New Orleans Saints: Too Old to Win?

Harry How

In 2013, the New Orleans Saints had the oldest offense in the entire NFL. With a 35-year old quarterback in Drew Brees and a host of older players around him, is the window to win a Super Bowl closed for good in New Orleans?

"Age is just a number." That is a very reassuring saying, especially once that six-pack from 10 years ago starts looking more like a one-pack. As long as we still feel like we're 25 in our heads, everything is hunky-dory! Right?

In the National Football League, age is much more than a number: it's the menacing sword of Damocles, hanging by a single strand of hair above the head of every player. At the highest level, football is a young man's game.

When it comes to age, the high-flying New Orleans Saints are faced with a problem we are all too familiar with: they are not getting any younger. That is especially true on offense, which has been the team's calling card for the overwhelming majority of head coach Sean Payton's tenure in New Orleans.

In a very interesting piece he wrote back in January, Chase Stuart of footballperspective.com wrote the following regarding New Orleans' offense:

"The Saints are an aging offense that has probably seen its best days. Drew Brees (34.6), Jahri Evans (30.0), Ben Grubbs (29.5),Marques Colston (30.2), Darren Sproles (30.2), and Zach Strief (29.9) give New Orleans the oldest offense in the league. Jimmy Graham(26.8), Kenny Stills (21.4), and Nick Toon (24.8) inject the offense with some youth, but it's fair to wonder if the window of opportunity has closed on the cap-strapped Saints making another run."

Note that since that article was written, the Saints have traded the aging Darren Sproles and added some youth in their offense with their 2014 first round draft pick, wide receiver Brandin Cooks. But what may have caught your attention a bit more in the quote above are the ages listed by Stuart in parenthesis: Drew Brees is 34.6 years old? Marques Colston is 30.2 years old? Is that some "DVOA-like age voodoo" that JR is trying to pull off once again?

You know it is! Let me introduce you to the Approximate Value (AV), applied to the age of NFL players and NFL teams. I promise to be as clear and as succinct as possible. To determine the basic average age of a given NFL team, one could simply add up the ages of every member of the team's roster, then divide it by the total number of players. However, there's a slight flaw with this method if we're trying to correlate age to team's success. If a team has a 35-year old player that doesn't start and rarely sees the field (let's say a backup cornerback), his influence on the team's week-to-week success is assuredly less than that of a 23 year-old starting cornerback that plays every week.

By using a crazy formula developed by Doug Drinen from Pro-Football-Reference.com (you can find it here if you are interested), the age of each NFL player can be adjusted to the Approximate Value (AV), which takes in account said player's actual playing time and thus more accurately represents his influence on the outcome of the games for his team. The formula isn't without limitations, but it provides a better correlation between age and production in the NFL.

Stuart did the computing work for you and me and here is a table that describes the AV-adjusted team age for every NFL team. It also shows the average offensive and defensive ages for each team and their rank in the league. (All players ages measured as of September 1st 2013).

***

Rk

Team

Ovr Age

Off Age

Off Rk

Def Age

Def Rk

1

STL

25.5

25.9

3

25.2

1

2

SEA

26

25.5

1

26.4

10

3

CLE

26.1

26.6

10

25.7

3

4

TAM

26.3

27.2

19

25.2

2

5

NYJ

26.5

26.4

7

26.6

14

6

KAN

26.5

26.3

6

26.6

15

7

GNB

26.6

26.1

5

27.1

19

8

DAL

26.6

26.6

11

26.6

16

9

CIN

26.7

26

4

27.1

21

10

BUF

26.7

27

15

26.5

13

11

JAX

26.7

26.9

14

26.5

12

12

TEN

26.8

27.5

21

25.9

4

13

HOU

27

27.6

23

26.1

8

14

PHI

27.1

27.7

24

25.9

5

15

NWE

27.1

28.1

28

26

7

16

SDG

27.2

27.8

25

25.9

6

17

MIN

27.2

27

16

27.7

25

18

MIA

27.3

26.6

9

27.7

23

19

DET

27.3

27.2

18

27.1

20

20

CAR

27.3

28.5

31

26.5

11

21

BAL

27.4

26.8

12

27.7

24

22

IND

27.4

25.7

2

28.6

32

23

OAK

27.4

27.1

17

27.6

22

24

WAS

27.5

26.4

8

28.3

31

25

PIT

27.6

26.8

13

28.2

30

26

CHI

27.6

27.4

20

27.7

26

27

DEN

27.7

28.2

29

26.8

17

28

ATL

27.7

28

26

27.1

18

29

NOR

27.7

29

32

26.2

9

30

NYG

27.8

27.5

22

27.7

27

31

SFO

28.3

28.4

30

27.9

28

32

ARI

28.3

28

27

28.2

29

Rk = Rank (1st = youngest. 32nd = oldest)

Ovr age = Overall average team age

Off Age = Average offensive age.

Def Age = Average defensive age

***

A few interesting observations:

1)      The Saint Louis Rams were the youngest team during the 2013 season with an overall AV-adjusted age of 25.5.

2)      The oldest team was the Arizona Cardinals, with an AV-adjusted age of 28.3.

3)      Of the top five overall youngest teams (Rams, Seahawks, Browns, Buccaneers, Jets) only the Seattle Seahawks made the playoffs in 2013.

4)      Of the bottom five oldest teams (Falcons, Saints, Giants, Niners, Cardinals), both the Saints and the Niners made the playoffs, and the Cardinals were 10-6 and were a win away from getting in the tournament.

5)      The Super Bowl champions Seattle Seahawks had the youngest offense in the entire NFL and the 10th youngest defense in 2013. To the dismay of the other 31 NFL teams, they're more than likely here to stay.

What about Dem Saints?

1)      The Saints were the 29th overall oldest team in the NFL in 2013, with an AV-adjusted age of 27.7. Only the Giants, Niners and Cardinals had older rosters.

2)      With an AV-adjusted age of 29.0, the Saints had the oldest offense (32nd) in the NFL in 2013. In other words, Brees' arms might soon fall off.

3)      The saving grace: New Orleans had the 9th youngest defense with a 26.2 AV-adjusted age. The future isn't an overall gloomy geriatric ward in NOLA.

***

The average age of a team does not necessarily translate into on-the-field success or failure in the NFL. Youth is often equal to more athleticism, but it can also mean a lot of inexperience. The second youngest team in the NFL (Seahawks)won the Super Bowl. But in that game, they were playing the 27th oldest team in the league (Broncos).

Contrary to what Chase Stuart might have thought following the 2014 season, the window of opportunity for the New Orleans Saints is wide open. Albeit only for another 3-4 years with the roster as it is currently constituted. In that time, the Saints will have to make the tough decisions they've always made and will likely part ways with more beloved veteran players. Soon, the likes of Pierre Thomas (29), Jahri Evans (30), Ben Grubbs (30), Marques Colston (30) and yes, Brees (35) will be too long in the tooth to stay competitive in a game that gets leaner and faster every year.

In 2014, adjusted or not, age will still be nothing but a number for the New Orleans Saints. Anything less than a deep playoff run or a Super Bowl Championship this upcoming year will have to be considered a big disappointment.

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