The NFL is changing before our eyes. The time-honored tenet — power football wins championships — is so yesterday. Sorry, old-schoolers, but any team that relies on the running game might end up with three yards and a cloud of dis. It’s becoming a wide-open league on offense, and most everybody is playing the pitch-and-catch style.
This matchup will produce many storylines, none more intriguing than the two passing attacks. The Colts and Saints represent the new trend in the league, two teams with stunningly proficient passing games.
And yet there are noticeable differences. The teams are as different as their quarterbacks.
The Colts’ Peyton Manning is a statuesque dropback passer, big-armed and big-brained. He’s the consummate field general, evoking images of a bygone hero who also wore a blue horseshoe on his helmet — the late Johnny Unitas.
The Saints’ Drew Brees is undersized, standing a hair over 6-feet, but he’s wonderfully athletic and instinctive, capable of fitting his passes through the tiniest of windows. He bears a striking resemblance to Suns point guard Steve Nash, fitting because Brees plays his position the way Nash runs a basketball team — an up-tempo ball distributor.
In terms of leadership, Brees is fire, Manning ice. They have different approaches, but to paraphrase an old Bill Parcells-ism, they do what quarterbacks are supposed to do: They get their teams in the end zone. The Colts were No. 2 in passing offense, the Saints No. 4.
The way they do it, well, that’s fascinating stuff.
The Colts don’t have a bells-and-whistles offense, which is to say it’s fairly simple. They don’t use a lot of personnel groupings and they don’t use a lot of fancy formations. It’s mostly three receivers, one tight end and one back. They don’t do much motioning and shifting, either. You might say it’s a vanilla offense, but its simplicity is genius. So is the guy orchestrating it.
Manning is like an offensive coordinator on the field, sizing up the defense before every snap and making his calls based on what he sees. Typically, he breaks the huddle with three plays, picking one at the line. Sometimes he knows the defense as well as the defense, and that is no joke.
In a late-season game against the Jets, the Jets were stunned that Manning was able to call out players and their assignments before some of the plays. Like this: “21 is dropping. 57 is coming. 36 is the ‘will.’” All before the snap.
“His brain is like a computer,” Jets safety Eric Smith said.
To Manning, the field is a chessboard and he’s Bobby Fischer. When he senses a weakness in the defense, he attacks. In last week’s AFC Championship, the Jets lost nickel back Donald Strickland to a first-quarter injury. On the very next play, Manning went after his replacement, Lito Sheppard, who came in cold from the bench. Result: A 36-yard completion.
For the most part, Manning throws to the same four players — receivers Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie, and tight end Dallas Clark. The opponent may neutralize one or two, but good luck covering all four.
The Saints have a different philosophy, spreading the ball to as many as seven or eight different players in some games. Coach Sean Payton is one of the game's top offensive minds. He employs a myriad of formations and personnel groupings, often changing his package on every play.
They will use an “empty” backfield on one play, a two-tight end running formation on the next. Payton is like a Mississippi Riverboat gambler; he takes chances on fourth down and he’ll call a reverse when you least expect it. He’s always attacking.
Brees doesn’t have as much flexibility as Manning, but he can make adjustments at the line. For instance: If his pre-snap read tells him that Marques Colston has single coverage on the outside, Brees will call something from his “alert” package — probably a deep post route to Colston. The Saints like to go vertical, especially off play-action with maximum-protections schemes.
That’s how they roll. With a multi-threat like Reggie Bush in the backfield, Payton has an almost endless array of options. He can create a formation that isolates Bush on a linebacker and, well, that’s not a fair fight.
The Saints thrive on creating confusion for the opposition. The Colts rely on the smarts of Manning. Put them on the same field, and the night sky in South Florida will be filled with spirals, making everybody forget the way football used to be.