By all accounts, the New Orleans Saints had a terrible 2014 National Football League campaign, finishing 7-9 for the second time in the last three years. However, with training camp now in full force, the 2015 NFL season is looming and this is the time when we make predictions and start seriously wondering whether head coach Sean Payton and his coaching staff have done enough to fix what ailed the team last season.
All NFL head coaches divide the 16-game regular season into four quarters comprised of four games each. The goal for every NFL team is obviously to have a winning record in each quarter; to go 12-4 for instance is quite simple on paper: just go 3-1 in each quarter of the regular season and you are pretty much assured of a playoff spot. And that is the goal: make the playoffs and give yourself a chance to win the big prize.
Over this four-part series, we'll take a look at each quarter of the Saints' 2015 season and try to gauge whether our Black and Gold gridiron warriors will make us all forget about 2014, or whether we should start sharpening our knives and pitchforks for whoever will be deemed the scapegoat for a second consecutive losing season.
Week 1: @ Arizona Cardinals (Sunday, 09/13/15)
Last season, the Cardinals went 11-5, playing in the rugged NFC West. Of their five losses, three were to really good teams Seahawks (2), Denver Broncos (1) and one to division rival San Francisco 49ers. They also lost to the Atlanta Falcons, but that was with absolutely abysmal play at quarterback after Carson Palmer had gone down for the season with an injury.
Who has the Edge?
Last season, despite their terrible record and Brees' inclination for throwing the most untimely picks ever, the Saints were still ranked 7th in total offense by Football Outsiders. On the other hand, the Cardinals were only 23rd.
Defense : Cardinals
This one's not close. Arizona was 7th overall in total defense last year, while the Saints were 31st ahead of only the Atlanta Falcons. The departure of former defensive coordinator Todd Bowles who became the head coach of the Jets might give us a little pause about the Cards defense staying in the top 10, but I still expect them to be better than anything New Orleans showed us in 2014.
Despite having had a pretty good NFL career, Carson Palmer is not on par with Brees. As both quarterbacks age, Brees remains a much better signal-caller than Palmer at this stage of their respective careers.
Head Coach: Cardinals
Yes, Sean Payton has a Super Bowl win and the accolades as a head coach, but since coming back from suspension in 2013, the Saints head man has been fairly mediocre, evidenced by his team's 18-14 record during that span. Bruce Arians has been fantastic in his two-year as the Cardinals head coach, leading them to 10-6 and 11-5 records while playing in the toughest division in the NFL.
New Orleans went 4-4 on the road last year, which is respectable compared to their unacceptable 3-5 home-record. However, the Cardinals won 7 of 8 at home in 2014, with the only loss coming at the hand of eventual Super bowl participant Seattle.
Edge Score: 3-2, Cardinals
Prediction: Saints lose a close one and start the season 0-1
Week 2: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sunday, 09/20/15)
Last season, the Bucs went 2-14, and they were trying...to lose. The tank job worked, as Tampa Bay got the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft and selected quarterback Jameis Winston. They'll be turning the key to their franchise to the oft-troubled former Florida State quarterback. I'm getting my popcorn ready because Winston has boom-or-bust written all over his face.
Who has the Edge?
Tampa Bay was ranked dead last in the NFL in total offensive efficiency last season: 31st in .passing, 31st in rushing.
Despite their offensive ineptitude, the Buccaneers were ranked 18th overall in total defense last year, 12 spots higher than the Saints. With the additions of former Cowboys linebacker Bruce Carter and cornerback Sterling Moore, Tampa Bay hopes to improve on a unit that already was fairly effective last season.
Jameis Winston may someday become as good a quarterback as Drew Brees, but that's not going to happen in 2015.
Head Coach: Saints
Lovie Smith has been a very good head coach during his time in Chicago, taking that team to the Super Bowl in 2006 with Rex Grossman at quarterback no less. But if we're staying in the "what have you done for me lately" mode here, Payton still gets the edge on Smith.
Despite their inexplicable bad play at home last season, it's hard not to envision the Saints returning to their usual dominance in the Mercedes Benz Superdome.
Edge Score: 4-1, Saints
Prediction: Saints win in decisive fashion to go to 1-1
Week 3: @ Carolina Panthers (Sunday, 09/27/15)
The mighty 7-8-1 winners of the NFC South have (in my opinion) felt a very false sense of accomplishment from last season, after winning the worst division in the universe and beating one of the worst-quarterbacked playoff team in the galaxy (the Cardinals) in the first round of the playoffs. This sounds like I'm being a hater, but I'm not. The Panthers earned (cough) the NFC South title by winning their last four games, ending a six-game losing streak. In doing so, they defeated the Saints (7-9), Bucs (2-14), Browns (7-9) and Falcons (6-10), all fearsome world beaters. Just saying.
Who has the Edge?
Carolina was ranked 20th in the NFL in total offense by Football Outsiders in 2014. That doesn't sound so bad, until you realize it was with a -4.7% rating (that's bad).
I have yet to encounter a team that had a defense as bad as the Saints in 2014. Oh wait until we get to Atlanta! That said, the Blue Cats had the 15th ranked defense in the league last season and that's after seriously underachieving at the start of the year.
Despite routinely getting a bad rap for his on-the-field play (and at times, for his press conference or sidelines pouting), Newton was ranked as the 8th quarterback in the NFL in 2014 by the very comprehensive Pro Football Focus rating. What most of Drew Brees' "eyeball test" naysayers probably don't know is that Brees was ranked 2nd in the entire league by PFF, behind only Aaron Rodgers. Cam is getting better, but he's not on Brees' level just yet.
Head Coach: Saints
Since taking the job with the Panthers in 2011, "Riverboat Ron" is 4-4 against New Orleans, 2-4 against Sean Payton head-to-head (not counting Payton's hiatus in 2012). Rivera however has taken the Panthers to back-to-back division titles (a first in the history of the NFC South) and to consecutive NFC divisional playoff games. He has yet, however, to show me that he can win the big games, and has mostly feasted on weak competition. Payton, in my opinion, still has the edge here.
Carolina can sometimes be a bit schizophrenic and lose games at home you wouldn't expect them to, while winning tough road-games. That said, the Panthers have always played the Saints tough and them being at home just increases their edge for this matchup.
Edge Score: 3-2, Saints
Prediction: Saints win a squeaker and escape Charlotte with a 2-1 record.
Week 4: Dallas Cowboys (Sunday, 10/04/15)
Now this was a truly mighty team in 2014. The 2014 Dallas Cowboys were the only team to beat the home-juggernaut Seattle Seahawks at Century Link Field last year. A 30-23 triumph over the defending champs that was the crown-jewel of a brilliant offensive campaign in which the Cowboys smartly became more of a running team than a passing one, thus maximizing the talent of quarterback Tony Romo, while limiting his mistakes.
Who has the Edge?
Although the Cowboys were ranked 4th in total offense by Football Outsiders vs. the 7th rank for the Saints, the man who was an intricate part of Dallas' powerful attack is now in Philadelphia. I'm talking about running back DeMarco Murray. Yes, the ‘Boys offensive line is awesome, but whether Dallas can remain as awesome as last year on offense remains to be seen.
Despite having an amazing offense last year, the Cowboys defense was only ranked 22nd in the entire NFL. Normally, defenses feed off a good offense, especially one that can run the ball at will and keep its defense fresh. Injuries can be cited as a cause for Dallas' average defense, but injuries are an all-around part of the game of football. The Saints can't be as bad as they were on defense last year.
This one was much closer than you might think. Tony Romo was ranked 6th in quarterback rating by Pro Football Focus in 2014. Romo was certainly aided by the third rushing attack in the NFL, but that doesn't take away from the fact that he had a great season last year. Brees however, was ranked 2nd while playing with the 31st ranked defense. Many of his mistakes were the result of having to carry the entire Saints team on his back all season long.
Head Coach: Saints
Before finally having a true winning season in Dallas, Jason Garrett had gone 8-8 for three consecutive years. That's the definition of average. Has Garrett turned the corner in his head coaching career or did he just find lightning in a bottle with DeMarco Murray going berserk on NFL defenses? Time will tell. For now, I'll still give the edge to Sean Payton for what he has done throughout his career with the Saints.
If last season taught us something is that the most recent version of the Saints can be downright awful at home, even when it plays barely above average teams. That certainly was on display when the previously hapless Panthers came to the Superdome on the heels of a six-game losing streak and spanked the Saints 41-10. Until the Saints prove that they've regained their home-mojo, let's not wear any more "DOME-ination" t-shirts, please.
Edge Score: 3.5-1.5, Saints
Prediction: Despite the edge going in the Saints favor here, I think the Cowboys find a way to win a close one in the Dome and send the Saints to a 2-2 record. This one is going to hurt, I'm afraid.
The first quarter of the 2015 season isn't a great success, but at least the Saints haven't started the year 0-4 or something dreadful like that. Yay! No panic button to press just yet, but Sean Payton is looking into his bag of tricks after this home-loss and a looming road-game against the "football-reinventing genius" Chip Kelly and his Eagles in Philadelphia. Put your seat belts on, the ride promises to be rocky!
This season predictions series goes hand in hand with our Scouting the Saints 2015 Opponents series. Check it out!
Quarterback rankings are from Pro Football Focus