You wouldn’t think a team that’s won 37 games the last three years, a team that just signed its franchise quarterback to a record-setting deal, a team that set so many records would be this low.
But this has been no ordinary offseason for the New Orleans Saints.
They might have kept quarterback Drew Brees and retained most of the key parts that have made them successful, but there were losses.
Coach Sean Payton will miss the season for his bounty suspension, and we’ll find out in a hurry, as it were, that if you kill the head, the body in fact dies.
Well, the biggest one was settled when quarterback Drew Brees signed that five-year, $100 million contract.
Getting Brees taken care of was simply the key to the Saints’ attempts to hold this thing together in the absence of head coach Sean Payton.
All he did last year was throw for a league-record 5,476 yards, completing a record 71.2 percent of his passes, while throwing 46 touchdowns. This year, the job will be harder without Payton, and while it would be foolish to say they won’t miss their head coach, in Brees’ hands the Saints are better covered than most would be.
Not many teams can lose a deep-threat wide receiver such as Robert Meachem (who signed a four-year, $25.9 million contract with the Chargers) and not miss a beat, but that’s how deep the Saints are.
Throw in matchup-nightmare tight end Jimmy Graham, and Brees has plenty of places to throw the ball, which is the thing they’re going to lean on.
Through attrition or suspension, the defense took a lot of hits.
Gone through traditional means are cornerback Tracy Porter (Denver) and underrated linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar (St. Louis). Suspended for all or part of the year are linebacker Jonathan Vilma (all season) and defensive end Will Smith (four games).
Defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Turk McBride will have to elevate their game, as the Saints line accounted for a mere 16.5 sacks last year, a number that will have to go up if they’re going to play the way they want to play.
The Saints safeties aren’t as good as their reputations, and the entire secondary may benefit from being asked to play more zone this year. Roman Harper’s a guy who plays for the big hit, but has been exposed in coverage.
Well, aside from missing their head coach for the year, their General Manager for eight games, their interim coach for six games and several key defensive players?
Oh, not much.
Actually, bringing Steve Spagnuolo to replace Greg Williams at defensive coordinator will be a fundamental shift for the Saints.
Spagnuolo isn’t going to run the same kind of blitz-happy scheme Williams called, and that could be to the benefit of the personnel on hand. He’s going to rely on his front four to get his pass rush, same as he did when he was coordinator with the New York Giants. He doesn’t have nearly the personnel he did there, especially without Will Smith for the first month, and will be tasked to be more creative to make up for it.
The Saints also have to make up for the loss of left guard Carl Nicks, who signed a five-year, $47.5 million contract to skip to division rival Tampa Bay. They did sign Ben Grubbs from Baltimore to replace him, and Grubbs isn’t a bad player. But Nicks was dominant, and the kind of player who leaves a void. The Saints’ line as a whole is still very good, but will take time to gel.
On most teams, an unsettled running back position would be a bigger deal. But the Saints ran the ball just 431 times against 662 pass attempts.
Still, it’ll be interesting to see how former first-round trade-up Mark Ingram responds, and if he makes the job his own. They’re still going to use Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, but Ingram’s a different kind of back, who could lend some degree of balance to the game plan if he can hold off the competition.
They also have to make a decision at kicker. Garrett Hartley would seem to be the guy, but veteran John Kasay stepped in and set a franchise record for points scored, giving the Saints a trustworthy option. Unlike the Panthers, who stupidly cut him, the Saints don’t care if the 42-year-old Kasay can kick off since they have a punter in Thomas Morstead who can do that.
This will be a fascinating study in the power of leadership.
Without Sean Payton, the Saints will be different, no matter how good Brees is at what he does. It’s the oversight, the collaboration that made the two work so well together.
Payton wouldn’t have won a Super Bowl with Aaron Brooks, and Brees probably wouldn’t have won one with Jim Haslett.
Together, they work.
They get to open at home against Washington, and the Who-Dats will doubtless be lathered up and emotional at the perceived persecution.
But what happens after the hurt feelings heal? Can they keep that edge and use their martyr status as motivation for an entire season.
Make no mistake, the Saints aren’t much less talented than they were a year ago.
But they are very different at the top, and that matters.