A Change Has Gotta Come
The Saints haven’t been above .500 in three years, won only 42 percent of games in same span
Tom Benson, Gayle Benson, Dennis Lauscha, whomever is making decisions for the Saints, the time has come to make a change. The agony of defeat has usurped the thrill of victory.
It’s been three years since the Saints had a winning record. Dec. 29, 2013, was the last time the Saints were above .500 in the regular season. They finished 11-5 that year, winning their first road playoff game in franchise history against Philadelphia before losing to Seattle in the divisional round. They’ve won only 42 percent of their games since.
The team went 7-9 in 2014 and 2015. Through 13 games this season, they’re 5-8. That’s good enough for a 19-26 overall record. With three games to go – two on the road and two against NFC South opponents vying for the division crown and resulting playoff appearance, the chances for even an 8-8 season appear dubious, at best. Still, that means the Saints will have failed to have a winning season for three straight years and in four of the last five.
The Saints fall from championship highs to mediocrity has been excruciating. In simplest terms, the blame can be placed on horrible personnel calls. This team has been hit by a 1-2 punch of too many failed high-priced free agent signings combined with devastatingly bad drafts. The result has wrecked their budget and depleted the roster of star power and overall depth.
For each of the past three seasons, the Saints have millions of dollars in dead money, salary paid to players no longer on the team going against that year’s salary cap, limiting the max amount they could spend. This year the Saints are on the hook for more than $35.5 million, almost a quarter of their budget, in dead money, right off the top, going nowhere in advancing this year’s team. In 2016, it meant while NFL teams without dead money issues could spend $155.27 million to flesh out their rosters, the Saints could spend only $126 million. That means for every dollar a team without a salary cap issue could spend, the Saints could spend just 75 cents.
At one point in 2015, the team had 59 former players getting money that could have gone toward improving the team.
Junior Gallete stands out as an example of bad negotiating. In 2013, the team signed Gallete to a three-year, $9 million deal. The next year, they gave him a four-year, $41.5 million extension. The Saints then released him just before the 2015 season, and were responsible for paying him $5.45 million last year and $12.1 million this year.
The draft is the cheapest and easiest way to build a team. But too many of the Saints’ picks have been misspent on players whose talent didn’t meet expectations. The team traded its No. 2 pick in 2011 and No. 1 pick in 2012 to move up in 2011 to get Heisman Trophy-winner Mark Ingram. They lost their No. 2 pick in the 2012 and 2013 drafts as punishment for the bounty scandal. Most sobering is that Brandin Cooks is the only remaining pick from the 2014 draft class on the roster. The 2015 class, featuring Andrus Peat, Stephone Anthony, Hau'oli Kikaha and Garrett Grayson, hasn’t lived up to expectations demanded by their draft positions. Peat will be a serviceable, but not dominant, lineman. Payton has questioned Anthony’s decision-making ability, Kikaha is recovering from injury and Grayson hasn’t played a down.
This year’s first round pick, DE Sheldon Rankins, was out for the first part of the season with a broken leg, but has shown value the second half of the season. Second round picks WR Michael Thomas and S Vonn Bell have both been solid playmakers, but the rest of the draft is lacking at this point.
Without draft picks significantly contributing, the roster has been filled with lower priced free agent journeymen and undrafted free agents who have proven to be a notch — or several — below the talent they have been expected to replace.
But even when the Saints seemingly had opportunities to make the team better, they fumbled.
Renegotiating Drew Brees’ contract to keep him with the team while freeing up salary cap space was one of the biggest objectives of the offseason. But the Saints waited until Week 1 of the regular season began to finalize the deal, months after free agency started and any roster changing players had long been signed to other teams. The Saints needed to make a deal like this in the spring, when they could have used that money to bring in top talent to shore up needed areas of weakness, like the offensive and defensive lines.
Why were they so slow with that deal, when it could have meant adding value at another position at the same time? Someone should be held to account for this.
Because of his championship, injuries the team has faced and the argument that he (defensive coordinator Dennis Allen) has done well enough with the players he was given and would likely have done much better with a fully budgeted roster at his disposal, I think head coach Sean Payton can deflect a lot of blame at this point.
I don’t know that Mickey Loomis can do the same. The gutting of talent on the roster and the accompanying results over the past few seasons have been heart wrenching to experience. It will be much more difficult for Loomis to make a case for himself as to why he shouldn’t take the blame for the Saints’ current situation.
In his time in New Orleans, Loomis was instrumental in the team earning their first Super Bowl championship. That won’t be forgotten. But too many mistakes have piled up since. The team’s future was mortgaged the to make championship runs while Brees was in his prime. The strategy failed, and the Saints have entered the past few league years in the financial nightmare of being tens of millions of dollars over the salary cap limit and contractually obligated to pay millions to players no longer on the team.
According to overthecap.com, a website devoted to tracking NFL contract information, New Orleans has $9.1 million in dead money on the books for 2017 and at least $26 million available for talent upgrades. The site’s assessment is based on a $166 million cap being in place, while many believe it may increase to as much as $170 million.
I believe 2017 could be Drew Brees’ last season under center. Then the Saints will be looking to replace the face of their franchise. I think they would like to keep some continuity by keeping Payton in place. Loomis is not nearly as high profile as he once was and could take the fall to quiet a fan base whose displeasure is growing louder. With Jeff Ireland, currently a Saints college scout and previously the Miami Dolphins' general manager from 2008 to January 2014, already in the building and capable of handling the job, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Loomis let go and Ireland promoted to resurrect the Saints.