Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Saints 2010 Review/2011 Preview

Is it all Garrett Hartley’s fault?

I know, it doesn’t seem fair to pin everything on the jersey of a single player when so many members of the New Orleans Saints team contributed to an embarrassment of an ending. Maybe it’s not, but there is one fact that is indisputable: had the kicker connected on his field goal attempt against Atlanta in the third game of the season, things would have played out very differently for the Black and Gold.

For example, the Atlanta Falcons secured the NFC South title and first seed in the NFC playoffs with a 13-3 record. The Saints had to settle for a wild card slot with their 11-5 record.

However had Hartley made what should have been an easy field goal, the NFC South, the first seed in the playoffs, homefield advantage and first round bye would have been decided in the Georgia Dome the Monday after Christmas. With both teams finishing the season 12-4, the Saints would have possessed the head-to-head tie-breaker over the Falcons.

Beyond having the NFC playoffs once again run through the Superdome and avoiding a flight across the country to play the Seahawks in the loudest stadium in the NFL, there would have been one other considerable benefit for winning the division in Week 16: the Saints could have rested their starters in Week 17.

The game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was far more costly than just adding another notch in the Saints’ loss column as the Black and Gold lost three key players (free safety Malcolm Jenkins, tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Chris Ivory) before halftime.

With homefield, a healthier team and a first round bye, it’s likely the playoffs would have played out far differently for the Saints. I’m not saying they would have won the Super Bowl; just that they would have gotten closer to it.

To Hartley’s credit he played well towards the end of the season and the loss to the Falcons in week could have been made up had the Saints defeated the underdog Arizona Cardinals on the road and the Cleveland Browns at home. Those losses were team efforts.

The sour note the Saints ended their drive for a “Repeat Dat” will light a fire under the entire organization, from the front office to the coaching staff to the players.

If “finishing strong” was the mantra of the 2009 team, then “starting angry” might just be mentality of the 2011 Saints.

The New Orleans Saints team that traveled to Seattle for the wild card playoff game reminded me of the Black and Gold squad that went to Minneapolis ten years and two days ago.

While that team was coached by Jim Haslett and led on the field by quarterback Aaron Brooks, individuals vastly different from their opposite numbers, there was a big similarity between the teams: both were severely hampered by injuries to their ground game.

The 2000 Saints lost theirs when running back Ricky Williams went down in the Carolina Panthers game in week 11. Williams was the Saints’ entire ground offense and didn’t return to the field until the divisional (second) round against the Minnesota Vikings- and then Mike Ditka’s most infamous draft pick carried the ball only 6 times for a grand whopping 14 yards. The Saints only had 69 rushing yards in the 34-16 defeat.

Looking back, it was an omen of things to come when bruiser Lynell Hamilton went down in practice before the Saints’ first pre-season game. By the time the playoffs rolled around, the Saints had lost five running backs, not including Reggie Bush who spent most of the season healing a broken leg suffered in week two. During the playoff game against the Seahawks, Bush and Julius Jones went down.

Though Seahawks fans might be stoked at the thought of their 7-9 team eliminating the defending world champions from the post-season, in actuality they beat a team that was being held together with duct-tape and bubble gum.

While the 2010 season disappointed most of the Black and Gold faithful (I wasn’t- I picked Atlanta to win the division and the Saints to not go far as a wild card) by not achieving the much hoped for “Two Dat”, the year was hardly a total failure.

They beat the Minnesota Vikings to start the season off on the right foot, back when defeating them meant something, and managed to achieve a tough win over the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger in a nationally televised Halloween night game that also set a Guinness World Record for a costume party (giving New Orleans positive publicity).

Both of those games were won thanks to stellar play by the defense, which found a new way to beat opponents without forcing turnovers.

Finally, the Saints did make it to the post-season and had the second-best record in the NFC; unfortunately the team with the best record was in the same division, not that was particularly new for the Saints after being trapped with the San Francisco Forty-Niners in the NFC West for three decades.

2010 also marked the first time since the Jim Mora era that the Saints made the playoffs in consecutive seasons. Remember when just making it to post-season was a big deal?

On the other hand, the Saints did not acquit themselves well in other contests against lesser teams, even in victory.

Could a Super Bowl hangover legitimately be attributed to the flat performances?

Did the Saints suffer, as a friend of mine from Seattle speculated back in July, from the Rocky III mentality of getting blinded by the klieg lights and pummeled by the league’s lesser “Clubber Langs”?

Also was Drew Brees playing with a hurt knee, as fullback Heath Evans speculated to the Boston Globe? Head coach Sean Payton dismissed that his star suffered a significant injury, though the way Brees has thrown the ball in 2010 indicates something was off as his passes didn’t look as crisp.

I would imagine the rest of the story will make its way out to the public in the coming weeks.

Not to be a pessimist, but 2010 probably marked the Saints’ best opportunity to win a second Lombardi Trophy.

With the core of the team still together and in certain instances upgraded, the 2010 Saints on paper looked to have been superior to the roster that won the Super Bowl. The Saints dropped defensive end Charles Grant and picked up free agents Jimmy Wilkerson and Alex Brown and attempted to upgrade the linebacker corps by letting Scott Fujita chase riches in Cleveland and adding Clint Ingram.

The former worked out better than the latter.

Brown and Wilkerson were hits though Ingram, who didn’t play a single snap, never fully recovered from an injury suffered from the previous season. Further complicating matters was that Jonathan Cassillas, who was pegged to start as the weakside linebacker, was placed on injured reserve after getting hurt in the team’s final pre-season game.

The Saints benefited from a number of key players being retained on the roster as restricted free agents due to the uncapped year as the front office was able to hold on to the likes of Pierre Thomas, Lance Moore, Anthony Hargrove and Roman Harper via relatively modest one-year contracts.

In the event there isn’t a lockout, the cleat will be on the other foot come free-agency as the RFAs will become UFAs free to market their talents to the highest bidder.

And speaking of money, comes the biggest question mark: will the Saints pay Reggie?

I say this is the biggest not necessarily because of Bush’s value to the team but the amount of money he has commanded and will be owed if the Saints organization honors his contract as is.

Last season I went on a limb and predicted Bush would be gone; I underestimated the front office’s willingness to pay number Twenty-Five a truckload of money.

In 2011, I feel a lot more confident projecting that one of two things will happen: a new deal will be worked out between the Saints and Bush or Reggie will be wearing a different jersey.

Assuming a new cap is put in with a new labor agreement, Bush’s fifth year under his contract becomes not only extremely expensive but also comes with a severe opportunity cost, consuming salary space that’s going to be needed to better compensate those players the Saints would like to keep and to compete for the services of other free agents.

Bush knows that there’s not a team in the NFL willing to shell out $11,000,000+ in 2011, so he’ll either be inking a new deal with the Saints or will be cut. The celebrithete claims he would like to stay in New Orleans and is happy with the team and head coach Sean Payton obviously is a big fan. We’ll see what kind of paycut Mickey Loomis is going to offer and what Bush will accept.

And then there’s defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who has been rumored to be a head coach candidate in Denver. Williams wasn’t in New Orleans a year before speculation began about his departure for somewhere else in large part due to the changes he brought to the Saints defense. With so many vacancies out there, the defense’s poor performance in Seattle is unlikely to hinder Williams’s ability to land a head coach gig…if he wants to leave.

With so many contracts coming up, next season’s New Orleans Saints will most likely look very different from the squad that took the fieldturf in the past two seasons.

A few years ago a Buccaneers fan told me that one of the worst things to happen to then Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden was winning the Super Bowl. I was floored by such logic.

How could winning the Super Bowl EVER be a bad thing? (Unless of course you’re a Cleveland Browns fans watching the Baltimore Ravens win one in 2001).

The Buc booster said that it raised expectations to a point that Gruden’s teams did not meet.

I thought about what I had heard but could not wrap my mind around it. Though the Saints had some outstanding squads take the field over the years and were only a game away in January 2007, the very thought of the Saints winning the Super Bowl seemed hard to conceive; that local fans would come to despise the head coach that delivered to the Crescent City a Lombardi Trophy even less so.
Though Payton has made play calls that have infuriated the fans on occasions (damned Devery double reverses) and I will nit-pick on decisions that simply make no sense (short kicks in the Seattle game and letting Hartley handle kickoffs over punter Tommy Morstead), I’ll always be grateful for the 2009 season.


The 2010 season could have always been better, though anything short of a run that equals that of the 1972 Miami Dolphins won’t have the magic or meaning of the 2009 season.

Time and defeat will eventually erode the goodwill and love Payton and Brees have been showered by the community in the heady days after the Super Bowl win. If kids can angrily declare they hate their parents in a fit of range then inebriated Saints fans can do (have done) the same about the victors of Super Bowl XLIV.

As I write this in early 2010, I wonder when in the future I’ll refer back to this column when Payton inevitably digs himself a hole not even his vivid imagination can find a way out of or when Brees starts to play like Dave Wilson towards the end of his career.

“Payton’s nuts and has to go”, “Brees needs to realize his time is up” and “We’re over paying him” will be the catcalls, perhaps prefaced with a smattering of kind words for past services rendered.

With distance, some might even dope themselves into believing that a Saints Super Bowl win was as “inevitable” as the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It’s not a question of if but when. Granted it won’t be anytime soon, but as I noted in a previous write-up, even Tom Landry received walking papers.

A few months ago, Aaron Brooks made a visit to Metairie for wide receiver Joe Horn’s induction in the Saints Hall of Fame. Brooks, who was reviled by practically all Saints fans by the time the 2005 season spiraled to a close, didn’t look comfortable and acting a bit like he was trying to hide from people while attending the function. As I walked into the ballroom for the luncheon, I shook hands with Brooks and thanked him for helping win the Saints’ first ever playoff game in 2000.

I wasn’t just being polite. I meant it.

Only the Super Bowl win was greater in my mind than the December 30, 2000 contest against the Saint Louis Rams. And Brooks was the star of the show throwing four touchdowns on that day.

But like the rest of the Saints fans in Saint Bernard, I was doing a happy dance inside a gutted house with a blue tarp on the roof when word came that his time with the team had ended in 2005. Fame and success are both fleeting.

Maybe the team basked too long in the shadow of Super Bowl XLIV.

That’s understandable.

Saints fans will be basking in that triumph for decades to come.

Rather than slamming the Saints for the disappointing 2010 season, I’ll close this column by saying “thanks again for 2009”.

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