Drew Brees is the center of the Saints' offensive constellation, with nine players orbiting around him. Defenses don’t know what Saint to stop. Solve one matchup problem, and another emerges. Predicting what supporting character will shine on any given Sunday is impossible.
One unfortunate side effect of all this balance is that Brees’ supporting cast is seen as a collection of interchangeable parts. But New Orleans' skill position players have taken vastly different routes to this moment in Saints history.
Introducing Brees’ cast of characters ...
The faded star
Jeremy Shockey’s last Super Bowl experience was bittersweet at best. He paid his own way to watch from the luxury box as the Giants won a championship without him. In New Orleans, he has gone from a back page staple to a role player. Shockey has been solid — 48 catches for 569 yards this season — but don’t overrate his importance. Billy Miller put up nearly identical numbers for the Saints last season.
Shockey has maintained his passion for football and appears to be savoring this chance at redemption.
“This is something that we can take, which is very special ... all of us that are on this team can talk about this 20 to 30 years from now,” Shockey said.
Shockey wants a ring that he earned. While the old, attention-seeking player sometimes creeps out, he tries to fit in. He seems to know how lucky he is to be along for this ride. A player that burst onto the NFL scene like a supernova now gets a chance to leave a lasting legacy.
The late bloomers
On an offense of interchangeable parts, Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson are stuck together. They are both talented, speedy receivers that took time to develop. Both players didn’t record a single catch their rookie seasons.
“It has been a humbling experience,” Meachem said this week about his career journey. “You think you come here in your first-round draft pick, thinking that you’re going to play. All of a sudden I tore my meniscus again. The second year, it was not how I wanted it to be, I was not playing how I wanted to play. For my third year, I told myself I have to do something different.”
Henderson can identify. He was plagued by drops and inconsistent play early in his career. Fans thought he was a bust, just like they thought of Meachem. The Saints, especially Drew Brees, kept the faith.
“He’s always had confidence in me,” Henderson said. “I’ve dropped passes I should have caught and he’ll come back the next play and throw it right back at me. Anytime you have a guy like that, it says a lot. It speaks a lot.”
The Saints re-signed Henderson twice when it appeared he might leave the team via free agency. Ostensibly rivals for the same role, Meachem and Henderson are the two closest receivers on the team. Henderson speaks about Meachem like a brother, believing he still can accomplish so much more.
Together, they have accomplished plenty this year. They combined for over 1,500 yards and almost 16 yards per catch. Meachem is taller and faster, while Henderson is a little quicker making cuts. They both have reserved, pleasant personalities and appear uncomfortable with media attention.
Don’t be shocked if they get past the slower Colts cornerbacks for a big play Sunday, and invite plenty of media attention after the game.
The would-be top dog
Marques Colston came from humble NFL roots as a seventh-round pick from Hofstra. He didn’t even think he would make the roster as a rookie.
“I felt terrible coming out of minicamp,” Colston said. “To be honest, I really didn’t think that I was going to be on the roster too much longer.”
He made it, and then he topped 1,000 yards three times in his first four seasons. Perhaps no player is better at making a tough catch in traffic. Despite his modest background, Colston looks like a blue chipper. He’s a wide receiver in a tight end’s body and could put up monster numbers. In the Saints offense, though, he is just fine sharing the wealth.
“The key to that is our triggerman. Anytime you have a quarterback like Drew that can always find the open man, that’s going to put pressure on defenses,” Colston said.
Statistically, Colston is the best on the team beside Brees. But he says he’s not a vocal leader, and his similarly-aged wideouts don’t need one.
“That’s just my nature. I just like to go out and handle my business and do what I’m supposed to do,” Colston said. “It just so happens that this is the biggest stage in the world. ... Hopefully people will get the opportunity to see exactly what I do.”
The trade target
One week before the season started, David Thomas didn’t know if he would be on a team in 2009. He was stuck on a Patriots roster full of tight ends, and his history of injuries and lack of production (21 catches in three years) made him look like the odd man out.
“I got a phone call from Bill Belichick just telling me I was going to New Orleans and I was on a plane the next day heading down there,” Thomas said, recalling the frenzied week before the season.
Instead of being out of work, Thomas became a valuable part of the Saints offense, catching 35 passes. He prides himself on versatility and has improved his blocking. Thomas caught 13 passes in the last two regular-season games and was one of the most valuable players in New Orleans’ NFC championship win.
“I have worked really hard my whole career just to get myself a chance to be here,” Thomas said. “The way it happened, it just makes it even more sweet to go through that, but still be here.”
I didn’t talk to a player all week that was more giddy than Saints receiver Lance Moore. Listed at 5-foot-9 and probably a few inches shorter than that, Moore looks more like a member of the team’s training staff than one of the players. He has every reason to be frustrated after an injury-plagued season, but he’s happy to finally be healthy.
Undrafted out of Toledo, Moore impressed Brees in practice by knowing what the quarterback was thinking. He rose from practice-squad obscurity to the Saints' leading receiver in 2008. Moore had only had 14 catches this year because of hamstring and ankle injuries.
“It's been a long road in my career to get here and it's been a long season personally with me being injured most of the year. Just to have the opportunity to get back and be healthy at the right time is a blessing,” Moore said.
The Saints offense hums because every player is ready on every down. We expect Brees to look for his trusty slot receiver on third downs in the Super Bowl.
“There’s not a lot of ego among the receivers. That's what makes it work. We're a close group,” Moore said with a big grin on his face. “We have a lot of guys that make plays. That makes it easy on gameday to just go and play because you don’t really feel like there's any extra pressure on yourself.”
The three-headed monster
The Saints’ backfield is a microcosm of the entire skill position group. Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush and Mike Bell all come from wildly different backgrounds, yet they work well together.
“I call us the Three-Headed Monster,” Thomas said at Media Day. “We have some similarities, but we’re all different at the same time. You have Reggie — he’s athletic, fast, quick, agile. The man can do a lot of different things. And then you have Bell — he’s a hard-nosed runner. This guy will knock the mess out of you. He will lower his shoulder. He’s not scared at all. He’ll just run you over. My skills — I try to be versatile.”
Thomas has the best vision and leg drive of the group. He’s also the most complete back and should get the most touches on Super Bowl Sunday. Another undrafted find, Thomas had to beat out fourth-round pick Antonio Pittman just to make the Saints in 2007. He was fourth on the depth chart then, but now stands on top, passing Bush, who was the second overall pick of the 2006 draft.
Bush is a victim of his own hype. He’s a very useful role player, and one of the better receiving running backs in the league. He has a knack for big moments on the big stage, and he’s about to play on the biggest stage of them all. A disappointing career thus far could be wiped away with one memorable performance.
“It hasn’t been everything that I would have liked it to have been,” Bush said. “I think in a perfect world I would have wanted everything to happen much quicker. I kind of imagined that I’d have a couple Super Bowl rings by now and a couple Pro Bowls. It’s a tough league.”
A humbled Bush doesn’t mind sharing the load with Thomas and Bell. He said he was used to do the same at USC, another offense that seemingly featured a new star every week.
Bell is just happy to have a job. After scoring eight touchdowns as a rookie in Denver, he was moved to fullback and had 3 yards in 2007. Yes, 3 yards. He almost fell right out of the league, and didn’t have a gig for most of the 2008 season.
Now Bell runs like his career depends on it every play. He’s not the most gifted back, but he runs far bigger than his size. He seeks out contact. The leader in carries for the Saints during the regular season, Bell is third on the depth chart now, but first up when the Saints are on the goal line. He’s yet another undrafted, unwanted player the Saints found that could wind up scoring in the Super Bowl.
Is there a legend in waiting among this group?
The Saints organization, especially the skill position groups, has come a long way to get to the Super Bowl. Now they have the opportunity to make all the stories above prologue.
It only takes three hours to emerge from anonymity to omnipresence. The beauty of the Saints offense is that all nine characters have a shot.