With regular season football less than a month away, let's take a moment to celebrate that the league's longest labor battle somehow — improbably and incredibly — did not cost us any games on the NFL schedule. A labor dispute that threatened to dismantle the country's most popular sports league and alienate its fans ended with a mad-dash free agency period that saw many teams overhaul rosters and led to the most highly anticipated football season since, well, the last one.
There may not be a better time to be a New Orleans Saints fan. While many teams sought to make big splashes by signing high-profile players and executing blockbuster trades, the Saints instead pursued a more low-key approach that has seen them reinforce an already-stellar lineup and form what looks like another Super Bowl-contending roster.
While the Philadelphia Eagles, New England Patriots and New York Jets all commanded national headlines with big-name free agent signings, the Saints' biggest headlines have revolved around replacing an overpaid Reggie Bush with the diminutive but highly effective Darren Sproles, signing perennial Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz and adding depth to key positions in the defensive line and backfield.
Two years removed from their Super Bowl win, the Saints also have the added advantage of not carrying the burden of trying to repeat as champions. But while the "Two Dat" campaign may have failed when the Saints lost in the first round to the Seattle Seahawks (perhaps the worst playoff team in NFL history), last season was hardly a failure. Now the Saints find themselves as one of the most talented teams being ignored by the national media — which always seem to direct their focus on teams that are more flash than substance. (Exhibit A: New Orleans has been given 16-1 odds to win the Super Bowl.)
Since we can't contain our glee that football is back, let's go ahead and count down five big reasons we should be getting excited about this year's Saints.
• Drew Brees is still one of the best, if not the best, quarterbacks in the league. By now we're used to the Saints possessing a franchise quarterback on whom fans can count to be reliably good-to-spectacular from week to week. Sure, last season saw Brees regress slightly with poor performances against the lowly Cleveland Browns and Arizona Cardinals, but the Saints quarterback continued to be one of the game's most accurate passers and game managers.
Setting aside Brees' unquestioned talent as a signal caller, what's truly remarkable is how his stature has grown off the field. Brees was one of the lead plaintiffs in the players' lawsuit against the NFL during the labor dispute, becoming a target of scorn by NFL owners and retired players who felt Brees and current players weren't looking out for their pensions.
But instead of becoming a pariah, Brees' likely increased his stature with his team and throughout the league. The Saints had one of the most widely attended player-only practices — led by Brees — and when rumors emerged that Brees was holding up a deal for his own self-interest, he swatted them down almost immediately. It's no surprise that when Brees hinted at a political career last year, fans wondered if he'd be New Orleans' first mayor-for-life.
• The Saints signed Olin Kreutz. The Saints' signing of Kreutz may have been the savviest move by general manager Mickey Loomis during free agency. Not only did he shore up a hole that appeared when Jonathan Goodwin left for the San Francisco 49ers, it also gives the Saints a veteran Pro Bowl center to show the ropes to second-year backup Matt Tennant.
While losing Goodwin could have threatened the line's dynamic and chemistry, Kreutz will be a more than adequate replacement. Kreutz, who turned down bigger offers from other teams so he could play for New Orleans, said he has the best job in the NFL because he considers Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks the best guards in the league. This is an offensive line that has given up fewer than 50 sacks in the past two seasons and likely will ensure Brees will continue to be a leader in completion percentages, passing yards and touchdowns.
• Darren Sproles is a lot like Reggie Bush, only cheaper. The signing of Sproles may have been the most exciting move the Saints made this offseason, if only for the fact he's replacing an overpaid Reggie Bush while maintaining comparable stats.
Sproles, though, is not as exceptional a kick returner as many would have fans believe. Last year, he was in the middle of the pack for NFL kickoff returns, and his combined four career touchdowns on punts and kickoffs doesn't jump off the stats sheet. Saints coach Sean Payton, however, covets Sproles' "exceptional acceleration" and knows Sproles' true value is his ability to line up at running back and wide receiver, as well as on special teams. Sproles averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season as a utility back for the San Diego Chargers and has wowed teammates in training camp. Because he can change the pace of a game and keep opposing teams' defenses on their heels — while costing the Saints about $2 million less than Bush — he's sure to become a fan favorite.
By the way, the Saints also drafted a Heisman Trophy-winning running back, just for good measure. When the Saints scored the steal of this year's draft by landing Mark Ingram with the 28th overall pick, Bush responded with a tweet saying "It's been fun New Orleans." Even Bush, also a Heisman winner, understood that in NFL backfields, there's usually room for just one Heisman Trophy winner.
At the same time, the Saints are now spoiled for choice in their running game with Ingram, Sproles, incumbent Pierre Thomas and last year's breakout star Chris Ivory all competing for touches. For a running game that has long been something of a liability — not a surprise when about 60 percent of Payton's play calls are passes — this is a welcome change.
Ingram is an excellent pass-catcher and at 215 pounds, he has a natural ability to break tackles — an ability he showcased to much fanfare when he pulverized Roman Harper on a touchdown run last week in camp. When healthy, Thomas is one of the most consistent backs in the league (he's averaged close to 5 yards per carry his whole career). And while Ingram has his share of critics, you can bet the former University of Alabama standout will be eager to prove that the 27 teams that passed on him during the draft made a terrible mistake.
• On an offensive-minded team, it's easy to forget how scary the Saints' defense is. Gregg Williams has earned a reputation as being one of the most exciting coaches in the league, not to mention one of the best people to eavesdrop on during training camp. Some choice quotes:
On last year's playoff loss to Seattle: "We didn't tackle very well that last game against Seattle, and that still chaps my ass."
Talking to reporters who criticized Roman Harper last year: "It's too bad you guys don't know anything about football."
On how he rides his players hard in practice: "It's time for them to start being uncomfortable."
On rookie defensive lineman Junior Galette: "I haven't gotten on him once, have I? I'm looking for ways to get on him."
Williams, though, has proved he's much more than talk. His exotic schemes and unpredictable play calling have served as the perfect counterweight to Payton's high-flying offense. And as much as the Saints' offense gets most of the glory and attention for wins, it's no coincidence New Orleans won a Super Bowl in Williams' first season as defensive coordinator.
The Saints may have the most defensive position depth in the league, even if no one player's stats are exceptional. The Saints' defensive line was consistent but not great last season, as evidenced by Sedrick Ellis leading the team with only six sacks. But while pressuring the quarterback is a defense's top priority, Williams' scheme means the Black and Gold don't need to have a sack leader on their line to win games. Last season, 14 players — including five defensive backs — registered sacks for the Saints.
This year, the Saints have some of the best depth in the league in their front seven with the returning Ellis and Will Smith, as well as the addition of veterans Shaun Rodgers, and rookie Cameron Jordan. All this ensures the Saints will be able to rotate linemen throughout games to allow for the high-intensity play style Williams prefers.
The Saints' defensive back depth is one of the team's main strengths. Cornerback Patrick Robinson has earned praise from coaches and teammates in training camp (Williams says Robinson is playing so well that injured Tracy Porter wants to speed up his recovery so he won't lose his starting position). Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper make up one of the most talented safety tandems in the league — and that's even if Darren Sharper doesn't resign. The Seattle game and that unfortunate collision last week with Ingram notwithstanding, Harper is among the soundest safeties in the league. Jenkins was responsible for the famous strip of Roy Williams in the fourth quarter that turned last year's Thanksgiving Day game against the Dallas Cowboys in the Saints' favor. You could almost forget that New Orleans still hasn't come to terms with Darren Sharper.
All this makes you almost forget that the seemingly indestructible Jonathan Vilma, who hasn't missed a game in two seasons, anchors the Saints' linebackers, and it allows Williams to regularly play more 3-3-5 nickel defenses that have been so effective at swarming opposing offense.
• The Saints have a relatively hard schedule, and that may be a good thing. With back-to-back games against last year's NFC Championship participants to start the season, and subsequent games against the Indianapolis Colts, New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons, it seems silly to say the Saints will benefit from such a challenging schedule. But the Black and Gold are at their best when they have to raise their level of play in games against great teams. Of the Saints' eight combined losses in the past two seasons, four have come against sub-.500 teams. Don't forget last year's debacles against the Cleveland Browns and St. Louis Cardinals (combined 2010 record: 10-22) or how, in 2009, New Orleans finished the season with back-to-back losses to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers (combined 2009 record: 11-21).
As great as the Saints can be, they have a knack for playing down to lesser opposition. Being tested early and often, and with the NFC South once again looking like the best division in football, strong opponents can only help the Saints' chances. This year, the Saints play nine games against teams that finished .500 or better. The Saints also play against an improved Minnesota Vikings that just signed Donovan McNabb and a St. Louis team that was one win from making the playoffs last year with a rookie quarterback. The Saints seem to have no easy games, and that may just ensure they win them all.
But the main reason to be excited about the Saints' season? It's football and it's back.
What more do you need to know?