METAIRIE, La. -- With new weapons surrounding him on the practice field and the bad taste of 2014’s failures still lingering, Drew Brees said he feels like the New Orleans Saints are making more changes to the offense than ever this summer.
Most of the changes are subtle -- as coach Sean Payton insisted last week, the Saints won’t suddenly become a run-first offense.
But change was clearly needed, both because of last year’s 7-9 collapse and because the Saints’ personnel looks so much different.
Gone are tight end Jimmy Graham, running back Pierre Thomas and receivers Kenny Stills and Robert Meachem. In their place are new running back C.J. Spiller and a ton of young receivers stepping up into bigger roles.
“I’d say we’re doing probably more new things now than we ever have,” said Brees, who explained that this is always the time of year for experimenting with the playbook. “There’s always new ideas, there’s always offseason studies that you kind of undergo. And you say, ‘Hey, I think we can incorporate this into our offense. It’s something that Brandin Cooks could do really well, something Ben Watson could do really well, something the running backs could do really well.’
“Some things stick and some things don’t. And I’d say maybe there’s just more things that have stuck thus far.”
“A couple new concepts we’re trying out and kind of seeing what makes the cut,” Colston said.
More than anything, though, the Saints know they need to just plain execute better on offense this year -- starting with Brees.
The biggest killer for Brees last year was turnovers, some of them in big moments. He threw 17 interceptions and lost three fumbles.
That’s not way out of whack compared to Brees’ past years. He’s actually had three other seasons with 20-plus turnovers in New Orleans. But as you might have guessed, those seasons were also disappointments (2007, 2010, 2012).
It’s one of those chicken versus egg deals where Brees' turnovers help lose games, but most of them come as a result of him trying to force things when the defense or offensive line is struggling, which was definitely the case last year.
“The turnovers are the things that bother me most. At the end of the year, if there’s something I look at and say, ‘Ah, that should have been better,’ it’s typically that,” said Brees, who said his two biggest areas of focus this summer have been getting a command of some of the new offensive tweaks and continuing to improve his “ability to make great decisions.”
“We have a lot of facets to our offense that require me to make calls, that require me to put people in the right positions. So it’s continuing to fine-tune and be able to execute that to perfection. And then taking care of the football,” Brees said. “The ability to make plays, play aggressive, play with confidence -- and yet to make really good decisions when it comes to protecting the football.”
Brees identified turnovers, the lack of big plays and the lack of clutch plays in close games as the three biggest killers for a Saints offense that was surprisingly efficient in other areas.
“You add all those up, and you get that record,” Brees said.
The Saints actually led the NFL in first downs, third-down conversion percentage and completion percentage last year. But they had only 52 pass plays of 20-plus yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- their lowest total by far since 2010.
And the Saints blew a ton of close games last year -- including four that they were leading in the final two minutes of regulation (at Atlanta, at Cleveland, at Detroit and vs. San Francisco). A lot of those losses can be pinned on defensive breakdowns, but Brees also had critical turnovers in four of them and Colston in one.
“There’s a couple plays in every game, especially the close ones, that make the difference,” Brees said. “And the smart teams, the intelligent teams, the teams that study those situations, know when something can or can’t happen in that game, those are the teams that end up being division winners, playoff teams and go on and do great things.
“Unfortunately we were not one of those teams last year. There were plenty of games where we were right there having a chance to win. And yet it was a poor decision or not knowing a certain situation that cost us that game. And that can’t happen. That’s bad football, as we would say. We need to be a smarter football team.”