Nothing about the hype that suffocated the New Orleans Saints this time last year is more retrospectively cringeworthy than something a friend said to me after the team's third preseason game this year: "Hey, remember when you wanted to start interviewing fans for a retrospective of the 2014 championship season before it started?"
I was wrong about that team, just like almost everyone else. The Saints responded to our collective judgment error by changing directions with a series of trades and cuts and signings that made the offseason far more exciting than the season it followed. The moves were daring, maybe desperate, and have made 2015 as uncertain a season as any in a long time.
Drew Brees told ESPN in July that the Saints "almost have to kind of rewind, start back over, like in '06." That was neither the quarterback's first nor last comparison of the current team to that inspiring unit from almost a decade ago that returned to a struggling New Orleans after spending a year on the road post-Hurricane Katrina and improved from a 3-13 record in 2005 to 10-6 in the 2006 regular season and a spot in the NFC Championship game (losing 39-14 to the Chicago Bears).
Head coach Sean Payton joined the refrain, but that sort of rhetoric is just football talk for unpredictability. This year the fans don't know what to expect. Neither, it seems, does the team.
The Saints are at a crossroads. Which way will they go?
Left turn into oblivion
All those people who said Drew Brees was losing arm strength turn out to be right. Brees gets worse in 2015, and the Saints can't justify retaining him because of his mammoth salary cap number. And the defense ... well, what defense? The Saints bottom out, win three or four games and the golden age of New Orleans professional football ends.
Right turn into mediocrity
Despite the best efforts of Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis, the Saints continue to veer off into mediocrity. Brees stays solid until retirement, but Payton and Loomis can't figure out this defense thing and the Saints never seriously contend again.
On the straight and narrow
This is what we want. Buoyed by a resurgent Drew Brees and a new defense featuring rookie stars Hau'oli Kikaha and Stephone Anthony, the 2015 Saints win 11 games and spend the remaining years of Brees' career contending annually for a Super Bowl championship.
Many fans, and the national sports media in general, decided last year that Drew Brees has declined. It's true he's aging: 36 is old in football years. Fans submitted his 17 interceptions as evidence, even though Brees exceeded that number in 2007, 2010 and 2012, and matched it in 2008 — a year the same media crowned him NFL Offensive Player of the Year and fans chanted "MVP! MVP!" in the Superdome.
The other evidence was a mystical loss of arm strength, obvious to some but not to others. Since Brees' downfield production didn't actually change last season, the concept was not backed up by anything beyond visual anecdotes — but that didn't matter. By the time the Saints used a third-round draft pick on Garrett Grayson as a rookie quarterback, funeral preparations were underway.
Then, against the New England Patriots in the Saints' second preseason game Aug. 22, Brees fired a deep touchdown pass to receiver Brandin Cooks that was so gorgeous it required explanation: How could his presumably decomposing corpse make such a throw? About the same time, reports emerged of a torn oblique muscle that limited Brees for all of 2014, and during coverage of the Saints' third preseason game Aug. 30 against the Houston Texans, commentator Troy Aikman mentioned an injured rotator cuff.
The real cause of Brees' apparent decline may have been the messy situation along the interior line, and the real reason for his possible resurgence is improvement at that spot — most notably in the form of new center Max Unger. That may be irrelevant, but now there is a popular explanation for last year — and with that explanation comes hope.
Maybe the best days of Drew Brees aren't quite behind us.
The New England Patriots win about 94 percent of the games in which quarterback Tom Brady produces a passer rating of at least 100. The Saints win 82 percent of their games when Drew Brees does the same. The missing 12 percent represents the decreased margin for error in New Orleans — it's a result of bad defense.
Much of what the Saints did between 2014 and 2015 has been about defense. Of the team's nine draft picks, six went to that side of the ball. Of those six rookies, four — linebackers Hau'oli Kikaha and Stephone Anthony, defensive lineman Tyeler Davison and cornerback Damian Swann — seem poised to make contributions immediately, especially Kikaha and Anthony.
During the preseason, Kikaha often seemed to be the defense's lone playmaker, providing its only consistent pass rush and its most aggressive presence against the run. Now that the Junior Galette saga finally has ended with the Saints releasing him before training camp (a move that reportedly will cost the organization about $16 million), Kikaha has become even more important. He is not a luxury item. He has to be very good, very fast.
Anthony, the likely candidate to start at inside linebacker, was a sensation during training camp at the Green-brier in West Virginia, flashing athleticism beyond anything the Saints have deployed at the position in recent memory. His presence during the preseason was muted; he was just there, and he made a couple of key mistakes.
That two rookies are so integral is emblematic of the Saints' defense as a whole. It might be okay, but only if: if Delvin Breaux is a capable fill-in for Keenan Lewis during the first month of the season, if Lewis can return from his reported hip surgery on time, if Brandon Browner stays healthy, if safety Kenny Vaccaro rebounds from his poor performance in 2014, if safety Jairus Byrd eventually proves to be a real person, etc.
If the theme of the year is unpredictability, then defense carries the theme's flag.
Yeah, it'll be fine.
Football and fun
The difference between expectation and result was so vast last year that having fun was almost impossible. Talented but undisciplined, the 2014 New Orleans Saints were easy to dislike — and Galette was the physical manifestation of that.
Beyond the wins and losses, perhaps the most important part of the football experience this year will be rediscovering the fun of it all. Consider rookie running back Marcus Murphy: During preseason, every time he touched the football, fans had fun. If all goes as expected, Murphy will touch the football a lot as the Saints' primary kick returner. And think about how fun it was when Cooks caught that 45-yard touchdown bomb from Brees against the New England Patriots Aug. 22. With luck, we'll see a lot of that.
Even after their partial reboot, the Saints' recipe for success is the same. The questions that remain won't determine whether they still have a good offense, but those questions will determine whether they have a great one. Most important, they'll determine whether the defense is just good enough.
If it's not, expect the Saints to hover around .500 again. But with enough questions about the new defense answered in the affirmative, and with a potentially soft AFC South-focused schedule, a final record that includes many more wins isn't out of the question.
Football is fun because it's unpredictable. With their rhetoric about 2006, the 2015 Saints may be recognizing this idea and embracing it. Do the right football things at the right football times and have fun — and hope that the oblate spheroid bounces your way. If just a few more things go well than go badly, these New Orleans Saints could earn a 10-6 record and return to the playoffs.
That would be a delightfully familiar result.