Two blown field goals; that was it. That was all that separated the New Orleans Saints from joining the playoffs to possibly take over the Arizona Cardinals role as Super Bowl surprise and sitting on the couch at home, watching the playoffs with popcorn in hand.
If Martin Gramatica had just nailed that 43-yarder in Denver in Week Three and the 46-yarder two weeks later on Monday night against Minnesota, this team could have been sitting at 10-6 and in the playoffs.
Granted, that is a hypothetical situation and nobody really knows what would have happened, but you get the point. The Saints were just a few plays away from being a playoff team.
When looking at the season as a whole, there are a lot of encouraging things for the Saints to take going into 2009.
This is a team that was much better than its 8-8 record, and it showed in the statistics. When a team outscores its opponents by 70 points as the Saints did in 2008, a team will typically win 10 or 11 games. In fact when looking at point differential, the Saints were the tenth best team in the NFL, and fourth in the NFC.
So what went wrong? Why were the Saints just a .500 team? When a team ends up losing five games by a total of just points 14 points, it is a clear sign that it just was not meant to be. For a team to perform so miserably in close games is almost unheard of.
While critics will point to a defense that could never get the opposing team’s offense off the field in the fourth quarter, and there may be some truth to that, the fact is these losses were due to luck more than anything.
Despite putting themselves in position to win most of their games, the team was just hard on luck and with a few different calls the Saints could easily have won any of those games.
Combine that with the additions the team has made in the offseason, most notably on the defensive side of the ball, and this season could smell of success. With just a little bit of luck and a few balls bouncing their way, this team has the potential to win 10+ games.
Their biggest road-block to success, other than Gregg Williams integrating his defensive system into a defense that could see at least four new starters, will certainly be a more difficult schedule.
Last year the two divisions the Saints played against were the AFC West and the NFC North: The combined record of those divisions? 48-80. So while yes, the Saints played well at times last year, they did not exactly play the stiffest competition outside of their own division. Last year, the Saints were beating up on perennial cellar-dwellers such as the Lions, 49ers, Chiefs and Raiders: this year, not so much.
Instead the Saints will take on the NFC and AFC East; only two of the toughest divisions in football last year. Between the two divisions there was just one team under .500: the Buffalo Bills. And even then they were only two games under at 7-9.
Unlike last year’s schedule, there are very few games this year that the Saints can already chalk up as a win. In fact, only two teams on their schedule sported a losing record last year; the Lions and the Rams.
Coupled with the fact that Charles Grant and Will Smith could be suspended for the first four games of the season, and the Saints are going to have to play with much more focus this year on both sides of the ball.
With almost every week being a big challenge, the team can ill-afford the mental mistakes that cost them games last year. That means no more missed field goals, no more bone headed interceptions, and no more blown coverages.
While Drew Brees and the offense are usually explosive, many times over the course of the season they would shoot themselves in the foot going for the big play. For the Saints to survive this grueling schedule, they are going to have play smart, fundamentally sound football.
As good as Brees is, he had five games last season with at least two interceptions—including two games with three. And non-surprisingly, the Saints were a dismal 0-5 when Brees threw multiple picks.
Considering that this year the team is playing six teams that finished 2008 ranked in the top ten in total defense, including the Buccaneers twice, these are mistakes Brees can not afford to make.
Another change offensively is that the running game is going to have to become more reliable on a carry-to-carry basis in order for this team to succeed. In order to take some of the pressure off of Brees and the passing game, Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas are going to have to step up their game.
Besides taking the focus off of Drew Brees and the wide receivers, if the running game can become a consistent threat it will keep the defense off the field and thus less tired, something this veteran-heavy defense is going to need.
As good as Brees and the offense is, critics say their defense played even worse than expected last year because they were on the field for so much of the game that by the fourth quarter they would wilt. So by slowing the game down with a consistent running game, they will be helping out both sides of the ball.
The Saints were certainly a talented team last year, and at times it showed, but their mental lapses ultimately unhinged their playoffs chances. If they are not careful, this problem could doom them yet again.
With the tougher schedule, if this team does not stay focused on the field their opponents will take advantage. Having their two big defensive ends possibly start the year out of uniform is only going to make Gregg Williams’ transition into defensive coordinator that much harder.
While this is going to make things tough, especially in the early going, if Drew Brees and the offense can carry this team early-on it is very capable of making the playoffs. Gregg Williams has a history of turning defenses around, and this team seems to have enough talent to at least show some improvement upon its 2008 version.
If the Saints can come out of the first four games at least 2-2 despite missing both starting defensive ends, this is going to be a team to watch out for. As the season moves along this defense is only going to improve as they learn the system better and star t to gel.
With Brees and the high-flying offense showing no signs of slowing down, by the end of this year the Saints could be a top-10 team. Despite the tough schedule, this team has enough talent to make some noise.
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