As each NFL team is officially eliminated from postseason contention, the Eye on Football crew will whip up a review of that team's 2012 season. Today, we look at the Saints. For more of our End of the Road series, click here.
What went wrong
An 0-4 start to the year doomed the Saints before they ever had a chance to make some noise. New Orleans eventually climbed back into the playoff hunt for a hot second, but it was too little too late. Of course, maybe the Saints were done before their season began, when the NFL announced the investigation of a bounty program back in March.
The bounty scandal hung over the team for more than eight months, until Paul Tagliabue vacated all of the player suspensions imposed by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Congratulations to our players for having the suspensions vacated. Unfortunately, there are some things that can never be taken back— Drew Brees (@drewbrees) December 11, 2012
So there are few teams have to be happier about turning the calendar than the New Orleans Saints. But the scandal wasn't 100 percent responsible for the Saints struggles.
New Orleans defense was one of the worst in the NFL in 2012, giving up 434.1 yards and 27.3 points per game to opposing offenses. No other defense gave up more than 400 yards per game this year and only four more teams gave up more points. New Orleans 6.8 yards-per-play allowed was worst in the NFL. Football Outsiders ranks them as the worst passing defense in the league and the third-worst run defense in the NFL.
The Saints recorded just 24 sacks this year, third worst in the NFL. Their secondary was shredded on a weekly basis and they rarely stopped the run (three times, all in wins, did they hold teams under 100 yards rushing).
Offensively, New Orleans finished as a top-five unit once again. The only issue was a lack of Sean Payton. The coach, missing from the sidelines while serving a year-long suspension, probably would've improved Brees performance this season: Brees completion percentage of 62.7 was his worst since 2003. He threw 18 picks and clearly forced passes at times this season.
Jimmy Graham had a nice season (76 catches, 867 yards and eight touchdowns) but a number of minor injuries kept him from the lofty heights (99 catches, 1,310 yards, 11 touchdowns) of 2011.
In general, the offense was just more inconsistent than it has been in year's past.
What went right
A running game actually started to emerge for New Orleans again, with Mark Ingram finally producing. The former first-round pick ran 146 times for 563 yards and five touchdowns, and looked like an effective running back late in the season.
That New Orleans was able to produce offensively without Payton at the helm speaks to the personnel group they've compiled. Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, Marques Colston, Brees, Graham and Lance Moore all had above-average seasons.
Ben Grubbs was a nice addition to the offensive line, especially considering he was brought in to replace departed All-Pro Carl Nicks.
Joe Morgan quietly developed into a nice deep threat as well; look for him to emerge further next season.
Cameron Jordan, with eight sacks this year, was a rare bright spot on an abysmal defense. Curtis Lofton led the team in tackles, but he wasn't more than anyone expected: a middle linebacker who can stop the run but struggles in coverage.
There's the potential for serious coaching change in New Orleans ... but there's also the potential for none. Payton's contract situation is easily the biggest thing for Saints fans to sweat these days: he'll become a free agent after the Super Bowl.
The Saints have an exclusive negotiating window with Payton, but it's closing quickly and there aren't a whole lot of indications that the two sides are making progress. Payton makes his home in Dallas and if the Cowboys lose Sunday and miss the playoffs, it's possible Jerry Jones might see chasing Payton as a gamble worth making. (All due respect to Jason Garrett, um, it would be.)
If Payton leaves, that could result in sweeping changes for guys like Joe Vitt, Pete Carmichael and Steve Spagnuolo who are pretty good bets to be retained under the current regime. If Spags takes any fall for the defensive woes in 2012, it's a total scapegoating.
Once again, the Saints will be without a second-round pick. That's going to make it even more difficult to inject new life in their defense. And it's also why the simply cannot miss on their first-round pick, which should be used on defense.
The guys at NFLDraftScout.com agree with me. Rob Rang has the Saints taking Ezekial Anash, a raw-but-talented defensive end from BYU, while Dane Brugler gives New Orleans Ohio State defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins.
Using a pick on their defensive line would be smart: if New Orleans is going to keep Spags (and they should), beefing up the position that made his Giants defenses so dominant is a logical move, especially given the defensive line talent in this draft.
2013 Will Be ...
Less litigious. 2012 was a whirlwind for the Saints that featured suspensions, appeals, lawsuits, lawyers, press releases and an assortment of accusations. It made New Orleans dysfunctional and it probably led to their on-field struggles, especially out of the gate.
Say what you want about turning your focus to matters on the field, but working in a circus environment isn't good for anyone.
If the defense improves in Year Two under Spags and Payton can return to provide the proper balance to the offense, the Saints will be dangerous again in 2013.
In the meantime, their fans will simply have to settle for booing Goodell at every turn during the Super Bowl in New Orleans this year.