Long gone are the days when New Orleans “Aints” fans shamefully lurked the Superdome bleachers, heads covered in brown paper bags. Gone also are the days when those fans would’ve gladly taken a .500 record and "who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?” included most of the teams in the NFL.
Racking up 29 wins and an NFC Championship berth in his first three seasons, Saints Head Coach Sean Payton has quickly raised the bar for a franchise that took two decades to earn its first winning season. Last year, the Saints underachieved in a season that many thought would culminate in the organization’s first trip to the Super Bowl.
Coming off the disappointing 2008 campaign with a newly energized defense and high octane passing attack, the 2009 season is again one of great expectations for the Saints.
New Orleans goes where Drew Brees’ arm takes them. Payton made it six consecutive years of coaching a 3,000 yard passing QB in 2008 as Brees busted up the franchise’s throwing records, going for over 5,000 yards in the air to finish within sniffing distance of Dan Marino’s single-season NFL record.
Just about the only thing that can derail the Saints' high powered passing attack is the injury bug. Injuries to Marques Colston, Jeremy Shockey, Deuce McAllister, and Reggie Bush left the team less than healthy last year. Yet, thanks to depth, a fantastic quarterback, and a proven system, the Saints offense continued to flourish as Lance Moore and Pierre Thomas picked up the slack in increased roles.
With the return of Colston and Bush and Shockey’s leg completely healed (assuming that he can get properly hydrated), Brees will likely be rewriting the team’s record books again in 2009.
If there is an achilles heal for the offense, it’s the Saints' struggle to come through in important short yardage situations. Despite Thomas’ surprising production last year, like Reggie Bush, the third year running back out of Illinois does most of his work running outside the tackles. It’s no secret that a big, power running back is at the top of Payton’s wish list.
Over the offseason, Thomas put on about ten pounds of muscle hoping to get the nod in the trenches come fall. It appears that he will get his shot; Earlier this week, Payton implied that the team is unlikely to acquire a big name bruiser and will enter the season with its current stable of runners.
While the Saints may be able to get by on Brees’ arm, they will not conquer their division or advance in the playoffs without an improved defense.
Enter Gregg Williams, the well respected 19-year veteran of the pro coaching ranks named Defensive Coordinator in January. Despite a less than stellar year leading the 17th ranked Jacksonville Jaguars defense last year, Williams is a big name in coaching circles and his addition raises expectations for the New Orleans defensive corps.
The consensus among New Orleans players and coaches seems to be that the defense is doing a lot more “flying around” in offseason workouts under Williams. His defenses are nothing if not aggressive; Expect to see a smorgasbord of blitz packages aimed to cause chaos and get at the opposing quarterback early and often.
After bringing Williams on board, the Saints continued to make waves with the acquisition of veteran defensive backs Jabari Greer and Darren Sharper while taking blue chip cornerback Malcolm Jennings in the first round of the draft. All three are expected to start in a new look for a secondary that allowed over 221 passing yards per contest in ’08.
The new additions, coupled with Tracey Porter’s return to the defensive backfield after missing the final 11 games of 2008 with a wrist injury, make for a much improved pass defense.
The Saints opened up the wallet for Jonathan Vilma this winter, inking the former Miami Hurricane to a five year deal reportedly worth over $34 million. The dynamic linebacker recorded 132 tackles last year, the second most in his five year career.
Up front, Williams’ crew faces an early challenge as it enters the regular season without the services of talented, but inconsistent defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith. Both players will serve four game suspensions for their alleged roles in the StarCaps diuretic saga.
Nevertheless, it won’t take much for Williams to earn his paycheck. By virtue of New Orleans’ stellar offense, even a marginal improvement in the defense should make for a banner season.
New Orleans was 0-5 in games decided by 3 points or less in 2008. In the ultra-competitive NFC South, a stop here and there is the difference between a playoff berth and an early spot on the couch.
The Saints once again face a daunting schedule with matchups against the East divisions of the NFC and AFC in addition to a full slate of divisional matchups in the always tough NFC South.
Following what should be a stroll in the park in the season opener against an overmatched Detroit Lions team at the Superdome, New Orleans goes on the road to two of the more difficult places to play in the league: Philadelphia and Buffalo. In a strange scheduling twist, the Saints do not face an NFC South opponent until Week 8.
Despite the loss of Grant and Smith, New Orleans should start strong and head into the Week 5 bye at 3-1 (Week 2 in Philly will be tough). That gives the Saints some much needed cushion in what will be a difficult remaining schedule.
With an improved defense, look for the Saints to take Carolina to the wire in the race for the NFC South crown and make some noise in the playoffs in 2009.