There has never been a better New Orleans Saints squad than the one that will take the turf in the Georgia Dome on Sunday afternoon.
Yes there were better players on different teams. Junior Galette is no Rickey Jackson; Mark Ingram is no Deuce McAllister; and journeyman kicker Shayne Graham is certainly no Morten Andersen.
While not an all-time Black and Gold roster, this is the most complete team ever as a unit, especially as none of the pre-Sean Payton teams ever had a Drew Brees, nor a Jahri Evans, nor a Jimmy Graham.
Considering the money the Saints front office invested in him, there is hope that free agent safety Jairus Byrd will be another Darren Sharper.
Hence the expectations are so high after the team came within a few plays of winning the NFC South last year. After bolting out the gate, the team collapsed, thanks in no small part to an offense line that collapsed themselves.
New blood has been promoted (Terron Armstead), undeforming investments written off (Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper) and toxic investments finally dumped (Charles Brown),
And a familiar face who was part of the franchise’s lone encounter with greatness has been brought back (Jonathan Goodwin).
And then there is the speedy, smart running first round draft pick from Oregon State, Brandin Cooks, billed to deliver extra-strength Maalox moments beyond what the now traded Darren Sproles gave to opposing defenses.
The one offensive kink so far has been the slow recovery of the team’s deep threat receiver Kenny Stills, though quarterback Drew Brees has other options, including the return from the injury list of 2012 burner Joe Morgan.
On the other side of the ball, the Saints defense has some balance after shifting from ballhawks in 2009 to qb helmet hunters in 2013.
On the downside, cornerback Patrick Robinson is going to see more action than Saints fans would like as he will likely get picked on by opposing quarterbacks, assuming Cameron Jordan, Akiem Hicks or the thick-bearded Galette hasn’t rendered the point moot.
Even if the consistently inconsistent P-Rob gets violated repeatedly in 2014, Who Dats can find some solace that he’ll be giving up big plays for some other team in 2015.
The Saints should win their division but there’s more to do than simply hang up another NFC South banner in the stadium rafters. They need for the road to the Super Bowl to go through the French Market and not the Pike Place Fish Market; they need to be the home team, something so important head coach Sean Payton named his book for it.
The Seattle Seahawks is a great team, but they are mortal…even more so when denied the audible power of their 12th Man fan collective, who live up to their ear drum piercing reputation.
The Seahawks have to play the Niners and Cardinals twice; and though EVERY time I write the St. Louis Rams off it comes back to bite me, they won’t be as challenging to the defending world champions as Frisco and Arizona.
By intradivision comparison, the Saints face rivals not nearly as threatening. The Bucs are in the latest chapter of their post-Chuckie rebuilding era while Atlanta is missing a certain future Canton inductee tight end amongst other key components. And though Carolina possesses a stout front seven, they go into 2014 without a single starting wide receiver from last year’s roster. Carolina also benefited from a lot of luck last year that might not be there in 2014.
Yet the Atlanta kickoff game will be critical for setting the tone for the season. Though the Saints generally enjoy success in the Georgia Dome under Payton, they’re usually very close games that go down to a last second deciding play. A thrashing would not only send a message to the rest of the league but might also motivate Home Depot co-founder and Falcons owner Art Blank to prepare for some leadership renovations sooner than later.
Beyond the divisionals, the Saints will have games with playoff consequences against San Francisco and Green Bay, both thankfully at home. Playing in Lambeau Field in late January will bring a different kind of pain to the Saints’ ears than they experienced in the Pacific Northwest and hopefully the Saints will secure the tiebreaker against the Packers in the regular season
The expectations for 2014 are high; hopefully they won’t have to be adjusted as the team plane takes off from Hartsfield on Sunday evening.