After a 2012 season in which they were hit with as many distractions and unplanned absences as any team in NFL history, the New Orleans Saints are firmly back on track. Between the BountyGate fallout, injuries and a historically inept defense run by former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the Saints were actually fortunate to exit that disaster of a season with a 7-9 record. Of course, it's better to be good than lucky, and that's what quarterback Drew Brees was, as usual. The seven-time Pro Bowler became the first quarterback in league history to top the 5,000-yard mark in two straight seasons, and threw 43 touchdown passes to 19 interceptions, leading the league in touchdown throws for the second straight year. Those who dismissed Brees as a product of Sean Payton's system could only marvel at what he was able to do with Payton suspended for a full season and unable to communicate with his team.
Now, Payton is back in charge, and the 3-0 Saints are humming as expected on offense. Where things are different, of course, is on the defensive side of the ball. Rob Ryan, Spagnuolo's replacement, has brought his multiple line schemes and variable coverage concepts to a group of players willing and able to take his direction. Ryan has turned end Cameron Jordan into one of the most disruptive linemen in the league, and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro is flying around and making plays from every imaginable position. The Saints defense that gave up a record 7,042 yards in 2012 currently ranks fourth in the NFL in points allowed, and the team ranks fourth in point differential.
Of course, the positive side of point differential won't ever be a problem when Brees is your quarterback. But when I talked with the Saints' signal-caller this week, he seemed most encouraged about how Rob Ryan has made his life a lot easier.
"They're very diverse in what they're able to do," Brees said of his defense. "A lot of talented young players who are coming into their own, and Rob does a great job of moving them around and utilizing their strengths. We've got great leadership and a lot of prideful guys on that side of the ball -- they're really coming together. It's fun to see. Obviously, we're all very excited about how we've begun the season, but we also understand that we have a lot of work to do."
There was a quiet sense about this Saints team in the offseason -- that they had taken everything the NFL could dish out, deserved or not, and now it was about getting past the mistakes of previous years and setting things up for another Super Bowl run.
"Last year, everything that could have gone wrong went wrong on the defensive side of the ball," Brees told me. "Offensively, we had our struggles, as well. We were all happy to just move on, and get on to a new season, and start from scratch. That's really what the offseason was about -- just getting back to basics, and the things that will allow us to play at a high level."
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What Brees found out about himself with Payton out of the picture is that he had to advance himself as a player and as a person. Interim coaches Joe Vitt and Aaron Kromer did their best, and Pete Carmichael tried to help Brees replicate what Payton had established in an offensive sense, but Brees and Payton have been connected at the hip since they both came to the Crescent City in 2006, and Brees had to become a more forceful voice with Payton banned.
"I think the biggest thing was just trying not to do too much. Just think about doing your job. And obviously, with Sean's voice not being there, there were areas where you may have felt like, 'OK -- I know this is what Sean would say, so I'm going to do my best to make sure that's communicated. So, there was that, but we've got a lot of very capable leaders and coaches and game-planners. I felt that we did ... so many guys did such an unbelievable job in Sean's absence. It's unfortunate we had the record we did, because it didn't reflect that effort, but I was proud of a lot of coaches and players on our team last year."
There are still things to be corrected in this Saints' run, though. The ground game is very much a work in progress, and Brees is trying to find chemistry with a somewhat new group of younger receivers. Right now, New Orleans' offense ranks 19th in Football Outsiders' efficiency metrics, while its defense ranks eighth. It's atypical for this team to be carried by its defense, but this is the Saints.
What, you expected normalcy?
For Brees, the stability in his own life comes from a few places. There's Payton, of course ("He's got the pulse of the team. He knows when to press forward, and when to back off. He knows what message needs to be delivered"), but Brees ultimately rests on a city, and a family, that gives him peace through any conflict. His recent campaign for Tide bridged those two interests.
"We did the Tide commercial as a family this year, and it was a good glimpse of life in the Brees' household. There's lots of laundry with three little boys running around getting muddy and dirty and messy. Brittany and I are always working out and everything else, so there's plenty of laundry to be done. But we have a great relationship with Tide and have for the last few years. We've always been a Tide family, and I was asked to be one of the 32 Tide Color Captains around the league this year. It's a campaign to highlight the passion of NFL fans when they wear their team's colors.".
When one spends any amount of time in New Orleans now, one is immediately struck by how the people of the city refuse to be defined by Hurricane Katrina. We are Silicon South, they will tell you. Look at how we rebuilt for a Super Bowl, they will say. Brees is the perfect football mouthpiece for this great city and its refusal to be bowed by pressure in any sense.
"We've all come a long way since Katrina," he said. "Hosting the Super Bowl seven years after it happened, and so much has changed for the better. I think it gave the city of New Orleans an opportunity to build from the ground up, and become better than it was before, in a lot of ways. The people take so much price in their culture and the charm of the city. They want everyone else to love it as much as they do. This is a city that knows how to entertain, it's great at hosting a Super Bowl, and I'm sure you'll see many more in the future." And the Saints, for the first time in a while, seem to have a realistic shot at making a Super Bowl of their own.