O Saints, where art thou?
It’s another NFL post-season, and the Who Dat nation is quiet. The only Black and Gold in the playoffs is from up North. The Steelers are headed to New England while many of the Saints are home resting or vacationing on a sunny island somewhere.
Unfortunately, for the once high-flying franchise, that has become the norm. The Saints have missed the playoffs three straight years, going a dismal 7-9 in each year.
This playoff futility comes in spite of having one of the highest-rated and most productive offenses every season. The Saints actually led the NFC in most offensive yards this season, and were a close second behind the Atlanta Falcons in most points per game.
It was fun to watch at the time, but in the end it didn’t add up to a winning season, and it was another year at home for the playoffs.
This is getting to be an unwanted routine for this team, head coach Sean Payton and especially future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees.
There are numerous theories about how to break the streak and snap out of this losing rut.
Things just haven’t been the same since the San Francisco 49ers rallied not once, but twice, in the final 4 minutes in that divisional playoff game three Januarys ago in 2012. It was the last time Payton called plays in the play-offs. Somehow, that just doesn’t sound right.
Quite possibly, the Saints’ defensive problems began to surface a year earlier in a shocking 41-36 play-off loss at Seattle to a Seahawks team that was the first in NFL history to win its division title with a sub-.500 record at 7-9.
Ironically, the same 7-9 record so attached to the Saints right now belonged to Seattle in 2011. It was good enough for the team to win the awful NFC West. And as a division winner, the Seahawks earned the right to host New Orleans, who was a wild card team with a drastically better 11-5 record.
As expected, the Brees-led offense was humming along. But signs of the defense’s demise came into full view with under 4 minutes to play. Former Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch broke free and busted through six would-be Saints tacklers en route to the game-winning 60-yard touchdown run.
It’s a highlight that continues to pop up now and then for great post season runs. It marked the beginning of the Saints’ defensive woes — just one year after the Super Bowl victory.
So, in a nutshell, that’s the recent history leading up to the playoff drought. These three years of play-off-less football is pretty easy to capsulize.
There have been lousy defenses in which many of the names changed but the results did not. They set numerous NFL records for most yards allowed, most points allowed, most first downs allowed, lowest number of turnovers, most pass interference penalties (thanks in large part to Brandon Browner), most touchdown passes allowed … I think I’m pretty much out of defensive categories.
You can’t play defense in the NFL without a pass rush or a secondary that can knock a few balls down. The Saints had neither. And that falls squarely in the lap of general manager Mickey Loomis, and, also, in small measure to Payton. These two haven’t produced enough memorable draft picks, and for the most part have failed miserably in the free agent market. Those missteps, mostly on defense, have cost the Saints dearly.
But finally some bright lights shone through with the 2016 draft and a few notable free agent signings that produced dividends. Top draft pick defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins missed most of the season with a broken leg, but finished strong with four sacks and solid run-stopping up front. Second round pick receiver Michael Thomas appears to be the second coming of Marques Colston. The former Ohio State Buckeye should be in the top three in voting for NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Second round pick safety Vonn Bell saw significant playing time. He did some things well, but will need more time to learn the game’s finer points. Defensive tackle David Onyemata was a capable back-up on a D-Line that needed every available body.
The old saying “try and try again” seemed to fit the Saints’ free agent signings the last five or so years. Loomis and Payton have struck out more times than not (Browner, C.J. Spiller, James Laurinaitis). The recent additions of free agents Willie Snead, Tim Hightower, Delvin Breaux, Nick Fairley, Craig Robertson and Nate Stupar may not have been home run picks, but were more like doubles and triples.
That’s the way it works in the NFL. Nothing is a guarantee, and you never know what you have until you see production on Sundays.
I don’t see the need to relive the entire 2016 string of games. A few set the tone.
The last-second loss to Oakland in the season opener at home was tough. The kicking game debacles that doomed the Saints to defeat against the Giants, Broncos and Chiefs were a huge hole to dig out from.
The two late-season wins over Arizona and Tampa Bay had the Saints in line to finish 3-0 at the end and secure an 8-8 finish. But a late rally fell short in Atlanta, with the Saints losing 38-32 in the season finale.
The optimistic view of the season is the fact the Saints lost seven games by six points or fewer. You win three or four of those seven, and the team could very well have been in the playoffs. For this team this year, that would have been asking a lot.
At season’s end, there was speculation and reports that Payton may be trade bait to the L.A. Rams, who earlier in the season fired veteran coach Jeff Fisher. That was nutty chatter that Payton quickly put to rest when he told WWL Radio that the only team he wanted to coach and would coach is the Saints.
A restless Payton didn’t take long to make some much needed internal coaching changes. He let go five assistant coaches, including veteran assistant head coach Joe Vitt, D-Line coach Bill Johnson, special teams coach Greg McMahon, special teams coach Stan Kwan — you lose two games because of special teams and someone has to take the fall — and linebackers coach James Willis.
Roster changes are soon to follow, in February and March.
Brees, who turned 38 on Jan. 15, had another elite season in 2016 and stayed healthy. Yeah, he threw a few too many interceptions (15 total), and some at inopportune times, but he notched his fifth 5,000-yard-plus year. His 37 touchdown passes were his third highest total since he joined the club in 2006. His completion percentage dropped from a career average of 70 to 66 percent, but his quarterback rating is still in the league’s upper tier.
Brees is still highly engaged and motivated to win with this franchise and with Payton. There is no drop-off in arm strength, accuracy and overall production. He has a high quality set of receivers to work with, and his first 1,000-yard rusher in Mark Ingram.
The Saints’ off-season shopping list includes at least two cornerbacks and two safeties — the way injuries depleted the secondary last season they may need more; two additional linebackers; and another edge rusher at defensive end. Offensively, more depth for the line is needed at guard and tackle. And there’s a need for a top-flight tight end. (Coby Fleener did not fit the bill.)
Finally, owner Tom Benson may just send down a memo that 2017 may be the year the Saints begin the search for an heir apparent to Brees at quarterback. Maybe they’ll get lucky and find a Dak Prescott-like prospect who can learn and study in the greatness of their Hall of Famer.
In the meantime, fans along the Gulf Coast are Saints-less for the playoffs. And memories of that 2010 Super Bowl are really starting to fade.