By Jonathan Comey
Cold, Hard Football Facts King of the Delta Blues Singers
The New Orleans Saints will always have 2009.
That's what they have to be telling themselves after their follow-up season ended with a dispiriting loss to the sub-.500 Seattle Seahawks in the first round of the playoffs. A season in which they could never quite get going ended with an offensive explosion (season-high 36 points) that was completely undermined by one of the worst defensive performances since the Falkland Islands.
That was the bad news. The good news is that this is a team that should have three or four more legitimate shots at a second Super Bowl championship ... why, maybe the folks of New Orleans might even be moved to have a good time, rare for those notorious teetotalers.
The 2010 storyline: The Saints had some injuries that mattered, but in general seemed to have the same pieces in place for success that they did in 2009. The difference? Despite improvements on defense, their passing game went from amazing to just good – Drew Brees' short passing game deserted him – and they just couldn't kick it into that next gear. A team that scored 510 points in 2009 totaled just 384 in 2010.
The Vital Signs
2010 record: 11-5 (24.0 PPG – 19.2 PPG)
Last five seasons overall: 49-31 (.613)
Best Quality Stat in 2010: Offensive Hog Index (4th)
Worst Quality Stat in 2010: Scoreability (20th)
All Quality Stats
Defensive Passing YPA: 12th
Quarterback Rating: 11th
Defensive Quarterback Rating: 11th
Relativity Index: 10th
Statistical curiosity of 2010
The Saints had 10 different players catch 20+ passes, an NFL record, as Drew Brees finished two completions behind Peyton Manning for both the 2010 and all-time lead (450 to 448). Consider that Paul Warfield led the great 1972 Dolphins with 29 catches and you get a pretty good sense of how much the game has changed.
Best game of 2010
17-14 win at Atlanta (Week 16). This game showed two things – one, that the Saints were good enough to beat the NFC's No. 1 team on the road, and two, that despite dominating all the stats they seemed to be unable to put anyone away. That was the story of their season.
Worst game of 2010
30-20 loss at Arizona (Week 5). It's easy to point to the playoff loss to Seattle, but they did put up 474 yards of offense and 36 points on the road, so maybe that gets a pass. Much worse was their defeat at the pathetic Cardinals where they basically gave the game away with four turnovers.
Balance. The reason the Saints were able to overcome the Super Bowl hangover, injuries at the running back spot, Brees' bizarrely high number of interceptions on short passing plays and a tough schedule to go 11-5 is that they were at least average in all phases of the game.
With the exception of Offensive Hogs (4th) and Scoreability (20th), the Saints were somewhere between No. 10 and No. 15 in all of our Quality Stats, an impressive feat even if it leaves you wanting more.
They continued to run the ball pretty well despite the injuries (a respectable 4.0 yards a carry), and the passing game was solid if not spectacular. They really improved in most phases of defense, allowing fewer yards per play (5.2 from 5.5) and fewer points per game (19.2 from 21.3) despite not having the same explosive offense to feed off of.
Kicking game was good, coverage was good – this was a good, solid squad top to bottom.
Turnovers. The 2009 Saints were fueled by their turnover margin, but you see it time and time again that teams who do well here almost always come back to earth the next year. They only won the turnover battle outright in a game four times (losing it seven times), and all five of their regular-season losses came when they were on the negative side of that ledger. They were 11-1 when winning the battle or at least staying even, a tribute to how well they played down in and down out.
The difference in turnover generation was dramatic in pass defense. The Saints picked off a league-low 9 passes in 2010 after riding 26 INT in 2009 the way to a Super Bowl title.
General off-season strategy/overview
The Saints are going to look pretty different in 2011, for sure, and even more different in 2012. They have 27 guys from the current roster that are either free agents this year or next, and while none of them are stars this is a team that has thrived on good veteran role players.
Saints GM Mickey Loomis has been a great fit with head coach Sean Payton, and the organization is one that players want to be a part of, so that should help matters. But they'll have a lot of holes to fill, at tight end and in the back seven of the defense especially.
Look for the Saints to be active as always in targeting older veterans on short, conservative deals, and to make smart decisions on draft day.
Totally premature 2011 diagnosis
As long as Brees can still throw the ball 40 times a game, Saints fans don't have much to worry about. No franchise outside of Indianapolis relies more on its quarterback, and few franchises are able to do more with less around him.
Even though the NFC South is tough, the Saints should hop back over the Falcons in 2011 and could well be hoisting another trophy – assuming Brees' subpar season was the exception, and not the new rule.