The Saints experienced an amazing 2011 season characterized by a balanced running and passing offense coupled with an aggressive and opportunistic defense. Then, all hell broke loose for the Saints organization from top to bottom as the ripple effects from the Bountygate suspensions and loss of draft picks extended far beyond one dismal season a year later. After losing two consecutive second round draft picks and several coaches for some if not all the 2012 season, the Saints defense posted one of the worst performances in NFL history while finishing last in the league in almost every statistical category.
With the hiring of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in 2013, the Saints defense surprised many by finishing 4th in total defense. It was one of the greatest turnarounds for a football unit in the history of the game. Several of the Saints remaining Super Bowl champions remained on the team at the time and served as valuable veteran leaders.
For some reason -and Sean Payton denies a heavy hand in this decision- following that defensive success in 2013, the Saints let almost all of their long-lasting defensive veterans leave the crescent city as free agents. Will Smith, Malcolm Jenkins, and Roman Harper were all either released or not re-signed during the offseason that year.
Saints fans were disturbed by this alarming exodus of experience and leadership, but when Mickey Loomis dug deep into the salary cap reserves to sign the sexiest free agent on the market in Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd, making such a drastic change at safety didn’t seem so catastrophic. But as Ryan pointed out in his mostly annoying, yet sometimes insightful rant to The MMQB, letting Harper and Jenkins go in the same offseason ended up becoming the kill shot for the Saints secondary over the next two seasons.
In fact, his exact words were, "I think everything starts with the head coach and goes higher than that. They signed players; they signed a free-agent free safety [Jairus Byrd in 2014], and said, we are going to keep him in the middle of the field like the goalpost. Well, that’s great. He’s not going to make one play back there, and now we have changed the entire defense for one signing, and it ruined us. He’s a great kid. But the truth of the matter is, you let an All-Pro safety walk, Malcolm Jenkins, and lost your two best leaders on the team, him and Roman Harper. We changed the entire style of play. It was strange. But hey, I did the best job I could. And it wasn’t good enough. They should have fired me. They probably should have fired everybody that made that decision to go in that direction."
The Saints should never have let both, if either safeties, leave the city limits after the 2013 season. Jenkins has posted back to back Pro Bowl performances in Philadelphia and parlayed his original three year $15.5 million contract into a $40.5 million deal that will keep him in Philly until 2020. Over the past two seasons, Harper has served as a wily and experienced leader for the Carolina Panthers, playing in every game, registering 135 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries, and 4 interceptions, with one returned for a TD. His 2014 season was far stronger than his 2015 season and he could very well be in decline, but in hindsight, it’s clear the Saints let Harper go too soon.
After a two year hiatus, Roman Harper is returning home to the team that originally drafted him out of Alabama. Hopefully he brings with him untold nuggets of sweet, sweet Panther secrets. Along with his obvious growth in maturity and leadership, the Saints just regained another valuable weapon heading into 2016.