Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams over the next few weeks, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
It's been the best of times and the worst of times for Saints fans in recent years. New Orleans currently enjoys a level of football prosperity it has never seen. From a record-setting quarterback to a running back who is the human equivalent to a cheat code. But at the same time, the Saints have suffered the type of stinging playoff loss no fan base should ever endure. And not only once, but twice! However, New Orleans will answer the call like it always does as it moves on to 2019.
How the Saints got here
Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2018 season.
-- Drew Brees became the NFL's all-time passing leader. It's something that really needs to celebrated. Brees was cast aside by the San Diego Chargers after suffering a devastating shoulder injury in the final game of the 2005 season and came to New Orleans looking to prove himself all over again just as the city was rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Together, Brees and New Orleans have teamed to make history.
-- Clinched second-consecutive NFC South title. Significant because the South remains one of the most competitive divisions in football.
-- Let's just talk about this right now. Most football observers will agree that Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis was interfered with by Rams corner Nickell Robey-Coleman on the infamous fourth-quarter throw in the NFC Championship Game. If pass interference had been called, the game's result might have been different, granting the Saints their first trip to the Super Bowl since winning the title to close out the 2009 season. Many Saints fans refused to watch the Super Bowl LIII in protest, and I can't say that I blame them. However, you can question some of the Saints' play calling on that drive, and they did have the ball first in overtime, as well. So, while Saints fans have every right to be upset about the no-call, the Saints still had a chance to win the game.
Head coach: Sean Payton. There's this scene in "Ocean's Twelve" where Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon) makes this crack to Bruce Willis (who plays himself in the movie) about how that little statue on the mantle starts smirking at you after a while. It's a reference to it being a long time since Julia Roberts had won an Oscar. I'm obviously not suggesting Payton, who is nine seasons removed from his last Super Bowl appearance, is in any sort of trouble. The exact opposite, of course. But there is something career-defining about getting that second Lombardi Trophy. It's the kind of thing that changes the convo from "likely to go to the Hall of Fame" to "there is no doubt he's going to the Hall of Fame." Because there aren't many coaches who have won two Super Bowls and are not in the Hall (of the guys who are eligible). So I guess that was a lot of words just to say the Saints have one of the best coaches on the planet.
BTW, fun gag in that "Ocean's Twelve" scene is that Caldwell asks Willis if he knows what he means about the statue on the mantle. Willis doesn't have an Oscar, so he doesn't understand the feeling. But that's not to say I think guys like Andy Reid, Ron Rivera and Dan Quinn are like Bruce Willis in that scenario. That's frankly kind of mean, and I'm surprised your mind went there.
Quarterback: Drew Brees. There is this scene in "Ocean's Twelve" ... I'm just kidding. You know, I was watching my guy Cam Jordan on my show "Good Morning Football" a few weeks ago. Jordan is always great. But I loved that he was dragging every quarterback in the NFL at the expense of making it clear that he thinks Brees is the best quarterback in the game. "I mean year in and year out, he doesn't get the MVP ... but eventually he's due," Jordan said. "Who has thrown for more 5,000-yard seasons than Drew Brees?"
Good question. I'm assuming it's Brees. (Checks notes). Yep, it's Brees, who has done it five times. (The feat has been accomplished 11 times in NFL history.) I completely agree with what Jordan is getting at here. It's ridiculous that he's never won the MVP award. I guess Peyton Manning had to win it 80 times and keep it from Brees, who never seems to get his full recognition. Even last year, when he failed to pass for 4,000 yards for the first time in what seems like forever, Brees was still pretty special. (Brees last failed to throw for 4k back in 2005 as a member of the Chargers. And it's fair to point out Brees only missed the mark in 2018 because he sat out Week 17, seeing that the Saints had already locked up the top seed in the NFC.)
The most impressive thing for me is Brees threw 32 touchdowns with just five interceptions last season. He has 13 interceptions total in the last two seasons, the fewest of any QB with 850 or more attempts, and he's completed a league-best 73.2 percent of his passes over that span. He's obviously much more than a game manager, but he's also averaged less than 270 passing yards per game over the past two seasons after averaging 325 from 2011-2016. I just call that efficiency, though. It's like when Danny Ocean allowed Linus to do all of the heavy lifting in "Ocean's Twelve." He's giving other people (running backs, in this case) an opportunity.
Projected 2019 MVP: Alvin Kamara, running back. You all laughed last season when I told you Kamara was going to be one of the best fantasy backs in the business. Regression was a word that was thrown around quite a bit, too, after he took the league by storm as a rookie. However, Kamara improved his rushing-yards total (mostly because he had more attempts) and did increase his rushing touchdowns from eight to 14. He finished with 18 total touchdowns, up from 13 the previous year. Kamara could have a bigger workload this year with Mark Ingram in Baltimore, though the team did bring in Latavius Murray as a complementary back. But expect bigger things from Kamara this season, maybe even some snaps from under center, as Payton recently alluded to.
2019 breakout star: Marcus Davenport, defensive end. The Saints traded up 13 spots in Round 1 last year -- parting with three picks, including two first-rounders, in the deal -- to take the little-known Davenport out of UTSA. And I say "little-known" for more casual fans, because he was a darling of the 2018 draft season even though he didn't play his college ball at a program with a history of producing NFL talent. Davenport's rookie season was kind of a mixed bag, though. He had just 4.5 sacks, but he battled hip and toe ailments during the season and underwent surgery this offseason. He looked amazing at times when he was healthy in 2018. So you figure that a full offseason with the Saints should help him heading into 2019. With Cam Jordan opposite him, Davenport should really flourish in Year 2.
New face to know: Jared Cook, tight end. It was crazy when the Saints traded away Jimmy Graham in 2015. I mean, they did get Max Unger in the deal with the Seahawks, but the Saints have struggled to find a replacement at tight end. I remember when Coby Fleener was supposed to be the dude. He was not. It was like the first time Mason Ryan jumped out to help CM Punk and you thought Batista was back. He was not. And Ryan's Twitter bio now states that he performs as an archer in Cirque du Soleil's "Ka" in Las Vegas. You might think that is a joke, but it's the truth. But back to Cook. He had a rebirth last year in Oakland. He notched nearly 900 receiving yards and scored six touchdowns. He's my X-factor for the Saints' offense this year.
The 2019 road map
The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. You really should be competing for a Super Bowl every year with Brees as your quarterback. I wrote something similar for the Falcons, too, because you can't have these franchise quarterbacks and not at least make a run in the playoffs. And really, for the Saints to be so close the past couple of years really makes anything less than a Super Bowl appearance kind of a letdown.
Will the Saints be ...
Able to get over back-to-back devastating playoff losses? It's funny. If you are a fan of a losing team -- one that is rebuilding -- you can kind of insulate yourself as a fan and look for small improvements and victories. You can celebrate if your team knocks off a contender. Or maybe look forward to the draft. The feeling is quite a bit different when you have one of the best teams in the NFL and you lose in the playoffs. And the Saints haven't just lost in the playoffs -- they've lost in some of the most excruciating ways. First it was Stefon Diggs and the Minnesota Miracle. And then the no-call last season. To go through that in back-to-back years and bounce back is a tough ask. But if there is a coach and quarterback who I would have a lot of confidence in to do it, it's Payton and Brees.
Survive Max Unger's retirement? Unger had been the anchor on the offensive line since the team acquired him in the Jimmy Graham trade in 2015 and made the Pro Bowl last season. Now it looks like second-round pick Erik McCoy is going to be the guy in the middle for the Saints. No pressure or anything, rook. The newbie is surrounded by veterans on the O-line, which should help, and it would be especially nice if left tackle Terron Armstead can stay healthy.
Three key dates:
-- Week 2 at the Rams. This is one of those things I alluded to above. Can you move past last season's heartbreaking loss in the NFC title game? You know there will be plenty of talk about that game (specifically the non-call) heading into this Week 2 matchup. And it wouldn't surprise me if the Saints go on the road and get their revenge with a win. The good news is, you get this out of the way early in the season and hopefully you can move on.
One storyline people are overlooking:This defense is really, really good. Obviously, when you have Sean Payton and Drew Brees, they are going to be the headliners of the team. They are the Jeff Bebe and Russell Hammond of the team. And that's understandable. But I love the way the defense has started to come together, playing very stingy ball down the stretch last season. I've already mentioned my affinity for Cam Jordan and bullishness about up-and-comers like Marcus Davenport and Alex Anzalone. There are plenty of other guys to be excited about at each level of the defense, like Sheldon Rankins, Demario Davis and Marshon Lattimore. I know Eli Apple has been a disappointment to this point in his career, but I'm interested to see what the 2018 trade-deadline acquisition does in his contract year, too. Who knows? Maybe he can turn things around alongside fellow former Buckeyes Lattimore and Vonn Bell after being labeled a "cancer" by then-teammate Landon Collins back in 2017. Apple recorded two interceptions and nine passes defensed in 10 starts with the Saints last year.
One storyline people are overthinking:Who will step up as the team's No. 2 receiver? It kind of doesn't matter. It's been Brees' m.o. during his career to distribute the ball all over the field. Michael Thomas is the clear-cut No. 1 receiver, and he's one of the best in the game. Kamara is really the No. 2 receiver. And with a talented group that includes Tre'Quan Smith, Cam Meredith and Cook, the Saints will find a way to score. They don't need a designated No. 2 receiver.
For 2019 to be a successful season, the Saints MUST ...
-- Get to the Super Bowl. I mean, if your friend invites you to lunch only to cancel at the last minute while you're already at the restaurant, you can forgive that once. Maybe even twice. But a third invite? Your ass better be there or we are finished.
I was impressed by the way the Saints bounced back last season from a crushing playoff defeat in Minnesota. They are going to be asked to do it again. Not to mention, they have a real gauntlet to open the season. But this is what Payton and Brees always do. They always seem to rise to the occasion and I would bank on them doing it again.