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With the NFL’s implied promise of parity, thanks to a salary cap and a draft structure that rewards failure, fans of irrelevant teams can content themselves in the knowledge that the system is skewed towards driving them back into relevance.
In a yo-yo league, where each season sees a new influx of teams in the playoffs, it’s difficult to remain mediocre.
Teams with excellent foundations might remain at the top (New England, Seattle), and teams that practice profound incompetence might have a steep climb uphill (Cleveland, Jacksonville), but those in the ambivalent middle will typically rise or fall from year to year.
Not New Orleans. At 6-8, the Saints are perfectly on track to record their third consecutive 7-9 season, and their fourth in five years.
They are mired, resiliently and hopelessly, in a purgatory of respectable meaninglessness. Most impressively, the annual path towards the middle has remained eerily consistent.
The New Orleans existence is simply and inevitably defined: excel on offence, get crushed on defence. After ranking seventh and eighth in offence the past two years, and 32nd and 31st on defence, the Saints entered Week 15 with those numbers at sixth and 26th. After putting up 48 on the typically stingy Cardinals, and giving 41 back going the other way, the gap isn’t getting any shorter.
The beauty and tragedy of the Saints is an inescapable by-product of their offensive identity: they can put up enough points to beat anyone, and concede enough to lose to anyone. In the 35-34 universe that the Saints live in, their games will often come down to who has the ball last.
With Drew Brees at the helm, the offence starts every year from a baseline of excellence. Brees is the fourth or fifth best quarterback of the past decade, and give him anything to work with and he’ll make an offence elite. All the Saints had to do was give him the semblance of a defence, like the Steelers and Patriots have given Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady this year, and Brees would be headed back to the playoffs.
They didn’t though, and Brees is left to fight every week for what basically amounts to style points. There was a certain sad, deep poetry in Mark Ingram losing the plot on the sideline in Arizona and lashing out at everyone in sight over not getting the carry at the goal-line. Could anyone really blame him? All the Saints have to play for, these days (these years), are stats.
This year, at least, the Saints flirted with the idea of mattering with a little more verve than usual. In 2014 and 2015, New Orleans started its season on losing streaks and never got back over .500. Even when they started winning and restoring respectability on the road to 7-9, you got the sense that it was all smoke and mirrors – the haze of historically bad defences was too great to fight through.
This year their defence though, while dreadful, hasn’t been totally incompetent. 26th in the league is a significant step up from 32nd. Their season wasn’t derailed by coughing up 41 to the Panthers, as it was in 2014 and 2015. Instead, it was derailed by a cocktail of horrible luck, and horrible timing.
The bad luck came in a collection of the most brutal losses imaginable – the famous Jack Del Rio ‘Mississippi Grind’ in Louisiana moment of going for two in Week 1, and the blocked point after return to lose against Denver being the most ‘memorable’. Those two disastrous losses form part of the Saints’ 3-6 record this season in games decided by less than a touchdown. Because of that, it’s not ludicrous to suggest that the gap between New Orleans and Oakland isn’t significantly larger than the point that separated them in Week 1. The combination of Oakland’s fifth ranked offence and 23rd ranked defence isn’t much different from New Orleans at sixth and 26th. The difference is Oakland’s 6-0 record in games decided by less than a touchdown.
The horrible timing for New Orleans came from an unusual source – the offence falling apart at the worst time, impotent in the recent losses to Detroit and Tampa Bay. The irony of the offence’s failures effectively ending New Orleans’ season is cruel. It’s also perhaps apt – a reminder of how the woes of the defence over the past three years have given New Orleans zero margin for error on the other side of the ball.
Saints fans, with a Super Bowl title still fairly visible in the rear-view mirror, don’t have the right to complain like Cleveland or Buffalo fans. Their weekly experience of watching football isn’t depressing like it is for fans of Jacksonville or the Rams. In fact, it’s fun. It’s fun because they get to watch Drew Brees, and that, ultimately, is the real tragedy of this era of New Orleans purgatory – that Brees has been reduced from relevance to entertainment.
Brees – despite the occasional shocker, an inconsistency seeping in with age – is still a transformational star. On pace to eclipse 5000 yards for the fifth time, with a completion percentage north of 70 and 34 touchdown passes, Brees is having one of his best seasons, again. The interceptions are the unavoidable caveat of his reality and legacy (14 this year) but they also might just be unavoidable – when you need to do everything to succeed, mistakes will follow in that pursuit.
He’s still a joy to watch, throwing that beautiful spiral, caressing deep balls as no one else can, almost easing them into the grips of receivers downfield, as he did on the picture-perfect long touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks against Arizona. He stands fearlessly in the pocket and stares down the rush, prepared for the punishment, if it has to come.
That courage, and that beauty, gives him a stature that stands far, far taller than his six feet of height.
The Saints have the pieces on defence to take that courage and beauty back into January next season. Cameron Jordan is a star and Nick Fairley has been a steal. Kenny Vacaro and Jairus Byrd were envisioned as a superstar duo, the rock solid foundation of a secondary, and while that idea largely fell flat on its face, they’re improving. Delvin Breaux is a lockdown corner, and rookie Vonn Bell has contributed immediately, rounding out a secondary filled with potential.
The Saints’ defence isn’t totally hopeless anymore, and next year, with another step forward, they can give the team, and Brees, actual hope.