The end of July is a strenuous time for New Orleanians. Residents hunker down and begin to speculate about their city's fortunes. They scan the news for clues as to whether it will be an easy transition to fall, or the start of a long and painful drama. We're not talking about the height of hurricane season, but the start of Saints training camp.
The 2009 season is almost certain to be a turning point in franchise history. In his fourth year as head coach, Sean Payton will be under pressure to recapture some of the magic he flashed in his first season when he led the Saints to the NFC Championship Game. The Black and Gold are just 15-17 after falling one game shy of the 2006-2007 Super Bowl and haven't won three games in a row since November 2007 — all this despite Drew Brees emerging as one of the game's elite quarterbacks, throwing at near-record rates and continuing to improve every season.
Of course, people have blamed the defense for the team's recent faults — and justifiably so, considering the Saints had the best offense in the league but their defense allowed 25 or more points in a game 10 times, leaving the team 8-8 at the end of the season and out of the playoffs. But had the offense produced a running game as good as its passing game, or at least one that could gain 5 or 6 crucial yards throughout the season, the team could very well have been playing in January.
As expected, most of the changes made during the offseason were with the defense, including new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (see sidebar) and the addition of 12 new defensive players through free agency and the draft. The theory: With their current offense, the Saints will make the playoffs if only the defense can keep other teams to three touchdowns a game instead of the usual four. But this is the NFL, and nothing ever goes as planned. So while everyone will be looking at how well the defense plays, it will really come down to whether or not Brees can continue to carry the load. If he's capable (there's no reason to think he's not) and the defense is at least average, this team could be a championship contender. But then again, this is New Orleans, and you always have to ask questions when people say the "big one" is around the corner.
The first question: How good is Drew Brees, really?
You could look at how he led the league in passing last year, was named to his third Pro Bowl and was the 2008 NFL Offensive Player of the Year. You could also compare him to Dan Marino, whose single-season passing record he almost beat, or marvel that he does it all standing just 6 feet tall. But why not just take the word of his peers — or, better yet, his opponents:
"You have to use him as a model. ... That's where we want [Oakland Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell] to get." — Raiders head coach Tom Cable after Brees completed 80 percent of his passes in the Saints' 34-3 win.
"I was sitting on the sideline watching him working his magic, and I kept on just thinking, 'When is he going to miss one?'" — San Diego Chargers tailback LaDainian Tomlinson after Brees completed 30 of 41 passes in the Saints' 37-32 week 8 victory.
"Give credit to the Saints and the play of their quarterback. He was on fire coming into the game and we didn't cool him off any." — Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy after Brees threw for 323 yards in a 51-29 Saints win.
"Drew Brees is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL." Carolina Panther cornerback Ken Lucas, after his team beat the Saints 33-31 in the last game of the season in which Brees threw for 386 yards and four touchdowns.
When teams gear up to play the Saints this year, they must come up with a way to stop Brees in order to win. Last year, few teams were able to execute such a plan, and Brees averaged an astonishing 316.8 yards per game.
Moreover, as backup QB Mark Brunell put it, Brees is "the glue that holds this team together." Last season, Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas, Marques Colston, Jeremy Shockey and Mark Campbell all spent time on the injured list, leaving the ever-healthy Brees a cast of relative no-names to throw to. It turns out it didn't matter to whom he was passing the ball, as long as it was him doing the throwing.
So what happens if it's not Brees at QB?
Here's the question no Saints player, coach or fan wants to think about, let alone be in a position to answer — because the Saints don't really have much of a backup plan should Brees go down with an injury. Or rather they do; it just involves 38-year-old Mark Brunell (who hasn't started a game in almost three years) and journeyman Joey Harrington (who during organized team activities looked more like an undrafted rookie than a seven-year veteran).
To be fair, it's not easy for anyone to replace one of the Top 5 quarterbacks playing right now. And while you could point to Kurt Warner emerging after Trent Green tore his knee in the preseason 10 years ago or how Matt Cassell might have done the same after Tom Brady went down 10 months ago, it's not the likeliest of circumstances. Harrington has never won more than six games in a season, and Brunell hasn't started a game in nearly three years.
Really, the best answer to this question is to not think about it. At all.
But will Brees have any help on the offensive side of the ball?
For all his Midas magic, Brees couldn't pass the Saints to victory every week. And sometimes, despite all of this offense's proficiency, games came down to just a couple of yards. Last season, the Saints were stopped on crucial short-yardage situations that could've won them the game in back-to-back weeks against the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos. Had those losses become wins, the Saints would have been 10-6, meaning they missed the playoffs by a total of 5 yards.
So what have the Saints done to improve? Not much, aside from cutting aging franchise-icon Deuce McAllister. But that may not be a bad thing. Reggie Bush is supposedly fully recovered from knee surgery and last year showed he could be the explosive game-changing back everyone expected him to be. But the key lies in the legs of Pierre Thomas, who emerged as a surprisingly efficient every-down back. During the offseason, Thomas bulked up his legs, adding 10 pounds of muscle — the better to hit the hole with power and get that extra push when his team most needs it.
The real question, though, has to be whether Sean Payton will show more patience with his running game. Last year, Payton called 636 passing plays to just 398 running plays. In the NFL, it's never good when teams know what you're going to do roughly half the time.
OK, but how many games is the defense going to lose this year?
No way to tell until the season is at least halfway done, but you can be assured this year's defense is at least going to be different. In many ways, different can only be good. Last season, the defense was ranked 26th out of 30 teams and frequently gave up big plays at the worst times. But the biggest indictment, by NFL standards, had to be that this defense was, at best, ordinary and unimposing. Nobody feared them and everyone (except for the hapless Detroit Lions) could score on them.
Part of it was coaching. After replacing the much-maligned Gary Gibbs with firebrand Gregg Williams just a few days after the end of the season, the front office's hope is that the new schemes will fix that. But another big problem was personnel — aside from Jonathan Vilma, this team lacked true defensive playmakers. The defensive line, though effective, failed to yield a player with more than six sacks; and the secondary, which lacked depth at the start of the season, was beleaguered with injuries to Tracy Porter, Mike McKenzie and Kevin Kaesviharn.
On paper, it looks as if the Saints have filled many of the glaring defensive gaps they had last year through the acquisition of veteran safety Darren Sharper and the drafting of cornerback Malcolm Jenkins. But the more important pickups may be the ones that drew less news. Along with an exotic blitz scheme and an aggressive mentality, Williams also brought along cornerback Jabari Greer, safety Pierson Prioleau and defensive end Paul Spicer, all of whom are familiar with the new defensive schemes. Because what good is fancy play-calling if the players can't execute?
OK, so new defensive coach and new defensive players. What excuses will Sean Payton have if his team can't make the playoffs this year?
Not many. He's entering his fourth season as the Saints head coach, and most people can barely remember when the then-wunderkind led this team to the NFC Championship Game. Two mostly miserable seasons later, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis has said Payton's job is secure. But how secure is secure? Ask Jon Gruden, who after seven seasons and a Super Bowl ring was unceremoniously ejected from his post as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January. Or ask twice-as-good Mike Shanahan, fired in December after two Super Bowl victories and 14 years as head coach of the Denver Broncos.
Payton doesn't have half the resume of those coaches, but he's arguably had much better talent at his disposal in recent seasons. Payton's play-calling used to be inventive and constantly kept opposing defenses guessing. The past two seasons have been the opposite; teams adjusted to Payton, and he's struggled to adjust back. If Payton can't find the right mix this year, don't be surprised if the Saints decide Payton isn't part of the long-term plan.
What off-the-field scandal will distract the media and fans of the team's on-the-field shortcomings?
Whatever you might say about the Saints on the field, you'd be hard-pressed to claim that this team is boring off of it. In the last two months, Jeremy Shockey passed out next to a Las Vegas pool; Reggie Bush was rope-a-doped publicly by girlfriend Kim Kardashian when she bought herself a $20 million engagement ring; and Drew Brees, Archie Manning and 14 other players and coaches lost a combined $2 million in a tax credit scheme more familiar in politics than in the sports pages. Add in Tom Benson — who had cars from his dealership defecated on in the players' lot and may or may not have returned the favor to the city of New Orleans with his new stadium deal — and you have distractions up and down the Saints organization.
To be fair, if the team were winning, some of that news might have flown under the radar. (Who cares about Kim Kardashian, really?). But for a team that has yet to prove it can win consistently, it collects negative press at an alarming rate. So what could be in store this season? Take a guess. Maybe training camp in Metairie will lead to tabloid-news fodder in the French Quarter, or a political scandal in Baton Rouge will find a connection with the state money given for the Louisiana Superdome. Or maybe the Saints will start winning and never stop until they reach the Super Bowl.
Hell, stranger things have happened.