An Aging Star, A Lost Season
GLENDALE, Ariz. — On Sunday, an appropriate bow will be put on the 2014 NFL season when the Seahawks and Patriots meet in Super Bowl XLIX. It’s best on best, from the players to the head coaches, and that feels right.
But before we file one of the league’s strangest seasons away for posterity, we can’t let one of the most vexing questions go quietly into the night: What the heck happened to the Saints? Drew Brees still hasn’t quite wrapped his head around it.
“It was my most frustrating season,” said Brees, walking out of the losing Team Carter locker room at the Pro Bowl on Sunday night. “You never want to go 7-9. It’s no fun.”
The Saints’ season was not supposed to go that way. After they went 7-9 in 2012 while Sean Payton served a year-long suspension for the bounty scandal, New Orleans ascended to its rightful perch as an annual NFC contender in ’13. The Saints went 11-5 and won a road playoff game at Philadelphia before losing at Seattle in the divisional round. There was certainly no shame in losing at a place from which few emerge victorious, and against a team that went on to a blowout Super Bowl victory.
The stage seemed set for the Saints to challenge for the NFC crown. Brees was still healthy and had no shortage of weapons. The defense was entering Year 2 in Rob Ryan’s scheme and was past injury problems of 2013; they even added some new pieces.
And then… thud. An 0-2 start led to 2-4. The Saints finished October by winning back-to-back games, but that would be their only winning streak of the season, and it gave way to three straight defeats. Even in the NFC South, won by the Panthers at 7-8-1, the Saints were eliminated with one game to play when an embarrassing home loss to Atlanta dropped them to 6-9.
That was not the team I watched for three days in training camp at The Greenbrier. As I have written previously, New Orleans was one of the most talented teams I encountered this summer. In the hands of Payton, Ryan and Brees, they looked like a 12-win team. Sure, they had some key injuries—free-agent safety Jairus Byrd and rookie receiver Brandin Cooks—but every team has to survive those. And the Saints appeared to have the talent to deal with those types of injuries.
Don’t mention the word talent to Brees, not after this season.
“I hate the word 'talent.' I hate it,” Brees said. “Some of the best players I ever played with, or best teammates I ever played with, that wasn’t their best quality. Everybody’s talented. Their best quality was their work ethic, their leadership ability, their ability to fight through adversity, toughness, reliability. Those are the things I most value.”
And those are some of the qualities the ’14 Saints didn’t possess enough of. The Super Bowl champions of 2009, of course, did. The Saints used to have underrated gamers like Scott Shanle, Scott Fujita, Jonathan Vilma and Dave Thomas supplementing the top talent. After saying goodbye to aging veterans like Darren Sproles, Charles Brown, Brian De La Puente, Roman Harper, Jed Collins, Will Smith, Jabari Greer, Will Herring and Kenyon Coleman, the Saints went younger, and it cost them.
The margin of error in the NFL is so thin. As Brees said, every team has talent. Often what separates the haves and have-nots are the middle-of-the-roster players who know their jobs and can execute them. You saw how the out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new transition went. Brees saw too.
“The thing you can’t lose track of is those guys in the locker room,” he said. “Those guys as leaders, their presence. Especially when you have young players. Listen, every team is going to have youth. It’s just the nature of the league. A majority of your team is going to be made up of first- to fourth-year players. So that leadership and guidance and institutional knowledge are very critical.”
A lot of this is on Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis. They had a plan, and it failed. I mean, whose bright idea was it to put a clause in Junior Galette’s contract that calls for $6.5 million in future bonuses/escalators if he recorded 12 sacks this season? Galette is a young and talented pass rusher, and I wouldn’t blame him for going a little outside the scheme to go “get his.” I would blame the Saints’ hierarchy for allowing that kind of individualistic thought process to permeate the locker room; having been in a few NFL locker rooms, I’m sure it did. It’s the little things that add up to big things that can wreck a season, like several players being late for meetings or flights. For the other side of the coin, look at the Patriots, who never underachieve. They just had two players, Vince Wilfork and Julian Edelman, achieve bonuses for the team advancing in the postseason.
The good news for Saints fans is, after meeting with Payton and Loomis, Brees is confident the front office realized the error of its ways and has a better plan in place entering this offseason.
“I think we’ve identified the problems or the things that got us beat or the things that didn’t allow us to be as good as we know we can be, and we have the solution to fix it,” said Brees, before boarding the bus out of the Pro Bowl. “It’s going to take a lot of work, but I know we can get it done.”
He should hope so. The Saints are at a crucial stage, and so is Brees, who just turned 36. If Payton and Loomis don’t make the right moves this offseason, the team could toil in mediocrity for the rest of Brees's career. They have salary-cap problems, and will likely need to replace more veterans, like guard Jahri Evans ($11 million in cap space), linebacker Curtis Lofton ($9 million) and defensive tackle Broderick Bunkley ($6.1 million). Wide receiver Marques Colston ($9.7 million) and guard Ben Grubbs ($9.6 million) might need to have their contracts re-done.
That means the Saints will be thrusting more young players into large roles. If Payton and Loomis don’t heed the lessons learned in ’14, the most frustrating season of Brees’ career won’t be an anomaly. It will be the new normal.
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