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State of the Franchise: As end of era nears, Saints must go all out

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Regular readers of this series know that my goal with each piece is to bring you up to speed with a holistic view of everything that matters to the team I'm focusing on, with, yes, a couple of jokes thrown in here and there. There is plenty to discuss with the Saints, a high-profile squad with loads of talent that is facing a narrowing competitive window. And I was set to cover all that in this intro -- until quarterback Drew Brees responded to an interview question about players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality by saying he "will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country." Brees has since apologized, but his remarks hurt and angered many, including teammates Cam Jordan, Michael Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Malcolm Jenkins. (UPDATE: Since this piece was posted, Brees issued a second apology, this time via a video on Instagram.)

Brees' words and their impact have rightfully taken center stage when people think about the Saints, and I will go deeper into that when I discuss the quarterback below. But as I wrote earlier, there is a lot going on with this organization, including other storylines that are understandably being overshadowed right now. The Saints are in an era of great football success, having won 37 games over the past three years -- but they've also fallen short of reaching the Super Bowl, something that's eluded them since their last stretch of greatness, from 2009 to 2011, kicked off with a Lombardi Trophy. They've got a coach at the top of his game and a stacked roster. And, of course, with Brees -- whose on-field performance is obviously key to their success -- heading into his 20th NFL season at the age of 41 and with two years on what might be his final contract, they could be running out of chances to make good on this group's potential.

So, without minimizing Brees' comments and their fallout, let's zoom in closer on a team that, on paper, seems ready to make a run for the Super Bowl.

How the Saints got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2019 season.

The highs:

  • Michael Thomas set the NFL single-season record for receptions with 149. He had eight games with at least 10 receptions and 100 yards, which again, was an NFL single-season record. The 2019 Offensive Player of the Year is one of four players with at least 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first four seasons.
  • Drew Brees became the NFL's all-time passing leader in touchdowns. He did it on a Monday night against the Indianapolis Colts. Twice. The first touchdown was waived off. But he eventually found Josh Hill (!) for the winner. He would toss one more later to Taysom Hill, because why not?
  • Also, in that game, Brees was nearly perfect, as he completed 29 of 30 passes.

The lows:

  • Losing a shootout to the San Francisco 49ers at home. Obviously, it was a great football game. And a joy to watch. But that one kind of stuck out in the sense that it felt like it was going to be a difficult game to overcome. It's insane to think that being 13-3 drops you to the third seed in the NFC, but that's what eventually happened. I'm saying if the Saints win that game, they are off to Miami.
  • Inexplicable 26-9 loss to the Falcons when the team was 7-1 and cruising.
  • Losing to the Vikings in the playoffs again. I mean, the Vikings got swept by the Packers and Bears during the regular season, and they went into New Orleans and punched the Saints in the mouth. And we really wanted to see the Saints and 49ers one more time.

2020 VIPs

Head coach: Sean Payton. I was listening to a podcast (that shall not be named), and one of the hosts said Sean Payton might have had his best season as a coach ever in 2019 -- one of those statements where football heads try to say something smart -- and the other host was agreeing with him. Meanwhile, I'm yelling at my phone, saying, "Dude won a Super Bowl, called an onside kick and everything to start the second half."

But let's think about this. The Saints won 13 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time ever. In fact, every 13-win season in franchise history has come under Payton. And let's just not breeze past the fact he won five games with his backup quarterback. Now that I've read that last sentence in my head, I would love to tell you the pun was intended. It was not. But seriously, five games with Teddy Bridgewater included two roadies in Seattle and Chicago and a home win over the Cowboys. That's impressive. So maybe those dudes were right. He won huge games with a backup. He had fans wanting to dump one of the best quarterbacks of all time for BYU Tebow. Maybe those dudes on that podcast had it right. It was his best coaching job -- at least, in the regular season. And yes, we're going to have to talk more about the way the season ended a bit later. But as it stands right now, Payton is better than ever. And it just feels like a matter of time before he's going to get that second ring. The one that takes you from the "Wow, this guy is a good coach" category to "This guy is a legend of the game."

Quarterback: Drew Brees. I was originally going to use this space to discuss Brees and his accomplishments on the field, how he's often snubbed in best QBs of the era talk and has never won an MVP award. Or how he was not selected to the 2010s All-Decade Team. But that conversation has changed after his recent comments about player protests. You might think that's unfair. That it should be about his play on the field. That I should just stick to sports. But you can't. You just can't. Especially not right now, with protests taking place across the nation against racism and police brutality in the wake of the killings of African Americans George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

Brees' comments caught the attention of two players he has to work with extensively, receivers Thomas and Sanders, neither of whom were shy about voicing their displeasure on social media. Jordan told's Michael Silver that he "can't allow people to tippy-toe on the line of this issue." NBA superstar LeBron James, one of the biggest names in sports, voiced criticism as well.

One of the strongest rebukes came from Jenkins, who posted an emotional video on Instagram, in which he told Brees that if he didn't understand how insensitive his comments were, he was part of the problem. Brees later apologized to his "friends, teammates, the City of New Orleans, the black community, NFL community and anyone I hurt with my comments yesterday," vowing to "stand with the black community in the fight against systemic racial injustice and police brutality and support the creation of real policy change that will make a difference." Teammates like Demario Davis, Terron Armstead and Thomas indicated that they'll be able to move forward following the apology, but only time will tell if any potential rifts will be felt on the field as the season wears on. (UPDATE: Since this piece was posted, Brees issued a second apology, this time via a video on Instagram.)

Projected 2020 MVP: Brees. The Saints won't win the Super Bowl in the offseason. But they could certainly lose it, depending on how Brees handles this situation. The apology (along with the later apology video) was an encouraging sign, but as I wrote, this situation will certainly bear watching. Beyond that, of course, the Saints' season will largely hinge on Brees' ability to continue pushing the envelope for NFL quarterbacks aging into their 40s.

2020 breakout star: C.J. Gardner-Johnson, defensive maven. I'll be honest. I was a little surprised the team brought in Malcolm Jenkins to replace Vonn Bell this offseason. C.J. played just over 50 percent of the snaps last year, made some huge plays and was noticeable every time he was on the field -- though not always in the good sense. He also made some critical errors in a few huge spots against the 49ers that might or might not have cost them the game. But those are growing pains for a rookie. He has the kind of immense talent that is going to make it hard to keep him off the field, and I expect him to make big plays for the Saints this season.

New face to know: Emmanuel Sanders, wide receiver. As if the Saints needed more offensive weapons to exploit. Sanders gives the Saints a much-needed reliable presence to pair with Michael Thomas. And he will serve as @Cantguardmike's best running mate since Brandin Cooks during his rookie season. Cooks had 117 targets that season, and I would expected for Sanders to land somewhere in that range.

The 2020 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: EXTREMELY HIGH. If the Payton-and-Brees-led Saints want to cement their place in NFL history, they have to hit that second Super Bowl. It does something for them. Payton will want to maximize his chances before rebooting. As for Brees, his off-field legacy -- which has, to this point, included a sparkling reputation -- will be more about how he conducts himself than how he plays. But his on-field legacy will be bolstered if he can win one more -- and by actually carrying the team, not being carried, a la Peyton Manning being propped up by a great Broncos defense.

Three key dates:

A since I can't add a preseason game against the Dolphins, let's go ...

Week 1 vs. Tampa Bay. Brees and Tom Brady haven't played often during their storied NFL careers. This is the first of two (at least) for this season.

Week 3 vs. Green Bay. Some early-season marquee matchups at the quarterback position to kick off the season. And yes, I know the quarterbacks don't technically go head to head.

Week 10 vs. San Francisco. This was one of the best regular-season games from last season, if not the best, or at least one of the top ones next to 49ers vs. Seahawks. But this is the NFC Championship Game we all wanted to see.

Will the Saints be able to ...

Continue to fight back after disappointment? Look. We talk about this a lot. The Saints have been very good over the past three seasons, but each season has ended in heartbreak. There was the Minneapolis Miracle. The non-call on Nickell Robey-Coleman. And I don't even know how to describe what happened last year with the Vikings. You lost to a team that was swept by the Packers and Bears, especially when most assumed you were going to handle your business there. Go up to Green Bay and win that one. And set up an epic showdown with the 49ers. What does that do to the team? Do they go, "Welp, we missed our window" and flame out with an 8-8 mark. Or is that the fuel for one more dance? I look at Payton and Brees and believe it's going to be the former. And if you look at social media, you'll notice that Michael Thomas has no shortage of reasons for motivation.

Speaking of Thomas, there are a number of ways you can look at Thomas on social media. I don't mind it. If you watched "The Last Dance" recently, you'll notice that Michael Jordan made up slights to help motivate him. I'm not putting MT on MJ's level (at least, not yet). And for the record, MT called me out last season because I had him too low in my fantasy rankings. Turns out dude was right to do it.

Have a definitive role for Taysom Hill? I don't want to say the hysteria for Hill has gotten out of control, but people are ready to make him the next quarterback of the Saints, despite his limited experience throwing the football. I loved watching LaDainian Tomlinson throw halfback options for scores when he was a member of the San Diego Chargers. I wasn't about to push Brees out the door to make him the starting quarterback. I mean, football Twitter is always dubious of the future success of Lamar Jackson, a guy who won the Heisman Trophy in college for being a quarterback. But some have just accepted the fact that Hill is going to be the next John Elway. I'm excited to see what Payton has in store for Hill, because it seems to me Jameis Winston is the legit backup. Which means you can be even more expansive with Hill.

And one more thing when we're talking about Hill. Did Payton already draft his replacement in the seventh round when he selected former Mississippi State quarterback Tommy Stevens? I don't want to make the Taysom Hill marks nervous, but I'm just throwing that out there.

Figure out a long-term plan with Alvin Kamara? Let me start with a fun fact. Kamara has exactly 81 receptions in each of his three NFL seasons. If you are doing player projections and you don't have Kamara projected for 81 receptions, you aren't doing it right. It should be noted this is the final year of Kamara's team-friendly contract. Could this be his final year with the Saints? Wow, that wasn't so much fun there at the end. The Saints could of course just roll into this season with Kamara, because they are going for a Super Bowl, and either franchise-tag him next year or let him walk. Still, it's something to think about.

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: That Saints' run defense is nasty. The Saints have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 42 consecutive games. That includes the playoffs as well. The last player to rush for 100 yards was the legendary Samaje Perine in Week 11 of 2017.

... people are overthinking: The fact that Jameis Winston is making just $1 million. I know, that seems a little strange, especially since Andy Dalton is making like $7 million with the Cowboys. But it's kind of like a paid internship at this point. Winston is hoping he's going to get a little of that Teddy Bridgewater magic. Maybe even get to start a few games to really grow as a quarterback. Something he's never been able to do. And if he plays his cards right, he gets the inside track to be the Saints quarterback of 2021 if he can impress his coaches. That's a risk worth taking right there.

ANOTHER storyline people are overthinking: Michael Thomas doesn't run deep. People taking aim at MT like to point this out. That he runs only slants and bubble screens. And yes, his air yards are not among the league leaders. Not close. But watch the tape and look at the way he needs to fight defenders off the line. He led the NFL in catch percentage. He had eight games with at least 10 receptions and 100 yards. He is one of four players with 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first four seasons. You're digging pretty hard if you're looking to discredit him because he runs slants.

For 2020 to be a successful season, the Saints MUST:

Win the Super Bowl. That's easy. It's great the Saints are winning the NFC South, racking up double-digit wins every year. But you have to win the Super Bowl. The Saints are a lot like one of your single friends who has trouble dating. And you're like, "You're great. I can't imagine why you are single."

In closing

I don't want to be overdramatic and say that the window is definitely closing on the Saints. But it's getting a little drafty in here and somebody might need to close it soon. The good news is the Saints are still in a really good position to win, despite the fact that Tom Brady moved to town. While we'll have to see how the impact from Brees' comments plays out, he should be the same Brees he's always been on the field as he nears the end of his career. Michael Thomas is as motivated as ever. Alvin Kamara is playing in a contract year. And we talked about that defense. Maybe not enough, because the defense has been pretty good over the last few years under Dennis Allen. But this really feels like a make-or-break year for the Saints.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank

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