Imagining the Saints without Sean Payton, Mickey Loomis and Drew Brees
By John Sigler
This is a work of fiction. It is my completely speculative take on what the New Orleans Saints may look like next year. Try to have fun and enjoy this daydream; don’t take it too seriously and overreact in a sports forum somewhere. I’m just trying to find some positivity in the midst of watching my favorite sports team fall apart in front of me every week.
I’ll have another piece up soon explaining the logic behind the suggested moves here, so just consider this a fictional oral history of what may happen to Sean Payton’s team in the next year.With this in mind, let’s check in on the 2016 New Orleans Saints.
The New Orleans Saints had gone through yet another tumultuous offseason. Between the resignations of embattled coaches Sean Payton (now a part-time consultant for the Dallas Cowboys), Rob Ryan, Joe Vitt, and others, and the retirement of a number of longtime players, the kingdom finally collapsed.
General manager Mickey Loomis reached a mutual agreement with owner Gayle Benson to leave the franchise in the hands of scouting director Jeff Ireland and former pro personnel director Terry Fontenot, who was promoted to fill Loomis’ position.
Drew Brees, Jahri Evans, and Marques Colston had announced their retirements at the same press conference. It was emotional but understated, with most of the tears saved for thousands of Twitter followers. Brees had stood before the gathered media with his arm in a sling and a tight-clenched jaw.
“This isn’t the way I wanted to go out,” the future Hall of Fame quarterback mused, “not a bit. But I think it’s key to remember that we’re all human. I’ve got a house full of kids waiting on me. Jahri and Marques have done great things for our city in the last ten years. We couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve done here. Thanks to everybody that made it possible. God bless.”
And that was it. The faces of the franchise were all gone. The last member of the old guard, Zach Strief, explained why he didn’t leave with the rest: “I know we didn’t play to what’s expected of us last year. I’ll take the blame for my part of that. But I’ve signed a contract with this team and so long as the team wants me here I’ll honor it.”
@CoachHueJackson: So proud to be the 17th head coach of the NEW ORLEANS @saints. Where can I get a good mani/pedi in this beautiful city? #BackInTheSaddle
The team could have been rudderless and returned to a cycle of mediocrity, but new management wouldn’t allow it.
In an interview, Ireland explained: “Look, I know things can be rough in this league. I’ve seen planes flying over on gameday asking for me to get fired. I know about the hashtags. It is what it is. I’ve got faith in the direction this organization is headed, and the staff we’re building here. I just hope the fans can find that faith too.”
They didn’t have to wait long. After the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl L, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson’s services were in high demand. The former Oakland Raiders head coach interviewed with the New Orleans Saints in February and announced his hiring on the first message from his Twitter handle.
“So proud to be the 17th head coach of the NEW ORLEANS @saints. Where can I get a good mani/pedi in this beautiful city? #BackInTheSaddle”, read the inaugural tweet from @CoachHueJackson.
Jackson went to work quickly diagnosing the areas the team needed to address through free agency and the draft. Thanks to some crafty restructurings, the continually-rising salary cap, and the money saved from the multiple retirements and a few veteran releases, the team found itself with almost $35 million to spend in free agency.
“I don’t like that we’ve got an… abbreviated draft class,” Jackson began in an interview at the Senior Bowl, “You always want to have a full complement of draft capital. That way you have as many chances to fill your needs.” At a question about his controversial Carson Palmer trade, he smiled thinly. “Yeah, that happened. We’ve gotta learn from our mistakes.
"“I was talking to Jeff about this just the other day. You know he spent a lot of resources to move up for a player in his last year in Miami. That guy’s not in our league anymore. I think in this business you have to have ambition, but you have to be measured about it. Calculate your risks.”"
Under new general manager Terry Fontenot’s guidance and with Jackson’s recommendations, the team signed several proven veterans in free agency including Ron Leary from Dallas, Andrew Whitworth from Cincinnati, and Robert Ayers from the New York Giants. Role players like Robert Turbin (Cleveland) and Mohamed Sanu (also Cincinnati) were also brought on board.
Fontenot discussed the moves with local media. “One thing I feel very positive about on our staff is our ability to reflect and react. Jeff and Hue have both got reputations in this league, and I feel like they’ve learned from that. That shows up in how we’re putting this team together. We had some great scouting from Jeff and the scouting department last year and that turned into a dynamite rookie class. Hau’oli Kikaha went out and won Defensive Rookie of the Year. Now we’ve got to build on that.
"“Looking at the tape last year, our guards were a weak point. Both starters left in the offseason so that’s a position we have to develop. Coach Hue and I talked about this a lot and he wanted to bring in somebody who’s used to his system and how he does things, so Andrew Whitworth was a natural fit. He’s also an LSU alum and I bet the fans are gonna love that. We felt like Leary was an ascending player in Dallas and we knew he would be a popular name in free agency, so we’re happy to have him on our roster. Gresham was a player we tried to sign last summer but it didn’t work out. We’re fortunate to have him in the building now.”"
Speculation ran wild before the draft. The Saints were picking at 7th overall just a year removed from having the 13th overall pick, and the prior regime’s handpicked quarterback had some question marks. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael talked about Garrett Grayson’s future during a SIRIUS Radio interview the day before free agency began:
“Obviously I didn’t pull the trigger to bring him here. But that doesn’t mean I want Garrett gone. Our guys in the front office signed off on him. We may have some opportunities to look at other guys soon. But that’s not my call to make. For now I’m happy with what Garrett showed us last season and I’m sure he’ll keep growing as we move forward.”
As it turned out the team didn’t shake up the quarterbacks’ room. Veteran backup Luke McCown was retained on a one-year deal and Grayson took all of the starters’ reps in organized team activities. He continued to hold offseason workouts in San Diego with other members of the offense like Brandin Cooks, Brandon Coleman, Willie Snead, Josh Hill, and Marcus Murphy.
Buzz continued to grow around the league and on social media as the draft drew closer. Several big-name underclassmen declared for the draft and senior performers shot up draft boards when the NFL Scouting Combine came and went. The question on everyone’s mind: “Who will the Saints pick?”
New defensive coordinator Gus Bradley was mum. “I like where we’re at so far as position groups. We’ve got young guys with lots of fire, so competitive. Brandon’s (Browner) a great leader on the back end and Cam Jordan has come along up front. Hau’oli is one of the most impressive young men I’ve ever seen. He and Stephone Anthony are fun to work with. I like what Damian Swann and Kenny Vaccaro bring to what we can do with coverages. We’ve just got to keep building around them with another solid draft class.”
Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
“I want impact players,” head coach Hue Jackson said when asked what he was looking for in the draft, “I want to get tougher in the trenches. I don’t want our quarterback getting sacked thirty times again. I don’t want to see Cam Newton having six seconds to throw. We’ve got to get faster. People of character belong in this building.”
Draft day came and went. The team did not move up for California’s Jared Goff nor was Michigan State’s Connor Cook as some insiders reported a possibility. The team held true to its word, selecting a lineman on either side of the ball with two of its first three picks. The other was used on one of the most-hyped wideout prospects in recent memory. The mid-round picks were lauded for their value, and they took a flyer on a pass-catcher with the only seventh-round selection. The madness of undrafted free agency followed, and not long after the team’s brass held a brief interview on the Saints’ website.
“It’s been a wild ride to get here,” Fontenot said with a broad smile, standing beside Jackson and the 2009 Lombardi Trophy at team headquarters in Louisiana, “we’ll see you all in training camp.”