In 2021, the New Orleans Saints had a season that was based on proving the theory of Murphy’s Law. Everything that could go wrong for the 2021 Saints went as wrong as it possibly could have. Before the regular season could even begin, the team was displaced by Hurricane Ida, a storm so bad that the team’s first home game had to be moved to Jacksonville. Michael Thomas, the All-World wide receiver who broke the single-season reception record in 2019, never took the field due to an ankle injury that hampered him the year before. Jameis Winston, the former #1 overall pick that was set to replace Drew Brees at QB, tore his ACL in the team’s Week 8 win over Tampa Bay. The team had to start three different quarterbacks over the course of the last 10 weeks of the season, including throwing rookie Ian Book behind a makeshift offensive line when a COVID outbreak hit before a late-season Monday Night Football game. New Orleans broke the record for most starters used in an NFL season with 57.
When you put those issues in black and white, what would be a reasonable expectation for that team? Maybe 5 or 6 wins? That team’s fans looking at mock drafts instead of the playoff picture?
The New Orleans Saints went 9-8. They were the last team eliminated from the playoffs in the NFC. As a matter of fact, if the LA Rams had beaten the 49ers on the last week of the season, the Saints would have made it as the final wild-card team.
Jameis Winston is projected to be ready for Week One this year, as is Michael Thomas. The team drafted another Ohio State wideout in Chris Olave, who was a consensus top-3 receiver in this year’s draft. They signed 5-time Pro Bowler Jarvis Landry. On defense, they’re replacing defensive leader Malcolm Jenkins with hometown hero and Super Bowl Champion Tyrann Mathieu, not to mention getting back last year’s first round pick in Payton Turner. On paper, this team that finished with a winning record last season drastically improved over the offseason, the same offseason that saw several top NFC teams do nothing but lose key players. So why are the New Orleans Saints projected to get worse this season?
Caesars Sportsbook had the 2022 Saints win totals open at 7.5 wins, although at press time, that number has been bet up to 8 wins. ESPN’s Football Power Index has the Saints ranked 19th, behind eight other NFC teams. On First Take, Stephen A. Smith said that he would feel more confident in the team if they brought back a retired Drew Brees at QB. That means that despite the additions of top-of-the-line talent on both sides of the ball, Vegas expects this team to be, at best, at the same level they were a year ago. In my admittedly biased opinion, there are only two reasons why the Saints aren’t seen as a top contender in the NFC.
The first is new head coach Dennis Allen. Allen was promoted from Defensive Coordinator to Head Coach after Sean Payton made the decision to retire in January. Now I’m not going to sit here and act as if Sean Payton doesn’t leave massive shoes to fill at head coach. He was easily the best coach in team history and a top-five coach in the NFL. Outside of poaching Tomlin, Belichick, Reid & McVay, any hire here was going to be a big question mark. And at first glance, Allen is someone worth questioning. His only head coaching experience was a rough tenure with the Raiders in 2012, lasting 2 seasons before being canned in 2014 with an 8-28 record. However, ask a first-year head coach to win while giving them Carson Palmer, Terrelle Pryor, Matt McGloin & Matt Flynn at quarterback and see how well that goes for you. Allen had no stability at the most important position on the field, and no chance to build anything around Derek Carr before being fired. Since then, he’s turned a historically-bad defense in New Orleans into a consistent top-5 unit. The Saints retained Pete Carmichael as offensive coordinator, whose helped lead the Saints offense to eleven top-10 finishes in his thirteen years in the position. He’s got a much better team to lead, the team continuity to help ease the transition, and much more experience to know how to lead them.
The second is Jameis Winston. Yes, people are still harping on Jameis’s turnovers. They still think that Jameis is the same quarterback he was when he last started in Tampa Bay in 2019. It’s as played out as calling every trick play near the endzone a Philly Special. Yes, Winston threw for 30 interceptions that year, the 7th-most picks in a single season in NFL history. It was wildly entertaining unless you were a Bucs fan. But that characterization of Jameis as a turnover machine is devoid of some important context. In Winston’s 4 other seasons as a starter in Tampa, his interception totals were 15, 18, 11, & 14 respectively. Those aren’t out of the ordinary numbers for a pass-first team like Tampa was at the time. Patrick Mahomes threw for 13 interceptions last year. Joe Burrow threw for 14 in his first full season at QB. Matt Stafford led the Rams to a Super Bowl win while also leading the league in picks with 17. Winston’s numbers were right in that range every year leading up to the 2019 season.
So what changed in 2019 for Jameis? Bruce Arians became his head coach. Arians has a widely-known philosophy when it comes to his offenses: No Risk It, No Biscuit. The football equivalent to the old Seven Seconds or Less Suns. An all-out assault on offense, with no mind towards efficiency. Winston showed both the downside and the upside to Arians’ offensive scheme. Those 30 interceptions he threw that year came alongside 33 touchdowns and a league-leading 5,100 yards. While some of Winston’s turnover proficiency came from poor decision-making, the 2019 numbers were simply a by-product of the system he had to run. As the Saints starter in 2021, Winston threw for 1,200 yards, 14 touchdowns, and most importantly, only 3 interceptions in 7 games. He proved he could be efficient and safe with the football with much less talent and a much shorter leash than he will have this year. The Saints believe Jameis Winston can be the heir to Drew Brees, and they have given him every weapon he needs to make it happen. It’s now up to him to perform, and I have no reason to believe he won’t ball out this season.
This New Orleans Saints team should easily make the playoffs this year. Yes, their schedule is harder. Yes, Tom Brady came back to Tampa Bay. But this team is better than they were a year ago. They filled the gaps in the offense and did a great job replacing the departing pieces on defense. Their division is winnable, as the Buccaneers still cannot figure out how to beat New Orleans without being gifted four turnovers in a half. And depending on if Jameis can make the jump from good-to-great with the weapons surrounding him, the Saints will not only win the division, they have a strong chance of making the flight to Glendale as NFC Champions.