Cast your mind back a year and the New Orleans Saints were a struggling franchise. Coach Sean Payton was in the middle of a season long suspension for his role in the infamous ‘bounty’ scandal and both offensively and defensively the Saints players were struggling to perform in his absence, quickly falling out of the playoff race behind a dominant Atlanta side and eventually finishing with a 7-9 record and 3rd place in the NFC South.
Fast forward 12 months and things could hardly be more of a contrast. The Saints sit pretty at the top of their division with a 5-1 record and look handily placed for a lengthy run in the postseason. The only blemish to their record is a last minute defeat to a Tom Brady inspired Patriots in New England.
So what is the reason for this turnaround? Is it as simple as the return of their iconic and talismanic head coach? Or are there other reasons for the Saints getting back on track in 2013?
Obviously the importance of having a settled coaching structure cannot be underestimated. Payton gives his team leadership and stability that was not present under interim coaches Aaron Kromer and Joe Vitt (who himself missed 6 games through suspension at the start of the year). But to put the turnaround down to solely Payton’s return would be foolish and mask many other important factors.
Defensively in 2012 the Saints were awful. The defence set a record for the most yards given up in a single season, with their 7042 yards beating the previous record (set by the 1981 Baltimore Colts) by nearly 250 yards. The Saints were also without picks in the first two rounds of the draft, having traded away their first round pick in 2011 and forfeiting their second round pick following the bounty scandal sanctions.
With such turmoil in the offseason, it is unsurprising that the Saints started the season poorly, falling to 0-4 with defeats against the Redskins, Panthers, Chiefs and Packers. They recovered to 5-5 before 3 successive defeats put paid to their playoff hopes.
Offensively the Saints had an up and down season. Drew Brees tried his best to carry the offense and make up for the defensive frailties, passing for 5177 yards and 43 TDs at a QB rating of 96.3. Ingram and Thomas led the ‘running back by committee’ with 602 and 473 yards respectively with Jimmy Graham (85) and Marques Colston (83) leading the way with catches. Ultimately though, the Saints could not score enough points consistently enough to make up for the deficiencies of their defence, which led to their poor season and record.
So what has changed since last year? Still lacking draft picks as a result of the bounty scandal, the Saints set about attempting to address their glaring problems on defence. Safety Kenny Vaccaro was taken with the 15th overall pick and experienced linebacker Barrett Ruud arrived from Seattle. More importantly, the Saints moved to pick up Rob Ryan as Defensive Coordinator after his release from Dallas. This has led to a vast improvement in the Saints defence. They are still not world beaters – but have climbed to 11th in terms of total yardage allowed and 3rd best in allowing only 17.2 points per game. Rob Ryan must take a lot of credit for this as it has allowed the offense to play with less pressure and more freedom.
Offensively the Saints have been sound – 2nd in the league behind Denver in total passing offense and averaging 26.8 points per game (13th in the NFL) has been more than enough to win, given the improvement in the defence. Brees has been in top form, along with Jimmy Graham – and the two will look to pick up again against Buffalo tomorrow following Graham’s catchless game against the Patriots.
In short, the Saints transformation is down to a number of factors. The form of Brees and Graham has been exceptional. Sean Payton’s return and a more settled offseason has ensured a much better start to the season, And Rob Ryan’s impact on improving the woeful Saints defence has had a massive influence on their ability to win games.
If they can continue their great start, then the Saints could well be there or thereabouts when it comes to the business end of the season. Don’t be surprised to see them in New York in February, although there is a lot of football to be played before then!