Cleveland: NFL Playoffs

The NFL playoffs are well underway and the New Orleans Saints, the team for whom most Mississippians cheer, are watching on TV for the second consecutive season.

Yes, and for the second straight season, the Saints finished with a losing, 7-9 record. What to do? We’ll get to that. But first, some history…

For long-time Saints fans, 7-9 doesn’t seem so bad. New Orleans had a franchise for a dozen years before the Saints finally won as many as seven games in 1978. Many of you may remember. Archie Manning was the quarterback, running for his life.

But recent seasons have brought much better results and much higher expectations. First Jim Mora — and then Sean Payton — lifted the Saints into the upper strata of the NFL.

For those fans who have jumped on the black and gold bandwagon here in recent years, these last two seasons have been a study in frustration. It seems that everything that can go wrong, has.

Mainly, the Saints haven’t stopped much of anybody. Most problems have been on the defensive side of the football. Let’s put it this way: Third down has been a most productive down for the opposition. The Saints gave up 29.8 points per game, which ranks 32nd of 32 NFL teams. You can’t go lower.

The Saints fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in mid-November and inserted Dennis Allen into the job. Coincidentally or not, the Saints won three of their last four games, winning twice on the road. So, there’s hope.

The Saints, at 4-8, in November, could have phoned it in. Payton could have lost them completely. Instead, Payton coached his rear end off and the Saints finished respectably.

The first decision that had to made at season’s end concerned Payton, who was said to be on several other teams’ wish list. He is staying in New Orleans, which is a good thing. The Saints were not likely to find another coach better than Sean Payton.

The second decision was easier. Quarterback.

Drew Brees, Saint Drew to Saints faithful, led the National Football League in passing. He will turn 37 this week, but he can still spin it as well as anyone and better than almost all. Doesn’t seem to matter who his receivers are, either. The Saints traded tight end Jimmy Graham because of salary cap issues, so journeyman Ben Watson suddenly becomes the tight end putting up Pro Bowl numbers. Marques Colston is getting long in the tooth, so Brees starts throwing to Brandon Coleman as if he were Marques Colston. Willie Snead, an undrafted free agent out of Ball State, caught 69 of Brees’ throws.

Say what you want about the Saints, but know this: Here in the Gulf South, we have for the past 10 seasons watched the position of quarterback played at its highest level. Brees has been a joy.

Playing with a bruised rotator cuff and a torn plantar fascia in his right foot, Brees completed 68.3 percent of his passes for an NFL-best 4,870 yards, 32 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions, which tied for his lowest in any season with New Orleans.

Still, the Saints have all kinds of issues, on the field and off. Perhaps the biggest is with the salary cap. The Saints have no money to spend in free agency, which, considering their track record recently, might not be such a bad thing.

Brees goes into his last season under contract, counting a whopping $30 million toward the salary cap. To free up some millions, the Saints and Brees must renegotiate and extend that contract. I think they will.

Brees and Payton have formed a close bond. Both insist they intend to remain Saints. Fully expect Brees’ contract to be extended, lessening the immediate salary cap hit. Next: Spend any available money on improving that defense. Find more bargains like cornerback Delvin Breaux. Draft wisely. Draft defense.

It’s either that or start over. And when you have a quarterback of Brees’ caliber, who wants to start over?



Reach Rick Cleveland at rcleveland@msfame.co

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