The 2014 postseason starts this Saturday afternoon when the NFC South Champions Carolina Panthers host the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Wild Card round at Bank of America Stadium. Unfortunately for the New Orleans Saints and their fans, the Black and Gold will be enjoying beer and nachos in front of a TV set instead of the Popeye's chicken and Gatorade from last year's playoffs run.
As the Saints enter what is perhaps the most crucial offseason of the Sean Payton tenure since his inaugural training camp with the team in 2006, there are a multitude of questions surrounding the team and its future after the failure that was the 2014 season.
Here are five of these burning questions; depending on how they're answered, we could either see the Saints remain in the realm of the National Football League contenders or witness New Orleans plunge into a downward spiral of mediocrity for years to come.
1 - Has Sean Payton Lost His Way?
This question would have seemed like blasphemy a little less than a year ago, as the New Orleans Saints were walking out of Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on January 4, 2013. The Saints had just won their first ever road-playoff game, a 26-24 defeat of the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Wild Card round of the playoffs. After an abysmal 2012 season, Sean Payton was back, and with him, so were the Saints winning ways. At that point, Payton's Saints had gone 53-19 (excluding 2012) in the regular season and playoffs combined, with a Super Bowl win and three NFC South titles.
Since that win over the Eagles however, the Saints have gone 7-10 (including a Divisional round playoffs loss at Seattle), missing the playoffs in 2014 while losing their last five home games, a sad feat that had not been accomplished in New Orleans since 1980. Even more disturbingly, reports have now surfaced that some players had missed meetings and been late to flights during the season. A team that had multiple chances to win the NFC South during the 2014 season, the Saints just never seemed to find enough heart to compete week in and week out and their head coach never seemed to find the right words or the right motivational tools to get them ready to play at a high level on a consistent basis.
Has Payton lost his way? It seems to me that in 2014 he did. Fortunately, the Saints head coach has hung enough skins on the wall to earn the proverbial "benefit of the doubt." Of the many changes that Sean Payton claimed he'll implement this offseason, maybe the biggest one will have to be on himself; he'll need to rediscover the 2009 Super Bowl winning coach. The one that could hold a locker room accountable, the one that gambled, yet took calculated chances. If 2014 "Impostor Payton" with his eye glasses can't find "The Real Slim Payton" this offseason, there is no telling whether we could soon be hearing Sean Payton's name on "Black Monday," for all the wrong reasons.
2 - Is Drew Brees Still an Elite Quarterback?
Drew Brees had a 2014 season to forget. The Saints quarterback finished the year with a QB rating of 97.0 (6th in the NFL). He tallied 33 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, each of which seemed to either go for a touchdown or setup a score for the other team. The Saints ended the year with a dreadful -13 turnover ratio, with Brees' three interceptions against Tampa Bay being the exclamation point on a turnover-doomed season.
The soon-to-be 36-year old quarterback (Brees turns 36 on January 15th) sorely needs to rebound in 2015, otherwise the talk of decline and erosion will only intensify. However, Brees doesn't really need to have a better season next year because of the rumblings around him. He needs to do so because his teams needs him to be Superman, especially with the humongous size of his contract. The Saints, in the Payton era, have almost always had a subpar defense. After a fluke 2013 season in which New Orleans' defense was ranked in the top five, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's men quickly returned to their usual ineptitude, finishing lower than 27th in pretty much every defensive category in the NFL. With such a bad defense, Brees' inevitably eroding skills were tested beyond limits. The Saints quarterback felt compelled to win every game on every throw and failed miserably in 2014.
Is Brees still an elite quarterback? Without question! I'll spare you the litany of statistics and the history that prove that he still is. The Saints quarterback has a healthy two to three years of high-level play in him. However, the Saints will need to provide him with the help he needs to take New Orleans to the pinnacle again. Let's face it, at his age, Brees can't be Superman anymore. However, he can still save the day provided that he doesn't have to carry 90% of the load by himself. Will the Saints be able to provide him with the help he needs? Their immediate future highly depends on it.
3 - An Offensive Lineman or a Pass Rusher in the 1st Round?
By virtue of their glorious win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in week 17, the Saints are picking 13th in the upcoming 2015 NFL draft. New Orleans displayed two glaring weaknesses this past season: an inability to stop opposing pass rushers and even more ineptitude at rushing opposing passers. The Saints finished the year with 30 sacks allowed, while compiling only 34 sacks of their own (compared to 49 sacks last season). The question here is simple: what is more important? Protecting Brees or disrupting their opponents' quarterback?
Given that New Orleans is paying Brees an exorbitant amount of money to be its signal caller, the Saints might want to make sure that they keep their investment and the face of franchise healthy throughout his remaining playing years. That might have to be accomplished through the draft, with prospects like Brandon Scherff out of Iowa, La'el Collins out of LSU or Ereck Flowers from Miami as potential picks to bolster the offensive line.
However, if the Saints decide to go the free agency route to reinforce their O-line, then they could go with a pass rusher the likes of Randy Gregory out of Nebraska, Vic Beasley from Clemson, Shane Ray from Missouri or Dante Fowler Jr. out of Florida.
Which way should New Orleans go? If you ask me, pass rusher is the answer here. The Saints, despite Brees' struggles, still managed to rank really high in most offensive categories in 2014. As for New Orleans' defense, we all know it all too well: it could use all the help it can get.
4 - Should the Saints Re-Sign Mark Ingram?
They say a running game is a quarterback's best friend. In 2014, the New Orleans Saints finished the regular season ranked sixth in rushing yards per carry (4.5) fifth in rushing touchdowns (16) and Football Outsiders has them as the ninth-ranked team in the NFL in rushing efficiency with a 0.9% DVOA. A big part of that rushing success was free agent running back Mark Ingram. The fourth-year back out of Alabama had his best professional season to date, with 964 yards, a healthy 4.3 yards per carry and nine rushing touchdowns.
For a back that had been disappointing most of his career, Ingram showed he could actually carry the rushing load, logging 226 carries despite missing three full games and getting less than 15 touches in seven games this year.
The big question is: did Ingram play this well this season simply because he knew it was a contract year for him? With the opportunity to now explore free agency, Ingram will be able to see what his value is on the open market, but will he be able to sustain his 2014 quality of play once he has gotten paid? My answer is no. Nothing in his four years in New Orleans has shown that the 2014 version of Mark Ingram is here to stay. Yes, Ingram might excel on a team with a killer offensive line like the Dallas Cowboys. But in New Orleans, a team that wants to throw the ball around the park and uses interchangeable backs all the time, Ingram just isn't worth a big contract in free agency.
Given that this offseason deal will be the first time in his NFL career that Ingram can actually cash in, I don't foresee him giving the Saints a "hometown discount" should the team express interest in keeping him in Black and Gold. I say New Orleans should let Ingram walk, pass the baton to Khiry Robinson, find another undrafted free agent running back or trade for a serviceable veteran, and have Pierre Thomas remain the change-of-pace/screen running back on the team.
5 - Can the Saints Still Contend in the NFL Under Payton?
The answer for this one is easy: YES! Anyone remember the offseason just prior to the 2006 season? The Saints had just gone 3-13; Brees had a bad shoulder and could barely throw the ball. New Orleans was supposed to improve maybe by three or four games. They ended up 10-6, and made the NFC Championship game.
How about 2008? The mediocre New Orleans Saints had just finished an 8-8 season, which followed a 7-9 campaign in 2007. Brees was in "full decline," having just thrown 34 touchdowns and 18 interceptions (quite similar to his 33 touchdowns and 17 interceptions this year huh?) and a QB rating of 95.4 (lower than his 97.0 of 2014). Of course, the following year, the Saints went 13-3, won the NFC South, won the NFC and the rest is history.
All you need is a quarterback, a good coach, a defense that is not a completely porous sieve and a difference-maker or two. Safety Darren Sharper was that difference-maker in that 2009 Super Bowl year. Could a healthy Jairus Byrd be that man in 2015? Could it be another free agent? Maybe a rejuvenated Drew Brees will remind us that he's still the one they used to call Breesus? Whoever it is, the Saints are not very far from once again being atop the NFC South and making some noise in the playoffs. This offseason, they have a chance to actually make it happen.
Those are my five burning question for the Saints this offseason. What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? What do you think are the questions that the Saints absolutely need to address this offseason?