the best special teams players we’ve seen in Thomas Morstead, Wil Lutz, Justin Hardee, and Chris Banjo. Not to mention they’ve added some flare with the introduction of NFL ATH Taysom Hill. There’s nothing lacking in terms of entertainment and skill from the Saints team. Every generation of football fan loves to a solid linebacking core and the Saints even have that now in Davis, Alex Anzalone, and AJ Klein. Hell, their entire front-7 puts in work after making NFL Draft headlines for pulling off a huge trade for one of college’s premier pass rushers, Marcus Davenport who also write poetry and supports feminism while cultivating the emergence of DT Sheldon Rankins along the way. Not to mention that Cam Jordan, as always, continues to play at an All-Pro level and lead a defense that has cultivated a group celebration that’s so much fun that other teams have resulted to stealing it: the turnover pic.
All of this goes without mentioning how open this team is. Look at how quickly they took in and engulfed Dez Bryant to the team’s culture. The 2018 New Orleans Saints can’t call themselves the best team in the league until they’ve raised a Lombardi at the beginning of next year. Any earlier than that would be “taking the cheese.” But you’d best believe that if they secure the bag in February in Atlanta, Coach Payton won’t hesitate to drive around, top down, sharing the trophy with the city of New Orleans just like he did in 2009/10. This team still has lots to achieve before they can be considered the absolute best, but right now they’re paying like it and making a difference along the way. Which is why I don’t hesitate at all to say that they are today’s perfect NFL team.
Follow Ross on Twitter @RossJacksonASC