For most NFL teams, finishing a season ranked fourth in total offense and 10th in points scored would be cause for celebration. Not so for the New Orleans Saints and coach Sean Payton after 2013: those numbers were the Saints' worst offensive output since the 2010 and 2007 seasons, skewing far below Payton-era averages that annually rank the team among the league's top five in both categories. Part of the problem was aging personnel, but a bigger part of it was the level of defensive competition the Saints faced in 2013 — a fact that bodes well for the team this year.
Last time the Saints finished worse than second in total offense, they overhauled the unit, shipping Reggie Bush off to Miami, replacing Jeremy Shockey with Jimmy Graham and signing Darren Sproles. A similar overhaul has been underway this offseason, with Sproles off to Philadelphia, Lance Moore in Pittsburgh and rookie speed demon Brandin Cooks arriving to inject new excitement into a by-now venerable system.
That's all well and good, and the changes look like they'll pay dividends. Even when Drew Brees hasn't played during the 2014 preseason, the Saints' offense has performed well, and when Brees did take the field against the Indianapolis Colts, he revved up the team's engine even further.
The offense the Saints puts on the field matters, of course, but the other side of the equation is the set of defenses they face in a given year. Last year, the Saints ran up against a wall: they played five games against teams that finished among the NFL's top six defenses by yards allowed, and played many more against teams with defenses that finished in the top half of the league.
Unsurprisingly, the Saints' performance reflected that reality and the team looked comparatively sluggish, because the guys getting paid to stop them were really good. In fact, the overall slate of defenses the Saints faced in 2013 was the toughest of the Sean Payton era. To evaluate the 2013 season, and to estimate the difficulty of the Saints' future schedule, Black & Gold Review co-founder Ryan Chauvin and I came up with a statistic we refer to as Offensive Difficulty Rating (ODR).
To create ODR, we used the defensive rankings of the Saints' opponents, but adjusted those rankings so the Saints' performance against those defense was not a factor.
We did math to the adjusted stats and ended up with something akin to the NFL's passer rating: the higher the Offensive Difficulty Rating number, the tougher the job for the Saints' offense.
In 2013, the Saints' ODR was 144.9. Long story short: That's really tough.
We're not here to give a post-mortem on 2013 or to experience a bad knockoff of your college stats class. We want to get an idea of how the Saints will do this year. There only are two variables for us to evaluate: previous performance and roster changes. We'll take a look at each team and assign a rough estimate of the Saints' percentage chances to win, on a scale of 1 to 100 percent probability, based on each team's performance last year and changes in the offseason. For divisional opponents, the scores represent the Saints' chances to win both games.
Using 2013 performance as a baseline, and considering the factors and scores noted above, we produced an estimated Offensive Difficulty Rating for the 2014 season of 76.02 — less than half as tough as the schedule the Saints faced last year.
That means the Saints' 2013 record of 11-5, with a wild card berth, should be seen as a baseline for 2014.
The question this year isn't whether the Saints will be good.
The question is this: Will the Saints — once again — be historic?
— Bradley Warshauer is the co-founder and editor of the Black & Gold Review (www.blackandgoldreview.com), which covers the New Orleans Saints and all kinds of Crescent City culture.
Sun. Sept. 7; Sun. Dec. 21 (both noon; Fox)
Last year, the Falcons had one of the worst defenses in the league, ranking 27 out of 32, and they deserved that number. The Saints have another good chance to sweep the season series with the Falcons, but these games are almost always close, and you never know what might happen against a hyped-up Falcons team in its home opener.
Sun. Sept. 14 (noon; Fox)
Do the Saints have a better chance to sweep the Falcons than they do to beat Cleveland? Yes, slightly. The Browns' defense was quietly solid in 2013 and has as good a chance as any early opponent to slow down the Saints' attack. The Saints will rightfully be favored in this game, but how many early-season road games against inferior opposition have the Saints blown in recent years?
Sun. Sept. 21 (noon; Fox)
Minnesota had a terrible defense in 2013, and there aren't many signs of a stunning turnaround, even if the unit does improve. The Saints will get their first home-field advantage of 2014 when they play the Vikings, so a loss would be a major and disappointing upset.
Sun. Sept. 28 (7:30 p.m.; NBC)
Dallas, too, had an awful defense last year, and though some improvement is likely, the Cowboys don't seem to have the talent to match up with the Saints.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Sun. Oct. 5; Sun. Dec. 28 (both noon; Fox)
Sun. Oct. 19 (noon; Fox)
With former Saints offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi calling the plays, and with former Saints players littering their roster, the Lions have established a kind of New Orleans football colony in Detroit. That likely won't be enough to save them.
Green Bay Packers
Sun. Oct. 26 (7:30 p.m.; NBC)
The Packers consistently have fielded a below-aver- age defense the past few years, and they'll be playing a prime time game in the Superdome. That's never a recipe for success.
Thu. Oct. 30 (7:25 p.m.; NFL Network); Sun. Dec. 7 (noon; Fox)
The Panthers had one of the best defenses in football last year, but that unit looks weaker this season. Saints fans are salivating at the idea of Jimmy Graham matched up on former Saints safety Roman Harper. Still, don't be surprised if Carolina beats the Saints in Charlotte.
San Francisco 49ers
Sun. Nov. 9 (noon; Fox)
If New Orleans is going to lose a home game in 2014, this one could be it. San Francisco's always-tough defense will be out for blood.
Sun. Nov. 16 (noon; CBS)
Another tough AFC defense could put up a fight in New Orleans, but the Saints should end up beating the Bengals.
Sun. Nov. 24 (7:30 p.m.; ESPN)
Sun. Nov. 30 (noon; Fox)
The Steelers may not be down for long. Big-play receiver Antonio Brown could test the Saints' defense, and Pittsburgh's defense wasn't as bad as you probably think it was last year.
Mon. Dec. 15 (7:30 p.m.; ESPN)
The Bears are famous for defense, but under head coach Marc Trestman and with former Saints assistant Aaron Kromer calling the plays, Chicago has turned into an offensive machine. This one may be a back-and-forth shootout that turns on home-field advantage.