There are many questions about how the New Orleans Saints 2012 season will go. How will the team handle the seasonlong loss of head coach Sean Payton as well as the suspensions of assistant head coach Joe Vitt and defensive end Will Smith? Can the Saints overcome all of this and still win an NFC South Division that seems much improved? Will all this upheaval mean catastrophic failure, or will it be a testament to a team of men coming together to do their jobs?
One thing is certain: The Saints are a very talented team. The Black and Gold offense is still potent. The defense has the potential to be better, thanks to additions in talent and the hiring of a new defensive coordinator whose philosophy best suits the current roster of Saints defenders.
But several questions remain.
No Sean Payton, no problem. Payton's replacement, Vitt, has done a fine job leading the team in the suspended head coach's absence. Vitt has the respect, the pulse, and control of the team. Offensive line coach and running game coordinator Aaron Kromer will lead the team while Vitt serves his own suspension. Kromer has been with the team since 2008.
Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael has been with Drew Brees since the quarterback's San Diego Chargers days and called plays last season when Payton went down with a knee injury.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has recent head coaching experience in St. Louis and has coached a Super Bowl-winning defense. From what we've seen through organized team activities, minicamp, training camp and preseason, there shouldn't be much concern about the leadership on this team. They'll be fine.
Heading Into the Season
Brees passed for 5,476 yards last season, breaking Dan Marino's single-season record set in 1984. The offense also set a record for the most yards in a single season. That offense didn't get worse.
Tight end Jimmy Graham had a monster season last year, leading the team in receiving with 99 receptions for 1,310 yards to go with a team-leading 11 touchdowns. Expect another big year for Graham, judging by his performance this preseason.
The loss of Carl Nicks at left guard seems to be having minimal impact as Ben Grubbs has fit in perfectly.
Wide receiver Robert Meachem's replacement has yet to be chosen. Adrian Arrington and rookie Nick Toon both suffered training camp injuries, but once they come back healthy, they should fill the role of the fourth receiver nicely.
The defensive side of the ball is the most intriguing. Spagnuolo is known as a coach who likes to use strong linemen to pressure opposing quarterbacks. In Cam Jordan, Brodrick Bunkley, Sedrick Ellis and Will Smith, the Saints feature four former first-round draft picks up front. Saints defensive linemen totaled nine sacks heading into the preseason finale. That's a sign of things to come.
Linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne were brought in to upgrade the position's overall skill level. Lofton's work during the offseason, training camp and preseason has earned him many compliments from teammates. He will fill in nicely for suspended middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma. Hawthorne had seven solo tackles in the limited action he saw before suffering a meniscus injury to his knee; the injury required surgery. Both new linebackers are upgrades.
Young players Johnny Patrick, Marquis Johnson and fifth-round pick Corey White have helped assuage doubts about the Saints' depth at cornerback. Patrick Robinson and Jabari Greer are two very good starting corners, with Robinson showing signs this preseason that he could be headed for a breakout year.
The defense will feature more coverages than exotic high-risk blitzes. Spagnuolo's defensive scheme will be tested this season against some pretty good quarterbacks: the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton, the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers, the San Diego Chargers' Philip Rivers, the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning, the New York Giants' Eli Manning, the Philadelphia Eagles' Michael Vick, the Dallas Cowboys' Tony Romo, and the unknown in the Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III. And let's not forget the San Francisco 49ers' Alex Smith, whose fourth-quarter in the playoffs this past January still gives me heartburn.
The Saints' special teams have gotten better steadily. Thomas Morstead is among the league's best punters, and his kickoffs tend to be touchbacks. Darren Sproles is a dual threat at running back and as the team's big returner; he's always capable of taking it to the house.
To get to a Super Bowl, you first need to make the playoffs — and the best way to do that is win your division. The Saints won the NFC South last season by three games over Atlanta. How does the division look this season?
Atlanta enters the 2012 season with new offensive and defensive coordinators after a 10-6 record last season. My take: the Atlanta Falcons is the one team that can contend with the Saints for the NFC South crown. Offensively, Atlanta will look to attack downfield more and use the screen pass well. Defensively, expect the Dirty Birds to pressure from everywhere.
The Saints and Falcons also share a healthy dislike for one another. Nov. 11 in the Dome and Nov. 29 in Atlanta are the two meetings this season. Mark your calendars.
Carolina surprised some folks last season. Newton had the best statistical season by a rookie quarterback in NFL history. Center Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer that promised a Lombardi Trophy, so confidence is high in Charlotte. The Panthers are on the rise and don't fear the Black and Gold. Week 2, Saints at Panthers, provides an early opportunity to make a statement. Carolina is not ready just yet. The Panthers will be good but are still missing the pieces needed to overtake the Saints and Falcons.
It is a new regime in Tampa, Fla., as Greg Schiano takes over as head coach. The narrative is simple on the west coast of Florida: Josh Freeman, are you the man or not? The Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback threw 22 interceptions last season as his team lost its final 10 games. Freeman, who by the way is barely recognizable when you see him after losing some weight since last year, has two years remaining on his contract. The club would like to know for sure if he is the team's long-term answer.
Tampa will play inspired football for their new coach, but the team doesn't have the talent to contend for a division title.
Despite all the offseason dramatics, the Saints are a championship contender. Vitt's suspension means he will miss games against Washington, Carolina, Kansas City, Green Bay, San Diego and Tampa Bay. If the Saints can manage to go at least 4-2 in that stretch, and they can go 5-1, then they are poised to reach the 11-win or even the 12-win mark.
I believe the Saints will win the NFC South with a 12-4 record and will play in the NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers. The Saints could even make Who Dat dreams come true by playing at home in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots. They would be the first team in NFL history to do that — a fitting end to the offseason drama.