As they enter the earliest moments of the 2014 football season, New Orleans Saints fans are hyped. Here's an example: In the frozen food section of the Winn-Dixie on North Carrollton Avenue, I ran into a neighbor I hadn't seen in a few months. We shook hands. Before saying hello, before asking about the family or the job or my latest writing project, my neighbor said, "I think the Saints are going to be great this year."
I opened my mouth to agree, but he went on before I could speak, pouring out a slew of reasons he thinks the 2014 Saints will be one of the best Black and Gold teams ever. Rob Ryan's defense figured in prominently, of course. "Cam Jordan is a monster," he said, "and you put all-pro-type safeties like Jairus Byrd or Kenny Vaccaro behind a guy like that? It's a better version of the formula we had in 2009."
There it was — the reference to 2009. Even a mention of that year by a Saints fan is a thing with weight; it's most often said in a hushed tone, after a little hesitation. Is any other number, by itself, so magical?
My usual instinct is to qualify such hype about the Saints: Yeah, the Saints will be good, I often think, but ... In 2013, Saints fans were never able to eliminate the part that came after "but." The Saints were good, but they couldn't run the ball. The Saints were good, but they couldn't force turnovers. The Saints were good, but they were going to end up losing on the road in Seattle anyway, so let's not get too excited.
Yeah, the 2013 Saints were good, but.
What changed between the Saints' flight home from Seattle in January and the start of training camp up at The Greenbrier in West Virginia? Old players, like Darren Sproles and Lance Moore, are gone, and new players, like Byrd and rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks, have arrived. Are those roster modifications the explanation for Saints fans' excitement?
They're part of it, but they don't explain everything. Some of the excitement results from the way the Saints' 2013 season ended — with a loss, yes, but not with the sort of heartbreak loss Saints fans experienced after the 2010 and 2011 seasons, when Marshawn Lynch and Vernon Davis each made a mockery of what then passed for a New Orleans defense and put the Saints on the sad side of Seattle and San Francisco sports lore.
No, the Saints' loss to the Seahawks last season wasn't that kind of a heartbreaker. Saints fans were aware of what they were up against: a Seattle team that was better than the 2013 Saints and which was approaching the climax of a story of destiny Saints fans could recognize from their own recent past.
Those who say there are no moral victories in sports may never have felt the strange combination of pride and dissatisfaction that results from such an experience. The pride in your team's performance excites you, but the dissatisfaction from the loss forces you to approach the next campaign with a sense of unfinished business. The Saints lost to Seattle, but New Orleans' manic comeback attempt, the way the Saints' offense finally began to slice the infamous Legion of Boom apart, was something akin to inspirational and left fans ready for more.
We just weren't good enough then, Saints fans have been thinking since January, but we played a hell of a game. And now? Now we're good enough.
Think back to the way you felt before the magic of 2009 began. Here's an anecdote while you're thinking: I moved to Brooklyn during the summer of 2009 and got a job in the cafe of a bookstore. After the Saints crushed the Oakland Raiders 45-7 in the preseason, I was off the clock and browsing the shelves when my brother called me to talk about the game.
"This preseason has been the best I've ever seen the Saints look," he said.
"It sounds like," I replied, and asked him questions about the game, which I hadn't seen. Because I hadn't seen it I didn't fully understand the awe and excitement in his voice.
"I think we might do it this year," my brother said, and I didn't have to ask what he meant by "it." He felt that way because the Saints were good enough, and there was no "but" leading to a qualification. It was full speed ahead, and the trip didn't end until Lombardi Gras.
The Saints ended 2013 on an ellipsis, and have made themselves better while preparing to start the next chapter. The defense remains young and ascending, with the likes of Jordan, Vaccaro, Junior Galette and Akiem Hicks all likely to play their best football yet. And their offense has spent the last few months with its hood propped open while Sean Payton replaced worn-out old engine parts with new and shiny ones. Every move they've made has given fans more reason to get hyped.
In the Mid-City Winn-Dixie, my neighbor continued to build a case for our shared excitement. "This team has an offense that can score 30 points a game," he said, "and the defense might only allow 14." He waved a hand through the air. "Come on now." If he's right — if Saints fans' excitement truly is justified — then there's really just one relevant question in 2014.
Who, indeed, is going to beat these Saints?
GET HYPED FOR THE BASH BROS
GET HYPED FOR
THE BASH BROS
Who they are: Khiry Robinson and Mark Ingram, a pair of power running backs who each made a mark during the Saints' playoff run last year.
Why you should be hyped: Everyone knows that Robinson has been compared to all-time great Curtis Martin. Fans may be skeptical about Ingram, the mostly pedestrian former first-round pick from Alabama. But here's the thing: Ingram ended the year playing his best football, running with anger and producing 356 yards on 75 carries between his midseason return from injury and the end of the Seattle playoff game, and that's if you don't count the 145 yards he managed on 14 carries against the Dallas Cowboys.
The combination of Robinson and a resurgent Ingram in 2014 could give the Saints' offense the ability to pummel defenders — making quarterback Drew Brees even more dangerous.
Who he is: The Saints' 2014 first-round draft pick, a blazing fast wide receiver from Oregon State who won't turn 21 until Sept. 25.
Why you should be hyped: He may be young, but few offensive weapons of any age combine the myriad skills Brandin Cooks has at his disposal. He has the speed to outrun any defender and the moves of Reggie Bush or Darren Sproles at their most slippery.
If you combine Sproles with pint-sized yet physical former Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith, to whom Cooks has compared himself, you'll start to understand just how exciting a player this kid might be.
Who he is: A big-money free agent acquisition nobody thought would even be in the running, Byrd is a former all-pro who also made three Pro Bowls during his five years in Buffalo.
Why you should be hyped: Byrd's specialty is the interception — he had more of them (seven) by the eighth game of his rookie season than Malcolm Jenkins managed in all of his five years (six) — and interceptions have been rare in New Orleans since the 2009 season. But Byrd, unlike the player who set the turnover-forcing tone for that year's team, is in the prime of his career. He's a premier piece of a Saints defense that seems structurally sound for the first time in more than a decade.