Prior to the eve of free agency this winter, Saints T Jon Stinchcomb was at Walt Disney World on a family vacation. Prior to a week of rest, rides and recreation, he had spent significant time weighing his options. However, looking at the opportunities which he had been afforded as a Saint and viewing the potential for the future, the right tackle, who has started 48 consecutive regular season games for the Saints, quickly agreed to a new five-year contract at the start of the signing period.
A 4.0 student in high school and all-academic selection at the University of Georgia, who has considered the possibility of attending medical school after his playing career, Stinchcomb laid out the reasons to stay. The positives of strong camaraderie, an explosive offense and the man behind the trigger were enough reasons for him to want to remain a Saint.
"The primary factor for my return is that this offensive line and this meeting room is a lot of fun," said Stinchcomb. "Another thing that goes along with that is Drew Brees. If you have the opportunity to work with someone who is truly special like that, you can't pass up that situation. He is a great quarterback and great person. This offensive line, the meeting room and Drew Brees made it a no-brainer and the other factors fell into place."
Originally picked by the Saints in the second round of the 2003 NFL Draft, Stinchcomb's career in New Orleans got off to a slow start as he appeared in only ten games his first two seasons, playing primarily on special teams as he was one of the team's hardest workers in the weight room and the meeting room. In 2005, Stinchcomb was competing in training camp for a starting spot opposite first round draft pick Jammal Brown and poised for a breakthrough, when adversity hit him in the form of a ruptured right patella tendon suffered on the practice fields which would sideline him for the entire season.
Forced to impress a brand new coaching staff in 2006 with a very limited professional resume, Stinchcomb proceeded to do exactly that. Since Sean Payton became head coach, the six-year veteran has taken nearly every snap on the right side opposite Brown. During this period, the Saints offense has been ranked first in the NFL two of the three seasons and the line has surrounded only 52 sacks, tied for the lowest total allowed in the league.
"Jon is a smart and dedicated player," said Payton. "He excels in the meeting room, in the weight room and on the field. He is a player you can count on."
Although much of the buzz in 2008, surrounded Brees' near NFL record-breaking 5,069 passing yardage totals, a large part of that can be attributed to his protectors up front. After allowing only 16 sacks in 2007, the line consisting of Stinchcomb, Brown, guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks and center Jonathan Goodwin gave up a franchise-low 13 takedowns, the third lowest total in the league. In a display of the consistency, no individual opposing player ever had multiple sacks in a game against the line. Stinchcomb credits this to the strong relationship both on and off the field that he and his linemates have forged amongst themselves and with their quarterback.
"We spend a lot of time on protections," said Stinchcomb. We have a lot of trust in the adjustments that Drew might want to make and the calls that he makes. For the past three years, anytime you're at the top of the heap, you're going to see every variety of defense that you can that they can throw at you. We really have to work through a lot of protections and have trust in each other."
Stinchcomb is also quick to credit the reason for him being able to do his job so well to being able to work with nearly the same group of people year after year. In an age of free agency, the Saints front office has successfully kept the line almost completely intact, losing only one starter to free agency during this period, while also continuing to inject new talent throughout the draft. While Stinchcomb and Evans have started every game over this period, occasional injuries have occurred on other parts of the line, but capable backups have been able to fill in with none or limited drop-off. Stinchcomb attributes this to the continuity and the presence of backups with starting experience such as Jamar Nesbit and Zach Strief and the newly acquired C Heath Evans/Nick Leckey.aspx">Nick Leckey.
"There's a lot of carryover game to game," said Stinchcomb of the continuity which is rare in today's NFL. "To see the fact that our top seven or eight guys has changed very little with the exception of Jeff Faine and one or two other changes, ultimately our room has stayed the same. I think that's vital, because we've seen some of the same things. We've experienced the problems that some teams have given to us. Now we know the adjustments to overcome that. That just comes with the experience of playing together."
Now that a new contract has been signed and another offseason has begun, Stinchcomb has put 2008 in the rearview mirror and he and the line now have blinders on for the challenges of 2009. While they have worked with Brees, the perimeter players and the coaching staff on typical offseason tweaks for the passing games, a big point of emphasis has been in the running game. In 2008, the offense finished the season tied for 18th in the NFL with New England in third and short rushing first down percentage (66.7). Increasing that percentage of conversions in key situations has become a point of emphasis in on-field and meeting room work with newly promote offensive line coach Aaron Kromer.
"We all have our own deficiencies," said Stinchcomb. "You start with that. For the offseason, you try to work with what you struggled with in the previous season. As a group, our focus is short yardage and those critical situations where we fell short last year. The run game in general is something we're focused on and we also want to keep our passing game at the top of the league. We definitely have our work cut out for us."