Three Years

A losing season can be frustrating for a professional sports franchise. There’s the obvious “bottom line” of money invested vs no return. But there’s also the pain and frustration of not just a fan base, but a coaching staff, feeling that they’ve left no stone unturned, and done everything within their power, to finish as one of the very best in the business. Only to come up short.

For the New Orleans Saints, that pain and frustration can be compounded by the fact that they have a absolute first-ballot Hall-Of-Famer in the most important position on the field in QB Drew Brees, as well as one-time Coach Of The Year in Head Coach Sean Payton. But last year’s was the latest in a three-year long string of 7-9 campaigns. Three consecutive losing seasons. And the pressure of “breaking through” has taken hold in a major way.

During the 2016 season, at least on the surface, it’s hard to imagine just exactly how the high-octane Saints offense could have been any more prolific. QB Drew Brees passed for 5,208 yds, 37 TDs, and a 70% completion rate. RB Mark Ingram had statistically his strongest showing of his 6yr career, amassing 1,043 yds on 205 carries for a YPC average of 5.0, tying him with the league’s leading rusher, DAL’s Ezekiel Elliott, in that category. Ingram added 6 TDs. WR Brandin Cooks was the Saints leading receiver with 1,173 yds on 117 catches (8 TDs) before bolting in a trade with the World Champion New England Patriots. But rookie WR Michael Thomas also made his presence felt in this offense, turning his 92 catches into 1,137 yds and 9 scores.

This was only the second time in the history of the league that a QB passed for 5k, a RB rushed for 1k, and two WRs turned in 1k receiving in the same season, on the same offense. But the most important statistic of the 2016 Saints season? Seven wins…

There were chances. In retrospect, perhaps the most gut-wrenching part is the chances that got away. In nine losses during 2016, seven were by a touchdown or less. The most glaring of these was playing the defending Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos to what appeared to be a game-winning extra point attempt, only to see that kick not just blocked, but returned for the two point difference in the final score.

Setting The Tone 

As training camp broke a week ago at the Saints team facility in Metarie, LA, there is a different feel to “business as usual”. There’s a certain…intensity…to things as the Saints return home for camp for the first time in three years. There’s a feeling among the diehard fan base of this team that anything short of a playoff run in 2017 could mean changes. And big ones.

While the Saints offense has certainly been setting the standard, the same cannot be said for the Saints defense. During this three-year losing skid, this unit has set unprecedented marks for futility. Free agents busts, unfruitful draft picks, and an absolute mistake of a Defensive Coordinator hire have taken a toll.

But two solid draft classes, and a few lucrative free agent deals suddenly have this unit possibly on the cusp of a change in fortunes…and results?? Well,that remains to be seen. But if the intensity, the level of dedication, and the attention to detail of this training camp during the first week are any indication, third-year DC Dennis Allen is setting the tone early: this unit must deliver in 2017. If this team is going to succeed in 2017, this defense must find a way to be both effective and efficient.

Losing what could have been their defensive player of the year a year ago, DT Nick Fairley, for the season with a heart issue, is a setback. But two of last year’s draft picks look to make a major impact in 2017. DTs Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata have returned a year older, and a year better. Both saw solid growth towards the end of the season last year, and look to step up.

After seeing their numbers decimated by injury very early a year ago (the Saints were down to their #s 6 and 7 corners by Week 2 of the 2016 season), this year the Saints appear to have the most depth there with the return of Delvin Breaux and the addition of first-round draft pick Marshon Lattimore. That can have a major impact.

But this defense’s success or failure could very easily come down to one crucial position-linebacker. Free agent acquisitions Manti Te’o and AJ Klein join Craig Robertson, Stephone Anthony, and Nate Stupar to form the nucleus of what the Saints are hoping will be a new narrative for this much-maligned unit.

This has the makings of what should be an interesting training camp for the Saints. There is positional competition at almost every position. But whether or not the Saints can turn the page, and once again return to their recent glory of that 2009 season is going to have to decided on the practice field in Metarie. Greatness begins today.

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