Death, taxes, and New Orleans heartbreak. The Saints and their paper bag-clad fan base are painfully familiar with trials and tribulations; adversity has afflicted the team in almost every season of recent years. The 2020 NFL season, however, is different – the relevant challenges each team faces are almost an equalizer. One that weighs heavily in New Orleans’ favor.
Longtime Saints fans are no strangers to an NFL season faced with unprecedented uncertainty. The team was completely displaced in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, with the subsequent training and practices taking place in a San Antonio parking lot. Yet, despite this nearly unfathomable challenge, the Saints were resilient, and persevered all the way to Miami. Those same key leaders remain at the helm of the team, and are keenly aware of the grit it takes to rise above the noise of adversity.
When surveying all of the recent team press conferences addressing the unique challenges of this offseason, and the plans in place to not only stay healthy, but to remain competitive contenders, it’s clear the Saints are in a league of their own. Head coach Sean Payton held a press conference on July 29, and it’s abundantly apparent that the lessons of distractions, adversity, and resilience the team has learned time and time again have paid off.
Payton was quick to point to the 2011 lockout that consequently deprived teams of an offseason entirely when asked about the shortened, atypical training camp for the 2020 season. The mantra for the Saints the past few years has been simple – no excuses. This season should be no different.
Unlike other Super Bowl contenders – the 49ers, Packers, Chiefs, Ravens to name a few – the Saints have an unparalleled edge in continuity and veteran leadership. While Patrick Mahomes has had a few years to familiarize himself with his receiving corp, and Aaron Rodgers has been a cornerstone of the Packers’ success since 2008, no team comes close to the continuity advantage held by the Saints. More importantly, the Payton-Brees relationship is paramount. Rivaled only by Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in the modern era, a tandem that is no longer, the duo rewrote New Orleans history; while the slogan “prove them right” was bestowed upon the Saints in 2018, this phrase has defined their 14-year tenure from the start.
Payton and Brees are at their best when the odds are stacked against them – while most teams flourish with a bit of opportunity, luck, and a season devoid of turmoil, the antithesis is true for the Saints. With the outlier of the magical 2010 season, save for the insane comeback in the 46-34 win that year against Miami, the modern-day Saints have three seasons that shine above the rest: 2006, 2018-19. The common denominator? Adversity.
It goes without saying that the 2006 season for New Orleans was one of the most daunting challenges in NFL history. Haunted by the Minnesota Miracle, the 2018 Saints took on a different identity and have since played with a chip on their shoulder – and everything to prove.
Each year since the Minnesota Miracle has played out like an extension of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. When Brees went down in Week 2 of the 2019 season, the consensus was a deafening certain defeat. And yet, the Saints kept coming. The typical path to the Lombardi trophy is overwhelmingly one where a team is firing at all cylinders. The Saints, however, know that nothing is truly easy in the Big Easy – and this gives them an unparalleled edge heading into the 2020 season.
The team has been on the brink of the Super Bowl for the last three years; particularly apparent when Brees incurred the thumb injury in the 2019 season, the Saints roster is stacked and has remained fairly unchanged, embellished only by a few key offensive weapons. The spot previously held by the Patriots of the most consistent veteran roster now goes to New Orleans.
Moreover, the Saints hold a vital, key veteran presence in nearly every position group. When considering the severely diminished opportunity for teams to cultivate chemistry this offseason, this type of leadership is essential. Returning safety Malcolm Jenkins will serve as a crucial mentor for burgeoning Marcus Williams and rookie surprise C.J. Gardner-Johnson; the decision to prioritize Jenkins over signing S Vonn Bell to a monster deal almost now seems omniscient. 2020 NFL Draft steal linebacker Zach Baun will cultivate his craft under veteran leader LB Demario Davis, who was a cornerstone in steering the Saints through Brees’ absence in the 2019 season.
When asked about the biggest challenges the team faces this offseason in Payton’s July 29 conference call, his response was simple: “the ability to handle some of the distractions and not make it so encompassing or so problematic that it can interfere with what we’re trying to do relative to football.” History quite clearly shows this task is least daunting for New Orleans.
Despite picking players and making trades via Zoom in the 2020 NFL draft, it was almost as if Payton had been drafting from his couch every year. While the Saints held a sparse number of picks, the aggressive approach employed by general manager Mickey Loomis and Payton remained unchanged; New Orleans managed to acquire three-of-three selections in the first three rounds that were in their top 40 on the draft board. Most apparent was Payton’s true to form pettiness when he stole Christmas from Carolina and scooped up Tommy Stevens for no good reason other than entertainment purposes – and round two of his swiss army knife QB pet project. If nothing else, this is a clear sign that the Saints are poised and prepared to handle the 2020 NFL season of unprecedented challenge.
As long as Juicy Fruit doesn’t go out of business in the next two months, the Saints are primed to capitalize on this upcoming season – they’re seasoned veterans when it comes to adversity.