Sports Nut

The Saints and Vikings Kick Off the Season With a Fascinatingly Bizarre Game

Drew Brees against the Vikings

Well, that was weird. As in the Super Bowl, Saints coach Sean Payton rolled out a rational gambit that was also crazy. Minnesota has a historically great run-defense led by a pair of immovable fat dudes named Williams and a weak, callow, injury-riddled pass defense. (Go figure— injuries influence success in the NFL.) It made complete sense, then, for the Saints to focus on the pass. But in the first half, New Orleans was not merely pass-happy. It was pass-ludicrous. This, I imagine, was the kind of game plan that might make Nate swallow his Copenhagen in the meeting room. The Saints ran the ball just three times in the first 30 minutes of Thursday’s game; according to NBC, no team had fewer than four rushing attempts in the first half of any game last season.

When the Saints scored easily on the game’s first possession—long pass to Marques Colston, short pass to Lance Moore, short run by Reggie Bush, long pass to Devery Henderson for a touchdown—the pass-every-time strategy looked like it couldn’t fail. And then it failed. The New Orleans offense didn’t score the rest of the half, and the Vikings led 9-7 at the break thanks to a touchdown pass from Brett Favre to tight-end Visanthe Shiancoe.             

The Saints came back to win 14-9 behind a more balanced offense—19 running plays and 15 passes in the second half, followed by three game-ending kneel-downs—and a surprisingly robust defense that, contra Gregg Williams’ typical style, largely eschewed the blitz. For me, though, the most interesting thing about this game is that the New Orleans passing game stopped working. If you go by the box score, the Saints threw the ball well—Drew Brees completed 27 of 36 passes for 237 yards. But this game was a lesson in how little has to go wrong for even the league’s most-prolific offense not to score points: One dropped pass on third down and you have to punt.

Tom, it’s funny that your last entry ended with a wish for Donovan McNabb: “Lots of well-thrown balls dropped by his receivers.” I just fast-forwarded through the game and re-watched all nine of Brees’ incompletions. Of those nine missed passes, only three—three!—did not hit a Saints receiver in the hands: a throw that went maybe six inches past Henderson’s fingertips, another that was tipped away from David Thomas at the last second, and a pass on the run that was almost intercepted. So, Drew Brees made one inaccurate pass all night. The Saints still scored just 14 points.

As I watched (and re-watched) the game, I was constantly impressed by NBC’s camerawork and analysis and on-screen stats—they spend a ton to produce these games, and it’s all on the screen. (One tip, though: They could probably cut down on the stretches where they talk about how the Saints helped rejuvenate New Orleans. Heard that one before, guys.) Seconds after Pierre Thomas’ third-quarter touchdown run, the Thursday Night American Football in the United States crew cued up a beautiful overhead shot of Saints interior linemen Carl Nicks and Jonathan Goodwin clearing out the Vikings’ defensive front. And in the fourth quarter, color man Cris Collinsworth did a great job explaining the technique that allowed the Saints offensive line to clear running lanes in the second half—they were simply pushing the Vikings’ defensive linemen parallel to the line of scrimmage, “using the big guys’ leverage against them.”

Still, NBC couldn’t alleviate my biggest frustration with watching football games on television: Even in the HD age, when our screens have expanded horizontally, it’s impossible to see what’s happening more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. In the first quarter, the Saints receivers were running free down the field. In the second quarter, they weren’t, and I have no idea why.

So, Stefan, what did you make of the opening game of 2010? Did your thoughts wander to concussions and labor deals and Roger Goodell’s smarminess, or were you caught up in how Brett Favre was like a 40-year-old, gunslinging kid out there? And I’m guessing you noticed that the New Orleans kicker missed two field goals. You know, what’s-his-name, the guy that got them to the Super Bowl last year. Cut the bum!

Tom Dempsey would’ve made them both with room to spare,

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