The Saints’ sudden opportunity to win it all in 2012 (along with a sweet side of revenge)
Nothing blackens a name like ink from the pen of a fool. By the end of 2012, that maxim could apply to a lot of articles that have been written about the Saints in the “bounty” postmortem. But those articles were written when Drew Brees was on the figurative bench, and to see the effect of leadership, look no further than the streets of New Orleans when the announcement that Drew Brees had re-signed with the Saints riveted up, down and across hallways, walls, and every avenue, boulevard and alleyway in town. People cheered, high-fives were exchanged between friend and stranger alike and a page has since been turned: New Orleans is ready for the season to begin. The NFL’s all-time leading single-season passer is back, a fact that weighs on the rest of the league akin to the bully who looks to see that the kid he’s been picking on for four months brought his big brother this time.
Because since March of this year, when Commissioner Roger Goodell’s office started the drip-like release of reports and penalties for the Saints’ alleged infractions in 2011, national commentators have been roundly predicting a decline for the Saints. There may be several well-grounded reasons for that, not least of which is the absence of Sean Payton in the crafting and executing of the game plan from Day One of the offseason through the final minute of the final game, but it would be wrong to exclude the factor of wishful thinking on the part of those very same prognosticators. Over the last three years, the Saints have won 38 games, including a championship; they have gone 24-3 in meaningful home games; they have obliterated offensive records, including most points at home, most yards gained, passes completed, pass completion percentage, passing yards, first downs and first downs passing; and they’ve managed to repeatedly embarrass some of the league’s most prominent franchises while making a mockery of its promoted goal of parity.
And therein lies a problem for 2012: no matter how many games the Saints win, Joe Vitt will not be named coach of the year; no matter how many records he sets, Drew Brees will not be named NFL MVP; and no matter how good their behavior on the field, or how many of the commissioner’s rulings and statements are overturned or refuted, no one–not the press, nor league officials, nor fans in other cities–will avail themselves to internally or outwardly cheer for the Saints. What is more, observers of the NFL should have learned by now that every bit of information, from every formal statement to every last leaked rumor from this commissioner’s office has been designed to create maximum public impact. Given the way that the reports and details emerged (and in some cases, which details have been withheld) regarding the Saints’ alleged improprieties, one possible conclusion could be that the intention has been to not only render a report and levy fines and suspensions based on the facts, but also to halt the very momentum under which the franchise has been surging for these past three years. Because after all, if a team were to win after such an impressive demonstration of power and official condemnation, then the final lesson would be one quite different from the one the league initially intended.
And with Brees again in the fold, the Saints’ chances of doing just that are quite good. The first seven games on the schedule feature six teams who finished without a winning season last year, and the two best teams: the Chargers and Packers, must come to New Orleans, which is a great boon as well. Do not be surprised to see at least three games with sixty total points in the Dome in this first half of the season and players like Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham spiking the ball in the end zone one or two times each per game. While the offense’s talent level seems fairly stable with the additions of Ben Grubbs and Nick Toon replacing Carl Nicks and Robert Meachem, the defense, which lost two starting linemen (Franklin and Rogers), a starting cornerback (Tracy Porter) and two starting linebackers (Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Jonathan Vilma), suffered severe attrition. Yet much as in 2009, the defense will have to make the difference in a potential Super Bowl run. If new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can generate improved schemes with less predictability, more sacks and quarterback pressures, better technique, more turnovers and better prevention of big plays (such as in the playoff losses to the Seahawks and Niners in 2010-11) from newcomers Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne, Chris Chamberlain and Broderick Bunkley along with recent draft picks Cameron Jordan, Patrick Robinson and Akiem Hicks, then the early season schedule and the Superdome’s incredible home-field advantage will provide terrific leverage for the Saints to host the NFL’s first home championship since after the 1965 season. Needless to say, the spectacle of the now-hallowed Pete Rozelle handing the Lombardi Trophy to the outlaw Al Davis in 1981 would look like a spring picnic in comparison to the reception the present-day commish would receive from a fairly agitated, lubricated and vindicated Big Easy home crowd in championship mode.