After three consecutive 7-9 seasons, it seems like the commentary has been the same each Spring for the Saints. Defense MUST be the priority in the draft and free agency. We have to generate more pressure. We must improve the secondary, etc., etc., etc. This offseason has been no different after the Saints ranked 2nd in points per game, but 31st in points allowed.
While I agree the Saints playoff chances would be improved by upgrading their defense, I no longer think it’s the only path forward.
I have our archrivals, the Atlanta Falcons to thank for that. This past season, the Atlanta Falcons offense was historic, averaging over 34 points per game to lead the NFL. By contrast, their defense was pretty bad, ranking 27th in points allowed per game at just over 25. The Falcons should have won the Super Bowl: bungled playcalling, clock mismanagement, and costly turnovers all culminated in the greatest choke job in Super Bowl history.
My point here is not to rehash the Falcons collapse, though admittedly it makes me smile, but rather to focus on what they showed us. A team with a tremendous offense can win the Super Bowl despite a bad defense. I think the Saints should look into this strategy. Now I can hear the counterarguments swelling for those who haven’t already closed out of this article. Most would argue that our offense has not been what kept us from the playoffs the last three years. That’s true. But I would say our offense hasn’t been elite enough to balance the equation in the Saints favor.
Let’s look at what the Falcons and the Saints did this season.
The two teams combined to score over 40 points in a game nine times this season. Their combined record when they did so? 9-0. Now I realize that 40 is an absurd number, but my point is that when these teams kick their offense into high octane, they hit a gear most NFL teams can’t match.
With that said, let’s look at a more realistic number. When the Saints scored 30 or more points in a game, their record drops to 7-3. That’s still pretty good; it means that 70% of the time the Saints scored 30 they won. If the Saints had won 70% of their games this year, they would have been 11-5. That’s good enough to make the playoffs most seasons and often good enough to win a division.
"Do you think the Saints are closer to having an offense that could be 2016 Falcons dominant, or closer to having a defense that can be middle of the pack?"
Fine, you might argue, but the Saints could have gone 10-0 when they scored 30 if they had a defense. I hear that point, and it’s a valid counter. But let me finish with this. Even without Brandin Cooks, the Saints are still loaded with talent offensively. Do you think the Saints are closer to having an offense that could be 2016 Falcons dominant, or closer to having a defense that can be middle of the pack? Ideally, we can do both, but we only have so many picks in the draft. Asked another way, is a Christian McCaffrey in the joker role on offense more likely to push the Saints into that next level offensive gear, or is Haason Reddick or Derek Barnett enough to make the Saints defense average?
Now Sean Payton has said that the priority this offseason is defense. After all, this was the rationale given for the Brandin Cooks trade. However, if the Saints close a deal with the Patriots regarding Malcolm Butler, the Saints will have technically improved their defense. The free agent signings of Alex Okafor, Manti Teo, and A.J. Klein also mean they have addressed positions of need. Can they upgrade? Absolutely, and they should. But these signings give them the flexibility to take the best player available when they draft, and not solely based on need. Don’t be surprised if the Saints pull a joker from the deck.