New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton orchestrated a historically prolific offense over his first 15 years with the franchise. In nine of Payton's first ten years as head coach, the Saints had a top-five offensive ranking, finished first or second in eight of those seasons.
Led by QB Drew Brees, the most accurate and prolific passer in NFL history, the Saints were essentially unstoppable through the air.
Only once during Payton's 15-year tenure has his team finished outside of the league's top-10 in total yardage. In 2020, injuries to Brees and record-breaking WR Michael Thomas exposed an attack lacking in weapons.
Shockingly, the bottom dropped out for the Saints offense this season. New Orleans ranks a lowly 27th in total yardage. It’s contributed enormously to their current four-game losing streak. Especially putrid has been their passing attack, which also ranks 27th.
There is plenty of blame to go around. Thomas will not play a down this year because of offseason ankle surgery. Brees retired this offseason, being replaced by a former 5,000-yard passer in Jameis Winston.
The Saints started the year with a conservative attack while Winston learned the offense, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury during a Week 8 win against Tampa Bay.
Winston was replaced by journeyman QB Trevor Siemian, who's played admirably but is, in reality, a third-string quarterback. Injuries have battered a usually dominant offensive line. The line has also been prone to protection breakdowns and poor play from players like former first-round pick Cesar Ruiz.
Despite extra defensive attention, the running game has been adequate behind the abilities of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. Worsening matters, injuries to Kamara, Ingram, and versatile weapon Taysom Hill over the last few weeks have left a punchless offense completely rudderless.
Players on the field are ultimately responsible for the lack of execution and inability to make plays. Injuries have also been a huge factor. However, there is one person who must take the most blame for the Saints abysmal offense:
The Saints are the only NFL team without a 300-yard passing performance in 2021. Twenty-five of the 31 teams have at least two 300-yard games. Winston's injury and offensive line struggles play a part in that eye-popping statistic.
The quarterbacks have also been handcuffed by the worst crew of pass-catchers in the NFL. Tight ends Adam Trautman, Juwan Johnson, Nick Vannett, and Garrett Griffin have combined for only 39 catches and 410 yards. Nineteen teams have a single tight end with approximately the same individual statistics or better.
Payton's most egregious mistake, or possibly his stubbornness, has been the mishandling of the team’s wide receiver unit. Here are the team's top three wide receivers after eleven games this season.
- Deonte Harris = 27 receptions 427 yards 2TD
- Marquez Callaway = 27-396, 6TD
- Tre'Quan Smith = 20-236, 2TD
Michael Thomas is one of the most dominant wideouts in the NFL, and his absence reduced the offense's effectiveness. The problem is that not a single player in the Saints receiving corps has stepped up to be a consistent playmaker without Thomas in the lineup.
Callaway, Harris, and Smith have combined to catch 64 players for 1,059 yards and 10 touchdowns. Twelve wideouts in the NFL have at least as many receptions by themselves. TWELVE.
Forget about depth in the unit. Backups Kenny Stills, Ty Montgomery, Lil' Jordan Humphrey, and Kevin White have combined for just 22 receptions and 265 yards.
Dynamic RB Alvin Kamara leads the Saints with 32 receptions for 310 yards, and 4 touchdowns — despite missing three games with a knee injury.
It’s not surprising that Kamara leads the team in receptions. He’s the league's most versatile offensive weapon. But he hasn't been able to work in open space often because of the failures of the receiving corps to provide a threat. Kamara has the team's only 100-yard receiving game this season, catching 10 passes for 128 yards in a victory over Seattle.
Thirty of the 32 NFL teams have a wide receiver or tight end with at least one 100-yard game this season, with 28 teams having at least two such outings. This season, New England is one of two teams without a 100-yard receiver, but they've had five players with over 90 yards in a game.
The New Orleans Saints are the only NFL team without a wide receiver or tight end with at least 90 yards in a game this year. New Orleans has had only two receivers, one by Harris and Callaway, to have 80 yards in a game.
Drew Brees had the rare ability to make an average receiver good, a good one great, and a great one elite when in his prime. As Brees' physical skills waned, the offense struggled because of the lack of playmakers outside Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas.
Harris and Callaway have shown potential but have proven that they aren't "number one" or "number two" passing targets. Both players, along with Humphrey, came to the Saints after going undrafted.
Tre'Quan Smith, selected in the third round of the 2018 draft, is one of only two wideouts drafted by the Saints in the last five drafts. Smith has been a disappointment and rookie practice squad WR Kawaan Baker, a seventh-round pick, is the other.
New Orleans passed on the chance to draft wideouts like,
- Elijah Moore,
- Rondale Moore,
- Terrace Marshall,
- Brandon Aiyuk,
- Tee Higgins,
- Michael Pittman Jr.,
- D.K. Metcalf, and
- Terry McLaurin,
All were available over the first three rounds of the last three drafts.
The Saints have instead used their first three selections on C Erik McCoy (2019), G Cesar Ruiz (2020), and DE Payton Turner (2021). Only McCoy has made a significant difference, though Turner and Ruiz could still progress.
Sean Payton has failed this team because he refused to upgrade a struggling receiving corps. Ignoring the position has robbed the offense of much-needed playmakers, putting the Saints in a struggle for their postseason lives.