Bountygate Aside, New Orleans Saints Are Still Contenders Without Sean Payton

Sam QuinnContributor IIIMarch 25, 2012

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 07:  Head coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints looks on during warms up prior to playing against the Detroit Lions at Mercedes-Benz Superdome during their 2012 NFC Wild Card Playoff game on January 7, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Generally, losing your Super Bowl-winning head coach for a year, pissing off your Pro Bowl quarterback and being docked two premium draft picks is not what you'd like to see out of a contender in the offseason. 

But what people have seemingly forgotten in all of this is that the New Orleans Saints are still contenders. 

Don't mistake Bountygate as an opportunity for Atlanta or Tampa Bay to steal the NFC South. The Saints are still the division favorites and a real contender to win the whole thing. 

Worried about losing Carl Nicks? Ben Grubbs is 90 percent the player Nicks is and comes at a much more reasonable price. 

Concerned over a possible Jonathan Vilma suspension? Well don't bother, because Curtis Lofton just signed on with the Saints for five years. Lofton might not be better than Vilma right now, but he's damn close, and at only 25 years old, he has room to improve. 

But wait, Robert Meachem is gone, right? Well, does that really matter? It's hard to be too sad about losing your third-best target in a system that's based on having so many. Is it so hard to score with Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham, Devery Henderson and Lance Moore as your top four receivers?

Am I forgetting about Drew Brees? Absolutely not; I'm just not naive enough to believe that he would actually hold out. This is Drew Brees. He wants a big contract and deserves one, but more than anyone, he realizes what he means to his fans and his city.

Brees would never risk his god-like status in New Orleans over a few million dollars. A new contract will be signed before training camp. 

In fact, there are areas in which you could argue the Saints have improved. The bounty scandal has overshadowed this, but Gregg Williams really hasn't done a good job recently as a football coach. His opportunistic defense did wonders for the Saints in 2009, but the league figured it out in 2010 and, by 2011, it was one of the worst units in the league. 

Steve Spagnuolo is a godsend for New Orleans. He is the coordinator that stifled the greatest offense in NFL history in Super Bowl XLII. His defenses in St. Louis were always at least decent despite almost no talent outside of Chris Long (who is by no means a Pro Bowler). 

Lost in losing Payton is that it might actually do some good for the offense. His steadfast dedication to the passing game has put up big numbers, but has come at the expense of balance.

The Saints have running backs—really good ones. Darren Sproles is one of the league's most versatile backs and as he proved last year, he is nearly impossible to stop. 

Year two is traditionally when backs make the leap. That's what happened with Ray Rice and LaDainian Tomlinson, and that's what you can expect from Mark Ingram. He had trouble adjusting to the NFL last year, but the experience he got will be crucial. He has star talent; now he'll be able to prove it. 

Losing Payton will sting. That's obvious, as he's one of the best head coaches in football, but they have an interim candidate that is more than capable in Pete Carmichael. When Payton was injured last year (and no, that's not a typo, a coach actually got injured) Carmichael stepped into his role as offensive play-caller and put up an incredible 37.2 points per game over the next five weeks. 

Carmichael won't be alone. Steve Spagnuolo has head coaching experience and can help speed up his learning curve. Joe Vitt will be a nice teacher as well when he gets back from his suspension.

Payton is gone, but his innovative scheme is not. The core of this team is back. They're veterans who have been there and done that. This scandal won't distract them.

In fact, it may help them. Nothing brings a team together more than being hated. This isn't 2006 or 2009 anymore—absolutely nobody outside of New Orleans wants to see them win. The last time America was so galvanized against one team, the New England Patriots steamrolled the rest of the league en route to a 16-0 season.

The Saints will be angry. They will be motivated. They will do everything in their power to show that they didn't succeed by playing dirty; they did it by simply being better than everyone else.

So don't worry, Saints fans, your season isn't over. The Saints might just be better than ever.