Thursday, November 29 was the night the tumultuous New Orleans Saints' 2012 football season finally declared itself finished. With each Drew Brees interception (there were five of them), it became more and more obvious all the effort, all the coach's talk about continuing to fight and battle, that we're never out of it, was just that, talk.
The 2012 New Orleans Saints season will forever be remembered for the "Bountygate" penalties, Drew Brees' unbelievable contract holdout and being the first team to ever play without its head coach for an entire season due to suspension.
All the effort was commendable. All the stuff before the game from Drew Brees about how Atlanta knows this is our division and so do we, was nice. But again it was just talk.
Talk can only get you so far. Eventually circumstances become reality. The reality right now is that the New Orleans Saints are 5-7 and as much out of the playoff discussions as one could imagine.
Is it impossible? No. Weirder things have happened, and teams have come from 5-7 to make the playoffs before. But that all misses the bigger point. That is, quite simply, the New Orleans Saints were a flawed football team in 2012.
Beyond the distractions and detractors from their possible journey to a home-bound Super Bowl was the fact that the squad Mickey Loomis gave Aaron Kromer and Joe Vitt was not one that matched the quality of past Saints' rosters.
I don't even know where to start, but lately the primary culprit has been the offense, so let's start there.
Brian de la Puente is not a starting-caliber center. Sure he had a nice season in 2011, but that came with a full-staffed coaching roster and a magical offensive rhythm employed all around him. There were no weak links on the offense in 2011 because the offense did not allow there to be.
In 2012, the weak links stuck out like a sore thumb, and de la Puente was first among them. But he was not to be outdone by right tackle Zach Strief.
The year began tenuously, as he was regularly getting beat by opposing pass rushers. In the middle of the season, with the return of Aaron Kromer to full-time offensive line coach, Strief and anyone else who lined up on the right side, improved their play.
But the past two games have proven once again that right tackle is the Saints' preeminent need in the 2012 NFL draft.
The left side isn't that much better. Jermon Bushrod may have a Pro Bowl berth to his credit, but he is an average starting left tackle. He may be better suited for the right side. In fact, it's conceivable the team could employ him there should it make the necessary move of drafting an offensive tackle in the first round.
Thankfully, Joseph Morgan has shown enough this season to make the Saints believe he can be the long-term answer as a stretch-the-field wide receiver. His ascension makes Devery Henderson expendable this offseason.
Now to the defense, where drastic improvement has been seen in the past two months. In fact, it is reasonable to assess that the defense has been the better half of the team in that span.
Still, Jon Vilma, Will Smith and Jabari Greer have all shown they are well past their prime. Each can still be effective members of this squad, at a discounted rate of course. But none of them are starter-quality anymore.
Young legs and young blood are necessary to take this defense from the average unit they've become to the top-10 unit that it can be next season. Patrick Robinson has proven he can be a borderline No. 1 corner, at least in terms of his playmaking ability.
Corey White has made great strides as well. And the safeties have improved mightily as the year has gone on.
Finally, it appears obvious that Sedrick Ellis is a goner in New Orleans, despite his improved play the past two contests. The Saints can save some money by allowing him to leave via free agency.
Those are the personnel moves that seem necessary for New Orleans. But there's a deeper issue at hand that must be addressed.
Obviously half of the battle is simply bringing Sean Payton back. But honestly, Sean Payton should only come back if he meets two key stipulations.
First, he must be 100 percent in. I have no doubt that if he re-signs with New Orleans that he would be, but if even 0.1 percent of his heart is in Dallas then he would do the New Orleans Saints no good.
Second, and more importantly, he should only come back if he vows to do what is obviously needed. He needs to make this a running team first.
Clearly we've seen that Steve Spagnuolo's defense can compete and play well when it's on the field for fewer snaps than the offense. This is a defense that will likely be one of the best in the league next season.
To take full advantage of that growth, Payton must realize that a run-heavy attack is necessary. He must change his approach from wide-open, throwing it 50 times a game to running the ball 40 times a game.
It is those teams in the league today who are winning. Look at how Gary Kubiak has transformed the Houston Texans to a ground-and-pound unit. They are the Super Bowl favorites in the AFC. San Francisco plays a similar style and is the likely Super Bowl participant in the NFC.
As much as everyone talks about the NFL being a passing league today, the best teams operate with balance and great, physical defense.
And that's why it's a good thing the Saints lost to Atlanta last night. Winning may have allowed the team to move forward without changing their identity. Now Mickey Loomis and the entire football operations must take a look in the mirror and decide who it wants to be.
Does it want to be the air-it-out-but-not-win-championships team, or does it want to play more solid football, that might not be as entertaining but results in holding a Lombardi Trophy in February?
That is the question. We can only hope the answer results in change. Whichever coach implements that, is the coach who should lead the Saints into battle in 2013 and beyond.
If that's not Sean Payton, so be it. The Saints have an identity crisis. They are at the crossroads right now. And the 2013 offseason is a pivotal time in this franchise's history.
The decisions the team makes will determine the course of the next decade of Saints football. It will also be the difference between a dynasty and just another team that had a few nice seasons.
At least we know change is possible.
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