Ralph Malbrough / Contributing Writer
After watching Drew Brees get hit on two of his four pass attempts against the 49ers I was all set to write a column asking, 'Why will the Saints offensive line be better this year with four of five starters returning?' Then Sean Payton cut Jon Stinchcomb and the question got a lot simpler, 'Will the offensive line be good enough to win a Super Bowl?' Or as a commenter on Canal Street Chronicles.com put it, 'On a scale of 1 to 10, where are our offensive tackles going to be when the season starts on their ability to keep Brees out of the hospital. 10 being a clean uniform....1 being the grave.'
I'd say right now the Saints are at about a 6.5. Now a 6.5 can probably get you into the playoffs but the Saints probably need an 8 or higher to win the Super Bowl. The Bears offensive line that gave up 9 sacks last week to Buffalo is at a -3.5. Anything less than a 4 and your quarterback's walking ability comes into question. This is based on science I invented for this column.
I'm convinced the 2011 season hinges on what the number the Saints end up getting.
The release of Stinchcomb actually makes the Olin Kreutz signing more understandable. When the Saints signed Kreutz my initial thought was, 'Why wouldn't the Saints just play Matt Tennant who they traded up in last year's draft to get?' The reason was Sean Payton knew Jon Stinchcomb wasn't going to make the roster and he probably had no interest in having two starters of his potential opening day offensive line (Matt Tennant and Charles Brown) lacking any NFL starts.
Things like that keep coaches up at night and drive them to drink.
The lockout probably put the Saints in a bind with Stinchcomb. He had offseason surgery on his knee and played through injury in 2010 but the Saints weren't allowed contact with him during the lockout. They couldn't evaluate him during OTA's and minicamp and figure out they needed to make a move even if they wanted to. So when he showed up for training camp the Saints were obviously of the opinion, 'Holy #@$% Stinchcomb can't play anymore. We love what the guy has meant to the city and us. He'll be a Saints Hall of Famer but we need a different right tackle.'
The Saints under Sean Payton don't let a guy hang around out of sentiment, legacy, or because they are afraid to admit mistakes just ask Deuce McAllister, Joe Horn, Al Wood, or Antonio Pittman.
I believe two things caused the Saints to not defend their Super Bowl. Offensive line play and my pizza delivery guy got 10 carries at running back in the playoff game against Seahawks. Mostly the first one.
Drew Brees wasn't healthy and threw 22 interceptions and was a big reason the Saints offense wasn't as good right? He got injured because he got hit way too much and those extra hits caused him to throw more interceptions. Hits on the quarterback make ANY QUARTERBACK less successful. So we know how things will go if the line isn't better.
This scenario involves having three sets of clean underwear and a fully stocked bar on game day for emergency situations.
How will the Saints offense function if both tackles are below average? In 2009 Sean Payton was masterful at protecting/hiding Jermon Bushrod. Stinchcomb was solid on the right and Payton a lot of the time had Strief or a tight end helping Bushrod. The exception being the Dallas game where the Saints didn't expect Demarcus Ware to play and didn't game plan for him and he destroyed Bushrod along with the rest of the line.
Payton admitted it and in the playoffs against Minnesota's very good defensive ends it didn't happen again. But Payton can't hide both tackles and teams will figure it out and quick. Hell teams already believe blitzing Brees is maybe the only way to stop him. If they realize the Saints tackles can't hold up the only thing between the starting quarterback job and Chase Daniels is when will Drew Brees finally break in half.
This scenario is much more pleasant and involves searching hotwire.com for hotel rooms in Indianapolis during fourth quarters in which the Saints are beating teams like they owe them money. And watching the Falcons lose because the only thing better than a Saints win, a pretty girl, Barq' s, or a deep fried oyster poboy is seeing Atlanta's hopes and dreams burn to the ground and having that fire light up the night the entire season. Sorry, did I get off track basking in hatred of the Falcons? Here is how everything works out just fine.
Bushrod plays equal to Stinchcomb in 2009 and allows the Saints to help either Brown or Strief at the other tackle. If this doesn't happen the Saints could still be ok if Kreutz, Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks become a road grater in the middle and allow the running game to return to 2009 levels. Brees won't have to worry about getting hit if he can hand off a lot more.
Ralph Malbrough is a Saints fan living in Houston. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, find him on facebook, follow him on twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/MilneMalbrough or download his podcast at Itunes.
The Saints don't need a miracle to have their offensive line be good in 2011 but the outcome isn't nearly as certain as it looked a week ago.