This past season, the Saints exceeded all expectations by posting an 11-5 record and coming within 10 seconds of earning a trip to the NFC Championship game. There were many different qualities between the 2017 squad and those that left fans stuck in the mediocre muck during three consecutive 7-9 seasons from 2014-2016.
Perhaps the most obvious change was the fact that the Saints’ defense was a strength instead of a weakness. Their defensive backs were no longer turnstiles for opposing wide receivers. Their linebackers covered the field sideline to sideline and rallied to the ball quicker than years past. Their defensive linemen pressured, disrupted, and sacked opposing quarterbacks more than three quarters of the league.
Another change was the renaissance of the Saints’ balanced offense. An NFL rookie of the year and former Heisman trophy winner combined to form perhaps the best Saints dual backfield in franchise history. The success of the ground game took pressure off the flourishing defense and allowed Drew Brees to quietly post his most efficient season of his career.
Never before had Brees completed 72% of his passes in a season. He also made the fewest attempts (536) since 2009 (514), the year the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV. His attempts per game (33.5) and total yards (4,334) were his lowest in a Saints uniform. Not coincidentally, in 2009 Brees averaged 34.3 attempts per game and finished with 4,388 yards; nearly identical values in both stat lines.
For a team built like the Saints, success clearly comes when the offense is balanced and the defense holds its’ weight. Seems simple enough, but I think a third element was the most important factor in the Saints’ impressive 2017 performance.
Maybe it was obvious to you or maybe you couldn’t put your finger on it, but the Saints found something last year that had been missing since at least 2013, and probably even longer, honestly. The French call it “je ne sais quoi,” but New Orleanians might call it “juju”.
It’s that special ingredient with no name, a feeling, a state of mind that, in this case, can lift you above the competition. In 2017 the Saints uncovered the secret to team success: a swag-filled, unselfish, nurturing, supportive, and ridiculously fun locker room dynamic.
The defense posed for fake group photos following a forced turnover. The team posed for real group photos together in the locker room following big wins like the improbable comeback against Washington.
Airheads were distributed and chomped with delight along the sidelines following an Alvin Kamara touchdown. Ingram and Kamara, possible rivals in another NFL universe, instead did locker room interviews together and constantly complemented each other’s play. Sean Payton danced with a broom in the locker room and Shamarr Allen wrote an awesome song about it.
It was easy to see how much the team mates seemed to really enjoy playing together this year. Even players new to the team like Ted Ginn could see how special this group was and what it takes to take advantage of the few opportunities players have to be great.
“You always know that the team isn’t going to be the same next year,” Ginn said. “That’s kind of like the biggest deal, so you try to get it done with the guys you have in the locker room right now. We had a handful of guys here that knew what we wanted to do and how we wanted to get it done whether they were playing or not. We just got to get back to that.”
That’s sage advice coming from a veteran addition role player. Yet, there were many leaders from several position groups on this team, and perhaps their most important moment came just after their season came to a crushing end.
Nothing, to me, exemplified the Saints’ positive locker room dynamic more than the team’s overwhelming support of safety Marcus Williams after he missed the tackle on Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs.
Drew Brees was quick to come to Williams’ defense. “Marcus Williams is going to be one of the best free safeties in this league… I know when that play comes around in the future, he’s going to make a play that’s going to allow us to win a big game or to win a championship.” That’s a nurturing statement that will build Williams’ self-confidence.
Free agent addition Manti Te’o reminded us that every player has a hand in winning or losing, and that Williams had such a great year with only more potential to be realized. “He’s going to have so many opportunities, and he’s going to make so many great plays in the future,” Te’o said.
”Everybody makes mistakes, and it wasn’t even him, you know what I mean? It wasn’t just him. He didn’t lose that game. I could’ve done a whole lot of things better. I could’ve made more tackles, I could’ve ran through gaps and made some TFLs, I could’ve done a lot of stuff. It wasn’t Marcus.
”Marcus is a great player. He’s a young player, and he has a bright future ahead of him. He’s going to make more great plays than mistakes, and I’m just excited for the kid. He’s going to come back, and he’s going to get better. He’s really already ahead of his time as far as how he plays safety. Now, you add a lot of motivation to that. The sky’s the limit for him, and I’m glad that he’s my safety.”
Te’o wasn’t the only player to remind us that Williams can’t be the only one to blame. Cam Jordan mentioned his inability to disrupt Case Keenum along with several first half miscues as important factors in the heartbreaking loss.
Brandon Coleman and former Saints great Steve Gleason each tweeted their support which, let’s face it, was probably directed more towards the fan base than Williams. They know the type of player he is and used their platforms to help a passionate fanbase realize the same.
Keep ya head up @Babymagik32— Brandon Coleman (@B_Cole16) January 15, 2018
We win together, we lose together bro! Don’t let this shake your confidence either cuz u a bad mutha (shut your mouth) U had a hell of a Rookie season and we wouldn’t even had a chance to comeback in the game if you didn’t get tht INT
Marcus Williams had a spectacular rookie season, and could have a stellar career. He was trying to make the right decision and not interfere. As a competitor, I'm sure he's crushed. I invite Nola to be encouraging and supportive as well as we move on.— Steve Gleason (@TeamGleason) January 15, 2018
These are also nurturing, supportive statements that will help Williams. They are also unselfish and will help remind his team mates that it’s a team sport, and there were things they all could have done better to achieve a better ending. These all help build and maintain a healthy team dynamic where players play for each other, rely on each other, and help each other become even greater.
Williams surely got the message. “I don’t feel like anybody in here is down on me or anything like that. I feel like we’re all together.”
Yes the team will be different next year, just like Ginn said. But I have more confidence than ever that the 2018 squad can replicate this aura of unselfish and joyful play that can rejuvenate the franchise back to its consistent winning ways. It’s winning with swag, and the Saints have the juju to do it.