More than 500 days. That's how long it's been since New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton was suspended for his role in the bounty scandal and the team's coaching staff was temporarily dismantled. Who Dats don't need to be reminded what happened next. Last season is better forgotten — and this season may be one of the most important in the franchise's history.
So far, Saints fans have rejoiced at the sight of Payton on the sidelines but have seen only glimpses of how the team will play this year. That hasn't stopped some from comparing Payton's return to his first season in New Orleans (See "2013: A rebuilding odyssey," p. 21), but the upcoming season has several questions that need answers.
Here are the top four, starting with the most important:
What does the return of Sean Payton mean?
If nothing else, last season proved just how important a head coach is to a football franchise. Payton's .646 winning percentage eclipses that of all his predecessors and — as valiant as Aaron Kromer and Joe Vitt were last season — it's clear there's no replacing Payton.
Even with quarterback Drew Brees calling the shots on the field, the website Football Outsiders (www.footballoutsiders.com) calculated that the Saints' offensive efficiency last season dropped from second-best in the NFL to ninth. The Saints missed Payton's second-half adjustments even more, seeing a dropoff in fourth quarter points that led to four straight losses by eight points or less to start the season.
The team suffered even more with a historically bad defense. That's not hyperbole; last year, the Saints defense gave up the most single-season yards in NFL history. Upon his return, Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis immediately got to work fixing that by changing defensive coordinators, drafting three defensive players and signing veteran defensive backs Keenan Lewis and Jim Leonhard.
But above all, Payton's mere presence is enough to get Saints fans excited. It's clear Payton didn't take a break from analyzing his team last season. From the start of training camp, he's said his players have a lot to prove. After a listless win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the team's preseason opener, Payton showed some of the fire that Saints fans like.
"I didn't want to come in and be so negative, but there are a lot of things that I think we need to clean up," he said. "It was just sloppy."
Last year there were excuses. This year, Payton has returned to make sure no mistake will be unaccounted for.
Rob Ryan and his 3-4 defense
Last year, the Saints set the new low for bad NFL defenses. Fair or not, former defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo took all the heat and was quickly shown the door when Payton returned. But Spagnuolo's firing shouldn't mask the fact that last year's defensive roster vastly underperformed, especially given the defense's pay grade. The Saints spent $57 million on defensive players last year — players who could barely stop other teams from marching up and down the field.
Ryan has an unenviable position right now, and his history as a coordinator has been inconsistent. He has never coached a defense that was ranked better than 14th in the league. With the Dallas Cowboys, he had DeMarcus Ware — arguably the best defensive lineman in football — and a talented secondary, but his defense was a weak point for the team all season.
Ryan has introduced the Saints to a 3-4 defensive scheme that football experts agree can take a full season for even the most talented defense to grasp — and the Saints are far from having the most talented defense. Now they're asking Will Smith, a former down lineman, to play outside linebacker and do more than just rush the quarterback. The Saints also are asking Jonathan Vilma, who will miss the preseason due to knee surgery, to play in a 3-4 scheme for which he is ill-suited (that was one of his main reasons for leaving the New York Jets) and will have to master late in his career without the benefit of preseason workouts.
Then there's the issue of the secondary. From the first game of the season, when Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III rolled over the Saints for 320 yards, it was clear the Saints were in trouble. Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper, Patrick Robinson and Jabari Greer all had moments last season that made them look foolish, and the Saints spent much of the offseason trying to shore up depth at defensive back. Free agent acquisition Keenan Lewis and rookie Kenny Vaccaro should bring talent and youth, respectively. For the defensive unit to improve, however, it will require all the defensive backs to raise their play to a much higher level than last season.
Payton has said several times that the defense is a focal point for him this season and it has showed in the team's off-season moves. The Saints drafted Vaccaro, a safety, with their first pick in the NFL draft and followed up by signing Lewis and Leonhard. Though not elite, Leonhard is known for his football IQ and made a name for himself as the heart of the defense with the New York Jets. Lewis comes from the Pittsburgh Steelers, consistently one of the best defensive teams in football. Along with the talented and athletic Vaccaro, the secondary should be poised to see dramatic improvement.
Can Drew Brees keep up his prolific passing?
It's a testament to how much turmoil the Saints have gone through in the past year that their quarterback has garnered more attention for his tipping habits than for his passing. When a gossip website posted a receipt showing Brees' signature offering a $3 tip on a $74 takeout order, Brees joked he hopes it's the biggest controversy he faces all season.
There is no doubt that Brees is still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but he clearly struggled last year without Payton. The normally ultra-accurate passer finished the season with his worst completion percentage since 2003.
Brees still has the drive and talent to be a Top 5 NFL quarterback, but at 34 years old, he's quickly approaching the age when a passer's talent erodes permanently. It's no coincidence that only four quarterbacks have ever won a Super Bowl after turning 35.
"35 is the new 25," Brees told the media at the start of training camp, but even he acknowledged that he wouldn't have the extra spring in his step the morning after Payton's grueling conditioning programs. Brees' stamina will be a large factor for the Saints' championship aspirations.
What will replace "Halftime (Stand Up and Get Crunk)"?
Not all storylines about the Saints this year are all that serious and, thankfully, we have one that combines the region's two great loves: football and music. When the Saints notched their first score against the Chiefs in their preseason home opener, Twitter was abuzz when the ensuing kickoff didn't feature the usual "Halftime (Stand Up and Get Crunk)" by the Ying Yang Twins. (Count us among all those who were happy to see the song go, though when the Saints were riding high, there was nothing cooler than seeing nearly 80,000 people "getting crunk.")
Now that it's gone, we have to wonder if the Saints will take this opportunity to use local music for their new anthem. Who wouldn't want to hear the Rebirth Brass Band, Trombone Shorty, Galactic or any other hard-driving local act play right before kickoff? Let's hope the Saints use some homegrown talent and don't just go with Metallica.