At face value you look at the standings, you look at the record, and you see a team treading water in mediocrity. The record of 7-9 does speak for itself and you can give all the excuses for the reasons why the Saints got there you want, the bottom line is that for two straight seasons the result has been the same. And yet, at the risk of being “that guy” that distinguishes the two seasons from each other despite them looking the same, I’m going to do just that. At the end of 2014, I really did see 7-9 with a “glass half empty” approach. I knew a doomsday of sorts was coming. I even predicted a 6-10 season after watching the team in training camp at the Greenbrier. This time around, though, I see 7-9 as “glass half full”. The difference is partly how the season ended but also how the roster is set up for the future.
Let’s rewind back to 2014 for a second. The Saints, despite being bad, we’re very much in the thick of a division title and playoff race thanks to the NFC South being so absolutely terrible. And with 3 of their last 4 games against NFC South opponents, including 2 at home, we were actually feeling ok about the chances. What happened instead was the Panthers curb stomping the Saints on the way to an embarrassing beyond words 41-10 loss. The Saints would then go on the road and win thanks to Jay Cutler playing so bad he actually made Pierre Warren look like a real NFL player. That’s an understatement, he made Warren look like Ronnie Lott. Then the Saints hosted the Falcons – bitter rival. I was at that game. Jalen Saunders runs the opening kickoff back to the 1. Mark Ingram punches it in. The stadium is going nuts. We’re feeling hope again. But nope, another curb stomping. 30-14 this time. Complete of course with back breaking Drew Brees turnovers with the game on the line late. Then the Saints looked GOD AWFUL through a half at Tampa before the Bucs basically forfeited the second half to secure the 1st overall pick and get Jameis Winston. That scenario I just ironed out might be the most discouraging end of the season 2-2 run in franchise history.
That was just the season, too. Then came the offseason, a day of reckoning. Jimmy Graham? Traded and not replaced. Curtis Lofton? See ya, we’ll go with constantly injured Dannell Ellerbe. Ben Grubbs? No mas, it’s the Tim Lelito show. Junior Galette? I’ll take a helping of 10 figure dead money, please, with a side of no more pass rush. Kenny Stills? No worries, Joe Morgan can replace him. Keenan Lewis? Give me more bonus money or I’m out. I’m sure I’m forgetting something.
Perhaps there was some optimism in hindsight. There were a lot of draft picks which made the process the most fun it’s been in years. The team accrued a lot of new, young talent. But those of us that expected this season to produce anything beautiful weren’t paying attention to the warning signs. The Saints gave opening day roster spots on their defensive line to Kaleb Eulls, Tavaris Barnes, Ashaad Mabry, Bobby Richardson… that’s four undrafted rookies on their defensive line alone. Brandon Coleman was a top four receiver. Josh Hill barely saw the field with two tight ends on the roster. Tim Lelito was starting. And this was all before we knew…
Kevin Williams played way too many snaps. Jairus Byrd was still injured, seemingly forever, until he came back to give the Saints a season as a shell of his former self. C. J. Spiller basically became Jairus Byrd 2.0. Brandon Browner… OH MY GOD Brandon Browner. And that pass rush. That guard play. And worst of all, Junior Galette’s dead money spiked with Drew Brees’s $30 million cap hit on the horizon.
Depressed yet? Except something weird happened at the end of 2015. Instead of finishing with a 5 game home losing streak, the Saints finished winning 3 of their last 4, including their last home game and a season sweep of the Atlanta Falcons. Drew Brees had a much better season in 2015 than he did in 2014. Dennis Allen appears to be headed in the right direction if he can get a lot more talent. Sean Payton has recommitted to the team. Yes, the cap is still an abomination, but it’s now one year away from being in a much better place. The cap will be manageable again in 2017. The Saints discovered some real gems in Stephone Anthony, Willie Snead, Delvin Breaux and Tim Hightower this season. Those guys are part of a core group that brightens the future. Most of all – the bad seeds are gone. As Sean Payton so emphatically stated in his press conference – the culture of the team is starting to shift back to the way it was at its best.
I look at some of the personalities on this team. Michael Mauti on special teams, Delvin Breaux on defense. Spiller had every reason to raise hell this year. Instead? He handled everything like a complete pro. Cooks is maturing nicely into the consummate professional. Watson was a huge shot in the arm this year. Vaccaro is maturing. Cam Jordan is maturing. We’re seeing the combination of the good character veterans taking back over the team, and the young impressionable players buying into their leadership. You could see it in the way they fought at Atlanta at the expense of a draft pick despite so many injuries and “nothing” to play for. That’s the kind of team I want to get behind.
Now it’s going to take talent to turn this around and that might take two years. Realistically, I’m not sure how much better the Saints can get in a year. There’s just so many holes, not enough high draft picks, and not enough cap room. I’ll wait until the offseason is complete to make some judgement there. In the meantime, though, this is a 7-9 trending up and not a 7-9 that feels like a sinking ship. It starts with young players that build the core foundation.
In the 2015 offseason, we would have said the Saints had Brandin Cooks, Terron Armstead, Cam Jordan and maybe Kenny Vaccaro if he can ever recover from this miserable season? I don’t mention the vets because I’m talking about the future with young player gems here.
This offseason, we would say the four guys I just mentioned combined with Willie Snead, Delvin Breaux, Damian Swann, Bobby Richardson, maybe Tyeler Davison, Stephone Anthony, Hau’oli Kikaha, Tim Lelito is coming around, Andrus Peat, Brandon Coleman, Mauti (on special teams)… that’s a better core. A core that can be added to starting this offseason with another promising draft.