The NFL wanted to make an example out of the Saints. The Saints have instead become an example for how an organization can overcome adversity, regardless of its source or legitimacy.
The first road playoff win in Saints franchise history would have been significant regardless of when it happened. That it happened one year after the league office delivered a potentially crippling blow to the team makes it even more impressive.
Apart from coach Sean Payton being suspended for a year, the NFL stripped the Saints of a pair of second-round draft picks. And while rules technically were broken, the 22-page, single-spaced ruling from former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue overturning all player discipline carried a subtle-but-potent rebuke of his successor for addressing a cultural issue in the NFL not by giving everyone a fair chance to adapt to a new reality but by hammering the one team out of 32 that happened to be caught with a hand in the bounty jar.
Publicly, Saints have at all times taken the high road during the first season after Payton’s suspension. Privately, the franchise surely took extra satisfaction in Saturday night’s win, especially since it was witnessed by Commissioner Roger Goodell, who was sitting with the Eagles.
It wasn’t just the bounty scandal that plagued the organization in 2012. The defense was among the worst in league history under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, prompting Payton as his first order of business upon returning to dump Spagnulo and the 4-3 defense and switch to the 3-4.
It worked, even with several starters landing on injured reserve throughout the season — defensive end Kenyon Coleman, cornerback Jabari Greer, cornerback Patrick Robinson, linebacker Will Smith, safety Kenny Vaccaro, and linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
Meanwhile, no-name undrafted players have stepped up for the Saints this year, from running back Khiry Robinson (who chipped in 45 rushing yards on eight carries on Saturday) to tight end Josh Hill (who appeared in 14 regular-season games with three starts) to guard Tim Lelito (who appeared in all 16 regular-season games with two starts) to defensive end Glenn Foster (12 games) to defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker, who was discovered via a local tryout.
While the Saints, with a late-season win over the Rams in St. Louis, would have wrapped up the No. 2 seed and a divisional-round playoff game at home, the team known for winning at the Superdome and struggling elsewhere can now craft the opposite narrative. They’ll get a chance in six days to do just that with a return trip to Seattle, where guys like Richard Sherman surely will be sweating a bit beneath their bravado.