Coming off three straight playoff appearances, the New Orleans Saints took a step back in 2012, finishing under .500 for the first time since 2007. While it was a disappointing year for the Saints, the issues weren't all on the field. New Orleans spent the year without head coach Sean Payton and were forced to play through bounty scandal suspensions.
Now, Payton is back and the scandal is over as the organization attempts to rebound and make another playoff run. Payton's return may not be the only solution needed, as the Saints' defense was horrendous last season. What will it take to turn it around? We take a look at three things that could have New Orleans back in the playoffs, and three more that could lead to another disappointing season.
3 Steps Toward Success
1. Sean Payton brings the magic
In six seasons in New Orleans, Payton has proven to be one of the best head coaches in the NFL. The Saints offense may not have missed a beat without him, but he has a 62-34 record as a head coach for a reason. Organization, leadership and decision making are key parts of being a head coach in addition to scheme, play calling, etc.
With players and coaches suspended, the Saints were forced to make due last season. Still, shuffling head coaches and playing without a true leader can be difficult. Payton should bring a calming presence to the organization immediately and allow the Saints to keep their focus on the field.
And he's not a bad in-game coach either.
2. The defense can't be worse ... right?
The Saints were historically bad on defense last season, so bad in fact, it would be hard to be worse. New Orleans finished last in the league in total defense and pass defense while finishing 31st in run defense and scoring defense. It didn't matter what kind of offense opponents ran last season, the Saints couldn't stop it.
Rob Ryan is now tasked with rebuilding the defense, albeit with many of the same parts. First-round pick Kenny Vaccaro and free agent addition Keenan Lewis should help a pass defense that allowed 292.6 yards per game. Cameron Jordan took a major step forward in his second year and similar improvement in his third year could put him among the better defensive ends in the league. The Saints finished 25th in the league in sacks, an area Jordan could help improve.
3. Getting healthy should help
The Saints were forced to open the season without Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith, who were suspended, but the team was also hit hard by injuries. David Hawthorne was supposed to be a key free agent signing, but he was limited to 11 games due to an injury. Malcolm Jenkins, Scott Shanle and Jabari Greer also missed time due to injury. With a number of new faces, rotating coaches and injuries, the Saints struggled to find any kind of continuity on defense last season. The unit is healthy heading into 2013 and should be stable, a significant improvement already.
3 Feats Toward Failure
1. What if the defense is worse?!
With as bad as the defense was last season, it's hard to imagine it being any worse next season, but what if it is? New Orleans added Vaccaro in the draft and signed Lewis in free agency, but will open 2013 relying on a lot of the same personnel as last season.
Ryan brings a new scheme to New Orleans, but will that and a couple additions be enough? The Saints did a decent job in creating takeways, finishing with 26 on the season. If they struggle to replicate that number and the rest of the defense doesn't drastically improve, could the Saints really be worse on defense next year?
Brees and the offense is great, but a defense that poor would make it hard for any offense to overcome.
2. Did the Saints trade its best running back?
The Saints have a deep backfield with Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles in the fold, but New Orleans may have traded away its best running back this season. Chris Ivory averaged 5.4 yards per carry in a limited role last season before being traded to the Jets.
Conventional wisdom says one of the three New Orleans running backs will be able to get the job done, but what if they can't? Ingram averaged 3.9 yards per attempt last season and has been plagued by injury throughout his career. Thomas has never carried more than 147 times in a season or started more than seven games. If Ingram struggles, or is injured, Thomas may need to play a bigger role and there isn't much depth behind him.
Sproles is a great threat out of the backfield as a receiver, but he's not an everydown back. Ivory produced whenever given an opportunity and is just 25 years old. The Saints have plenty of running backs, but the best one may now be a New York Jet.
3. That is a brutal road schedule
The Saints don't get any favors playing in the competitive NFC South, but New Orleans' 2013 schedule is difficult outside of the division as well. In addition to tough road games at Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Carolina, the Saints will also go on the road to face Seattle, New Orleans, Chicago, St. Louis and the New York Jets.
New Orleans' 2013 road opponents combined to go 42-22 at home last season.
The Saints are one season removed from a three-year period in which they won 37 games. Even with the worst defense in the league, New Orleans finished the season 7-9 and that included five losses by eight points or less.
With Payton back and an improving defense, New Orleans should be better in 2013. How much remains a major question and the schedule won't do them any favors, but as of right now the Saints should enter next season as a playoff contender in the NFC. They may not be the 13-3 team they were two seasons ago, but a 10- or even 11-win season seems possible if things break right.