Ralph Malbrough / Contributing Writer
A lot of times when I'm driving home in the soul-crushing Houston traffic my mind will wander and I'll think about what 17-year-old me would think of the Drew Brees/Sean Payton Saints?
If I told him the Saints would be 80-48 over an 8-year stretch, win a Super Bowl, have the most fun and exciting offense in the NFL, and be pointed to as one of the smartest football organizations in the NFL, I wonder what he might say? Seventeen-year-old me would probably think I died young and went to some sort of football heaven.
Back in 1993, after watching four playoff losses with each one somehow worse than the one before, he probably wouldn't believe the Saints and a Super Bowl appearance, much less a victory was even possible.
Yet, here we are.
The Saints have an elite quarterback, coach, and general manager. The bags, Aint's, Mike Ditka, and years of ineptitude are so far back in the rearview mirror that there are entire generations of Saints fans that have no idea what truly awful football looks like.
If we pretend the 2005 post-Katrina 3-13 season never happened, which we all secretly do anyway, then the last time the Saints won less than 7 games was 1999. That means a 28-year-old fan was 13 years old the last time the Saints were truly a laughingstock in the league and that thought makes me feel really old but also really happy.
I realize that what I'm about to say makes me sound like some 90-year-old grandfather telling youngsters about how they should be grateful they didn't have to live through the Great Depression, but whatever...
I've lived through Saints football so bad I've thought less of myself for watching it. It's not some sort of badge of honor that makes me a 'true' loyal fan. I'm not proud to have Wade Wilson and Billy Joe Hobert jerseys in my closet. To believe enough in Billy Joe Hobert as your team's quarterback and to own his jersey is to be deluded to such a level that only padded walls can keep you safe. If you think that 2012's 7-9 season was awful, you have no idea what awful football is. Any diehard Saints fan over 35 can do 7-9 standing on our heads.
Watching Drew Brees is the best football experience Saints fans are likely to ever have. He might make over 20 million a year but in my mind it's not nearly enough to compensate him for what he does for us longtime Saints fans. How much do you think he'd get in a completely free market with no restrictions?
$30, $40, $50 million?
I'm not a big believer in the narrative that 'The Saints saved New Orleans' after Katrina. It's just a cliche some writers like because it sounds and feels great. You know what saved New Orleans after Katrina? New Orleans saved New Orleans. Everyone just refused to let the city fade away.
While the Saints may not have saved New Orleans, I'm 100 percent sure Drew Brees saved the Saints in New Orleans. If Drew Brees had either become superstar Drew Brees somewhere else or flopped in New Orleans, eventually the Saints are in San Antonio.
You might be saying, 'Ralph, everyone gets that Saints fans are lucky to have Drew Brees.' The stats on different starting quarterbacks say we are luckier than you think.
One of my editors suggested that I find out how many quarterbacks NFL teams have started since 2006 as a way to prove how fortunate Saints fans really are to have Drew Brees. Thanks to a great piece on Deadspin about starting quarterbacks since 1999 I was able to figure out the numbers. Do you know how many teams have started more quarterbacks since 2006 than the Saints? Twenty-eight.
Only the Giants and Chargers have started fewer quarterbacks than the Saints since 2006 and even that is a bit of a lie because Mark Brunell started the meaningless season finale in 2009 but if the Saints had needed to win that game you can be damn sure No. 9 would have been under center. If we disregard that start by Brunell, 29 teams have started more quarterbacks than the Saints since 2006.
Cleveland, Miami, Tampa, Minnesota, Oakland, and Arizona have all started AT LEAST 10 quarterbacks since 2006. Let that sink in for just a minute. The poor Browns have started 12 and the Raiders 14! Any sane Browns fan would trade you the possibilities of Johnny Manziel for four seasons of the worst of Drew Brees in New Orleans.
In case you were wondering, 2007 is the 'worst' Drew Brees year in New Orleans, when he had 28 touchdowns, 18 interceptions, 4400 yards passing, and completed 67 percent of his throws. A quarterback rating of 89 is the low point for Brees as a Saints quarterback, and I guarantee that Raiders fans would give you their firstborn child for a 90 quarterback rating.
To put that in perspective, Aaron Brooks, who was just elected to the Saints Hall of Fame, never once had a season quarterback rating of 89. You want the entire list of quarterbacks in Saints history to have at least one season with a quarterback rating of at least 89? Drew Brees. That's. The. List. Brees' worst year as a Saint is better than every other quarterbacked season in team history before he arrived.
Drew Brees is a unique guy. He cares more about being great at quarterback than most of us care about anything. The money or his four children could distract him or make him think the level he is at is just fine and it would be easy to slack just a bit and coast, but he just doesn't. Brees is the same maniacal overachieving worker he always was.
When Johnny Manziel has 20 interceptions, but on his off week is tweeting out shirtless pictures from a pool in Las Vegas, we should all stop and give thanks that Drew Brees off the field is boring and that he uses his Twitter account to tweet family pictures and Jimmy John's information.
We are in the midst of 'Peak Saints', so be a fan however you want. If you want to judge your enjoyment of 2014 Saints football solely on whether or not they win the Super Bowl, go ahead. Just remember that before we get there, we need to enjoy being right here.
Rob Ryan's Big Chart of Fun: Last year I charted how the Saints defense did under Rob Ryan in certain situations. For a full explanation of how it works read this.
Charting Rob Ryan's defense was so much fun, I'm doing it again.
The Saints in 2013 did an amazing job at two overlooked things. First, they only allowed teams to average 3.1 yards rushing on 1st down. Stop the run on 1st down and you take away an offense's options on 2nd and 3rd down.
Second, when they got teams in 2nd and 3rd down and long (defined as 7 or more yards to go) they only allowed pass plays of 10 or more yards 25 percent of the time. Rob Ryan was at his safety-loving best against teams in passing situations. Only three teams created pass plays of 10+ yards more than 40 percent of the time against the Saints in 2nd/3rd and long. Those three teams were New England, Seattle, and St. Louis. See a trend?
If the Saints can do those two things on defense everything will be fine.
Rob Ryan's Big Chart of Fun will be on the Internet all year if you want to view.
New Orleans (-2.5) at Atlanta:
My season preview for the New Orleans Saints gets harder every year. Eventually, all the clever ideas get used. I've done serious, funny and even used complicated math. As you can see, this year I just skipped the season preview all together. It's for the best as I'm awful at them.
My own mother called my 2006 Saints preview 'Ridiculous' because I predicted 8-8 and she asked, 'Did you watch the Dallas Cowboys murder them a few weeks ago?'
The Saints lost 30-7 to the Cowboys in the 2006 preseason and you'd have to really stretch your memory to find a more awful exhibition season performance. How bad was it? In the Associate Press game recap Bill Parcells complained his starting defense didn't get enough snaps because the Saints offense was so horrific. You know you are bad when they other team's coach wishes you were better so his team could have a tougher practice game.
The Saints starting offense didn't get a first down and proceeded to get their heads kicked in again the next week against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. Drew Brees threw two interceptions and was talking about trying to prove his shoulder was ok.
We all like to pretend it never happened but the majority of Saints fans were in full freak out mode over how Brees looked in August 2006. I was there and somewhere still have your emails.
Here was a fun post-game Sean Payton quote from that Colts game...
'We're not a ready product right now. You guys can all see it,' coach Sean Payton said. 'We've got a lot of work to do on both sides of the ball. I have a hard time saying it's just preseason, everything is going to be all right, put the hat on, let's go. It's not going to be all right. We've got to correct some of these things.'
That sounds almost identical to what Payton said after the Saints had what seemed like 345 penalties vs. Tennessee two weeks ago. The man is consistent or maybe he's just a robot Mickey Loomis built because nobody wanted to coach the Saints after Katrina. Either way, as long as Payton churns out 11-win seasons, I'm fine with it.
In August of 2006 Brees and the Saints looked terrible, then went to Cleveland Week 1 and Brees threw a touchdown to some rookie name Marques Colston in a big road win.
My point is 90 percent of the time PRESEASON FOOTBALL IS COMPLETELY AND UTTERLY USELESS AS A PREDICTOR OF ANYTHING.
Learn it, love it, and believe it.
The Saints should open every year against Atlanta. It's just the best. One reason it's the best is because at a time when both the Saints and Falcons are the best they've ever been the Saints OWN ATLANTA.
Drew Brees is 13-3 vs. the Falcons as the Saints starting quarterback. The man gives us great play, a Super Bowl, and allows us to reign over our most hated rival. He really is the perfect quarterback.
2013 was fun for a bunch of reasons, but high on the list was watching the Falcons fall completely apart. All those last second wins from 2012 turned into delicious tears of sadness in 2013. Watching the Saints win and Atlanta lose is as good as a Fall Sunday gets.
Mike Smith has a plan to change things in 2014, and if you watched HBO's Hard Knocks, you know it involves 'Getting Tougher'. I assume getting tougher means not having Matt Ryan get run over more times than a pothole in Lakeview. I love Mike Smith because he's the perfect coach for Atlanta - too good to fire but never good enough to worry the Saints during the Drew Brees Era.
The Falcons still have no pass rush, so I expect Drew Brees to do pretty much whatever he likes throwing the ball. Julio Jones and Roddy White are healthy and any Saints cornerback not named Keenan Lewis has the coverage skills of a paper bag in a hurricane. If you plan on telling me how Patrick Robinson or Corey White are even average, you need to stop talking and check your house for gas leaks because that's the only reason you could possibly believe in those two guys right now.
Part of me wants to say a legitimate Super Bowl team like the Saints should go on the road and crush a hated division rival like Atlanta as if they were Genghis Khan conquering Eurasia, leaving nothing but horror, fires, and discarded 'Rise Up' signs in their wake. Alas, these Saints-Falcons games usually go down to the wire and what better way to start the football season then by having to count on a kicker who the Saints just cut then resigned? Don't worry it will end well for everyone except my liver, your sanity, and Mike Smith.
Bears (-6.5) vs. Buffalo:
Poor Bills fans, their team might move to Canada because their dead owner didn't care enough to have a succession plan and their team is dreadful. Did I mention that the receiver they traded next year's #1 pick for is injured, and last year's first-round quarterback looks like Aaron Brooks without all the initial success? Feels like 2-14 to me.
Tampa Bay (pick 'em) vs. Carolina:
Why couldn't Tampa give us one more year of Greg Schiano? His ability to take a decent roster and ruin it like an 11-year-old trying to microwave popcorn for the first time was truly impressive. In steps the always-competent Lovie Smith to make the Bucs at least decent. Good thing Lovie loves to burn all of his time outs challenging a random four-yard first quarter run. Sean Payton is like Albert Einstein in a room of kindergartners compared to the rest of the NFC South coaches.
San Francisco (-5.5) at Dallas:
Did you see ESPN the Magazine's long feature on Jerry Jones? I can't recommend it enough. Jerry's regret over not drafting Johnny Manziel is the most Jerry Jones thing ever.
The Cowboys are about to go BOOM and not in a 12-4 way but a 5-11 way. If Jason Garrett is still the coach in December, you can start getting this column FOR FREE.
Houston (-2.5) vs. Washington:
The Texans are a train wreck on offense and are quarterbacked by what my wife calls 'The Gross Lumberjack,' but their defense is going to murder mediocre offensive lines like the Redskins' o-line. Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt are going to be something fierce.
Ralph Malbrough is a Saints fan living in Houston. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, find him on facebook, follow him on twitter at https://twitter.com/SaintsForecast or download his podcast at Itunes.