Throughout the 2012 offseason, the New Orleans Saints were the scum of the media and only recently have the headlines surrounding bountygate died down. Many are calling this the ‘offseason from hell’ for the Saints - not only was their reputation severely damaged, but more importantly for the prospects of their 12-13 season, head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the full season, along with general manager Mickey Loomis and assistant coach Joe Vitt for eight and six games, respectively.
Payton’s undoubtedly been the most important figure in New Orleans since the Saints became a contending team, yes, even moreso than Drew Brees, so his absence will be missed. Drew Brees and Payton have a relationship that is unmatched amongst NFL head coaches and their quarterbacks. But it’s still not the season-destroying absence that many seem to make it out to be.
Despite not being named as the interim head coach - that honour was given to Joe Vitt despite his six-game suspension - this season hinges very much on the success of Pete Carmichael, the teams offensive coordinator.
Obviously, being the Saints offensive coordinator isn’t the best job; Sean Payton is arguably the best offensive football mind in the league and does all the playcalling. Last year, however, Payton got injured on the sidelines during a game against the Buccaneers, so Carmichael was thrust into the role of offensive play calling. The team went on to lose that game, but finished the season on an 8-1 record, all with Carmichael calling the plays.
Payton and Brees are closer, but Carmichael has actually been with Brees longer. He was with the Chargers for all but one of Brees’ years in San Diego, and came to New Orleans the same year as Drew. They know each other very well, and they’ve had a ton of success on the field.
Another thing that helps with the lack of Sean Payton is, well, Brees. At this point, Brees is basically like having a coach on the field - he could literally call all of his plays.
Of course, missing Sean Payton is much, much more than simply losing a play caller. He’s a motivator, a talent evaluator, a figurehead, and the list goes on. I simply believe that when you have a coaching staff that has been together for years and knows all of the nooks and crannies of Payton’s act, they’ll be able to use the same techniques that Payton used throughout training camp and the season. The team has already shown they can have a lot of success with Carmichael calling the plays, and with Drew Brees in attendance for the entirety of camp, I don’t really believe the offensive will dramatically suffer in Payton’s absence.
As for player movement on the offensive side of the ball, the Saints lost guard Carl Nicks to free agency, and even though Nicks is arguably the best guard in football, New Orleans isn’t losing much at this position because they managed to lure in free agent guard Ben Grubbs from the Ravens. Grubbs isn’t the same player Nicks is, but he was a Pro Bowler last season and is widely regarded as one of the NFL’s better guards. The Saints also re-signed Marques Colston to a five-year deal, and only lost Robert Meachem to the Chargers. Nick Toon, the Saints fourth round pick this past draft, has received glowing reviews and he should be able to replace some of Meachem’s production.
Now, moving on to the defensive side of the ball. New Orleans’ defense has been the Saints achilles heel since Payton’s arrival in ‘06. In Gregg Williams first year with the team, they went on to win the Super Bowl because of how dominant their defense was. However, this was a combination of incredible luck as well as unfamiliarity in the league of Williams’ defense. They managed an unsustainable number of turnovers and their success blitzing was an anomaly. In the three years Williams was the defensive coordinator, the team added more and more defensive talent, but their production only worsened. Obviously, teams began to catch on to Williams’ defense and as a result, he was allowed to leave the team.
In comes Steve Spagnuolo, a very bright defensive mind who was one of the most sought after assistant coaches in the league this offseason. His tenure as a head coach was mostly unsuccessful and short-lived, but most feel his true calling is being in charge of the defense, which he has complete control over in New Orleans. Spags’ system is much more contained and much less risky, a complete turnover from Williams’ approach. His presence alone would make the Saints defense better, but they also added three major pieces in free agency: Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne and Brodrick Bunkley.
If the achilles heel of the Saints was their defense, their achilles heel of their achilles heel has been their linebackers for the longest time. After these signings, this area of the team all of a sudden became a strenth. Curtis Lofton has been a tackling machine in his short NFL career, and he’ll be a huge upgrade over the steadily declining, and suspended, Jonathan Vilma and immediately serve as the anchor of this teams defense. David Hawthorne, another tackling machine, replaced Lofa Tatupu after his injury a few years ago and the Seahawks couldn’t keep him off the field. He’ll move to the outside for the Saints and is probably the best player that they have had at that spot in decades; Hawthorne will even be wearing Rickey Jackson’s number 57.
Add in Brodrick Bunkley, who was one of the best DT’s in the NFL last season and adds to another huge weak spot for the Saints. Saying that may seem strange due to his 0 sacks, but if you believe in PFF stats, he was a PFF darling. They rated him as the best run stopping defensive tackle by a sizeable margin and he recorded the 8th most percentage of tackles per play despite playing the 45th most snaps. There is a legitimate concern that getting a big contract may make him less hungry, but Bunkley at half speed is still the best defensive lineman in New Orleans.
The only loss on the defensive side of the ball was Tracy Porter, who was relegated to nickel corner duties as Patrick Robinson emerged as a better talent. Porter’s play has been poor since his playoff heroics, so his loss should be minimal with Johnny Patrick, a coaching staff favourite, picking up his slack.
It’s easily the most talented defense that this team has had in quite a long time, and with the best defensive coordinator they’ve had, maybe ever. If the offense can perform at even 80% and the defense can improve by 30%, is that not a better team?
Another thing I thought that was worth mentioning about the Saints roster is two players who most thought would contribute more than they did last year: Cameron Jordan and Mark Ingram.
Last season there was a lockout that cost every team their training camp, and it’s incredibly difficult for rookies to break into the NFL with a full camp, let alone nothing at all. It was a bit of a fluke that there were so many talented rookies, so for guys that didn’t perform well, I’m not knocking them down whatsoever. After getting a full season under their belt and now training camps, I think Jordan and Ingram will be very significant contributors to this team that they didn’t have last year.
And finally… it’s the us-against-the-world mentality that this team is going to have. Remember when the Patriots were ridiculed and lost a first round pick because of their spygate situation? Yeah, they went 16-0 the next season. For whatever reason, it seems to be a trend that football teams respond to certain situations. Hell, the Saints made the NFC championship game their first season after hurricane Katrina. The Saints are a very tight knit squad that will want to shut everyone up and win games for Sean Payton.
The icing on the cake? This years Super Bowl host… New Orleans.