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Kamara: The Evolution of the Joker

Kamara: The Evolution of the Joker

I know the draft happened only a few months ago, but I remember where I was when we drafted Alvin Kamara. After 36 hours of increasing fan/blogger/twitter/reddit/pundit frenzy around the Saints drafting a defensive end to bolster the pass rush, a magical thing happened: I got on the carousel.

It’s night two of the NFL draft, the Saints had already gone three picks without taking a pass rusher (Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramcyzk, and Marcus Williams) and instead of watching the draft, I joined my sister, her husband, and my two adorable nieces for the Zoo to Do, which is basically a carnival for children at the Audubon Zoo. Meanwhile, I’ve got my football-obsessed group chat and Twitter up on my phone and try to balance my attention appropriate to the situation.

As a doting uncle, I’m obligated for two, maybe 10, rides any time there’s a carousel, so as I’m mounting the white tiger, I steal a glance at my phone; it’s about 8:30, the Saints have just traded up in the third round to grab an extra pick at 67, the carousel starts turning and I’m forced to put my phone away and spin around in a circle a few times before I can find out who the Saints selected.

When I’m finally able to check my phone again, it turns out that the Saints didn’t draft a pass rusher, but instead they took Alvin Kamara (RB), and all I could do was laugh. In the face of mounting pressure to do the obvious thing, Sean Payton…doesn’t.

For the first time in years, Sean Payton’s swagger appears in a way that doesn’t feel forced. Of course he traded up in the draft, giving up a future second round pick, to finally replace Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles.

The most shocking thing is that it took this long.

Evolving the Joker

Look, do we need a combination of Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush in an offense that already has Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson? OF COURSE WE DO. The satellite back, the joker, is the most critical part of Sean Payton’s genius.

All but forced to take Reggie Bush with the second overall pick to start his tenure as head coach, Payton made Bush our defining skill player from 2006-2010. Of course, Bush never lived up to the impossible hype that comes along with being the second overall pick in the draft, and a huge part of the fan base hated him for that.

Reggie was hard to watch sometimes because expectations, his ceaseless potential, and the memory of his college heyday vastly overshadowed his on-the-field contributions as a Saint. He was a superstar that never materialized.

Still, he had shining moments (the historic bat game, the time he almost had three punt return touchdowns in a game, etc.)

Then came Darren Sproles, who burned hot and fast in the Saints’ offense. His 2011 performance is so staggeringly good, his integration into the system so complete, that it’s hard to remember that he wasn’t actually on the squad that won a title.

The transition to Sproles was so seamless that it came as a shock when the Saints failed to replace him after Sproles was traded in the first great blood-letting, in 2013.

Between Travaris Cadet and C.J. Spiller, watching the Saints try to plug the hole left by Bush and Sproles with broken and inadequate players has contributed to the malaise around this team. The Saints are better — and more importantly more exciting — when they have a reliable joker on the field.

It’s not hard science, but since the beginning of the Sean Payton Era, the Saints have played 107 games with a joker back and 69 without.

Win Percentage with Joker:

With Joker: .617 or 9.8 wins per season
Without Joker: .507 or 8.1 wins per season

For obvious reasons, when C.J. Spiller was on the field, it counts as no joker.

More importantly, there’s only been four seasons in which the joker (again that’s Bush and Sproles) have played the full 16 game seasons: 2006, 2009, 2011, 2013. In those seasons, the Saints have averaged 11.75 wins — they were the best four seasons of the era. For better context, the average number of wins for Saints teams with an injured joker or no joker at is…you guessed it…7.7. All five of the team’s 7 win seasons came without a player like Kamara — he’s important.

Keeping Sean Engaged

What if Alvin Kamara is a hybrid of Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush? Wouldn’t that be worth a future second round pick? Wouldn’t it be worth passing on some bust at defensive end? Wouldn’t it be worth it to engage the creative side of Sean Payton’s brain?

If you ever absorb the way media members talk about Sean Payton, it’s as if every player (especially the satellite back) is a new layer of encryption in his game plan. The more tools the player has, the more complicated the code. Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles unlocked the fiercest combination. Individually, they were very good players; on the field together, with Sean Payton manipulating the offense? Unstoppable.

Dynamic players are worth far more than their face value. Looking back, the difference between the best and worst Saints teams often boils down to one thing: Sean Payton’s interest. See, Payton is the smartest kid in class…but he also has ADD. If the offensive skill players are competent, Payton can still run circles around the average head coach, but as soon as his attention wanes, the offense gets stagnant and the result is the occasional atrocious performance against a nobody. Even in great Saints seasons, there’s always the 2010 Cleveland game, the 2011 St. Louis game — lackluster performances that look more like a preseason game plan than anything we’d expect from the most gifted offensive mind on the planet.

Think back to the glories of 2011: the bright embers of “We Make the Rules, Pal” blazed as the Saints went out and broke nearly every meaningful NFL offensive record in a game that didn’t count.

That record-breaking season, one of the most fun in franchise history, was driven by a great offensive line, a satellite back, and a YOLO player — Drew Brees trusted the athleticism of Jimmy Graham so much that he made impossible throws more often than at any point in his career.

In the 2017 offseason, the Saints spent considerable resources bulking up their offensive line, put Michael Thomas in a position to take Graham’s YOLO crown, and drafted Alvin Kamara.

The combination of Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara gives these Saints the highest ceiling of any Saints offense since 2011. I don’t want put too much pressure on the young guys, but C’MON, I’m tired of 7-9.

Let’s go be great.

Author

Ryan Chauvin

A native of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but with a surname that indicates his importance to the history of a tiny town in South Louisiana, Ryan Chauvin currently lives in Houston, TX, doing general (read: non-sports) internet things. Ryanwas on Jimmy(!)’s bandwagon before it was cool, and has never predicted that the Saints will lose a game.