BAYHAM: A Revealing Season For The Saints

The New Orleans Saints’ 2013 season ended on the cold, waterlogged turf of the NFL’s loudest stadium but an argument could be made that their fate was sealed prior to the team’s long flight to the Pacific Northwest.

Had the Saints “finished” against the then-shaky New England Patriots on their road trip to Foxboro, the Black and Gold would have won the NFC South with that extra win and been able to live another week in the post-season.

But the ankle fracture first round draft pick safety Kenny Vaccaro suffered in the first quarter against the Carolina Panthers proved to be decisive in both the outcome of that game (where the division title was on the line for the Saints) and ultimately on the Black and Gold’s durability in the playoffs.

When Vaccaro was carted off the field in Charlotte, the Saints’ hopes of winning a second Super Bowl left with him. The team’s battered secondary received a blow from which they could not recover. It was a matter of when the Saints were eliminated from the playoffs not if with the defense severely comprised in Vaccaro and cornerback Jabari Greer’s absence.

Not long ago the team was not so reliant on their defense to win games, needing only for them to keep opponents to under four touchdowns while the offense lighted up the scoreboard. But the record setting Greatest Show on Dometurf isn’t what it used to be.

The Saints lost games this season not because their defense couldn’t get off the field but because quarterback Drew Brees could not stay on the field.

Observers have cited that Number Nine has been off in 2013 with his passes lacking power and accuracy, with the big question being the cause: age and wear and tear on his surgically repaired shoulder or the beating he has taken from a permeable offensive line that would embarrass the Army Corps of Engineers.

Brees kissed the ground a career record on 37 occasions this season, getting sacked ten more times than the next highest in 2005 during his final season with the San Diego Chargers. And being brought to the ground that number of times for a quarterback accustomed to top-of-the-line protection is going to adversely impact Brees physically and mentally.

The offense desperately needs better linemen, a playmaking wide receiver, a commitment to the ground game and for their talented tight end to learn how to play tougher. And better officiating would also be helpful as the team got burned by bad calls and “no calls” in the face of egregious holding against the receiver corps.

The good news for the Saints’ defense is that the front seven will only get better with the expected return of free agent outside linebacker Victor Butler, who was lost for the season in minicamp – however, the lack of depth in the secondary was exposed when Greer and then Vaccaro went down.

The search for a replacement for kicker Garrett Hartley will almost certainly continue as journeyman replacement Shayne Graham undermined his chances on remaining on the roster with two misses in Seattle after going four-for-four in Philadelphia the week before, including booting the decisive score in the Saints’ first-ever road playoff victory.

The front office will have their offseason work cut out for them as they attempt to improve the team while working around Brees’s salary cap squatting and the urgency of retaining for the longterm the services of their Pro Bowl tight end.

Filling personnel gaps created by expiring contracts of players who probably should have been released seasons ago will also be a challenge for General Manager Mickey Loomis.

On the positive side of the ledger, the Saints have learned that their toast-of-the-town defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and rookies Vaccaro, Kenny Stills, Khiry Robinson, Terron Armstead and John Jenkins are keepers.

If 2012 was a wasted season then 2013 was a revealing season. The team unquestionably has been made aware of their deficiencies and where improvements need to be made if they expect to go beyond the divisional round in the foreseeable future.

A significantly different Saints team will be taking the field next season. And that’s a good thing.

The greatest disappointment this season wasn’t that the team failed in their quest for the “Two Dat”. I was never optimistic about their chances of winning a Super Bowl in February in New Jersey.

What stung so much in 2013 was how the Saints faltered in the pursuit of the NFC South title, or rather their inability to hold on to it as the Saints had possession of it up until the last seconds ticked off the clock in Week 16.

In the wake of last season’s debacle, it would have been nice to have followed that up by hanging another divisional banner from the Superdome’s rafters, though grinding out a win in the hostile confines of Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field was a decent consolation milestone.

While 2013 was not a banner play-calling year for the paroled head coach, Payton and the team can go into the offseason with the satisfaction that they at least accomplished something no other Saints squad had previously achieved.

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