Ralph Malbrough / Contributing Writer
In life expectations can be funny things. Take the United States Men's National Soccer Team as an example in the just completed World Cup. How did a soccer team that only won one game, tied another, and lost their final two contests captivate the entire country for nearly three weeks?
They exceeded expectations.
Instead of getting trampled by the 'Group of Death' they beat Ghana, tied Portugal, lost to Germany, advanced to the 2nd Round and then almost stunned Belgium. It was a pretty fun June being the scrappy underdog in the world's biggest sporting event.
We weren't expecting much and instead of having to suffer through baseball in June we got to chant 'USA USA', had an excuse to drink more beer, tried to figure out how to spell Jurgen Klinsmann, and got to pretend as a country we cared about soccer. It made for a wonderful month.
Contrast the United States to Brazil who hosted the World Cup. They made the semifinals and the entire country pretty much view the team as a failure and embarrassment.
See the difference?
Brazil spent billions hosting the event and anything less than winning the entire tournament meant nothing. Expectations make all the difference.
Which bring us to the 2014 New Orleans Saints. Never in my life as a Saints fan have I seen or heard fans as excited and with such high expectations as we have for the 2014 season.
Some of you might say we were excited in 2006 when the Saints signed Drew Brees and drafted Reggie Bush. We were but that was the excitement of a new start, new quarterback, new coach, and a return to the Superdome. There were no expectations, only hope. It's what made 2006 so damn enjoyable. Even as we watched it, we could hardly believe it was actually happening.
Some of you might say Saints fans were really excited and had high expectations heading into the 2009 season. We did get incredibly excited once the Saints unleashed their Death Star killing machine powered by Drew Brees, a power running game, and Gregg Williams' turnover generating defense but we didn't get a view of that until the Saints started playing preseason games and didn't know the 2009 Saints were something special until they didn't trail the first five weeks of the season.
Interacting with Saints fans on Twitter and my podcast I get the sense anything short of getting to the NFC Championship game will be viewed as a failure by a huge portion of Saints fans. The Saints have never had such great a weight of expectations on them as they set to open training camp.
So what will happen to make fans dreams come true or turn 2014 into a nightmare? I thought it would be interesting to identify three questions we might be asking if the Saints season goes well and three questions we might be asking if things don't go like we hope.
Three Things We'll Be Talking About If Saints are Crushing Teams
- Who is better Akiem Hicks or Cameron Jordan?
If the Saints are going to build on the fantastic 2013 Rob Ryan's defense had then the main reason will be someone steps up and joins Jordan as an elite level player in the front seven.
Junior Galette seems the obvious choice because he had double digit sacks in 2013 but I'm of the belief if the Saints are the best team in the NFC in December we'll be arguing over whether Hicks or Jordan are the best player on the defense and who is more deserving of a long term contract. The debate on Twitter will have the intensity of baby boomers debating the Kennedy Assassination.
Hicks has grown leaps since the Saints drafted him in 2012. How good is he? Only J.J. Watt had more stops in the run game among defensive linemen according to Pro Football Focus.
Also the better the Saints defense the more Twitter pictures of Rob Ryan out on the town we get. And who doesn't need more photos of Rob Ryan celebrating around town after big wins? We all need that, AMERICA NEEDS THAT!
- Why is Sean Payton ruining my Fantasy Football Team?
What will be very good for the 2014 Saints might be bad for any Saints player on your fantasy team not named Drew Brees. Fun question, 'What happens if Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Kenny Stills, and Brandin Cooks are all healthy and productive?'
They can't all have 1,200 yards receiving and 10 scores. What might happen is every week it's a different guy doing damage and the Saints offense starts melting scoreboards. That's great for the Saints and makes game planning versus Sean Payton a nightmare. It also will drive fantasy owners insane who have a Saints receiver as they try to guess which Saint will have the huge game each week. I'm completely willing to sacrifice my fantasy team's success for the Saints to have an offense for the ages. I'm a giver.
- Why didn't the Denver Broncos keep Champ Bailey instead of signing Aqib Talib?
If the Saints are going to have a Super Bowl season doesn't Champ Bailey have to factor in? Bailey is one of the most beloved all-time Broncos and if he is succeeding in New Orleans then Aqib Talib will probably be failing in Denver. Things always work out that way.
It wasn't so much that Bailey's skills declined in 2013 as much as he just wasn't healthy. The Saints don't need an elite Bailey; they just need Bailey healthy for 16 weeks.
Whenever a team makes a huge decision and chooses one player over another it always seems to me it never works out for both the team and the player they reject. Don't believe me? Miami is in year nine of regret over passing on Drew Brees.
Either Bailey finds the fountain of youth and Talib goes back to being an inconsistent mess or Bailey is injured and washed up while Talib is the Broncos missing piece. No in-between.
I know which one Saints fans want to see.
Three questions we will be asking if Saints are struggling
- Why do Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs look so old?
Evans and Grubbs are both on the wrong side of 30 and ever since Drew Brees has been in New Orleans the Saints value guards more than tackles or centers. How do I know? Because they pay them more. Evans missed a start for the first time ever in 2013 so it's fair to say he is past his peak. Grubbs made the Pro Bowl in 2013 but advanced statistics from sites like Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders say he was better in 2012.
The Saints have struggled at tackle before but for almost the entire Drew Brees Era he has had elite guard play protecting him featuring Jahri Evans with Carl Nicks and then Ben Grubbs. What happens if suddenly he didn't? I'm guessing we wouldn't like the answer.
- Did Saints make a mistake trading Darren Sproles?
I said when the Saints traded Darren Sproles they did so based on performance and not salary cap reasons. The Saints believe Sproles is in decline and they decided to move on a year too early rather than a year too late. Sproles was productive for the Saints in 2012-13 but not to the level of 2011. He also started to show signs of wear and tear as he missed games the last two years. If he regains his 2011 form it means Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis made a huge error letting him walk.
If Khiry Robinson ends up being a playoff flash in the pan and the running game continues to struggle while Sproles thrives in Philly you can bet you'll be hearing, 'They should have kept Sproles!' so much you will want to drive an ice pick in your ear to make it stop.
- Should the Saints bring back Garrett Hartley? Shayne Graham was fantastic in the playoff win in Philly and his four field goals included the game winner. For his career Graham is 91 percent from 30-39 yards and 80 percent from 40-49 yards. I believe he will be just like John Carney was for the Saints and be money from inside 45 yards. But ask him to make anything outside of 45 yards and it's a 50/50 proposition at best. Sean Payton would take that consistency but if Graham hits a rough patch and the Saints are having kicker tryouts on a random Tuesday in October you know Garrett Hartley's name will come up. Even though I love Garrett Hartley for being awesome in 2009, if his name is mentioned seriously anytime in 2014 it's a bad sign for the Saints kicking situation. Sean Payton you better make the right call about the kicker because the Saints being bad at kicker is terrible for my liver and I'm too old to ruin my liver over atrocious kicking like I did during the Martin Gramatica experience.
When the Saints three biggest worries are having guards over 30, losing a miniature running back and who will be the kicker I'd say they are in pretty good shape. Football is finally here people and the expectations couldn't be higher.
Ralph Malbrough is a Saints fan living in Houston. Email him at email@example.com, find him on Facebook, follow him on twitter at https://twitter.com/SaintsForecast or download his podcast at Itunes.