With NFL training camps just around the corner, we’re taking a team-by-team look at how the offseason played out and what you can expect in 2012. Click here to read them all.
We've all heard plenty about the Saints this offseason, but let's go back to a happier time in New Orleans, before Gregg Williams became the NFL's Public Enemy No. 1 and the organization's 2012 was thrown into utter disarray. It wasn't that long ago, but it feels like it was.
Much was made of Drew Brees paying for the team's players to hold their own minicamps in the midst of the lockout. Whether the sessions made a difference is up for debate (Green Bay, who didn't hold player-only camps, did just fine at 15-1), but the team did have a dominant 2011, including an eight-game winning streak to end the regular season, a run that increased to nine after the Saints beat the Lions in the playoffs' wild card round.
But after that win over the Lions, the Saints took to the road to face the 49ers, and that's when the fun stopped. New Orleans was battered physically throughout their 36-32 loss to San Francisco, and embarrassed late when the defense couldn't hold a lead in crunch time, allowing Alex Smith and Vernon Davis to have their way and win on a last-second touchdown that left the entire French Quarter crying in its beer.
In the run-up to that game, pundits wondered whether the Saints, who went 8-0 at home in the regular season, could win in a tricky road environment like San Francisco's. It's tough to say how much the elements played a part in that loss (the Saints did pile up 472 yards of offense), but it's clear that they're a much stronger team at home. A 13-3 record in most years would have been enough to secure the No. 1 seed, or at least a first-round bye. But in a year in which the Packers and 49ers excelled, the Saints were stuck going the long way to the Super Bowl. Their goal this year is clear: win enough games to stay in the Superdome throughout the entirety of the playoffs. With the Super Bowl taking place in New Orleans this season, the team surely realizes it might not have to travel this postseason. But getting to the playoffs will be hard enough as it is, given what's happened since that 49ers loss.
2011 Record: 13-3 (first in NFC South; lost to 49ers in divisional round)
Key Additions: DT Brodrick Bunkley, G Ben Grubbs, LB Curtis Lofton, LB David Hawthorne, LB Chris Chamberlain
Key Subtractions: WR Robert Meachem, G Carl Nicks, CB Tracy Porter, LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, DT Shaun Rogers
Team Strengths: QB, RB, TE, LB
Team Weaknesses: WR, DL
Three Things to Watch:
1. How will the team handle the bounty fallout?: Never before have we seen discipline like that levied against the Saints for their alleged bounty program. And while the parties involved are still putting up a good fight, it's unlikely to change anything; the team will still miss Sean Payton and Jonathan Vilma for the season, along with Mickey Loomis, Will Smith and Joe Vitt for significant stretches.
In the wake of the punishment, the team has adopted an us-against-the-world mentality. That's easy to do in the summer, but will they keep that fire all season long missing Payton, one of the most passionate coaches in the league? It's tough to gauge, because of the unprecedented nature of the situation, but we can take an educated guess.
In the Saints' favor is a core roster that has spent a lot of time together over the last few years, making them better equipped to handle the adversity. And despite losing Payton, the team still has some talented, experienced coaches on the staff, be it Vitt (after he serves his own suspension, of course), offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael or defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Then there's Drew Brees, who will definitely play this year despite his contract impasse. You've heard that Brees is an extension of Payton, and that's no exaggeration. The QB is a coach himself on the field, and brings the same intensity of Payton.
The doom and gloom predictions from some won't fully come to fruition. There will be moments where it's obvious that Payton is missed, particularly early in the season when Vitt is gone and the team tries to figure out where the new leadership will come from and what the gameday hierarchy will look like (think certain game-planning aspects, timeouts, challenges, etc.), but it's hard to see the Saints going from 13-3 to under .500, despite the historic sanctions.
2. How will the arrival of Steve Spagnuolo impact the defense?: Gregg Williams was a savior in 2009, the missing Super Bowl piece. How things have changed. Williams left the Saints before the bounty scandal came to light, because his defense proved inconsistent and ultimately ineffective in 2010 and 2011, including horrible playoff showings against the Seahawks and 49ers in consecutive years. All eyes will now be on new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's 11 men, what they do and how they do it when on the field. Every tackle, every injury to an opposing player will be scrutinized. Out of this mess, Spagnuolo has to get more production from his unit while at the same time instilling a radical culture change.
The biggest challenge on the field will come with getting more from a woeful pass rush that didn't get much help. New Brodrick Bunkley will provide a stouter inside pass rush while at the same time plugging the run better than the Shaun Rogers/Aubrayo Franklin tandem from last year, and the team is expecting bigger things from converted linebacker Martez Wilson and Junior Galette in that area. The team's other glaring weakness on defense, linebacker, has been addressed with wholesale changes. Vilma, of course, will miss the season, but he's been on the decline with chronic knee problems recurring last year, and was possibly on the way out anyway. Curtis Lofton on the inside, and David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain flanking him, represent a major, major upgrade over what the team trotted out last season.
Getting more help from the front 7 will take the load off of a secondary that is actually underrated, but was often left hanging out to dry.
3. Will the passing game be as explosive as in recent history?: It seems a bit weird to question Brees and the Saints' air attack, as it's finished in the top 5 in the league every season since Payton and Brees arrived in 2006, including first-place showings in 2006, 2008 and 2011. But it was clear something was different, even last year as Brees was eclipsing Dan Marino's single-season passing mark and the team toppled franchise marks.
In the past, the Saints were generous with how they spread the ball out, but it appeared last year as if teams slowly started to figure out how to defend the multi-option attack, and as a result Brees often became reliant last year on Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles. While those aren't bad options to have at your disposal, it meant that the team couldn't dictate things as much as they've been used to in the past. You also can't underrate Robert Meachem's departure; with more key free agents than any other team this offseason, the Saints couldn't keep everyone, and they opted to bring back Marques Colston over Meachem at receiver. That seems like the wise choice, as Colston has been one of Brees' preferred targets and a top receiver since being drafted in 2006, but Colston's health is increasingly becoming an issue, and the team doesn't have a receiver with a complete No. 1 skillset otherwise with Meachem gone. Lance Moore is an excellent hands guy, and Devery Henderson has his moments, but that's about it. Adrian Arrington has yet to prove he is capable of handling a bigger role, and while rookie Nick Toon is promising, he probably won't get much work this year. The team might have kept the wrong wideout for the future. Plus, while Brees could probably practice this offense in his sleep, you have to at least wonder what kind of effect his ongoing absence will have on the chemistry with his receivers, especially without Payton's prowess on the sideline.
The Saints' passing game should still be one of the league's best, definitely top 10 and probably top 5 again. But don't expect another record-breaking performance, which the Saints may need if the defense can't find its footing under Spagnuolo soon enough.
Outlook: Again, it's hard to see the wheels completely falling off the Saints this year; there's still way too much talent and familiarity within the organization. But in a year in which the rest of the NFC South should all be better, don't expect the Saints to run away with the division. I still expect them to win it, but it'll be a season-long fight with the Falcons, and maybe the Bucs, to get there. Given what the Saints are facing this season, that's still pretty impressive.
-- By Tom Mantzouranis