Saints could be subject of success story of year
In 2006, the New Orleans Saints were the biggest story in sports. The Saints led this city’s comeback, post Katrina.
But a bigger story can be written by the Saints in 2012. Can a team without its head coach, suspended for a season, be the first team to play the Super Bowl on its home field?
The Saints will miss Sean Payton. He is one of the top five head coaches in the NFL. Payton is a risk taker. His call for an onside kick to start the second half of the Super Bowl win over the Colts turned the game. If the Saints, trailing 10-6 at half, don’t recover, Peyton Manning and the Colts have a real shot at a two-score lead.
Last October, Payton’s leadership skills were on display in an October game at Tampa Bay. Payton called plays sitting on the bench after he was injured in a sideline collision. A broken tibia and a torn MCL could not force the head coach off the sideline.
Payton was also a freak about preparation. He never missed a thing. In January 2007, on the Thursday before the Saints’ playoff game against the Eagles, Payton asked me to speak with him after practice. He then asked me not to do a story on his record (a very good one) against the Eagles and defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. He did not want Johnson or anyone associated with the Eagles to flip on a TV and see such a story on our newscast.
I thought it a pretty strange request. However, it only confirmed what we in the media knew – that Sean Payton paid attention to everything.
Before Payton was suspended for the season by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, he made a very big offseason move. He was able to land former Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo as his coordinator to replace the departed Gregg Williams.
Despite the enormous fallout from the Saints’ bounty probe, the team had a sterling offseason. The Saints lost guard Carl Nicks to free agency but replaced him with another Pro Bowler, Ben Grubbs from Baltimore.
The Saints lost middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma to a season-long suspension but replaced him with Falcons middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. Lofton is a tackling machine. He’s had 398 stops the last three seasons.
The Saints also added a potential playmaker at the linebacker spot. David Hawthorne has seven interceptions the past three seasons and has forced five fumbles.
The Saints don’t have to improve dramatically on defense to make a Super Bowl run. The AFC champion Patriots and Super Bowl champion Giants both allowed more yards per game than the Saints.
Turnover margin will always be crucial. In 2011, the 49ers were plus 1.7 turnovers per game, tops in the league. The 49ers rode football’s biggest stat to a berth in the NFC Championship Game.
This season, the NFC title game is slated for Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013. Wouldn’t it be totally bizarre if the Saints’ final two games of the postseason were played on their home field?
The NFC has quite a few quality teams. The Packers, Giants and Saints are outstanding. Detroit looks like a club on the cusp. And, the NFC South features quarterbacks Cam Newton in Carolina and Matt Ryan in Atlanta.
But if the Saints can keep Drew Brees healthy again, they can play deep into January. And keep hopes alive for composing the best sports story of the year.