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Stick a fork in them: 2012 New Orleans Saints

It's just a coincidence that we're sticking a fork in the New Orleans Saints on the same day that we received final word on the player suspensions stemming from the team's bounty scandal. But the timing is fitting.

From the bounty mess to Drew Brees' contract squabble, it has been a strange, uncomfortable journey for the Saints franchise since March. Even Brees admitted it was all tougher to overcome than he expected.

What went wrong

The Saints showed a few flashes of their championship pedigree by rallying to 5-5 after an 0-4 start, but this was never a great team. The defense was the worst in the league in September. They lost to the Chiefs at home and the Panthers on the road. The defense improved as the squad learned defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's scheme, but Brees' offense was up and down.

Brees had to carry this squad, and the responsibility became too much during a three-game run against the 49ers, Falcons and Giants with nine interceptions. Brees also struggled to finish off teams like the Chiefs. The Saints had their chances to show they were a playoff-caliber team after reaching 5-5. They lost three games by 45 points combined. They are 1-6 against teams currently with winning records.

Nothing about the team is consistent. Brees' protection failed him, especially early in the year. The running game had flashes of brilliance, but the team hasn't figured out how to use Mark Ingram. Chris Ivory can go from a difference maker one week to ignored the next. The team could use a better vertical threat.

Picking on the offense, however, misses point. The secondary blew a ton of coverages, especially early in the year. The newly remade linebacker group starring Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne can't stop the run and haven't impressed overall. Sedrick Ellis hasn't developed into a difference-maker and Will Smith is past his prime.

The Saints defense has shown signs of improvement during the season, but it's still a work in progress at best. They have almost no pass rush without sending extra rushers.

What went right

Even without coach Sean Payton, this remained a very dangerous offense. They are sixth in points and third in yards. Football Outsiders ranks them in the top 10 in efficiency. The offensive line is strong overall with guard Ben Grubbs a nice addition and Jahri Evans enjoying an improved season. Receivers Marques Colston and Lance Moore are more reliable than ever.

Explosive offense is in this team's DNA. They have great continuity and plenty of talent with running back Darren Sproles and tight end Jimmy Graham creating mismatches. The pieces are still here to be a top-five unit next season.

On defense, second-year-pro Cameron Jordan developed into a difference-making run-stopper and he improved as a pass rusher. Third-round pick Akiem Hicks looks like a keeper at defensive tackle. The team needs to stay the course with Spagnuolo's system because they look close to turning things around.

What still matters

The Saints are just killing time the rest of the season. This is an organization built to compete for championships and even a three-game winning streak to reach 8-8 won't erase the massive disappointment of this season. Unless they beat the Buccaneers and Panthers, the Saints will wind up at .500 or worse in the Superdome. Last place is still a possibility.

What changes are coming

The focus now turns to coach Sean Payton. It's unclear if he's just using the Dallas Cowboys to gain the biggest contract possible from New Orleans, or whether he really is interested in leaving. If Payton goes, all bets are off with the franchise. This offense is built to play in Payton's system, and not any other.

Assuming Payton stays, the focus should be on rebuilding the defense. Old stalwarts like Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma could be among the many player let go. Changes are coming, but they will all seem minor if the franchise holds on to Payton.

Tom Benson has to figure out how to keep Payton. If the coach left, 2013 could just as disorienting as this last nightmare season.

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