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Saints recharge, primed for Baltimore & make or break stretch

Zach Strief
October 15, 2018 - 6:22 am
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The Saints start to the season has done nothing to extinguish the sky-high expectations they came into the season with.  For many, when the schedule came out, the Saints needed to get off to a fast start, because of the difficulty of the back third of the season.  Well, the back third is here, and it may be harder today than it was when the season began.  Fortunately for the fellas, before that gauntlet begins, it’s time for a little R&R.  Ever wonder what the bye week is like for a New Orleans Saint?  I’ll fill you in, but before we talk about today, we need to talk about the past.  

Much of the NFL was different when Sean Payton became the 14th coach of the Saints.  Two-a-days still reigned over the month of August.  Coach took full advantage of that as many of you have heard of the Millsaps training camp horrors.  (If you haven’t, let me know and I’ll fill you in on some of those).  

To be completely honest, the bye week wasn’t much better.  From 2006-2008 a Saints bye week represented a week to improve, a week to practice without fear of fatigue on Sunday, and an opportunity to ramp up the tempo.  Bye week practices would go from Tuesday-Friday before getting the weekend off to rest up.  

If any of you have ever seen my crooked right ring finger, that happened in the bye week.  As a player, you hated it.  After a grueling training camp, and an immediate transition into a season (where we also still practiced in pads), you just wanted a few days to rest your muscles.  Well instead of a few, you got a couple.  It’s interesting to think back and also important to understand just how difficult some of those practices were at that point.  

I played college football with a head coach notorious for making things difficult on players.  We ran after ever practice, we were punished often for not performing, and coach found new and inventive ways to make his players uncomfortable.  I promise I’m not complaining, it all made me a much better person, but it was tough.  I thought for sure when the NFL came calling, I would finally get a breather.  Not even close.  

Payton’s first training camp was brutal.  It was long, hot, physical, quite honestly unlike anything I had ever experienced.  When the season started, I was shot.  I didn’t feel like myself.  In spite of years of difficult college practices, the new NFL ones were a different breed.  They were long, they were physical, and they were against the greatest athletes in the world.  All of that to say, we were ready for a break come the bye, and we didn’t get it.  

Now Sean would probably call me a sissy, and that’s fair, but no one was looking forward to the bye week practices.  The worst part?  Through the first 3 years, we were 0-3 coming out of the bye, and losing at an average rate of 10 points per game.  No immediate return on investment.  That’s not to say it didn’t pay off in the long run, but sure didn’t feel like it at the time.  

As 2009 rolls around, things started to change.  We were 4-0, and Coach felt like we needed to switch things up.  Payton’s exact expression was, “If we want to do something we’ve never done, we have to do things we’ve never done.”  He gave us a full rundown of coach Andy Reid’s record coming out of the bye week.  I can’t remember exactly, but it was roughly a lot of wins to very few losses.  Sean then posted what coach Reid’s bye week schedule looked like.  It was essentially blank.  Get out of the facility, rest your body, rest your mind, see your family, come back recharged and ready to work.  

I can remember the excitement in the locker room after the meeting, when we realized we were going to play a game then not come back for a week.  We all got an opportunity to go home, visit family, take a quick vacation, drive kids to school, sleep in, whatever activity made you feel good.  

Just as promised we were gone for a week and came back the Monday before the next game to get a head start on the New York Giants.  There are a lot of post-game locker rooms I remember vividly, but very few pregames.  The Giants game that year, I remember.  The message was very clear.  If you ever want a bye week off again, play like your life depends on it.  Fight for every yard, battle every play, act like you are fully rested and recharged.  

It worked.  Motivation can be a funny thing.  Sometimes the classic football motivational speeches don’t work really well.  They can get stale, lose some of their shine.  Well, apparently a week off was highly motivational.  We beat the Giants 48-27.  Quite honestly, we beat the brakes off of them.  From that moment on, the Saints bye weeks have been about recharging the batteries.  

One of the things I admire most about Coach Payton is that he continually evolves year after year.  He always seems to be searching for ways to improve any aspect of your preparation as a player.  Whether that’s schedule, nutrition, new technology, sleep education, mouthpieces, airplanes, hotels, travel sweats, you name it.  I could write a whole chapter on all the things Coach Payton has tried to implement to give us an edge.  He is also fortunate to be in an organization that has always been willing to indulge his requests, no matter how odd. (I’m talking to you F-4 water.)  

In 2009 Coach Payton went against everything he believed at the time and made a change, willing to evolve with the ever-changing landscape and it paid off.  The Saints coming off the bye since 2009 are 7-2, winning by 9.3 points per game. This year’s schedule is not going to make continuing this trend easy.  

The Saints travel to Baltimore to take on the Ravens this week, a team the Saints have not beaten since Dec 2nd 2002.  It’s also the last team QB Drew Brees has left to beat in his career.  This Ravens team is going to make it hard for Brees and Payton as they come in with the number one scoring defense in football giving up just over 15 points per game. 

It doesn’t get any easier after Baltimore either.  In addition to the Ravens, the Saints will take on the Vikings, Rams and Bengals over the next 4 weeks.  Those teams are a combined 17-6-1.  The Saints will see the #3 and #5 scoring offenses and the #1 and #8 scoring defenses.  There is not a tougher stretch in the NFL over the next month.  There is only one way to succeed during a gauntlet like the Saints are staring down… take it one game at a time.  

The next month is going to tell the story of the Saints season.  3 of the next 4 are on the road, all against winning teams.  3 of the 4 games are against division leaders, and they also have the defending Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles after this stretch.  

The bye week may have come at the perfect time this year.  Every team has a stretch that can make or break them, this is that stretch for the Saints.  They are coming off their best game yet, a week of rest, and return batteries charged, ready to make their case as the best team in football.  None of that happens without taking care of Baltimore for the first time.  As I said, one game at a time.

 

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