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Saints: rebuilding at 50 

“Good guys,” bad football. Can New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton overcome the worst defense in the league?

click to enlarge Saints head coach Sean Payton brought in new talent to overcome his team's ranking as the worst defense in NFL history.


Saints head coach Sean Payton brought in new talent to overcome his team's ranking as the worst defense in NFL history.

In hindsight, the New Orleans Saints' relative success in 2013 may have ruined the team. That year's 11-5 record and road playoff win over the Philadelphia Eagles convinced the New Orleans front office that all was well.

  The next two seasons proved otherwise.

  To fans recovering from the team's 7-9 record in 2012, which then seemed like an aberration, the missing ingredient was head coach Sean Payton, and his return from exile for his part in the bounty scandal ensured continuing success. The good times would continue to roll.

  Obviously, things haven't worked out that way, and Payton has acknowledged the team has serious work to do as the franchise celebrates its 50th annivesary with a less than golden record.

  In 2014, the Saints tried to build on the previous year by adding big-money players like safety Jairus Byrd and investing in existing players like pass rusher Junior Galette. They would make an immediate title run. Instead, they fell on their faces, finishing 7-9, as they had in 2012, and doing so in a particularly miserable fashion.

  Byrd struggled and then got hurt. Galette became a problem, failing his leadership role as defensive captain and being charged in January 2015 with domestic violence in an incident that was caught on video. Other issues came to light, too, including reports of locker room brawls. The foundation of 2013 turned out to be rotten, and Payton decided to tear it down and start over.

  "I think it's creating the environment for leadership to flourish," the coach told Pro Football Talk in February 2015. "I've got to do a better job of creating that environment, certainly better than we did a year ago."

  Before the 2015 season, the Saints shipped off tight end Jimmy Graham and wide receiver Kenny Stills. The team cut Galette, even though doing so wrecked its precarious salary-cap situation. They loaded up on draft picks and went after players Payton described as "the tough, smart football players, guys that love playing."

  That was all well and good, and it seems to have made long days at work more enjoyable for Payton, who, during and after the 2015 season, spoke glowingly of his team's revamped culture. "We've got a good group that are grinding, preparing, and that gets you fired up to go to work," he told local media in October 2015.

  As fired up as Payton might have been to coach his group of good guys, those good guys made for a bad football team. The 2015 Saints finished 7-9, just like the 2014 and 2012 teams. And they only won that many games because quarterback Drew Brees, after missing a game with an injury and working to develop a rhythm with new receivers like Willie Snead, had one of the better seasons of his legendary career.

  Without Brees, 2015 might have been the end, because last year the Saints had the worst defense in the history of the National Football League.

click to enlarge The Saints picked up 
free agent linebacker James Laurinaitis to 
beef up the defense. - PHOTO BY
  • The Saints picked up free agent linebacker James Laurinaitis to beef up the defense.

The 2015 Saints defense allowed 6.6 yards per play. That's the most allowed by any NFL defense ever and was so much worse than the second-worst team that the Saints would have ranked 40th in this statistic if there were 40 teams in the NFL.

  The only reason the Saints were No. 31 in overall yardage defense instead of 32 was because their offense was so good at keeping the defense off the field. They were the seventh-best team in time of possession and allowed the seventh-fewest opposing drives. That didn't matter because the Black & Gold allowed 2.58 points per drive, 0.32 points worse than the second-worst team, the Cleveland Browns. (That's the same as the difference between Cleveland and the 16th-ranked Miami Dolphins.) In other words, the Saints were the equivalent of a 40th-ranked defense on a yards-per-snap basis and a 45th-ranked defense on a points-per-drive basis. If Brees and his offense hadn't been capable of keeping the defense off the field, the numbers the Saints would have allowed would have been like something from the Arena League.

  Still, Payton rightly could argue that his new good guys were young and would get better. Cornerback Delvin Breaux, linebacker Stephone Anthony, pass rusher Hau'oli Kikaha, receivers Snead and Brandin Cooks, offensive lineman Andrus Peat and others were part of a new core around which Payton could build, and as they improved, the number in the win column would increase.

  Payton was so confident and comfortable, he said in a season-ending press conference-turned-spectacle that he decided to stay in New Orleans despite months of intensifying rumors to the contrary. "The grass isn't always greener at some spots," he told ESPN shortly afterward.

  But is the grass still green here? For this year, Payton stocked up on veteran free agents like defensive tackle Nick Fairley and linebackers James Laurinaitis, Nate Stupar and Craig Robertson, and added even more young defenders, including defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (who will miss the first few weeks of the season with a broken leg) and safety Vonn Bell.

  But even if the Saints' defense improves under coordinator Dennis Allen, who replaced Rob Ryan during the 2015 season, the offense that has carried the team until now has to remain great for it to compete — and there's no promise that will happen.

click to enlarge Brandin Cooks was a first-round draft pick in 2014 and is a key part of Payton's new offense. - PHOTO BY DERICK HINGLE
  • Brandin Cooks was a first-round draft pick in 2014 and is a key part of Payton's new offense.

Under Payton, Saints fans have always been able to count on the offense. The aerial attack machine Payton and Brees have constructed is so good that, in 2015, against the New York Giants, Brees became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw seven touchdowns in a game — because he had to. Previously, every member of the NFL's tiny seven-touchdown club had won his game easily, but Brees had to throw a seventh TD just to drag his team into overtime.

  But nothing can wreak havoc on an offense like a struggling offensive line, and throughout training camp, and in each preseason game, the Saints' offensive line has struggled.

  Star left tackle Terron Armstead suffered a nondisclosed injury in a preseason loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers Aug. 26. Longtime right tackle Zach Strief is only getting older. And on either side of center Max Unger, the Saints have a collection of overmatched undrafted players and fish-out-of-water second-year tackle Andrus Peat.

  It's been bad, with running backs unable to find room and quarterbacks throwing on the run and off-balance as they try to escape the pressure — when they are able to escape it at all.

  Dating back to 2006, Payton's Saints have had an offensive line they could rely on, especially at the guard position. Now, with future Saints Hall of Fame inductee and guard Jahri Evans gone, that's no longer the case.

  Despite the burgeoning career of Cooks, the emergence of Snead and the training camp hype of rookie receiver Michael Thomas, the Saints' offense was downright bad this preseason. It's an unprecedented situation for Payton. An offense with great talent and skill and no offensive line is like being Olympic legend Usain Bolt in running shoes made of concrete.

It's likely the 2016 season will be the ultimate test of Payton's new foundation. He's tossed out the bad apples and remade his locker room. These guys are his guys, and he praised them throughout training camp.

  But cracks began to appear in Payton's optimistic facade during preseason. Looking tired, he launched some pointed criticisms. "(Offensive guard Tim) Lelito swings and misses. Peat swings and misses," he said. Of young quarterback Garrett Grayson, Payton said, "I would like to see him further along at this point than he is.

  "We've got to have a sense of urgency about some of these things that have shown up maybe just more than one game," Payton said.

  For fans, these are not comforting words. They sound more like a warning. For the first time since 2006, the New Orleans Saints seem capable of a complete collapse.

  A record of 6-10 sounds about right, though the team has a shot at doing a bit better if its offensive line holds up. It will be even worse if it doesn't at all. And Brees still hasn't gotten a new contract.

  Wondering what the results of a total collapse this year might be? Use your imagination.

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