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tiggerpolice 08-08-2005 08:15 AM

Sheppard's job: Make Saints' offense more effective with les
Sheppard's job: Make Saints' offense more effective with less

Special to The Advocate

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS
New Orleans Saints new offensive coordinator Mike Sheppard, right, directs practice Friday at the Saints training camp.
METAIRIE -- Mike Sheppard's job this season is simple: take the most productive offense in Saints history and make it more efficient.
Sheppard was promoted to offensive coordinator after three seasons as quarterbacks coach to replace Mike McCarthy, who resigned to become the 49ers' offensive coordinator.

Under McCarthy's guidance, New Orleans ranked 10th, 10th, 19th, 11th and 15th in the NFL in total offense, an unprecedented high level of consistency for this franchise. In the offseason, coach Jim Haslett assigned Sheppard the task of streamlining the playbook, simplifying and expediting communication from the sideline to the huddle, and ultimately scoring more points.

The Saints made a similar adjustment on defense during last season and the significant improvement that resulted on that side of the ball was a major reason New Orleans won its last four games.

"We've been pretty good around here on offense," Sheppard said. "Jim's focus and therefore our focus was to reduce it like the defense and try and cut down on the verbiage so it's easier to call.

"I know Jim feels the way we simplified things had something to do with the way our defense played at the end of last year. I think he'd like to see the same sort of thing out of us."

Despite the offense's success, which included an NFC-best 432 points in 2002 -- one of four of the franchise's top 10 point totals accumulated during McCarthy's tenure -- at times it resembled a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none attack.

"We recognize that coaches tend to be in the office all offseason and for long hours and they have a tendency to maybe create more and more and more," tight end Ernie Conwell said. "I understand their challenge.

"It's like a chess game with all 11 pieces moving at the same time. There are endless variables. It can go on and on and on. I think coaches have to get to the point where they say this is what our identity is, this is what we believe in. You have to get an identity and then stick to it. I think we're really trying to do that this offseason and training camp."

That identity, which Sheppard said will evolve throughout the season, includes being committed to the running game (and improving it from 27th in the NFL last season) to set up play-action passes and use three-step drops on first and second down.

Shepperd has tried to zero in on what the team does best without becoming too predictable and easy to defend.

"The magic you always want as a coach," Sheppard said, "is having enough in your scheme to where you can attack every defense and feel good about it if you get into a game and somebody changes up on you, you know what to go to and you've got it there.

"But the magic between that and having maybe more than you need, that's what we tried to do -- pare it back to where we have what we need and no more than that. We feel like the players can be more effective with less."

The Saints' verbose terminology was one reason they had the most penalty yards (1,141) and tied for the second-most penalties (129) in the NFL last season.

This year New Orleans has a more succinct way of communicating the personnel group and play call from Sheppard in the press box, to quarterbacks coach Turk Schonert on the sideline, to the quarterback, who will have all the plays written on his wristband, in the huddle.

For example, Sheppard would communicate this to quarterback Aaron Brooks, through Schonert: "Aaron, you're in zebra, one-sixty, one, six, zero." That tells Brooks the personnel group and play, which he can double-check on the wristband. He then repeats the play number to the rest of the offense, presumably with additional time to survey the defense than was the case last season.

"Hopefully it will make everybody's job a little bit easier and therefore we'll be more effective," Sheppard said. "I think it's harder when you're thinking and when there are a lot of words and a lot of plays it can be harder."

Haslett said he hopes the modifications will help the offense get into a rhythm more quickly than last season when New Orleans failed to score on its first possession in any game.

This is officially Sheppard's third stint as an NFL offensive coordinator.

He held that position in Buffalo in 2001 and the Bills finished 13th in total offense. He had the same title in San Diego (1997-98), but he said coach Kevin Gilbride ran the offense. The Chargers were 19th and 24th in offense those two seasons.

Brooks, who was tutored by Sheppard the last three seasons, said the Saints made the right choice after looking around at other candidates before promoting from within.

"It made a lot of sense not to go outside and bring somebody in," Brooks said. "Somebody from the outside probably would have wanted to do something different in terms of changing the whole offense. With the players we have on our football team there's no need to change the concept of what we're doing.

"So we just refined our concepts and Shep being a good coach and great listener, it was only right for him to get it. He deserved it. He's worked his butt off and we've had constant communications every week for the last three years and I was very pleased that he got the job."

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