The New Orleans Saints were considered to be the favorites to win the NFC during the 2014 offseason. The team had just rebounded from a "head coach-less" 7-9 disaster in the 2012 season, and posted a promising 11-5 record in 2013 with an appearance in the divisional round of the NFC Playoffs. Sean Payton was back and the Saints were poised to have one of the premier safety duos in the entire NFL with the signing of free agent Jairus Byrd. A defense that was ranked in the top 10 in the league was about to get even better. The sky was the limit.
Then the 2014 season happened and the sky fell: the Saints limped to a 7-9 record in a putrid NFC South division that the Carolina Panthers (7-8-1) won thanks to a tie with the Cincinnati Bengals. Because the fickle world of NFL predictions goes in the direction towards which the wind blows, people are now considering Carolina to be the frontrunner to win the NFC South and New Orleans is somewhat of an afterthought.
If the 2014 offseason reminded us of something, it's that the NFL is a year-to-year league. Every new season there are five or six teams that emerge and make the playoffs after missing them the previous year, as there are teams that regress and fail to make the postseason a year after getting into the playoffs.
As far as the Saints are concerned however, there has been one constant since Sean Payton took the job in 2006: for the past nine years, New Orleans has not had two losing (below .500) seasons in a row as evidenced by the table below.
As everyone is sounding the alarm about the Saints, it's important to note that under Sean Payton, New Orleans has had only three losing seasons in nine years, that's including a wacky 2012 year in which Payton wasn't even present.
Moreover, the Saints' worst record after a losing year was 8-8 in 2008, after the 7-9 record in 2007. Following the 8-8 season in '08, New Orleans started a streak of three consecutive regular seasons with double digit victories, including a Super Bowl win in 2009. After going 7-9 in 2012, the Saints won 11 games in 2013 and made it into the divisional round of the playoffs.
What will happen in 2015 after the 7-9 record posted in 2014? Last year, the Saints felt like a ship without a captain. That evident lack of leadership falls squarely on the shoulders of the head coach. That may be the reason why an angry Sean Payton said right after the last regular season game that every member of the Saints organization, starting with himself, would be evaluated. No one appeared to be off limits.
It is safe to say that those weren't empty words from the Saints head coach, as he started the 2015 offseason with a bang, trading established veterans like tight end Jimmy Graham and wide receiver Kenny Stills, guys that might have become a little too comfortable in the locker room. Payton also brought in guys like center Max Unger and cornerback Brandon Browner, two former Super Bowl champions that will immediately assume a leadership role on the team.
There is a clear sense of urgency emanating from the Saints' front office this offseason and I believe that every player on the roster has received the message loud and clear: if you're here, you are expected to give your all, from the OTAs until the final game of the season.
I expect history to repeat itself once again for Payton's Saints in 2015, which means that the team will not have two consecutive losing seasons. The big question now is: will next year end with an 8-8 "winning" record and a participation trophy (a la Atlanta Falcons who are still gloating to have finally swept the Saints despite their 6-10 record in 2014). Or will Brees and co. truly show up with a vengeance and post something like an 11-5 or even a 12-4 record with a playoff berth? That is yet to be determined, but at the end of the day, you can bet on the Saints to come back strong, in a year where most "experts" have already determined that they will struggle.