The end of an era is sadly upon the New Orleans Saints

The Saints sadly ended their season far too soon with their loss to Tampa Bay. Not only did this season end, but an era of Saints football ended as well.

Four seasons, four far too early exits. Yes, one of them was not truly on the New Orleans Saints, but the other three very much were on this squad. The negative feeling is the same though — the Saints are done before their time because they didn’t handle their business in their time.

The 2019 Saints went out because they simply got outplayed. Yes, there was an uncalled push-off in the end zone in overtime which gained the winning TD, but the fact is the Saints were lucky to be in that position as they were not the better team that day.

Looking at the Tampa Bay game

Sunday’s game was not the same in that the Saints literally gave the game to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who to their credit obliged in taking it from the Saints.

They turned three Saints turnovers into 21 points and a fourth turnover into the game-capping drive. The Saints weren’t the lesser team, nor were they seriously outplayed. They simply handed the game to the Bucs.

It didn’t start off so badly. Deonte Harris has provided many sparks in his two seasons as a Saint, and this was no different. Harris had two outstanding punt returns.

One ended with a Saints field goal, and the other was called back on a penalty and that TD turned into a later FG. The Saints were a stronger team in the early going, but without scoring TDs after those two great punt returns, they left themselves vulnerable.

And then the turnover bug hit. A poor Drew Brees pass was intercepted and Tampa Bay turned that into a TD.

They went into halftime tied, but the reality is the Saints squandered opportunities that would have forced Tampa Bay to alter their game plan. Tampa did not score a single TD in which they started on their side of the 50-yard line.

Coming out of halftime, the Saints seemed prepared to take the game to the Bucs with a touchdown in their first possession and forcing a Tampa Bay punt on that team’s first possession. Then, the bottom fell out.

The Saints converted a third and two with a pass to Jared Cook, but he was stripped of the ball and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got a new life. You cannot give Tom Brady extra possessions. Tampa marched that short field to a TD.

The Saints seemed to take a gut punch with that turnover, and Tampa Bay seemed to gain some life. On their next possession, the Saints punted and Tampa marched to a FG. On the next Saints possession, Brees and Kamara were not on the same page and Brees was intercepted.

That turnover led to the final Tampa Bay touchdown, which more or less shut the door on the Saints’ chances. A final last gasp heave by Brees was also intercepted to truly finish the game.

Recent history

It’s taken a few days to get beyond this last loss because of the breadth and depth of the loss. This isn’t just a loss: it’s the end of an era. Whether Drew Brees returns or not, the reality is there is no way for this team to return in the current form. This may have been the best performing regular-season team for the last four years, but they have been a disappointment in the playoffs.

In 2017, the Saints forged a strong comeback against the Minnesota Vikings that came up just short on the most improbable of plays. Unfortunate, but the expectations for that season had been surpassed in just making it to the divisional round.

The turning point of this era of Saints history was obviously, the NOLA No-Call – the NFC Championship game against the Los Angeles Rams in 2018. Playing well enough to win the game, the Saints’ run to destiny was thwarted by two officials missing two calls on one play.

The reason this point was so important was it changed the path and fortune of the Saints. If the Saints go on to win that game, they play in the Super Bowl. If the New England Patriots only put up 13 points in that contest, it’s quite likely the Saints win.

What happens then? Drew probably retires. There aren’t some of the moves made to “win now”. Whatever happened in these past two seasons would have a different tone. The Saints’ legacy is forever changed.

But that didn’t happen and the Saints marched on, crestfallen by the loss, but understanding their future was bright. 2019 saw a repeat 13-3 season, but the Saints didn’t end up with a first-round bye (that loss to the Falcons was huge…).

They again faced the Vikings in the playoffs, and simply put the Saints laid an egg. It was a poor performance and they were outplayed.

They were fortunate to be the better team and make a game of it, taking it to overtime, but fell in overtime. Yes, many will point to the push-off in the endzone on the game-winning touchdown, but the Saints were fortunate just to make it to overtime.

And this season went very well. The Saints finished 12-4, losing one clunker to the Eagles and their traditional early season loss that they shouldn’t have (this year to the Raiders).

But their other two losses were to the top team in each conference, teams the Saints gave decent battles to. After a good victory over the Chicago Bears in the Wild Card Round the Saints came out with a strong start but turnovers were their undoing.

Turnover and the end of an era

Turnover is now the theme. Next year’s team will not look like the team of the past four seasons. This is the end maybe not just of the Drew Brees era.

The Saints under Sean Payton have had four distinct eras. The first was the first three seasons, 2006-2008. This was the post-Katrina build — bringing in Brees, drafting Reggie Bush, signing some other solid free agents.

Shockingly, they made the NFC Championship in that first season, which led to a lot of belief in Payton. The culture was changed immediately.

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The second era was the first rise to power, 2009-2013.

The Saints won the Super Bowl in the 2009 season then went back to the playoffs in 2010 to cement themselves as a perennial contender and to be seen as one of the top teams in the league. Outside of the Bountygate season of 2012, the Saints were a top team and a playoff team.

The third era could truly overlap from 2012, but we’ll just call them the lost years, 2014-2016. . Too much looking for the wrong things, poor drafts, poor free agent moves, and a bad locker room. New Orleans had three back-to-back 7-9 seasons and were it not for the greatness of Brees, that number might not have been close to that.

And we’ve just gone through the last era, the return to greatness. Great drafts, incredible young talent, a very strong team. The Saints are again seen as one of the best in the league.

But with great teams comes a cost. Every team that has success ends up having issues staying on top due to free agency and having to play great players. That’s where the Saints are.

The word is that due to the “win now” mentality, the Saints have over-extended themselves, and all the kicking the can down the road now comes due. The team could be in the ballpark of $100 million over the salary cap.

Making matters worse, the salary cap for this season will be reduced due to COVID-19.

So this team will have to shed players and reduce the cap number. There is a possibility that we’ve seen the end of the Drew Brees era. Brees has not only been a great leader of this team, but a New Orleans icon from the day he put pen to paper and decided to be part of the rebuilding of this city.

Brees has been as important to New Orleans as Mardi Gras and beignets. We’ve seen him perform miracles and watched him grow to become the most prolific passer in the history of the game.

We’ve also seen injuries in the past two seasons. We’ve seen the incredible timing for which he’s famous become maybe just a bit less timely. The old cannon doesn’t shoot with quite as much force. He was clearly not the Drew Brees of old in the final Tampa Bay game.

He has been strong in the regular season, but in none of the playoff games of the last two seasons has Brees looked like the Brees of old. Time waits for no one. No one would be shocked nor felt cheated if Brees does call it quits.

Off-season of change

As well, the changes are coming from the top. Assistant head coach and TE coach Dan Campbell is now the head coach of the Detroit Lions. He takes with him Aaron Glenn, Saints defensive back coach, to become his defensive coordinator.

Saints VP/Assistant General Manager and head of pro scouting Terry Fontenot is now the GM of the Atlanta Falcons (that hurts to say; reminds me of when Bobby Hebert, Morten Andersen, and Joe Horn all ended up in Atlanta…ugh).

Dennis Allen is a candidate for the Eagles job.

We, fortunately, got to hold onto our other scouting director and assistant GM Jeff Ireland. His job is going to become infinitely more important as we are going to have no choice but to part with veteran talent and make room for young draftees to move up.

So this Saints team is closing out an era. Next year’s team will probably look very different from this year’s team. As such, expectations may need to change. I think we can still expect strong professionalism and tough play.

But there could be a transition period as – if there is a new QB – the team adjusts to a new offensive thought.

Out with this era and in with a new. But for those of us who’ve been long-time Saints fans, while disappointed in New Orleans’ struggles in these past few postseasons, we’ve been around enough to understand how GREAT these days are compared to the Saints of basically their first 40 years.

We might not be winning championships every season, but at least we’re on the road to them every year, and no one wants to go back to bags on their heads.