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How the Saints are building a contender: ‘What makes a winner’

In the first of a three-part mini-series, what are the Saints doing to build a contender?

NFL: Pro Bowl-NFC vs AFC Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 Saints were one fluke play away from playing in the NFC Championship game and having a legitimate shot at going to the Super Bowl, and that’s a reason to anticipate next season for sure. Let’s take a step back though, and try to figure out how the Saints went from a bumbling 7-9 team in three consecutive seasons to a surging roster with youth and confidence.

We’ll get into all three aspects of the process: free agency, the draft, and what it takes from a vision and planning standpoint to build a ‘winner’. When trying to deconstruct recent history, it’s always nice to have the benefit of hindsight, as it allows you to pick apart the various decisions, coincidences, and processes that led to where you are now, and so we’ll start by taking a look at the the culture shift from top to bottom that enabled the change.

What does it take to ‘build a winner’?

On the surface, it seems incredibly simple, build a team that cares about winning, have tons of talent across the board, and get coaches good enough not to screw it up. Seems pretty cut and dry, right? Sadly, things are never as simple and easy in practice as they are in concept. There is so much that goes into building a winning team, and the Saints followed that process brilliantly in 2006, but from 2011-2014 they deviated from that path and it created the smoking crater that were the 2015 and 2016 rosters. Without going down memory lane and reviewing all the Saints mistakes, just look at each of the below factors that contribute to winning and understand the team had basically none of them.

What does it mean to ‘have an identity’?

It sounds simple enough, and you could argue from 2012-2016 the Saints ‘identity’ was a team that passes the ball for a ton of yards and plays awful defense. Really though, that’s not the team’s identity, it’s the perception you have of them due to performance. When I talk about having an identity, it’s far more than just what people identify you as, but what you are trying to be and what you’re building towards. From 2012-2015, the Saints had no identity at all because they had no stability. They were going from coach to coach, defensive coordinator to defensive coordinator and were shuffling players and losing team leaders (more on that below) left and right. The Saints organization, in simple terms, was a mess.

Not only did they not know who they were as a team, but they also had no idea who they wanted to be other than ‘not awful’. The Saints brain trust tried to copy other successful teams around the league, and in doing so not only lost players who were highly effective for them, but then asked their own players to fit a mold they were not well-suited for. Is this bad coaching? Absolutely, and Sean Payton and his staff deserve some of the blame for those years, but it’s more than that.

A team’s identity has much more that goes into it than just the scheme, the coaches, and the type of players they add to the roster. A team’s identity is also massively directed and influenced by their culture.

What is ‘culture’ and how does it affect play on the field?

A team’s culture can be, and often is a lot of things. It’s the leadership style of the coaches, the unwritten rules established by the veterans, the vision of the front office, and the goals of the individual players all rolled into one. Culture is made up of a lot of different things, but if you want a single word that defines what ‘culture’ is on an NFL’s community.

A team is a group of individuals, who for the most part are selected to play together not of their own volition, but by the choice of their employer. They all have personal goals, beliefs, skills, personalities, and issues. A team is like a giant family where not everyone wants to be there, no one has a choice, and somehow we have to find a way to NOT burn down the family BBQ.

In the aftermath of the Saints’ 2011 playoff loss and BountyFarce, the team started to lose sight of that, and they also began to get more and more players whose primary concern was them, not the team. Some of that is the players, some of that is the circumstance (it’s hard to be a team guy when you have the worst defense literally ever), but regardless of all the factors the Saints didn’t have a family...they just had co-workers.

It’s easy to say, “Who cares? Just do your job. You’re being paid millions.“ But, trust is one of the most important factors in team sports. Think of it like this, you have a bunch of supremely gifted athletes trying to work in unison, 11-on-11, to guard (or attack) an area that is 300 feet long and 160 feet wide at high speed. The margins for error are practically non-existent, and the time you have to accurately diagnose, process, and counter the opposition is fractions of a second.

It isn’t possible for any one player to handle all that on their own, you compartmentalize it into groups, into roles, and each group has their own set of responsibilities. If one guy is out of sync, the whole group suffers. It’s hard enough to accomplish that when everyone is on the same page, when certain guys are creating problems with their teammates, or have inconsistent effort...the whole thing comes crashing down.

That’s what happened to the Saints, they lost the trust, and it’s what they really started trying to repair starting in 2016.

The Saints started to focus on players who were known for being ‘film junkies’, guys who valued winning and were known for being leaders and ‘team guys’, while also avoiding players who were about themselves. That doesn’t mean they didn’t get players who wanted to be great or had great talent, it just wasn’t the only criteria.

The Saints also invested in quality veterans who were great locker room leaders, and players who were known for giving everything they had. Why focus on these players? Because, when you have an actual team, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. When the players are all on the same page, know their role, and trust their teammates they play faster (it’s not a stereotype, trust allows you to have to process less on the field so you react faster), hit harder, and make fewer mistakes.

Have the Saints found their identity now?

Oh, indeed they have. The Saints in 2017 have embodied the silliest, lamest, and most consistent cliche in professional sports — they had fun. The Saints played like a team full of guys who played together, genuinely enjoyed each other’s company, and thrived on one another’s success.

If you enjoyed Alvin Kamara’s infectious personality, the Airheads, the jumping into the crowd, if you enjoyed Marshon Lattimore correcting PFF grades after the game (just for the record those two guys won BOTH offensive and defensive Rookie of the Year honors), if you enjoyed Mark Ingram and Kamara having fun with Deion Sanders silly ‘you ball, you get the call segment’, if you enjoyed Sean Payton dancing after the Saints playoff win, Tom Benson holding the broom, and Sean Payton even getting his own song and dance...guess did the players. So did the coaches.

You also probably enjoyed the way the players dubbed themselves the Boonk Gang and would scramble together to ‘take a photo’ every time the defense made a big play (or if you’re De’Vante Harris when you ALMOST make a big play), and they clearly did too. The Saints have in the last two years established themselves as a young, talented, brash, slightly cocky, and entirely united group with one Drew Brees a ring. That’s not conjecture, they’ve straight up said it, and I can’t wait to watch what they do next.

Next topic — Part 2: Free Agency