For the first time in their checkered 43-year history, the New Orleans Saints are the hunted.
Even as a 13-3 division-winner last season, the Saints were never a total fit for that role in 2009. A team that had won a total of two postseason games in its history prior to last January was not really a prohibitive favorite to beat the Vikings in the NFC Championship, and was the underdog when they met the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.
Though the world acknowledged that the Saints were a high-quality and truly exciting team, there was not a consensus of belief in them until cornerback Tracy Porter was seen sprinting to the opposite end zone after picking off an errant Peyton Manning pass late in New Orleans’ 31-17 win over Indy.
But now, the expectations that the Saints may not have felt in those previous big-game situations are very much present, and the question is just how they’ll handle them.
Though unlike some of his coaching predecessors who have lifted the Lombardi Trophy, Saints head coach Sean Payton isn’t allergic to the word ’repeat,’ he also realizes that last year’s title is a guarantee of nothing.
“The process has to begin again, and it doesn’t pick up where you left off,” Payton told reporters after a recent training camp session. “I think identifying those challenges is one thing and that attacking them is another.”
The Saints encountered offseason challenges, both on and off the field.
From a personnel standpoint, Payton and GM Mickey Loomis sought to shore up the weakest part of last year’s squad, namely the hit-or-miss defense. While Gregg Williams’ unit forced a ton of turnovers that helped keep the team afloat, the Saints were also bottom-half of the league against both the run and pass.
So New Orleans shored up the front seven, bringing in end Alex Brown (ex- Bears), tackle Jimmy Wilkerson (ex-Buccaneers), and outside linebacker Clint Ingram (ex-Jaguars) to compete for jobs. They used a first-round draft choice on cornerback Patrick Robinson (Florida State), whose development could help former first-rounder Malcolm Jenkins transition smoothly to his natural position of safety.
Of course, they scarcely touched the offense, which seems like a prudent course of action when Drew Brees and company were borderline impossible for defenses to figure out or stop last season.
And it’s that side of the ball that will once again carry New Orleans’ hopes. For his part, Payton doesn’t seem to want to shy away from any dynasty talk.
“We’ve referred to this time frame as ’Our Time,’” said Payton, who has also had to endure questions about allegations of prescription drug misuse brought on by a former employee. “Last year represented a moment in that time and trying to take advantage of our opportunity and our window here and recognize that there’s only one team that has a chance to try to repeat.
“We understand the challenges that go with that.”
Below we take a capsule look at the 2010 edition of the New Orleans Saints, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2009 RECORD: 13-3 (1st, NFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2009, defeated Indianapolis, 31-17, in Super Bowl
COACH (RECORD): Sean Payton (38-26 in four seasons with Saints, 38-26 overall)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Pete Carmichael, Jr.
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Gregg Williams
OFFENSIVE STAR: Drew Brees, QB (4388 passing yards, 34 TD, 11 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Darren Sharper, S (71 tackles, 9 INT)
OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 6th rushing, 4th passing, 1st scoring
DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 21st rushing, 26th passing, 20th scoring
KEY ADDITIONS: QB Patrick Ramsey (from Lions), QB Sean Canfield (7th Round, Oregon State), TE Jimmy Graham (3rd Round, Miami-Florida), T Charles Brown (2nd Round, USC), DE Alex Brown (from Bears), DL Jimmy Wilkerson (from Buccaneers), LB Clint Ingram (from Jaguars), CB Patrick Robinson (1st Round, Florida State)
KEY DEPARTURES: QB Mark Brunell (to Jets), RB Mike Bell (to Eagles), FB Kyle Eckel (to Broncos), TE Dan Campbell (not tendered), TE Darnell Dinkins (not tendered), TE Billy Miller (not tendered), T Jammal Brown (to Redskins), G Jamar Nesbit (released), DE Charles Grant (to Dolphins), DE Paul Spicer (not tendered), DT Kendrick Clancy (not tendered), LB Scott Fujita (to Browns), LB Mark Simoneau (released)
QB: Any lingering questions about whether Brees was an elite NFL quarterback or just some kind of system wonder were answered in the 2009 postseason, when the veteran out-dueled Kurt Warner, Brett Favre, and Peyton Manning in consecutive games to win the city of New Orleans its first Super Bowl. At only 31 years of age, Brees should go from a borderline Hall of Famer to a lead-pipe cinch over the next few seasons. If he goes down, the Saints are probably toast, though it is worth noting that there will be a new figure in the backup role. Payton allowed Mark Brunell (now with the Jets) to walk and salvaged local hero Patrick Ramsey from the scrap heap to take his place. Ramsey has 24 NFL starts, but just one since 2004. Rookie Sean Canfield (Oregon State) will stick if the Saints keep three QBs.
RB: Though Brees and the passing attack spring immediately to mind when the Saints offense is mentioned, the team’s Top-10 NFL game running game has been a major component of the attack as well. There will be one change within that dynamic in 2010, as Mike Bell defected to the Eagles in free agency. The underrated Pierre Thomas (793 rushing yards, 39 receptions, 8 TD) will continue to serve as the lead back, with Reggie Bush (390 rushing yards, 47 receptions, 8 TD) as a scatback and pass-catcher. It looks like Lynell Hamilton (125 rushing yards, 2 TD) will be in line for more touches with Bell gone, but will have to prove his worth on special teams. Heath Evans (10 receptions, 3 TD) will play fullback, when the need arises, should he rebound from a knee injury that prematurely ended his 2009 season.
WR/TE: The Saints lost none of the major targets from their Super Bowl season, which should keep the passing game’s cash register ringing on a regular basis. Marques Colston (70 receptions, 9 TD) functions as the team’s No. 1 receiver, doing a lot of the dirty work in the middle of the field and helping the speedier Robert Meachem (45 receptions, 9 TD) and Devery Henderson (51 receptions, 2 TD) roam free. Colston went over 1,000 yards for the third time in his four-year career last season. Then there’s Lance Moore (14 receptions, 2 TD), whose ’09 was bogged down by injuries but is only two years removed from a 79-catch, 10-touchdown campaign. If all four players are healthy, look out. At tight end, Jeremy Shockey (48 receptions, 3 TD) is a role player, albeit a capable one, and David Thomas (35 receptions, 1 TD) is nearly his equal at this stage. Both could be pressed for playing time by third-round pick Jimmy Graham (Miami-Florida), a 6-6 specimen who drew rave reviews from Payton during the team’s mini-camps.
OL: Like Peyton Manning, Brees does an effective job of making his offensive line look good by getting rid of the football quickly. The trench group gave up just 20 sacks of a quarterback who put the ball in the air 514 times a year ago, and may have been even better in terms of run-blocking. The group returns intact, with still-developing left tackle Jermon Bushrod protecting Brees’ blind side, Jon Stinchcomb on the opposite end, and second-round pick Charles Brown (USC) likely serving as the swing tackle. On the interior, center Jonathan Goodwin and guards Carl Nicks (left side) and Jahri Evans (right side) are highly underrated, and were a major reason why both Pierre Thomas and Bush averaged more than five yards per carry in 2009. Re-signed backup Zach Strief and ex-Bear Terrence Metcalf would both be experienced reserves.
DL: The Saints clearly didn’t think they got enough consistency from their front four a year ago (the stats would bear that out), and altered the complexion of that group accordingly. At end, they added Alex Brown (48 tackles, 6 sacks with Chicago) to a group that already included Will Smith (49 tackles, 13 sacks) and Bobby McCray (12 tackles, 1.5 sacks). Brown was rarely spectacular in his seven years with Chicago, but hasn’t missed a game since he was a rookie and should be good for six or seven sacks. Wilkerson (46 tackles, 6 sacks with Tampa Bay) can play end or tackle and has 11 sacks over the past two years, but is also coming off a knee injury. New Orleans needs to get better on the interior, where Sedrick Ellis (34 tackles, 2 sacks) has yet to live up to his first-round billing and the likes of Anthony Hargrove (42 tackles, 5 sacks), Remi Ayodele (30 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and DeMario Pressley (15 tackles) don’t scare anyone. Keep an eye on fourth-round pick and local favorite Al Woods (LSU), who could insert himself into the equation with a solid camp.
LB: Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ greatest accomplishment in 2009 may have been his ability to get the most out of a very average group of linebackers. One of those overachievers, strongside backer Scott Fujita, parlayed his season into a free agent deal with the Browns. Fujita’s defection was the reason the Saints brought in Clint Ingram (52 tackles, 1 sack), but Ingram comes off knee surgery and will have to beat out holdover Jo-Lonn Dunbar (20 tackles). The rest of the LB corps looks like it will remain intact, with Jonathan Vilma (110 tackles, 3 INT, 2 sacks) solid but unspectacular in the middle and Scott Shanle (69 tackles, 2 INT) again taking his place on the weak side. Second-year man Jonathan Casillas (20 tackles) is back to provide a bit of depth.
DB: Though it’s not a move that figures to have any positive long-term consequences, the Saints’ decision to re-sign 34-year-old free safety Darren Sharper offers some good karma. Sharper was a brilliant playmaker in his first season with New Orleans, tying for the NFC lead in picks and earning his fifth career Pro Bowl citation in the process. Though he comes off microfracture surgery and might not be ready for the start of the season, whatever contribution Sharper can make will only be positive. Usama Young (8 tackles, 1 INT) or Malcolm Jenkins (55 tackles, 1 INT) can play free safety in Sharper’s absence, with Roman Harper (102 tackles, 1.5 sacks) again filling strong safety duties. New Orleans is deep at corner, and with the addition of Patrick Robinson, might be a little too deep. Randall Gay (37 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) is the player that might not want to slip up too much in training camp or the preseason, as starters Jabari Greer (44 tackles, 2 INT), Tracy Porter (57 tackles, 4 INT), and the first-rounder Robinson (not to mention Jenkins, who can also play corner) aren’t going anywhere.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Garrett Hartley’s second NFL season was a major rollercoaster ride. Hartley (9-11 FG), looked in danger of being released during a four-game steroid suspension that also saw John Carney come back for a second tour of duty with team, but Hartley got his job back and ended up kicking the Saints into the Super Bowl with an overtime game-winner against the Vikings. His job is safe this year, as is punter Thomas Morstead’s (43.6 avg.). In the return game, Courtney Roby (27.5 avg., 1 TD) was outstanding on kickoffs but Bush (4.8 avg.) wasn’t much of a difference-maker on punts. Jason Kyle, at age 38, will begin his second season as the Saints’ long-snapper.
PROGNOSIS: The Saints caught lightning in a bottle in 2009, and the nature of being the defending Super Bowl champs is that things rarely come as easily as they did the first time around. For all its talent, this is an organization that hasn’t made back-to-back playoff appearances since 1991-92, and that dubious history, coupled with the perceived improvement of the Falcons and arguably the Panthers, means New Orleans is going to face a difficult challenge in the NFC South alone. Still, from a personnel standpoint this is the most talented team in the division, and has the horses to make another meaningful run toward the Super Bowl if the stars align. The offense will remain dynamic, the defense looks better on paper than it was in ’09, and the coaching is rock- solid. Double-digit wins look like a fait accompli, and how far the Saints go beyond that will likely be determined by luck and/or chemistry.