The Saints were embarrassingly drummed out of the playoffs last January, their 41--36 loss to the 7--9 Seahawks almost enough to bring those old Aints-scrawled paper bags out of the closet. Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch, in an instant YouTube classic, stiff-armed half the spiritless Saints defense on a 67-yard touchdown run. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, unpressured, shredded New Orleans for four touchdowns. Riddled by injuries, the Saints had no running back to complement Drew Brees.
In ignominy, though, there are useful lessons. New Orleans addressed two of its biggest needs in the draft when it selected two-way defensive end Cameron Jordan and 2009 Heisman-winning running back Mark Ingram with its first two picks. And still, the Saints needed more, much more. The front office went trolling in the free-agent market, cherry-picking four vital veterans: running back Darren Sproles and center Olin Kreutz to further bolster the run game; and defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin, easily the two best veteran tackles cut loose by their teams after the 2010 season. In 10 days of free agency the Saints did more to improve their talent level than they'd done since 2006, when they lucked into a quarterback with a bum wing.
Talk about a sea change. Even in the years after Katrina, the Saints had a hard time recruiting free agents because of their stadium (refurbished but outdated) and surface (artificial turf) and city (slow to rebound from the hurricane's devastation).
"If you asked me about free agency two or three years ago, I never would have picked New Orleans," says Sproles. That's what winning a Super Bowl does, as well as establishing yourself as a franchise built for long-term success. The personnel moves, guided by G.M. Mickey Loomis, have been smart and economical. The coaching staff, led by Sean Payton, is prepared and cutting edge. The chance to play with Brees helped persuade Kreutz and Sproles to leave the Bears and the Chargers, respectively. The chance to play for a winner helped persuade Rogers and Franklin, who had spent their careers doing nothing but losing in Detroit and Cleveland (Rogers), and San Francisco (Franklin).
Although they won the Super Bowl 19 months ago and were an 11-win playoff team last year and had a bountiful off-season, the Saints aren't a popular pick to win it all. But unless the alarming injury bug that swept through camp in late August (17 players didn't practice on the afternoon of Aug. 24) stretches into the season, there are reasons to believe that the Saints will again march into January. And those reasons begin with the run, on both sides of the ball.
Brees's brilliant 2009 was supplemented by the legs of Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Reggie Bush, who led a ground attack that churned out 2,106 yards. But because of injuries and a shakier line, that output plummeted to 1,519 last year. The injury-prone Bush, who never became the every-down back he wanted to be, was dealt to Miami. In his place came Ingram, the 28th pick in the draft, and Sproles, who signed a four-year, $14 million contract. In Payton's master plan Sproles will return punts and touch the ball 150 or more times, either rushing or receiving. "Darren creates mismatches all over the field," says Loomis. "And Mark—how do I temper my enthusiasm? When Ricky Williams was here in his prime, there were a few runs where he made you go, 'Whoaaaa.' Same thing with this kid."
The Saints are quietly concerned about the health of wideout Marques Colston—he's had microfracture surgery on both knees in the last two years—so the running game is going to be vital. "I see our backfield as the same three-headed monster we were in '09 with me, Reggie and Mike," says Thomas.
The two most excited newcomers, however, might be Rogers and Franklin. "I was having this conversation with Takeo Spikes, who I played with in San Francisco [and is now with the Chargers]," Franklin says. "He's played 13 years and never gone to the playoffs. We all know this is a job, but you play because you want to win too. What appealed to me was having a real chance to win a Super Bowl."
That goal, seemingly so distant for the Saints after last season's playoff debacle, is again within reach.