Talk about rough offseasons.The Saints had the mother of all bad offseasons in 2012.
From Bountygate to allegations that Saints GM Mickey Loomis surreptitiously listened to opposing coaches' radio transmissions to the ongoing slog that is the Drew Brees contract negotiations, this offseason can't end soon enough for the Saints.
So, the big questions are: How will the Saints fare after enduring this nightmare? What impact will the loss of head coach Sean Payton have? Is it even remotely possible that the Saints won't have the services of Drew Brees?
Here are seven bold predictions about what lies ahead for the New Orleans Saints in 2012.
I am not sure how bold this prediction is, but you can take it to the bank: Drew Brees will sign a long-term deal before the July 16th deadline.
There is no way the Saints are going to risk heading into the season without Brees, or even with an unhappy Brees playing under the franchise tag. Owner Tom Benson knows that without Brees at quarterback, the Saints would be lucky to win five games. He also knows that Brees has almost personally elevated this once- moribund franchise into a perennial contender and made Benson a lot of money along the way.
A long-term deal will get done, and a happy Brees will be under center for the Saints this year.
New Orleans will host Super Bowl XLVII in February 2013. At the end of last season, there was a lot of speculation that the Saints would be the first team to play in a "home" Super Bowl, which would in turn send the host city into a weeks-long frenzy.
Well, you can forget about that now. The Saints are not going to be able to overcome the year-long suspension of their head coach, Sean Payton, the six-game suspension of their interim head coach, Joe Vitt, the suspensions of two of their key defensive players, Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma, and the nightmare that was their offseason to make a championship run this season.
It is tough enough to make a championship run in the NFL, but you couple that with these major losses/ distractions and with what is one of the toughest schedules in the league, and it becomes an almost impossible goal.
But there is a bright side for the city of New Orleans. At least the city will benefit economically by being able to host two out-of-state fanbases.
Although the Saints won't be in the Super Bowl, they still have the most prolific offense in the league, with record-setting QB Brees, budding superstar TE Jimmy Graham and lightning-fast RB Darren Sproles. Last year, this explosive offense more than overcame a mediocre-at-best defense, at least until the debacle in San Francisco in the divisional playoff round.
That explosive offense and one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL will ensure at least 10 wins this season and a return to the playoffs.
There is no question that middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma has been the heart and soul of the Saints defense since the Jets traded him to the Saints in 2008. So you would think that the year-long suspension for his participation in Bountygate would be devastating to the Saints defense this year.
The Saints, however, were very smart in free agency. The team acquired free-agent LB Curtis Lofton from the Falcons and LB David Hawthorne from the Seahawks in anticipation of a possible season-long Vilma suspension. Since Vilma was hobbled for most of last season and is clearly on the downward slope of his career, both of these young, hard-hitting linebackers will prove to be an upgrade over Vilma.
What remains to be seen, however, is whether any Saints defensive player can fill the leadership void left by Vilma's absence.
Yes, former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is a very bad guy, with a brazen brutality that is rare even in an extremely violent game. Bountygate will be his dark legacy.
But the style of defense he brought to the Saints upon his hire in 2006—the blitzing, high risk-and-reward attack—defined the Saints defense for the last several seasons. And the players he brought in to execute this attacking defense absolutely loved his system.
Now, Steve Spagnuolo has taken the reigns of this defense. Although Spagnuolo has a well-earned reputation as a superior defensive mind, he doesn't employ the same blitz-happy approach that Williams used for the past five seasons.
While Spagnuola's more conservative approach ultimately will prove more successful, it is likely that the Saints' defensive players will struggle this season to adapt to both it and their new coordinator.
There is no question that losing head coach Sean Payton for the season due to suspension is a big loss for the Saints. Payton's leadership is a major reason (along with QB Drew Brees) why the Saints have been one of the most successful franchises in the NFL for the past several years.
But a funny thing happened last season. When Payton suffered a freak sideline injury last season and had to turn over play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael for a few games, there was barely a hiccup in terms of the team's performance.
Payton's temporary absence last season is obviously not equivalent to the season-long suspension that prohibits Payton from having any contact with the team. But it does suggest that the Saints can function reasonably well without Payton on the sideline.
Last year was a magical year for the Saints offense. QB Brees set the record for most completions in a season and the Saints offense broke the record for most yards. TE Jimmy Graham also broke former Charger Kellen Winslow's record for receiving yards by a tight end, before being surpassed by the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski just hours later.
Can this offensive juggernaut continue to shatter records this year? The short answer is no. A much tougher schedule, including some tough road contests, will prove daunting. And the loss of All-Pro guard Carl Nicks in free agency will hurt, especially in pass protection.
The offense will still be imposing. After all, Drew Brees will still be running the show, and TE Graham and RB Darren Sproles will continue to be extremely effective weapons. But the NFL's record book should be safe from another Saints assault next season.