The New Orleans Saints have been on this path before. The road toward the playoffs. Their sights set on another Super Bowl run.
All indications are the Saints will capture their third straight NFC South division title. Yes, they have been here before. They’re a team with all the parts seemingly working in fine order. They have a roster filled with experienced and talented stars, with a sprinkle of wide-eyed rookies making their presence felt.
This three-year odyssey started in 2017 with an 11-5 record and ended on one play. The team was one miracle play away from a berth in the NFC Championship game. That road took a disastrous detour in Minnesota.
The year 2018 saw New Orleans tear through the regular season with a 13-3 record, and they found themselves in the conference title game in the comforts of the Super Dome. Then everything changed in an instant when — beyond their control, beyond the realm of possibilities and beyond belief — the NOLA No Call ended the Saints’ journey.
Opinions and speculation were this team would succumb to self-pity — the “woe is me” trap if you will: a hangover and funk from two years of season-ending miracle plays or brain-dead game officials like the three blind mice in stripes.
I said all along this would not happen to the Saints. First, they are professionals. Second, I was confident they would flip the story line and recognize that if not for one defensive breakdown and one blown refs’ call, they would have advanced to the NFC title game in 2017 and the Super Bowl in 2018.
We move to 2019, and the Saints find themselves at 7-1 and once again in early control of their playoff destiny. They have a two-game lead over Carolina in the division race and got a rest during a perfect midseason open date at the exact midway point of the schedule.
How they got here has been nothing like the two previous years other than stringing together some impressive victories.
The season could have easily been derailed during the first half of the second game at Los Angeles when Drew Brees was forced to the sideline with his right thumb unable to grip a football strongly enough to pick it up off the ground.
It was maybe the most talked about digit since Joe Namath waved the number one sign as he left the field with the upset champions of Super Bowl III in 1969.
The Saints fell to 1-1 after losing to the Rams. There was concern and worry about whether this team, minus their future Hall of Fame quarterback and easily the greatest player in franchise history, could figure out how to win another game without Brees.
Coach Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis set up their own kind of rainy day fund months earlier when they convinced reserve quarterback Terry Bridgewater to ignore offers from his hometown Miami Dolphins and re-sign as a backup in New Orleans with a one-year $7.5 million dollar deal.
It turned out to be the best $7.5 million the team has ever spent.
I tabbed Bridgewater the NFL’s best backup quarterback when the Saints originally traded for him from the Jets in August of 2018.
It was the best third round deal the Saints ever made.
Payton and Loomis knew they had too good a team, too solid a roster, to let a season sink or swim on the health or availability of Brees. The veteran QB had missed only one game due to injury prior to the smashed thumb in L.A. But clearly Payton and his crafty GM wanted to hedge a bet on the 40-year-old Brees being under center for every game.
The rest is history and in the record books.
Bridgewater calmly and coolly led the Saints to an unexpected five straight wins — among them victories against three playoff teams and three road games.
At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, Bridgewater saved the Saints’ season. And he kept the seat warm for Brees’ return on Oct. 27 in a victory over Arizona. Brees was beaming after the team’s sixth straight win. Bridgewater was the consummate pro, displaying his unassailable character and leadership with smiles, hugs and congrats from the bench as he watched Brees slide easily back into the saddle.
No one expected any grumbling, questions, complaints or split locker room once Brees was ready to play, forcing Bridgewater to the sidelines again. There was not a peep of discord or speculation from anyone wearing black and gold or those lucky white uniforms.
That unified locker room, team chemistry and play for each other’s mentality are the benchmarks of this outfit.
All three phases — offense, defense and special teams — are executing at high levels of proficiency. The only major injury was to Brees’ thumb. Brees underwent surgery and had a relatively quick five-week recovery and rehab period.
Star running back Alvin Kamara and tight end Jared Cook have missed two games with dings, but both are expected to return after the open date in time for the Nov. 10 home game against Atlanta. So the Saints are faring pretty well on the health front.
Special team play has gotten big plays from rookie speedster Deonte Harris. Reliable kicker Will Lutz is in a bit of a mini-slump, missing three makeable field goals in the last two games. He’s made 16 of 20 kicks through eight games.
The offense isn’t as highly ranked as in years past. But considering tossing Bridgewater to the wolves and Kamara out for two games, they are very respectable at No. 12 in the league; in average yards per game at 375; and a tad over 24 points per outing.
Neither the pass nor the run is outpacing each other. It’s pretty balanced, as they are doing both well behind a sturdy offensive line. Wide receiver Michael Thomas is catching a lot of balls for a lot of yards and keeping drives going. Kamara, and of late running mate Latavius Murray, have been effective both on the ground and in the passing game.
It’s been the defense that has carried the Saints through the first half of the season. They have put a stranglehold on opposition running backs, allowing only 84 yards average per game, which ranks the Saints defense second best against the run.
Against the pass, New Orleans’ defense ranks 12th overall, allowing just 232 yards per game. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore has drawn opponents’ best receivers and is having his best season since that breakout rookie season. Eli Apple has improved and safety Vonn Bell is having an All Pro season.
The defensive line and linebackers have played exceptionally well; they’re led by defensive end Cam Jordan (eight sacks through eight games) and linebacker Demario Davis. They are routinely collecting multi-sack games and harassing quarterbacks with constant pressure, hurries and knockdowns.
Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen is dialing up top-notch game plans and making astute halftime adjustments for a defense ranked No. 6 overall, allowing only 19 points per game. Some of the NFL’s top running backs, like Zeke Elliott, Todd Gurley and Leonard Fournette, have not been able to rush for more than 100 yards. In fact, no runner has eclipsed 100 yards against the Saints this season.
The theory in most NFL circles is you win most of, if not all, games if you hold opponents to under 20 points per game and under 100 yards rushing.
Halfway through the season, this Saints defense is being considered the best ever in team history. It’s certainly the best defense since Sean Payton took over in 2006. It will be difficult to exceed the “Dome Patrol” defense of the early 1990s with those four All Pro linebackers. But this year’s crew might be up to the task.
During the best five-game stretch of the Dome Patrol years, they held the opposition to an average of 254 yards per game. During a five-game run this year, the Saints defense held offenses to an average clip of 257 yards.
The numbers and the results speak for themselves.
Rising above the Brees injury, Bridgewater’s five-game winning streak in QB relief and the defense’s ascension to one of the league’s best, is Payton’s work as head coach and team Chief in Charge.
Through eight games, this is arguably Payton’s best coaching job. Consider he lost a Hall of Fame quarterback and team leader in the first half of the second game on the road in Los Angeles. He then had to fast track the game plan and preparation for Bridgewater and convince him he could step into those big shoes and keep the season from going south.
Through the first half of the schedule, Payton had starters Brees, Alvin Kamara, Jared Cook, Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, Tre’Quan Smith and P.J. Williams on the bench for various injuries or reasons. All that, and Payton still engineered wins over playoff teams like Houston, Seattle, Dallas and Chicago.
That’s NFL Coach of the Year-worthy, with all due respect to Frank Reich in Indianapolis and New England’s Bill Bilichick.
The Saints didn’t make any roster moves or trades before the deadline. Nor were there any waiver wire signings, even though I thought they should have taken troubled Patriots receiver Josh Gordan (Seattle signed Gordan first) if he fell their way. Remember, Payton and Loomis took a mid-season flyer on ex-Dallas Cowboys star Dez Bryant to take some pressure off Michael Thomas and offer another Red Zone threat.
So, obviously Payton likes the make-up of his team and ignored some media narrative that he should have traded Bridgewater before that Oct. 29 deadline and get players and draft picks before the possibility that the Saints might get nothing if the quarterback didn’t re-sign after the season.
Don’t underestimate the importance of an undisturbed, cohesive and happy locker room. “Obviously, we have a lot of football left. You go through momentum cycles. I’d say this is a pretty close and resilient group. I think they care a lot about each other. I think they understand how to win and also how difficult it is,” explained Payton.
And there are difficulties ahead. The back half of the schedule still has two dates against Atlanta and Carolina. There are tough games against red hot San Francisco and a solid Indianapolis team — both in the Super Dome during the first two weeks of December. The slate ends with road trips to Tennessee and Charlotte to face the Panthers.
The last two years, the football gods did not look kindly on the Saints. But maybe the stars and moons are aligned this season. Consider too that it’s been 10 years since the team’s Super Bowl win in Miami.
If you haven’t noticed, Super Bowl LIV returns to South Florida next February.
I like where this road is headed.
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 Monday through Sunday evenings at 9 pm on Suddenlink cable channel 4 and Saturday and Sunday on CBS Lake Charles/KSWL. Check local listings.