Ralph Malbrough / Contributing Writer
If the New Orleans Saints 2012 season was a movie Sunday's 44-38 loss to the Carolina Panthers would have been the right ending. For the Saints and their fans 2012 has been a year spent in football purgatory. The Saints were a swimmer in the ocean who was able to dog paddle and avoid drowning, but not nearly strong enough to swim to the shore.
With the news Sean Payton had signed a contract extension, it seemed like the sun was finally starting to shine on the Saints and they would head into 2013 having fought to an 8-8 finish after an 0-4 start. We forgot the defense was a historic bomb with the ability to detonate any Sunday afternoon. The 2011 Saints set the record for most yards by on offense and the 2012 Saints defense set the mark for most yards allowed. The Saints gave up over 7,000 yards on defense but at times it felt like 20,000 -- I think DeAngelo Williams just scored again.
Steve Spagnuolo's crew started the year by letting Robert Griffin III score 40 and ended the year letting Cam Newton score 44. Either Spagnuolo needs to be fired or the Saints need to find about six new starters on defense. I'd rather have to watch the 15 hour long movie 'The Hobbit' again then be forced to watch this defense in 2013. The Saints defense in 2012 had two good games (in Atlanta and against Tampa) and much like me not drinking during the game, those were the exception not the rule. If you think this defense showed any real improvement from September to December I would kindly ask you to look up the word improvement in the dictionary because I don't think the word means what you think it means.
When I think about it the fact the Saints managed to win seven games with the worst defense in NFL history was quite a trick. The Baltimore Colts who held the record won two games. Almost having a .500 season with this defense was the equivalent of carrying a 400 pound woman up 10 flights of stairs; impressive, not enjoyable, and you might need therapy once it was finished.
The good news is by losing Sunday the Saints improved their draft position and they'll need it to select the best defensive players they can find because you probably saw the last of Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith and Roman Harper in a Saints uniform. All have had some bad and great moments in New Orleans, and I think history will be especially kind to Vilma once the book on the entire bounty mess is written. Somewhere Roger Goodell had to be wondering how Vilma got the best of him when no. 51 scored on an interception. So much for that yearlong suspension, huh Roger? Vilma's interception was one of the sweet moments of 2012 even in defeat. It was a giant one-finger salute to the Commish.
Unfortunately, Sunday's loss displayed the Saints season long inability to overcome in game adversity on offense. The Saints led 24-13 in the third quarter and then after a referee call on a Panther fumble went against them the Saints were outscored 28-0. It was very similar to home losses to Kansas City and San Fransisco. Once one big play went against them, the Saints drove straight into the highway guardrail and into the ditch. Two late touchdowns don't change how awful the Saints offense looked for most of the second half.
I can't give a stat or fact which directly links not having Sean Payton to allowing the Panthers to score 28 unanswered points or the two-win Chiefs to win after trailing 24-6. I just know those things never happened when the guy chewing Juicy Fruit and wearing the visor was on the sideline. Sean Payton is probably worth two or three wins a year, and if Tom Benson didn't agree I doubt Payton would be getting $8 million a year.
So now that we're out of the fog of 2012, what's next?
My guess is on the day he returns Sean Payton begins to use his legendary motivational skills to make 2013 the year the Saints get vengeance. Vengeance for robbing him of a season and the Saints of a shot at playing a Super Bowl at home. Payton will want to move the bounty story further down his chapter in NFL history and that only happens with another Lombardi trophy. Payton has used baseball bats, slogans on t-shirts, and a bunch of other things to get the best out of the Saints. We had all hoped the Saints would use the bounty penalties as a rallying point to have a great season but it wasn't going to happen without Payton. Now he'll be back to use his personality to infuse the Saints in a way we hope will be spectacular to watch.
2012 is over and that's about the best thing I can say about it. Watching the Saints go 7-9 or 8-8 has always been to me the most unpleasant kind of year. Switch a handful of plays and suddenly you are a playoff team or maybe picking in the top five of the draft. So close yet so far from anything. I'm not sure anything I can write will make us feel any better about what Goodell did to us the fans but maybe this will help.
If you told me in August 2009, 'Ralph, I'll give you the three greatest seasons in Saints history. You'll get 41 wins and a Super Bowl win. The catch is the fourth year will be the weirdest, most frustrating and infuriating season you'll ever go through. Do you want the deal?' I'd have signed up for it in 10 seconds. I like to think 2012 was bill we had to pay for 2009-2011 fun. Telling myself that makes what Goodell did five percent easier to stomach. Let's just add 2012 to the list of things which prove Saints fans can survive anything. We've lived through bags on our heads, astronaut general managers, horrible quarterbacks and worse playoff losses. Life is about taking the good with the bad and the fair with the unfair. Goodbye 2012 Saints football we won't miss you or remember you fondly.
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 http://twitter.com/#!/MilneMalbrough or download his podcast at Itunes.