02 September 2016

Ten Years Gone

Here's a question: are the 2016 Saints worse than last year's team?

The 2015 Saints were particularly bad.

They rallied to finish 7-9. They fielded one of the worst defenses the NFL has ever seen. They overpaid free agent Brandon Browner, installed him as a team captain, and then watched Browner immediately cement himself as the worst defensive player in franchise history. The defense surrendered a league-worst 4.92 yards per carry, while allowing the most passing touchdowns in a single season by a significant margin. After week 10, they fired their itinerant, overmatched defensive coordinator.

This was a bad team.

(Remember the Saints barely escaping with a win after Drew Brees threw seven [SEVEN!] touchdowns against the Giants? That they won seven games in 2015 is a miracle and testament to Drew Brees's singular greatness.) 

In an attempt to remedy the defensive ills of 2015, the Saints replaced Rob Ryan with Dennis Allen, the Saints' fifth defensive coordinator in the past eleven seasons. Allen was marginally more effective in six games last year as the interim defensive coordinator; he's now had an entire offseason to improve a defense that can not possibly get worse. 

More importantly, the Saints cut Brandon Browner in order to rebuild a secondary that in 2015 surrendered a 116.2 quarterback rating to opponents, the worst mark in NFL history. Then a few weeks ago, the Saints doubled down and ushered out the loquacious, underwhelming Keenan Lewis.

Stepping in as starting cornerbacks this season are Delvin Breaux and PJ Williams. Breaux, whose travails are well known, is on the precipice of becoming the most beloved Saint in recent memory. If you trust Mike Detillier, Breaux is also the best cornerback in Saints history. Premature? Yep. Encouraging? Sure.

Williams is a high draft pick who's played well enough to acquire a central role after redshirting last season. Williams' production this year, whatever it might be, surely won't be worse than the indelible portrait of suck authored by Browner in 2015.

To bolster a linebacking unit that's been adrift since Jonathan Vilma departed, the Saints signed veteran James Laurinaitis. Having played 112 consecutive games, Laurinaitis provides an element sorely lacking on the Saints' defense since 2013: intelligence. For a defense that struggled mightily in 2015 with basic assignments, substitutions, and penalties, the addition of Laurinaitis should not be overlooked. After all, how many times can a team let an opposing tight end roam free?

If these changes elevate the Saints' defense from historically abysmal depths, the team might be on to something this year. This, however, rests tenuously on the Saints' offensive line. And unfortunately, the O-line is charting a course like that once-proud, iceberg-bound steamship of renown.

Where them deck chairs at, brah?

Andrus Peat, a left tackle in college, drafted to play right tackle for the Saints, failed to supplant Saints' right tackle Zach Strief this offseason. Strief, clinging to a fading skill set, is back for an 11th season. In the meantime Peat's been shuffled from tackle to guard on both sides of the line, and he's responded to each challenge with equal parts malaise. Sean Payton has acknowledged Peat's struggles, and is scrambling to make use of his 2015 first-round pick. Combine this with the fact that Terron Armstead is recovering from injury and that the other guard spot is equally unsettled, and you currently have an offensive line that resembles used gauze.

Protecting Drew Brees has always been priority #1 of the Payton-era Saints, and right now accomplishing that looks more difficult than ever.

Brees, meanwhile, enters the season playing out his contract for the third time in a Hall-of-Fame career. There's a reasonable chance we're seeing Brees's final season as a Saint. For 2016, Brees is equipped with his best wide receiving corps since the heyday of Colston-Devery-Moore-Meachem. Mark Ingram is at the peak of his career, and CJ Spiller looks healthy after a fruitless 2015 season. The skill positions are as capable as they've been since 2011, and yet the struggles of the offensive line overshadow the entire enterprise.

This is especially damning with respect to the 2016 schedule. The Saints face what appears to be a murderer's row of defensive front-sevens: the Panthers (twice), Chiefs, Seahawks, Broncos, Rams, and the Cardinals. Throw in Khalil Mack/Raiders and the always-maddening 49ers, and the outlook portends doom.

The Payton-era Saints have overcome so much: a franchise history of futility, a natural disaster, a witch hunt, poor drafting, a litany of bad contracts, and an addiction to bad defense. In spite of all this, it's been a spectacular ten-year run. What they, and Brees, might not come back from is an offensive line that can't do its job.

It looks bleak right now, but the season is yet to start.

Don't go waving that white flag just yet

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