Alvin Kamara is the smart kid in class.
His understanding of the game comes easy. He's the guy who spits out the wordy play calls in the huddle easily and can put everyone on task quickly and concisely. But there are times when his mind wanders, and it isn't always entirely clear that he's digested the information or is even paying attention.
"Coach (Joel) Thomas, I'm talking to him, and I'm like, 'Yo, just chill, I got it,'" Kamara said. "A lot of times, they're trying to tell me, 'Hey, you've got this, or you've got this on this play.' I'm like, 'I got it.' It may seem like I don't because I'm kind of like, I just got to try to have fun and keep it light."
Sure enough, when the time comes, Kamara has it. His combination of talent and intelligence caused Sean Payton to compare Kamara to Marshall Faulk, who Payton coached at San Diego State. Payton noted they're different runners, so the comparison doesn't fully apply on the field, but it does as far as being supremely talented and incredibly smart.
But still, a couple of years ago, Payton began to look for ways to help the running back lock-in during meetings and maintain focus.
"Have you ever seen the fidget things you have that you spin, fidget spinners?" Payton said. "We gave him one of those where you start spinning that little thing."
Kamara laughed, recalling that moment. "Sean's funny," he said.
Kamara's mental and physical ability have meshed in a way that has gotten him off to an incredible start to the season. He's currently on pace for 2,197 yards from scrimmage and more than 16 touchdowns (his 824 yards lead the NFL). If he keeps this up and the league is open to looking at a non-quarterback again, Kamara will have a strong case to be the Offensive Player of the Year.
Those two things came together during last week's game on a third-down play when Kamara somehow had the mental wherewithal to dance up the sideline and keep a foot inbounds while getting hit and stretching for the first-down marker. When asked about it after the game, the running back said he took a snapshot of the field in his mind as he approached the sideline and stretched for the first down.
"In the run game, the screen game, the pass game, he's just such a dynamic player who can do so many things," Drew Brees said. "So, from game to game, obviously you know he's going to be active. Whether it's going to be huge contributions in the run game or the pass game or whatever, he's been a bit of a human highlight reel so far this season."
Kamara is spinning right now. If he finds a way to keep it going and the defense starts playing better, New Orleans will be difficult to stop.
What would it take for Kamara to win Offensive Player of the Year?
A handful of running backs have won the award since 2000. So, there is a precedent which could help Kamara take home the award if he maintains his pace. Here’s a look at those winners and their production during those seasons.
• 2000: Faulk – 2,189 yards from scrimmage, 26 touchdowns
• 2001: Faulk – 2,147 yards, 21 touchdowns
• 2002: Priest Holmes – 2,287 yards, 24 touchdowns
• 2003: Jamal Lewis – 2,271 yards, 14 touchdowns
• 2005: Shaun Alexander – 1,958 yards, 28 touchdowns
• 2006: LaDainian Tomlinson – 2,323 yards, 31 touchdowns
• 2009: Chris Johnson – 2,509 yards, 16 touchdowns
• 2012: Adrian Peterson – 2,314 yards, 13 touchdowns
• 2014: DeMarco Murray – 2,261 yards, 13 touchdowns
• 2017: Todd Gurley – 2,093 yards, 19 touchdowns
If Kamara maintains his pace, he’d be right where he needs to be to claim the award.
NOT THE CALLS
It should be fairly evident to anyone watching these games that the calls the team is making on defense are not the reason behind the busted coverages and lapses in the red zone.
Asking your defense to play Cover 2 or having a slot cornerback drop into a zone coverage isn't being too complicated. Those are execution issues, and Sean Payton alluded to that this week when discussing the problems the red-zone defense is facing.
"So, it begins with defending tight quarters more aggressively," Payton said. "We've had a couple calls. That's not the discussion. The discussion is being able to play the defense called, contest the throws and understand what we're trying to take away and fit properly. That's the key, and I think that will be important in this game, just as the third-down matchup."
This defense still has the skill and ability to improve – and do so rapidly. The players need to start executing and stop making foolish mistakes. While it might appear otherwise, the task is not impossible. The defense has improved against bootlegs after a rough start against them early in the year, and some of the Cover 3 responsibilities have gotten sorted out after previous mix-ups.
The team still believes in the talent it has and thinks those players will find a way out of the slow start.
"That's simple," Marcus Davenport said. "Of course we have the players. The coaches put us in the best positions that they can, we just gotta harp in on the details. That's what we're going to do. We got the right people."
Time will tell if the defense can iron everything out.
The Saints are going to have a more challenging time getting open against the Bears.
There is never a good time to be without your top receivers, but at least the team knew what to expect against the Panthers. Carolina plays zone coverage almost exclusively, which meant New Orleans only needed to figure out ways to get its players into soft spots to move the ball.
This week, against the Bears, the players will have to figure out how to beat press coverage. Chicago plays a lot of Cover 4 with press technique and is one of the league's top units in passer rating allowed. Having Michael Thomas back would alleviate a lot of the potential pain, but even he would have to be moving well enough to rack up wins.
If Deonte Harris or Tre' Quan Smith are leaned upon to take on bigger roles this week (Update: they will be with Marquez Callaway and Michael Thomas ruled out), they'll have to fight a little harder to win their matchups. This could be another week where establishing the run is key.
MORE PRAISE FOR MICKEY LOOMIS
Mickey Loomis doesn't get the credit he deserves. He has been one of the better general managers in the NFL over the last several decades, lasting longer than most, all while posting an enviable winning percentage. Loomis' 166-122 record (.576 winning percentage) and ability to stick in New Orleans since 2002 puts him on a list with some of the more decorated executives in league history.
The only contemporaries who can even come close to comparing to him and have logged 12 or more years in one spot are New England's Bill Belichick (.695 winning career percentage), Pittsburgh's Kevin Colbert (.641) and Minnesota's Rick Spielman (.522). Atlanta's Thomas Dimitroff (.567) was also on the list until being relieved of his duties this year.
Even looking at some of the all-time greats like Tex Schramm (.598), Carl Peterson (.550), Ozzie Newsome (.534) and George Young (.524), Loomis holds up well.
Another trophy or two could solidify his standing. The winning record is already there.
SEAN PAYTON'S COACHING STYLE
I think we saw a true moment of brilliance from Payton this week.
Everyone was quick to chalk up Payton tweeting an image of someone pedaling a bicycle backward to Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio. Florio had authored a report floating the idea of a possible Thomas trade and then later walked it back to say New Orleans wasn't interested in making a deal.
On the first report, Payton tweeted in reply to it, "Insiders on the outside where they belong." The second one got the image in reply.
Nick has covered the Saints since 2014, except for that one year when he took a very long vacation.