Only one Super Bowl winner repeated in the last decade – the 2004 New England Patriots. It’s been bleak for everyone else. No other team has returned to the Super Bowl or even reached the conference championship game. Four of the 10 teams failed to qualify for the playoffs, including the Pittsburgh Steelers last season.
The Lombardi Trophy hangover is real, even for teams that don’t have Bourbon Street a few blocks from their stadium. Whether it’s the lingering celebration, the loss of motivation or simply the increased demands (business and otherwise) the NFL is not kind to its champions.
So here come the New Orleans Saints, who open their “title defense” (a misnomer since they can’t “lose” their Super Bowl trophy) Thursday against the Minnesota Vikings. They have vowed, like everyone always does, to reverse the trend.
The best indication that the Saints might be different isn’t that they are saying the right things – "focus," "hunger," etc. It’s that they are saying the wrong things, or at least what some people might construe as brutish and unsportsmanlike.
The Saints are blessed to be opening against the Vikings in a rematch of the heated, dramatic NFC title game. That game ended with a Saints victory, a hurt ankle on Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre(notes) and hurt feelings across the Vikings locker room. The Saints defense was accused of dirty play, late hits and purposely trying to injure Favre, among others.
“I understand a quarterback’s going to get hit, people are going to get hit,” Vikings coach Brad Childress reiterated this week. “It’s football. I don’t have any illusions about that. What I hate to see are late hits or attempts to hurt anybody. I don’t think there’s a place for that in the game.”
The accusations angered the Saints all offseason. They insist that while they play aggressive – tacking through the whistle – they do nothing illegal. (Although defensive end Anthony Hargrove(notes) was hit with a $5,000 fine for one hit on Favre.)
“I think that we play with an attitude and a swagger and a confidence level that is within the rules and I like the way we play,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.
The bad feelings intensified when the NFL schedule was released last spring and the Vikings-Saints became the season opener. Since then, the Saints defense has not only refused to apologize, they’ve raised the stakes. They aren’t shying away from the tough play talk.
“We have to send messages to every offense about how physical it's going to be when they play us," defensive coordinator Gregg Williams told USA Today. "Those messages are out there, starting with No. 4."
No. 4 being Brett Favre.
“Well y'all seen Brett had surgery on that ankle we got after in the championship game. Come Thursday night 1st game. X marks the spot.”
Favre has refused to take the bait, saying he had no problem with how the Saints played. His teammates are less forgiving. Defensive end Jared Allen(notes) dubbed Williams as a purveyor of “meathead comments.” Running back Adrian Peterson promised it’s the Vikings who are “going to be the ones delivering the blows.”
The Saints have fired back arguing Favre gets preferential treatment and calling him “bitter.”
Around and around it has gone. And for the Saints, that’s a good thing.
The trash talk and X-marks-the-spot lines are unnecessary and probably ineffective – guys have been trying to knock Iron Man Brett out of games for two decades. They do serve a purpose by both adding focus and ferocity to the Saints' preparation.
For all of the pyrotechnics of Drew Brees(notes) and the offense (best in the league last year), the Saints needed their physical, in-your-face defense to create victories. Their point differential was a league-high 10.6 points a game.
This isn’t the NFL’s most talented defense. It can’t just turn it on the way Baltimore or San Francisco or the New York Jets can. It lacks the personnel. The Saints need a chip on their shoulder in order to thrive. They are at their best when they are bitter, aggressive and playing with something to prove.
Attempting to silence the Vikings may be just what they needed. It might explain why Williams was willing to fuel the controversy with his summer comments.
Motivation is motivation, and when it comes to Super Bowl champions it isn’t always easy to find.
“Most of the challenges become internal, dealing with success,” Payton said last summer.
An angry Saints defense is, presumably, not thinking about raised banners and roaring fans. They are ready for some football – smash-mouth style. The night is about the fight.
Ultimately it may not help against the Vikings. It should have little bearing on midseason or January.
Right now it can’t hurt though. It's a sign they are serious. After so many defending champs that weren't prepared for the season after the glory, maybe this shows the Saints actually are different.