The New Orleans Saints were a preseason favorite to win the Super Bowl, but things did not go as anticipated for the Black and Gold as they finished 7-9 in the NFC South and missed out on the playoffs. Whether it was turnovers on offense, or poor tackling and coverage on defense, Sean Payton and company struggled with a number of unfortunate issues.
During the offseason, New Orleans’ front offices made several changes in player personnel, releasing veterans like Darren Sproles, Lance Moore, Malcolm Jenkins, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper and Will Smith, which was a bit displeasing to many fans.
It’s understood that the NFL is a business, and in that case, business decisions were made to presumably help the club financially, which led to the resigning of Jimmy Graham and acquisition of All-Pro safety Jairus Byrd. Unfortunately, Byrd missed a majority of the season after suffering a knee injury in early October.
Granted, injuries like that obviously did not benefit the Saints’ success, but that is still no excuse to have performed the way they did. Back to the changes in player personnel, the unwanted fat needed to be trimmed, but of course the club would face the backlash that materialized due to the decisions.
I’m talking about leadership issues, specifically on the defensive side of the ball. Smith, Vilma and Harper were the voices of the defense, the guys who were able to rally the team together and the ones who took the blame if things went wrong. Other than QB Drew Brees, these guys were the faces of the franchise.
Unfortunately, after years in the NFL, your body and performance begin to take a toll. That was indeed the case for these older guys, so you can’t expect the organization to keep a bunch of old, injured wash-ups around. Their best days were over and it was time for them to be replaced.
Shortly following the dismissal of the long-time Big Easy veterans, the Saints pursued CB Champ Bailey in free agency, but the 36-year-old missed the final cut for the 53-man roster. It was exciting to think that the Saints would have a 12-time Pro Bowl defensive back leading the secondary, however, that feeling did not last long.
The lack of veteran leadership was evident in 2014 — where were the voices? To be more specific, where was that articulate, effective sound that was once delivered so clearly by Vilma, Harper and Smith? Sure, Brees had control of his offense, but was their really a true leader on defense? I don’t believe so.
While it’s up to co-captains Curtis Lofton and Junior Galette to have control of their unit, the New Orleans Saints may still want to explore other possibilities. I’m talking about the free agent market, and in this case, Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman.
Tillman, who will be turning 34 in February, missed just about all of 2014 with a ruptured triceps muscle he suffered in Week 2 against the San Francisco 49ers. He also missed eight games in 2013. Before that, he was still very effective, being selected to Pro Bowls in 2011 and 2012.
The University of Louisiana-Lafayette product is known for his wicked technique at knocking balls loose, which has been dubbed the “peanut punch.” “Peanut” was a nickname given to Tillman by his aunt as a child due to the shape of his body.
The former 2003 second-round selection has spent his entire career in Chicago, his native city. However, he is set to hit free agency when the date arrives in mid-March.
In an interview with NFL Network during Super Bowl festivities in Arizona Thursday afternoon, Tillman expressed his interest in returning to the Bears, but also said he would not be opposed to signing with another team. According to the veteran, all organizations are of equal interest at the moment.
Due to age and the fact that he has only played in ten games over the span of two years, he’ll come cheap, which could present an excellent opportunity for the Saints. Tillman is educated, well-spoken, a vocal leader and could really assist in the development of the younger defensive backs while also adding depth to the thin corner position.
Of course, like Champ Bailey, the tread left on Tillman’s tires is limited, but the remainder of his time in the NFL is a bit more promising. In 2012, he tallied 86 combined tackles, a staggering ten forced fumbles, 16 passed defended, three interceptions and a career-high three defensive touchdowns — good for first-team All-Pro.
In just the eight games he played in 2013, Tillman recorded 41 combined tackles, six passes defended, three forced fumbles and another three interceptions. I think his ability to perform at a high level is still there — it’s staying healthy that will be the challenge.
Charles Tillman presents risk, but it’s one the New Orleans Saints should consider taking. Veteran leadership is an ingredient for success — the Black and Gold must address their need for influence, so why not the 2009 Ed Block Courage Award recipient and 2013 Walter Payton Man of the Year?