NFL’s Dirty South: New Orleans Saints, Division Champs Try to Repeat Despite Offseason Turmoil
Breaking down the NFL …one team at a time. First up, the New Orleans Saints.
A while back I used to work with an NFL junkie. He was a big Bears fan but he was really interested in every team in the league. When a new season would roll around he would be happy to share his opinion on every team in the league and who was going to take down their division – except when it came to the NFC South.
This division, he said, was impossible to predict. He claimed that after watching the division for a few years he had learned to stay away, and he didn’t even bother with predictions for these teams. He even gave the division a nickname – the “Dirty South”, he called it.
With ten years of Dirty South play now in the history books it seems that his analysis was spot-on – it is the only division that has never had a back-to-back winner. They are also only one of three divisions that have had every team win the division title and the only one to have every team win at least twice.
Beyond that a team has gone worst-to-first in five of a possible nine seasons, since the first season since divisional realignment cannot count. And prior to the last three years when New Orleans (two division titles) and Atlanta (one) have emerged to take control of the division it was a team from the bottom two of the division the previous season that won the title the following year.
If you had followed the theory of the Dirty South over the past ten years you probably would have saved yourself a lot of headaches trying to foresee the next division winner. So with everything that has taken place this offseason does anyone believe that the New Orleans Saints are a lock to take the division crown again after a record-setting offense led them to a 13-3 record last season? We will take a look at each team in the division and see if anyone has what it takes to unseat the champs.
Champs: New Orleans Saints
Even before factoring in any off-field activity we have to look at the fact that it will be almost impossible for the Saints to be as good as they were last year. They went 13-3 last year, which not only means they were a spectacular team but like every 13-3 team they were fortunate to have a few bounces go their way, and dealt with few injuries. Beyond that the team the Saints return with in 2012 is missing some key players from the 2011 squad.
Carl Nicks, potentially the best guard in the NFL, has moved on to Tampa Bay. Cornerback Tracy Porter has signed with Denver – while he may not have had his best season he leaves the New Orleans secondary depth precariously thin. The offense took another hit when losing Robert Meachem to the Chargers. While not their most important offensive player he was a preferred target for a team that likes to spread it around. With the loss of Porter and the suspensions of Jonathan Vilma (season) and Will Smith (four games), you could argue the Saints will be without their three most important defensive players for atleast part of the season.
Who are the replacements for these losses? Ben Grubbs should be able to cover for Carl Nicks at guard without the line falling apart and Curtis Lofton lifted from Atlanta is a solid player who can fill in for Vilma. Beyond that the Saints have to make due with unheralded signings and in-house replacements. That job becomes even tougher when you factor in last year’s first round pick, defensive end Cameron Jordan, who recorded only one sack in 2011. Also consider that the Saints as a result of a previous trade as well as serving a penalty for the bounty scandal, did not make a selection until the 3rd round in this year’s entry draft.
So basically you are getting the 2011 Saints only a little bit worse.
Should be no problem, right? I wouldn’t say that. This is a team built upon offensive dominance. That dominance comes primarily from two sources: perennial MVP candidate Drew Brees and head coach Sean Payton. The Saints wisely gave Brees the long-term contract he sought this weekend so only one of these gentlemen will have nothing to do with the franchise for the entire 2012 season. But Sean Payton has already developed the organization and the offensive philosophy, so it should be no problem for his assistants to keep it going for just one year, right? No, not so fast.
Every year in the NFL is a new one. The Saints were strong performers in 2010 and 2011 but they did not necessarily begin the season that way. In 2010 the Saints were 3-3 before going 7-2 down the stretch to earn a playoff birth. Last season the Saints started a respectable 5-3 and finished with a dominant 8-0. The fact is that no teams starts off the NFL season as finishes – teams morph and develop. You have to grow and adapt as the season goes along. For this task it is best to have an experienced, well-prepared head coach. The Saints had one of the best. Now they will be relying on an interim coach who only gets to be there for ten games since he happens to be suspended for the first six. This team also has to integrate a new defensive co-ordinator who excelled when he coached one of the best defensive lines in football history (2007 New York Giants – Strahan, Umenyora, Tuck) and did the opposite of excel when he coached elsewhere (2010-2011 Rams).
While the Saints may appear dominant after last season, their hold on the division is tenuous. The rest of the division has certainly improved and the #1 challenger is right on their heels. Over the last two year’s the Saints have a 3-1 advantage over Atlanta in head-to-head play but the contests have been the definition of close. Two games went to OT with a third being decided by three points. Only late in the season last year, when the Saints were truly rolling, were they able to earn a decisive victory. If you simply replace last year’s wins over Atlanta with two losses you have a different division champ without changing anything else. And for the Saints a lot has changed.
Check back tomorrow as we break down the NFC South’s #1 Contender…