With Playoff Hopes Dashed Postmortems Begin
Saints won’t be a winner in 2016, but potential abounds in 2017
Sean Payton has 100 wins as Saints head coach, the most in franchise history.
The New Orleans Saints (7-8) still have a date with the archrival Atlanta Falcons (10-5) this weekend, but with playoff hopes dashed postmortems of the 2016 season have already begun. All that has yet to be determined is whether or not the Saints will avoid a losing season or fall to 7-9 for the fourth consecutive season.
The offense has, once again, been one of the best in the NFL. Heading to Atlanta, the team leads the league in total passing yards, 6,343 (422.9 per game), and is second in points scored, 437 (29.1 per game). Many would argue the defense has improved under coordinator Dennis Allen. The squad ranks 25th in the NFL in yards surrendered, 5,541 (369.4 per game) and 30th in points allowed, 416 (27.7 per game).
The results are about what was expected from the Saints. Before the season kicked off, Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook predicted New Orleans would win no more than seven games.
It’s disappointing and frustrating for the fan base that suffered from 1967 to 2005 to finally see the Saints go from putting the fear of God into their rivals to stumbling down from the mountaintop.
In the five-year period from 2009-13, the Saints went 55-25, winning 69 percent of their games and their first and only Super Bowl. However, head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season as punishment for the Saints alleged bounty scandal. If the 2012 season is removed, the Saints won 75 percent of their games under Payton over four seasons.
Since 2014, the Saints are 21-26, and have won just 45 percent of their games.
The reasons for the slide are numerous, but none more so than lackluster results in the draft over the past six years. Coupled with several player and free agency deals that ended in failure, there have simply been too many misses in the draft, the cheapest and easiest way to build a solid team.
The Saints selected players in the first, third, and seventh rounds of the 2011 draft, but the only long-term impact players came in the first round. The Saints selected Cameron Jordan with the 24th pick and Mark Ingram with the 28th pick, which they acquired in exchange with New England for their 2011 second-round selection (#56 overall) and the Saints’ 2012 first-round selection.
New Orleans did not have a first- or second-round selection in 2012. The first-round pick went to the Patriots the year before, and the second pick was lost as bounty punishment.
The team lost their 2013 second round pick as part of the bounty punishment, and didn’t have fourth or seventh round selection. They picked up Kenny Vaccaro in the first round with the 15th overall pick and Terron Armstead in the third with the 75th pick. Notably, they traded running back Chris Ivory to the New York Jets for a fourth round pick (106 overall), then traded the 106th and 109th picks to Miami for the 82nd overall pick, a third-round selection they used to get defensive tackle John Jenkins.
The Saints traded their 2014 first and third round selections (27 and 91 overall) to the Arizona Cardinals in exchange for the Cardinals’ first-round selection (No. 20 overall), which they used to get wide receiver Brandin Cooks. The rest of the draft was a bust. It must also be noted that the team traded running back Darren Sproles to the Philadelphia Eagles for a fifth-round pick.
In 2015, they traded TE Jimmy Graham to Seattle for center Max Unger and the Seahawks first round pick. The Saints chose Andrus Peat 15th overall and used the selection from Seattle to get linebacker Stephone Anthony. While Peat finally found his footing, Anthony has gone from a defensive leader in 2015 to an afterthought in 2016. Second round pick LB Hau'oli Kikaha had a strong rookie season, but suffered what may be a career ending injury this preseason. Third-round pick Garrett Grayson was the highest drafted Saints QB since Archie Manning and once appeared to be Drew Brees’ heir-apparent. He hasn’t played a down as a Saint.
The 2016 draft appears to be the most successful in years. First found pick (12th overall) Sheldon Rankins, DT, suffered a broken leg in preseason and missed half of the season. But since he’s returned, he’s been a solid player who shows potential to dominate the interior of the Saints D line. Second rounder WR Michael Thomas (47th) has shown flashes of brilliance, and helped lift the Saints receiving corps to one of the best in the NFL. Safety Vonn Bell, a second-round choice (61st), and fourth-round pick (120th) DT David Onyemata, have both played well in their first season.
This offseason may well be a turning point in the Saints recent luck.
New Orleans, currently, has a pick in each round of the 2017 draft. Needs abound, including at linebacker, offensive line, defensive backfield, defensive end, running back, tight end and, with Drew Brees turning 38 years old in 2017, a quarterback for the future.
After years of salary cap hell, the Saints will begin to emerge with some space to finally build depth across the roster. According to overthecap.com, a website that tracks NFL rosters and salaries, the Saints currently have $140 million in total cap liabilities for 2017, including $9 million in dead money. The salary cap is expected to be $166 million, possibly more, next year. That gives the Saints almost $26 million to spend on improving this team.
My point is, when given a solid roster – not a bunch of stars, just a solid 53-man roster from top to bottom – Sean Payton is a winner. A coach doesn’t average a 12-4 record over four seasons if they don’t know how to win.
The Saints have been in the wilderness for several seasons now. But they’ve been here before.
In his first season, 2006, Payton guided the team to its first NFC Championship appearance. The 2007-08 season saw a slip to 7-9 and 8-8, respectfully, but the next few years saw the Saints reach the Promised Land.
After a few years in exile, a return might be immanent.