In my season preview column for the New Orleans Saints I predicted a 9-win season. I figured they had a decent draft, signed a few nice free agents, and with better special teams and a little injury good fortune they could get to 9 or 10 wins. If you told me in early June how many key Saints players would miss time or not play in 2017 at all, I’d have said they’d be lucky to win seven games again.
The 2017 Saints roster has proven deeper and more durable than I ever imagined.
The Saints have had so many injuries in 2017 it’s hard to keep track.
Things started off poorly before training camp when the Saints lost defensive tackle Nick Fairley to a heart condition and Terron Armstead was forced to miss the first four weeks with a torn labrum.
Delvin Breaux, the Saints best corner heading into training camp, hasn’t played a down in 2017.
Do you remember Dannell Ellerbe? He tied for second on the 2016 Saints with four sacks and he went on injured reserve in July. The Saints traded for long snapper Jon Dorenbos, whose career ended in September when John Amoss, a doctor for the Saints, discovered Dorenbos’ had a life-threatening heart condition after the final exhibition game, which deprived everyone in New Orleans of Dorenbos’ cool magic tricks all season long. Thankfully, Alvin Kamara picked up the slack in the magic department.
Zack Strief, the Saints best offensive lineman in 2016 hasn’t even played 10 percent of the offensive snaps. Alex Okafor, the Saints second best defensive lineman, was lost for the season Week 11 against the Washington Redskins.
If you would have read the previous two paragraphs to me in August, I’d have had a four-hour crying session, followed by drinking, followed by asking why are the Saints suddenly cursed? Look at those paragraphs again, if they were any more depressing, they’d be a Sylvia Plath poem.
All the fun of 2017 might have made you forget Nick Fairley was arguably the Saints best defensive player in 2016. Losing him was a huge blow and while his replacements haven’t been as good, the Saints defense still improved greatly because other positions got much better. If the 2017 Saints had a healthy and playing well Fairley they’d be a top five defense.
Yet, with all the injuries on the defense, it remains 15th in yards and 22nd in points allowed, which is the Saints best defensive season since 2013.
After the draft the Saints looked to be seven deep at offensive line. Flash forward to mid-December and they were in Atlanta playing third-string guard Josh LeRibeus. The Saints would lose five starters against the Falcons and were still a Drew Brees interception away from a victory.
I was happy Sean Payton went for it on fourth down late in the game instead of kicking the field goal just because I feared overtime would have been more opportunity for Saints players to get hurt.
On defense the Saints lost A. J. Klein, Trey Hendrickson, and Kenny Vaccaro last Thursday and still held Atlanta to 20 points. General Manager Mickey Loomis and the Saints front office added solid NFL veteran guys as depth this past offseason and it shows. Players like Manti Te’o and Chris Banjo had to play way more than expected against Atlanta and things didn’t fall apart. T’eo delivered 10 tackles and Banjo had an interception. Craig Robertson was a little noticed signing in 2016 and all he has done is be the most consistent and healthy Saints linebacker and will likely play the most snaps of any linebacker for two consecutive years.
The Saints drafts the past two years rightfully get a ton of headlines for guys like Michael Thomas, Marshon Lattimore, and Alvin Kamara. On Thursday the more unheralded guys like David Onyemta and Vonn Bell played 77 percent of the snaps. Onyemata, a player with little experience playing actual football, was supposed to be a long-term project, except he’s played in almost 54 percent of the defensive snaps in 2017. Defensive end Tyeler Davison has quietly turned himself into the second best player behind Andrus Peat from the 2015 draft.
The Saints depth has been pushed almost to its breaking point and yet they are 9-4. The only time in 2017 injuries seem to have doomed the Saints was against the Los Angeles Rams when they were without both starting cornerbacks. That game showed roster depth isn’t a bottomless well.
When we predict the season, no one asks, “Will the Saints third string guard and defensive end hold up in a December road game?” In 2016 the Saints couldn’t overcome massive injuries at corner and other spots, but in 2017 the roster has survived a wave of hurt football players in way I never thought the Saints could.
Saints Mood and Meditation Music: Trans-Siberian Orchestra – Carol of the Bells It’s holiday season so I have drop in some Christmas music. If you’ve attended Saints home games in December in the last 15 years you know Superdome sound guy occasionally drops this in on big third downs on defense because nothing says FOOTBALL CHRISTMAS like a little Trans-Siberian Orchestra. It’s not officially Christmas time until the Dome crowd is fired up on a third and 12 by Holiday tunes.
The Games Last Week: 3-2 Season: 31-29
New York Jets (+16) at New Orleans Saints: By the time you read this column the Saints might be favored by 17 or 20. Who knows how high this number might get? What is the number Las Vegas has to conjure up to convince bettors to wager on Bryce Petty in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome?
What would the line have to be for you to gamble substantial money on the New York Jets? It’s the NFL, so of course it’s possible the Jets could win, but how big would the line need to be for you to say, “Honey, I’m flying to Vegas and betting the Christmas money for the kids presents on the Jets this week and I FEEL GREAT ABOUT IT!” 17? 20? 25? For me to place a decent amount of money on the Jets, it’d have to be 20.
The Jets had 100 yards of offense for the entire game against the Denver Broncos last week. Denver has a great defense and Josh McCown got hurt but 100 yards in an NFL game is staggeringly bad. McCown played the entire first half in case you were wondering.
The Saints have two clear paths to the playoffs; go 11-5 or go 10-6 with a victory over Atlanta. Do one or the other and they have a better than 98 percent chance of playing in January according to the New York Times. Don’t go fiddle with their playoff simulator, unless you want to waste the next 90 minutes of your life looking at Saints playoff scenarios. The Saints have to win Sunday. If they don’t, it would be all things considered, the worst regular season loss in Saints history.
The Jets will be quarterbacked by Bryce Petty, he of four career NFL starts. New York is 20th in points and 23rd in yards on offense, but that was with Josh McCown playing at a quietly very high level. New York the last three seasons is 8-14 on the road and only the Cleveland Browns have a worse turnover differential than the Jets away from home in that time. The Saints should hopefully get all their injured players back except Trey Hendrickson and A.J. Klein, so they’ll have no excuses. A blowout where the Saints could pull guys in the fourth quarter would be ideal but my guess is the Jets figure out a way to hang around for most of the game because the Saints like to give fans unwanted holiday stress. Saints 31-17
Atlanta (-6) at Tampa Bay: Atlanta probably won’t get the benefit of 9 first downs via penalty but Matt Ryan isn’t going to throw three interceptions either. Get ready for the Christmas Eve holiday brawl next week because it’s going to be the biggest Saints-Falcons game in a LONG TIME.
Green Bay (+2.5) at Carolina: Aaron Rogers is likely back, it’d be so great if he could give Saints a nice early Christmas gift. Packers 23-20
LA Rams (+1) at Seattle: If the Saints ever melted down like the Seahawks did against the Jaguars, Roger Goodell would probably close up the franchise as penalty. Rams 27-21
New England (-2.5) at Pittsburgh: The Steelers are the 2017 team whose record is inflated 45 percent off of luck and close wins and they are getting bounced early in the playoffs.
Ralph Malbrough is a Saints fan living in Houston. Email him at email@example.com, find him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SaintsForecast or download his podcast at Itunes.