How appropriate that the Saints are on the clock as revelers begin their annual pilgrimage to New Orleans to kick off Mardi Gras.
It is quite common that one of the teams from the previous super bowl fails to make the playoffs the next year. The Seahawks slipped after 05, the Bears didn't make it back after they lost to the Colts in 06, the Pats were sunk when Brady went down after their title run in 08 and Pittsburgh 'didn't take care of business' in 10.
Last fall, most prognosticators would have picked the Saints to be the ones to fade.
The Saints proved their mettle and bucked the trend. After a couple of odious losses at Arizona and two weeks later at home to Cleveland, the Saints ripped 6 straight and were the hottest team in football. Over a brutal closing schedule with games against Baltimore, Atlanta and Tampa Bay, the Saints showed cracks in the armor dropping 2 of 3, setting up a road playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, the first ever 7-9 playoff team.
We all know what happened next. Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks ran all over the Saints (literally) shocking the fans in the big easy who must have choked on their gumbo as they watched usually feeble Seattle put up 41 points and end their dreams of a repeat.
Season in Review:
A lot of reports and rumors were circulating that the Saints spent too much time on Bourbon Street. I don't doubt that one bit, but saying the Saints' demise came about over a few too many Cajun Martinis, Voodoo Bloody Mary's or N'awlins Hurricanes is overblown (one bar actually has a drink called the Katrina - that is messed up). In truth, it was totally unrealistic to assume the Saints wouldn't experience a let down. They should never have been true title contenders this past year because they were held to unfair standards after last season's fairy tale scripted run when in reality they were a decent playoff team.
Everything went right for the Saints in 2009, even that stupid on-side kick. They could do no wrong. So this year, when starters went down with injury and their back-ups weren't that good, or when Brees proved to be a bit erratic or Sean Payton's calls weren't as magical, people started grasping for things to blame. 11-5 was actually a fair representation of the Saints' caliber. A few drinks and late night outs enjoying the Big Easy's famous jazz had nothing to do with it.
They had quality wins over Pittsburgh and Atlanta and suffered humiliating losses at Arizona and Seattle. 11-5 is a good record but its not special and after last season anything sort of magical wouldn't do.
Offseason Momentum: A hard reevaluation of where the Saints stand
The Saints played only slightly below expectations last year. If it weren't for a staggering loss at Seattle during their wildcard playoff matchup, the Saints would have ended up about right. Could they have beaten Chicago? Yeah sure, I don't see why not, but going much further in the playoffs was unlikely.
The Saints have survived with a brevity of talent (other than Drew Brees of course) by using schemes and a pass-happy, spread-the-field offense to create mismatches and advantages.
The Colts and Saints differ as to how they make the most of young inexperienced players. The Colts let Peyton Manning pound information and routes into receivers' heads until finally, after the millionth rep, they get it. The Saints don't develop the player as much. Coach Sean Payton exploits mismatches and using the player's talent to his advantage. Neither is right or wrong, as both models have proven successful, but by not focusing on the development of the player, it puts a lot more pressure on Sean Payton's creative play calling abilities. When players like Reggie Bush go down or when defenses finally catch up, the Lance Moore's and Robert Meachem's aren't as effective because they are scheme players and don't have the ability to compensate.
New Orleans is at the point (especially if they lose Bush and now that they've lost Shockey in free agency) that they are desperate for an influx of talent. If the Saints want to remain a top 10 team, which they probably will this year anyway, they will need playmakers on both sides of the ball - especially offense - to keep up with the other elites.
The Saints need to find players who are good enough to take over games without Drew Brees or Sean Payton's help.
Offseason Anxiety: Is the Saints' brand/strategy stale?
Sean Payton is a good coach. The problem is, he reminds you of a college coach who takes the league by storm and then loses his luster. You know, programs like Texas Tech or Hawaii that open up the playbook and spread it around. The Quarterbacks' numbers are so highly inflated (not the case here) and the coach is the darling of the nation. Oregon could be the next to succumb to such a fate. After 2 or 3 years those coaches and their systems are figured out and they fall to the fringes of the top 25 ranks. The hope (with the Saints too) is that all the media attention (and in their case the draw of New Orleans) will bring in top recruits and fresh talent and keep them in the top 10 in the league.
Look at Drew Brees. In 2009 Brees threw 34 touchdowns compared to 33 this year. Where's the drop off you say, right? Its in the interceptions. Brees' 2009 numbers doubled, up from 11 during their super bowl run to 22 this past season. Granted he threw the ball about 80 more times, but that is because the running game disappeared. Two years ago New Orleans dazzled the fans with 21 rushing touchdowns including a few spectacular diving plays by Reggie Bush. This year, the group had 9. Chris Ivory is not a bad back, but he is not a workhorse either.
Defensively same story. During their magical season the unit was incredibly opportunistic and made every play when called upon, including the Interceptions of Farve in the NFC title game and that damn pick 6 in the super bowl.
This year? Only 33 sacks and 9 interceptions compared with 35 sacks and 26 interceptions the year before. Those 15 more interceptions may explain that super bowl ring....
It doesn't mean the Saints are going to fade into oblivion, but with defenses are starting to figure the Saints' out, New Orleans needs to be bringing in, not losing, playmakers.
Draft Desires: Explosive playmakers
In terms of acquiring talent, big Shaun Rodgers was a smart first step. He is certainly only a shadow of his former self (a very big shadow I might add), but his acquisition could do wonders to shore up a leaky rush defense.
Before the draft, DT was the team's biggest concern. They filled that with Rogers although it wouldn't be shocking if they selected hometown hero LSU big man Drake Nevis for the future.
Safety is another need, but its a weak class so they pass on that position as well. Same goes for running back.
My bet is that the Saints trade out of the first round and snag both a safety and a running back in round 2.
Illinois RB Mikel Leshoure or Ryan Williams would be great additions to the offense, while Quinton Carter from Oklahoma would provide exactly what the Saints are looking for in the secondary.
Free Agent Farewells: Already lost Shockey to a division foe
For a team needing to go out and get talent, this free agency period is an absolute nightmare. The Saints have one of the longest lists of free agents in the league with starters across the board set to head north (Yet another reason why the Saints' should stockpile draft picks). If they don't aggressively resign half their current free agents, the nightmare could turn into reality and the Saints' might really stumble.
One player that Colts' fans should hope the Saints don't resign is Jermon Bushrod. There were rumors last year that the Colts' showed interest in Bushrod. If we could get him a year later without having to give up draft picks or our own young talent, that would be quite the steal and would really go a long way towards solving our line issues as Bushrod is an up-and-coming left tackle.
Threat to the Stampede: We play the NFC South
We play the NFC South so of course the threat that they beat us again is high. The Saints' are still (depending on free agency) a damn good team. As a Colts' fan I would love nothing more than for the Colts to sign away Bushrod and then watch Freeney and Mathis run wild all day, asserting pay back for robbing Peyton of his second super bowl MVP and Lombardi trophy in the process.
Saints are probably good for 10-11 wins and a 3rd consecutive trip to the playoffs. A return to the super bowl? Unlikely.