The Saints beat the Packers by 35 points on Sunday with the historically erratic Jameis Winston under center and the historically excellent Michael Thomas on the sidelines. Five of Winston’s 14 attempts went for touchdowns. His passer rating was better against Green Bay (130.8) than it was in any game under Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich, the coach and coordinator tandem that just won the Super Bowl.
Of course, we have no earthly idea how this whole season will turn out. Throughout his life, Winston has had enough of these games to inspire some blind confidence, only to again find comfort in his pocket dysfunction. Quarterbacks of similar disposition contend that they can throw their way out of any situation, which is about as difficult a notion to break out of a five-star high school player as any that exists in the sport. Also, it’s important to note that one of those touchdowns was essentially a shovel pass and another was an alley-oop—a phenomenal catch in traffic. On a third, the receiver was so painfully open that a Packers defender didn’t exist in that entire third of the end zone, and Winston nearly forced an incompletion.
Regardless, here we are with the Saints 1–0 at a time when, yes, the NFL seems strange—as it often does after the first week of the season. But the one constant, the one truism about this week that has direct ties to the past, is how fantastically economical this franchise has been despite numerous obstacles: the retirement of a legendary quarterback, a cap situation resembling that of a dying rental car company, and a hurricane that forced them to leave town as they prepared for the season and play their “home opener” in Jacksonville.
The Saints often wilt under the brightest of lights. They have been hammered by some famously poor officiating and a famously miraculous Hail Mary that will ultimately affect how we view the legacy of head coach Sean Payton, and the entire personnel and cap operation. That said, how much worse could they be? And when viewing the entire organization through that lens, how much more willing are we to admit that this team is one of the most enjoyable to watch and observe in the NFL?
Think about it. The Saints have won games with Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill. Hill was a wonderful college quarterback who, by the time he had been forced under center, had altered his body so significantly that he more closely resembled an NHL defenseman. In three of his four significant stretches of playing time last year, Hill logged a quarterback rating of more than 100. New Orleans won three of those games.
At one point in March, the Saints were more than $32 million over the salary cap. They currently don’t have enough cap space ($2.529 million) to compete for a well-situated, four-bedroom, three-bathroom home in a good school district anywhere in California.
For perspective, look around the league at other franchises in similar situations. The Giants, two years removed from the retirement of their legendary franchise quarterback, were bulldozed by the Broncos on Sunday. Despite an unprecedented overhaul investing in all the foundational pieces of a winning club, the team has been utterly punchless offensively for the better part of three years.
The Saints made mistakes, too. They signed contracts that would rival the most maniacal timeshare agreements in Orlando. As a result, they cut good players loose. There are undoubtedly complications that arise when working around a perpetually mad and blustery genius like Payton, whose ability to outsmart the rest of the league is bested only by his ability to outsmart himself.
As of now, though, they have never been unwatchable. During this stretch, which included the finale of Drew Brees’s career, several injuries to Brees and the noticeable (for Brees, but not comparatively with the rest of the league) decline in his arm strength, they have never been utterly incompetent on the field. They have never pouted about the inevitable surge of time and irreversible effects of aging. They have tossed onto the field a converted punt gunner, a career journeyman and, now, a former busted first-round pick known more for his recklessness with the football, and continued to score a lot of points and win games. That will not reverse the team’s horrific series of woes at the most critical moments of the season, both self-inflicted and otherwise. But it does say something about what they do possess, which, unlike other teams, is the ability to conjure something from what other coaches might excuse as nothing.
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