In trying to come up with a theme for my 2017 New Orleans Saints preview, Herbert Stein’s Law regarding economics kept popping into my head. Stein’s Law is, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Stein was talking about debt payments and money but he might as well be speaking directly about the Sean Payton/Drew Brees Saints.
The Saints have gone 7-9 in four of the past five years and at some point it will end. Tracy Porter dancing in the end zone in Miami is now seven football seasons ago. If you had a child born in February 2010, they are learning semi-complicated math now.
The ‘Party with Lombardi’ is a LONG time ago. Do you know when the last time the Saints had a winning record during the season was? Week 17 of 2013. They were 10-5 and needed to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to clinch a playoff spot. Since then every NFL team, except the Saints, has spent at least 1 week with a winning record. Let that settle in. Even the Cleveland Browns have managed to peak above .500, if only for a moment, since 2013.
The Saints meanwhile have spent four of the past five years wasting the one ingredient every losing NFL team dreams of; a Hall of Fame quarterback. I was never sure I’d actually see the Saints win a Super Bowl in my lifetime, so to say the Saints have underachieved during the Drew Brees era feels sort of greedy and ungrateful. We’ll always have 2006 to 2013.
It was Crunk, Steve Gleason, Tracy Porter, Garrett Hartley, Popeye’s chicken and so much more. Those things don’t change the fact the Saints have totally botched the back half of Brees’ Saints career. Bad contracts, worse draft picks, and Bounty Gate, all have fans and the Saints stuck in the most unique mediocre football experience imaginable.
It hasn’t been terrible, except when the Saints defense or special teams take the field, and even then incompetence can be entertaining. The Saints parade of street performers, and random guys off the street playing corner in 2016 had a sort of rooting for a 6-year-old playing soccer feel to it. Sure it was frustrating, but that B.W. Webb interception against San Diego had a ‘Let’s all celebrate with pizza!’ child-type joy to it. T
he 2016 Saints might have been 7-9 again, but if mediocrity can be spectacular, they achieved it. Losing on a 2-point conversion to Oakland, when Denver blocked a go-a-head extra point, or because an interception went right through Ken Crawley’s hands in New York. Did you forget about the loss in Carolina where the Panthers had one first down the entire fourth quarter and still won? Yeah that happened. It took three to five years off the functionality of my liver and made me question my life choices. So 21-27 the last three years has led us to 2017 and Drew Brees heading to free agency with the Saints
Unable to franchise tag him. Eventually 7-9 simply isn’t good enough and changes will either be made by the Saints or Sean Payton and Drew Brees will be so exhausted with the Groundhog Day feel of seven wins in 2017 they’ll look to go elsewhere. It’s just the reality of how pro sports work.
I don’t think the Saints will fire Sean Payton if we are subjected to another 7-win season, Payton and Mickey Loomis will simply agree it’s time to part ways. As for Brees? I have no idea what’d he would do in that scenario, but Brees doesn’t give discounts (why should he?), and I have a hard time envisioning Brees with the Saints without Payton on the sideline. So here’s where you expect me to say: 2017 is the end of Payton/Brees era, we need to say our goodbyes while we can, and maybe enjoy the final eight home games of Brees as a Saint.
But what if the Saints have righted the ship just in time? The last two years, the Saints appear to have drafted very well as the defense is likely to start as many as six first and second-year players. Mickey Loomis has been thwarted in his attempts to spend massively and wreck future salary cap situations in free agency as Saints missed out on both Josh Norman and Malcolm Butler big money deals.
Instead the Saints have been forced to be patient and bargain shop with guys like Nick Fairley and A.J. Klein. The hiring of Jeff Ireland in 2015 as college scouting director is the exact moment the Saints drafts went from disasters like 2014 to home runs like 2016. So yes, 7-9 can’t go on forever, but maybe it doesn’t have to, and 2017 can be the beginning of a second late career championship window for Drew Brees and Sean Payton?
The 2017 Saints offense is potentially the most fun version we’ve seen since 2011. Michael Thomas is ready and wants to be a star, Alvin Kamara was so special after two preseason games Sean Payton put him away for safe keeping until Week 1, Mark Ingram will be the good dependable runner he’s always been, and the offensive line might get Terron Armstead back by Week 4 and make Drew Brees’ protection much better than 2016.
This brings us to Adrian Peterson, and what he has left in the tank. Can he be the Hall of Fame version Peterson even for a little while? If he’s special for even four or six weeks, look out, because the Saints offense could be Godzilla and NFL defenses will be some random city about to be ransacked. The Saints special teams, besides Thomas Morstead, have been bad the last half decade, but crested to disaster type levels in 2016. Sean Payton took note and changed coaches, added guys for kick coverage like Chris Banjo, kick returners like Ted Ginn Jr., and even traded a 2019 draft pick for a magician who long snaps. Everyone talks about what happens if the defense suddenly gets mediocre but what happens if the special teams aren’t one of the worst in the NFL?
I’m ready to be excited when the Saints actually return a kick and not be filled with dread about the disaster I always feared was gonna happen.
The Saints defense is filled with youth, speed, and still has giant questions at corner, but preseason has at least confirmed we don’t know what it will be, which is better than the usual answer of terrible.
If you think of the Saints young defense as a toddler you will probably enjoy 2017 a lot more; sometimes stuff is going to be broken but by December things will be a lot better for the kids. They’ll be walking, talking, and terrorizing quarterbacks.
Maybe since my house didn’t flood because of Hurricane Harvey, I’m filled with an overabundance of optimism. Or maybe it’s this excellent article from New Orleans Advocate Saints beat reporter Nick Underhill (best Saints beat reporter I’ve ever seen) on why it’s ok to hope with the 2017 Saints defense. Either way the 2017 defense feels different to me and I want to believe so I will. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell on a podcast had a great way of describing the Saints; he said they are like Jenga. Meaning, they potentially might be very good, but 1-2 major injuries would doom them, as everything crashed down. You are probably screaming, “1 or 2 injuries could kill every team!!!”
While that’s true if we are talking quarterbacks, the Saints roster is incredibly fragile. Take Cam Jordan or Max Unger out and suddenly the Saints lines are potential disaster areas and suddenly it’s 7-9 all over again. This brings us right back where we began with Stein’s Law of “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”
It seems to me anything less than seven or more than nine wins makes the Saints decision on Drew Brees and Sean Payton very easy after 2017. If heaven forbid injuries hit and Saints totally collapse the reset becomes obvious, or if they go 12-4, then Loomis resigns Brees at all costs to keep the party going. History tells me nothing ever comes easy regarding the New Orleans Saints, so when predicting 2017 I asked myself, “What record makes 2018 the most complicated and difficult offseason in Saints history?” The answer is 9-7 and barely missing the playoffs. 9-7 would mean Drew Brees is probably still a top five quarterback and will want to be paid like one. Will the Saints give a 39-year-old quarterback a long term deal? What if someone else offers it? So the 7-9s will stop but everything else will get more complicated. I’ve embraced Stein’s Law and will worry about how complicated 2018 will be at a later date.
The Games New Orleans (-3.5) at Minnesota: Outside of playoff games, this is one of the biggest games of Sean Payton’s career. This is a must win. The Saints face New England, Carolina, and Miami following the Vikings and a loss means the Saints will be right back where they were in 2012 and 2014-2016; in slow start quicksand. The Saints young and revamped defense gets to face the 23rd ranked scoring offense from 2016 and the team that allowed the 10th most sacks. Minnesota revamped the offensive line and Sam Bradford is the short pass king, but as far as a road opener, facing this Vikings offense isn’t so bad. After a brutal summer of injuries before training camp started, and high draft choices missing time, the Saints actually had an excellent preseason as far as injuries go and head to Minnesota in pretty good shape roster wise.
RECORD SCRATCH Willie Snead went and got popped for a DUI and got suspended three weeks so the Saints are now very thin at wide receiver. At least we now know why Sean Payton was playing Willie Snead in 4th quarter of preseason games, but who’s going to play the slot and be Drew’s go-to guy on 3rd down? OMG that’s Tommylee Lewis’ music! Everybody hop on the Tommylee bandwagon, because you have no choice. Take an aisle seat and get comfy. /gulp.
The 2017 Saints team slogan should be, “We make hope HARD.” Will the offensive line with newly healthy Max Unger and rookie Ryan Ramczyk hold up against the 6th best scoring defense from 2016? They’d better because Minnesota had 41 sacks in 2016. Sean Payton gave us a peak at Alvin Kamara but he’s gonna break out the fun stuff Monday night. Something tells me Monday is going to be a messy defensive game, and the Saints are going to pull off the rarest of feats under Sean Payton….win without scoring 20 points. Why? Because football is weird like that. Saints 19-17
Houston (-5) vs Jacksonville: Do you remember the Dome post Katrina against Atlanta? As if there was any football team on planet earth beating the Saints that night? Houston is hurting but Sunday they’ll put everything on hold for 3 hours and watch J.J. Watt do horrible, horrible things to Blake Bortles. This line could be 15 and I’d take the Texans. Texans 27-10
Atlanta (-7) at Chicago: The Falcons season is going to be 14-2 or 7-9. They are either going to destroy everyone on a path to redemption after blowing a 28-3 Super Bowl lead, or they are going to lose tough games early and wallow in misery. I want the latter, but I think the former is what’s about to happen. Falcons 31-14
Tennessee (-1.5) vs. Oakland: The 2016 Raiders were the 2016 Saints with a lot better luck. Oakland went 9-2 in one-score games and outscored their opponents by just 31 points for the season. The Raiders were an 8-8 team that was so lucky when their mouth opened a lucky clover shot out. Regression is a cruel mistress about to make a visit to Oakland. Titans 28-21 San Francisco (+6) vs. Carolina: The 49ers are my pick for random terrible team that suddenly isn’t so terrible. Plus, are we really sure Carolina is bouncing back? Let the Cam Newton pouting commence! 49ers 24-17
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.