“Big Ben”. Russell Erxleben. 1 and 15 with The “Bagheads”. L.A. Rams kicker Mike Lansford’s heart-breaking 50 yard FG in the final seconds to spoil the premature Mardi Gras-like celebration by Saints fans of (what would have been) the franchise’s first-ever Playoff berth in the 1983 season finale at the Superdome. The landscape of the memories of my days as a young Saints fan are literally “littered” with a litany of unpleasant events such as those. It was a era of really bad football in the history of my beloved hometown team that quite honestly, I’d just as soon forget.
However , in what now is this current “Golden Age” of New Orleans Saints football, the recollections have indeed become much more memorable; and the upcoming 2014 season promises to be one of them. Through some very shrewd offseason moves in free-agency (the signing of prized veteran free-agent All-Pro free safety Jairus Byrd paired with the addition of long-time annual Pro-Bowl veteran CB Champ Bailey), along with a very underrated 2014 Draft class (besides the All-American WR Brandin Cooks, they added three potential defensive starters for the future in CB Stanley Jean-Baptitse, ILB Khairi Fortt, and OLB Ronald Powell), the franchise seems to have suddenly regained its “swagger” after the disappointing ending to last season at Seattle.
The Saints “reloaded” what had been a roster that had looked to some (including myself) as having regressed just a bit – in spite of last year’s successful return from the previous year’s indignity of Bountygate. In my eyes, it not only has restored their position as one of the NFC’s top teams, but it makes them one of the prohibitive favorites to win it all. Yes, I am saying it, and unequivocally so: the Road to Super Bowl XLIX runs through New Orleans – and here’s a few reasons why I think that is so.
A Rejuvenated Offense
The selection of Oregon State All-American WR Brandin Cooks brings an infusion of much-needed speed and “game-breaker” ability to the Saints’ offensive attack. Opposing defenses last year were able to key in on several of the Saints’ vulnerabilities last year that included a questionable offensive line (a group that had suffered previously from injury and free-agency defections, but looked to have rebounded at the end of the year) and the lack of a “homerun hitter” at WR for Drew Brees, although then-rookie Kenny Stills (my pick to be a ‘breakout’ star this coming season) showed flashes of that type of ability with several long TD’s. The steady but rapidly aging Marques Colston had one of his better years last year, and some have said that in off-season workouts that he appears to be “rejuvenated”.
When added to a returning future Hall-of-Fame QB in Brees and the best TE in the game with Jimmy Graham; the Saints offense should regain its record-setting form of 2011, before it was temporarily halted by the forgettable events of 2012. The “wild-card” on offense (barring a Graham holdout) will of course be the running game, which head coach Sean Payton says will feature a return to the “power” running style earlier in his tenure as the Saints head coach. The return to that type of style falls now on the shoulders of 4th year RB Mark Ingram, who surely is at the “make or break” point of his tenure here in New Orleans. He will likely split the duties with promising 2nd year RB Khiry Robinson (another Saints management UDFA “gem”), and of course they’ll be backed by the returning and widely-admired veteran RB Pierre Thomas. If the Saints can be a threat once again in the running game, then the rest of the League had better watch out.
A “Worst to First” Defense
The Saints management made a rather obvious commitment to the defensive side of the ball during the off-season, which I personally have said through my previous work in another capacity is because that Sean Payton still feels the sting of the defensive collapse in a loss to the 49′ers in the 2011 Divisional Playoffs (a loss that very likely cost New Orleans a 2nd Super Bowl Championship). Thanks to the Bountygate suspensions, Payton had a whole year to sit at home and “stew” over that loss while watching the unit’s incredibly horrible performance in his absence. It’s the same reason why Payton sought out the services of defensive guru Rob Ryan — who turned the Saints’ defense around from the absolute worst in 2012, to the Top 5 in the entire NFL (4th overall) in 2013.
Ryan’s squad boasts one of the League’s emerging young defenses; which got a huge veteran boost with the signings of superstar free safety Jairus Byrd and long-time All-Pro vet CB Champ Bailey. They also signed versatile former CFL standout Marcus Ball (who can play both safety spots as well as middle LB) and drafted the physically-imposing Stanley Jean-Baptiste of Nebraska, a prototypically “big” corner (a former WR in high school) that should benefit with some mentorship from Bailey. Last year’s outstanding and hard-hitting defensive rookie (now second year) strong safety Kenny Vaccaro returns along with prized back-up strong safety Rafael Bush and free-agent standout CB Keenan Lewis. This just might be the one of the best secondaries (if not the very best) in the entire NFL.
A Favorable Schedule
The Saints went 11-5 last year but failed to win their division and a chance at a bye or even a home Playoff game; and it cost them dearly as they had to go to Seattle in the Divisional Round. In 2014 however, the Saints get the easiest schedule of any team in the NFC South; which likely should make them the prohibitive favorite (place your bets now) to win the Division and play in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome come late January. The Saints struggled mightily at times to win on the road (3-5) last year, and there is absolutely no doubt that they’ll have to be better to achieve their Super Bowl aspirations this year.
They play in three away games inside of a dome (Falcons, Cowboys, and Lions), so that helps out to be sure. They also play at Cleveland but it’s in early September – meaning that their only “cold weather” (and potentially tough) outdoor games will be against the Steelers in Pittsburgh and the Bears in Chicago. It sets up the probability that the Saints should be in a much better position to match-up with their NFC “elite” counterparts (defending champ Seattle and the 49′ers), meaning that those teams will find that the Road to Super Bowl XLIX will run through New Orleans. It would also mean that for the Saints, it could very well end up being the very best possible ‘road trip’ of them all: Glendale, in suburban Phoenix, Arizona — site of this year’s Big Game.