As he signed off from the Saints pregame radio show Sunday, analyst Bobby Hebert pointed out that coach Sean Payton’s best teams — in 2009 and ’11 — finished sixth in the NFL in rushing.
His take: Despite their 2-0 start, the Saints weren’t going anywhere if they did not start running the ball better.
They went out and rushed four times for minus-6 yards in the first half against the Arizona Cardinals yet still led 14-7 at halftime on their way to a 31-7 laugher as Payton relied almost exclusively on the passing game early.
In the pass-happy NFL, does Hebert’s cajun canon no longer apply?
When 3-0 New Orleans meets 3-0 Miami on Monday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, it will be a matchup of the 24th-ranked rushing team (the Saints) and the 28th-ranked rushing team (the Dolphins).
Miami coach Joe Philbin is inclined to say yes. In their season opener against Cleveland, the Dolphins rushed 23 for 20 times yet won 23-10.
“We could barely run the ball an inch against Cleveland, and we ended up winning the game,” he said. “You have to be smart enough to go with what is working sometimes. I know Coach Payton and his staff is excellent and sometimes while you would love to have the balance and you want to be multiple, sometimes you just have to stick with what is working. That has happened to us, and throughout the course of the season it happens to everyone in this league.”
The Dolphins’ high rushing total through three games is 101 yards against Indianapolis. They attempted only 15 runs in their 27-23 win against Atlanta last week.
The Saints’ high mark was 104 yards against Arizona, and 49 of them came as they ran out the clock against a disinterested defense on their final series.
The apparent irrelevance of the running game extends to the other side of the ball. The Saints, whose defense has allowed only four touchdowns through three games, also are giving up 5.3 yards per carry, the second-highest figure in the NFL to Kansas City’s 5.6. The Chiefs are 3-0, too.
Miami’s defense allows 4.7 yards per carry, tied for sixth worst.
Still, Payton refuses to draw any conclusions off three games.
“These statistical rankings after Week 3 are like your English grade after your first quiz,” he said. “We have a lot ahead of us. I’m sure Miami just as well as New Orleans hopes to improve in those areas.”
Payton pointed to San Francisco’s domination of St. Louis on Thursday night as an example of what an effective running game can do. The 49ers rushed 40 times for 219 yards, riding Frank Gore in a 35-11 blowout while quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw only 23 passes.
“Certainly the rules have adjusted to benefit elements of the passing game, and yet ... San Francisco did a great job rushing the football,” Payton said. “When you’re able to do that, you control the game. That’s important.”
Payton added that winning the turnover battle and converting third downs, where the Saints are in the top third of the NFL, can mitigate poor rushing totals. Ultimately, though, the Saints believe they need to run better.
“Complementary football is extremely important,” center Brian de la Puente said. “When we can take some pressure off of the quarterback and the passing game, it only makes the passing game that much more effective. The game hasn’t necessarily changed. Complementary football is still just as key as it’s ever been.”
Defensively, the Saints believe the high average per carry they have yielded is misleading. Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin rushed for 144 yards on 29 carries in Week 2, but his effort led to only seven offensive points. Atlanta attempted only 14 runs, and the Falcons’ final numbers were distorted by Stephen Jackson’s 50-yard burst.
“Our first goal is always to shut down the run,” defensive tackle Akiem Hicks said. “You can’t read into the stats too much.”
Regardless of what the numbers indicate, Saints cornerback Jabari Greer refuses to believe the league has changed fundamentally during his 10-year career. In his mind, running and stopping the run always will matter.
“Nothing beats being able to rush the football,” he said. “No matter how many stats you put up, I believe if you control the clock and you control the line of scrimmage by rushing the football, it’s the same in 2013 as it was in 1963.”
On that note, Payton isn’t totally satisfied with the Saints’ performance in the first three weeks. Hebert might have over-dramatized the significance of rushing rank, but if New Orleans is still in the bottom third of the league in rushing by the end of the regular season, its record probably won’t be as pretty as it is now.
“As a head coach, you’re always concerned,” Payton said. “That’s part of being a teacher. I’m not an alarmist, but you’re always looking at ... the areas you need to improve on in all your phases.”