Maybe you're wondering what I'm smoking, especially given that I live in Seattle. Or maybe you think I just wrote that title to bait you into clicking on the article. Well, if you're reading this, I would have succeeded. But I'm neither high nor using the good ole "clickbait" trick on y'all cool cats. I'm dead serious: the New Orleans Saints have a great chance to win the NFC South this upcoming 2016 season and if you don't believe me, history says you should.
"History" here is the 2008 Saints and the 2014 Carolina Panthers. What do those two teams have in common? Both were the definition of mediocre: in 2008, the Saints finished the year 8-8, and missed the postseason. In 2014, the Panthers had a 7-8-1 record and won the NFC South over the 7-9 Saints thanks to playing in one of the most putrid divisions in the history of the NFL.
Now what is remarkable about both teams is that the very next year, both won their division (a repeat effort for the 2014 Panthers), and went to the Super Bowl. But let's not get ahead of ourselves, I'm not saying that the 2016 Saints will go to the Super Bowl, but I believe that I have a pretty good argument to support my claim that New Orleans has as good a chance as any of its NFC South opponents to win the division next season.
The 2014 Panthers
First, let's take a look at the 2014 Panthers, since we often have a much better recollection of the things we just saw. If you just dropped on earth in 2015 and had never watched a football game in your life, what you saw was the Carolina Panthers going 15-1, having the top scoring offense in the league with 31.3 points per game (ppg) and the sixth scoring defense in the NFL (19.3 points allowed per game). A team that steamrolled opponents at times and wound up losing the Super Bowl.
It would then have been really hard for you, just landing from planet "Atlantasux" in your malfunctioning spaceship, to believe that largely that very same Carolina team was 7-8-1 just a year prior, had the 19th scoring offense in the NFL (21.2 ppg) and only the 21st scoring defense in the league, allowing 23.4 points per game. Oh and that's not all: during their "successful" 2014 season, the Panthers also lost six straight games at one point, including a 21-point shellacking in Green Bay, an 18-point home-loss to the Saints and a 24-point derriere-whipping at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles, when Chip Kelly was still the greatest offensive football genius of all time. They followed that last loss with an 18-point loss at the Vikings.
Yeah, that was the Carolina Panthers, with Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Josh Norman, Kelvin Benjamin, Ol' Man Harper and company. And that was just a season ago. Carolina would eventually win their last four 2014 regular season games, win the division by a hair, beat the Drew Stanton-led Arizona Cardinals in the wild card playoffs round, before getting bounced by the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round.
The very next season (last year), the Panthers showed why dramatic turnarounds happen in the NFL more often and much quicker than we think. In a year-span, Carolina won eight more games. Eight!
The 2008 Saints
Coming off a 7-9 season, the 2008 Saints could score with the best of them, but couldn't stop a nosebleed. Stop me if you've heard that story before. New Orleans led the league in scoring offense that year with 28.9 ppg, but their defense was 26th in the league, allowing 26.4 ppg. In finishing 8-8, the Saints lost five games by three points or less that year, but never looked like they could even remotely threaten to win the NFC South.
Well, much like the 2014 Panthers, the very next season, the 2009 Saints took the NFL by storm and won five more games than the previous year, going 13-3. The Saints once again were first in scoring offense in the league (31.9 ppg), but also improved their scoring defense, ranking 20th and allowing 21.3 ppg (a full five points less than the previous season). The Saints, as you all know, went on to win the NFC South that year, but also the Super Bowl.
How 'Bout Dem 2015 Saints?
So who were the 2015 Saints? Were they more like their 2008 version or like the 2014 Panthers? Let's take a look: The Saints were 8th in the NFL last season in scoring offense at 25.5 ppg, in a year where they had lost prolific tight end Jimmy Graham and were relying on second year wide receiver Brandin Cooks and 85-year-old tight end Ben Watson (I jest, Watson was fantastic last season, but at 35, he is fairly old in NFL years). There is almost no doubt that these already good offensive numbers can be further improved next season. With Cooks entering his third NFL season, the emergence of possession-receiver Willie Snead and the development shown by receiver Brandon Coleman late in the season, Brees should have another stellar year passing the ball in 2016. If C.J. Spiller can get back to playing with any sense of purpose, along with Mark Ingram and the surprising Tim Hightower, New Orleans' running game should once again produce. Finally, it wouldn't be Sean Payton if the Saints didn't find an offensive gem late in the draft or a good free agent receiver (a la Willie Snead) that Drew Brees is going to turn into a very serviceable offensive weapon. With the 2008 Saints and the 2014 Saints both being the top scoring offenses in the NFL in their respective years, the 2015 Saints at 8th finished slightly behind that pace. However, with Sean Payton and Drew Brees at the helm, offense is not really the side of the ball where the Saints will have issues in 2016.
Defensively, it was a completely different story for the 2015 Saints: New Orleans was dead last in the NFL in scoring defense last season, allowing a whopping 29.8 ppg. Is that bad? Yes, really, really bad. But again, the Saints don't need to be a top 10 or even a top 15 defense next year. All they need is to be ranked somewhere in the low-to-mid 20s like the 2008 Saints and the 2014 Panthers were, and truly, where they have been (unfortunately) for most of Sean Payton's New Orleans' tenure. When you're 32nd in scoring defense, the only way to go is up. With a bevy of second-year players that will have gained more experience from last year (Stephone Anthony, Hau'oli Kikaha, Bobby Richardson, Tyeler Davison, Damian Swann, Delvin Breaux, Kaleb Eulls, etc...) and some veterans who could contribute significantly (Kenny Vaccaro, Kasim Edebali, Jairus Byrd, Keenan Lewis,...) plus a 2016 draft that figures to be defense-heavy, the Saints have a chance to right their defensive ship under new coordinator Dennis Allen.
Yeah, I'm Drinking the Kool Aid
I wasn't impressed by the 2014 Carolina Panthers, then I was somewhat blown away by their 2015 version. I was disillusioned after watching the 2008 Saints, and then the 2009 version gave me the very best year of my entire life as a sports fan.
I was not impressed by the 2015 Saints, as I saw defensive rookies make mistakes, but also make plays all over the field. I saw a quarterback that is still elite, and unlike 2014, I saw a team that never quit, never turned on each other and kept fighting until the end of game 16 of the regular season. That's why I believe that despite the current somber mood within Saints Nation following two consecutive losing seasons, the immediate future is probably much brighter than you think for the Black and Gold. As bright as a fourth division title in Sean Payton's tenth year as the Saints head coach, a berth in "The Tournament" and then...who knows?