The NFL Live crew talks about the Saints' chances of repeating as Super Bowl champions
Repeating as Super Bowl champions has become one of the hardest things to do in the modern NFL. Of the 15 Super Bowl champions before the New Orleans Saints, only two were repeat customers.
In fact, it's not uncommon for Super Bowl champions to stumble the next season and not even make the playoffs. Are the Saints, who had one of the greatest feel-good stories in Super Bowl history, the next team to take a fall?
Or can the Saints break the trend and repeat?
In the final installment of our Great Debate series, ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton and NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas take two very different stances on whether the Saints can repeat.
Pat Yasinskas: John, you and I have talked about this many times throughout the offseason and I totally respect your reasons for saying the Saints aren't going to repeat. You very well may end up being right. But I've already gone out and predicted the Saints will win back-to-back Super Bowls and I'm not backing off that one.
The main reason I believe this can happen is because the Saints aren't like a lot of recent Super Bowl champions. I think the uncertainty over the labor situation helped them greatly. Super Bowl teams traditionally get ripped apart in free agency. A few marginal or role players usually end up getting big contracts elsewhere just because other teams overrate them and want someone with a Super Bowl ring on their roster. A lot of times, Super Bowl coaching staffs get raided with coordinators moving to head coaching jobs elsewhere.
None of that really happened with the Saints. All they really lost was linebacker Scott Fujita, who got a big contract from Cleveland. Even though the Saints have had some recent injuries at linebacker, Fujita is replaceable. The Saints also cut defensive end Charles Grant and I think that was addition by subtraction.
They replaced Grant with veterans Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson. Neither is going to put up 15 sacks, but both play the run solidly and are consistent, which is something Grant never was. The Saints basically have kept their team and coaching staff intact. Throw in the draft class and a few other minor additions and I'll say the Saints, on paper, are better than they were a year ago. I know you disagree, so go ahead and start shredding that paper.
John Clayton: The Saints' story in 2009 was a great one, but for the Saints to repeat, now you are talking the beginning of a dynasty. I don't see that. Sure, the Saints will make the playoffs. They have Drew Brees, who now ranks with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady as one of the league's three best quarterbacks. You're probably going to call me hypocritical when I say the Colts are my team to repeat as the AFC champion. The reason I did that is I couldn't get behind any other team in the AFC that has a great chance of getting to the Super Bowl.
That's not the case in the NFC. I think the Cowboys have the most talent. I also believe -- and we've talked about this many times -- the Falcons are ready to jump to the top of the division. Matt Ryan is ready. The offense is ready to explode. Mike Smith is getting his defense where he would like it to be. Plus, the schedule is more favorable to the Falcons this year than the Saints. You know from your travels last year you were always going to New Orleans because usually the best games in your division were there. This year, the best home games involving your division teams are in Atlanta. The Falcons play their toughest opponents at home. The Saints play their toughest teams on the road. That's why I don't think the Saints will repeat.
PY: All good points, and I agree the Falcons are a very real threat to New Orleans. Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have assembled a very good roster and I think Ryan is on the verge of taking the next step. The Saints aren't going to coast through their division as they did last year and basically have it wrapped up by November. And they probably aren't going to start 13-0 as they did last season. I think you also have to at least include Carolina in the talk about the NFC South, because it's always a physical football team and the Saints will have to be at their best just to get through the division.
However, there's one big difference between Brees, Payton and the Saints compared to Smith, Ryan and the Falcons. The Saints have won a Super Bowl. They know what it takes.
There's been talk about a Super Bowl hangover, and there's no doubt the Saints spent a big chunk of their offseason celebrating. It might have taken some sort of a toll, but I think that's all gone now. When the Saints came out very sluggish in their preseason opener at New England, Payton ripped into his team and the message was basically, "Last year showed you what hard work and focus can get you." It was only a preseason game, but I think that was a wake-up call the Saints needed to get back into the same frame of mind they had last year.
JC: The Super Bowl hangover theme is giving me a headache because I've heard it so much. It also concerns me when a coach as good as Sean Payton has to rip into his team this year. Ripping into a team is like a chip at a poker game. There are only so many chips you can use during a season. When you bring that up, now you're making me wonder if they are going to make the playoffs. I stay with them making it as a wild card. But don't you see the holes on this team?
So much of their success last season was Darren Sharper intercepting passes off inexperienced quarterbacks. They don't face inexperienced quarterbacks this year, and Sharper is out for at least six games and who knows how much longer because of microfracture surgery. I hate to tell you this, but I intercepted a call in which they were going to ask you to play one of the outside linebacker spots. Scott Fujita is gone. Jonathan Casillas is out for the season. What happens if the team loses one or two defensive tackles to injury? DeMario Pressley and Al Woods -- two draft choices in the past couple of years -- already have been cut.
Are you 100 percent sure Malcolm Jenkins can be as good as Sharper at free safety? Mickey Loomis, the general manager, said it best last week. The Saints will have to play better just to come close to the regular season they had last season. I figure they will get off to a good start, but can they finish as well? The odds are against them.
PY: John, good thing you intercepted that call. As you know, my body type might help the Saints against the pass, but I'd be a liability against the run and I'd also be the tallest linebacker the Saints have had since Fujita. But, yeah, I'll give you the fact that the Casillas injury really hurts the linebacker corps.
As for Jenkins taking over for Sharper, nothing's a given. But Sharper got off to a great start early last year, but was pretty much shot by the end of the season. Jenkins is a great physical talent, and having Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter at cornerback will help make him look good. I'm projecting here, but I think Jenkins is going to be better than Sharper was at the end of last season.
Other than that, I'll fall back on my contention that the Saints are largely intact. Yes, they were lucky at times last season, but they were also very good. I think they're better in a lot of ways this year, and if they can just catch a little bit of luck, I think they can repeat. If I'm wrong, then maybe this time I'll be taking up residence in Atlanta instead of New Orleans in December and January. Better yet, from a selfish standpoint, maybe the Bucs will do the old worst-to-first trick that's been so common in the NFC South and I might actually get to spend a few weekends at home this year.
JC: If the Bucs can pull off a worst-to-first in the NFC South, the Saints, Falcons and Panthers would have to pull a USC and go on probation and be ruled bowl ineligible. Let's look at reality here. The Saints and Falcons are going to be building up a great rivalry over the next few years.
The league needs it. So much of the NFC is settled into the NFC East with those four teams pounding on each other. The AFC East is bubbling over with the Jets and Rex Ryan taking on the Patriots and Dolphins. I don't mention the Bills because I know you would earn a roster spot on that team.
There is a lot that could be good about a Saints-Falcons rivalry over the next few years. Payton has the go-for-broke mentality with his play calling, and Gregg Williams, the defensive coordinator, has a lot of Rex Ryan in him. He'll not only want to tell his players to hit opponents hard, but he'll talk a good game too. The Falcons are the quiet monsters. Mike Smith is a gentlemen on the sideline, but he can gear up his team for good hits, and you know how that offensive line, starting with guard Harvey Dahl, irritates opponents with the way they block. But for a rivalry to happen, you have to have drama. The Saints dominating and repeating would be a great story, but it would take away from the rivalry factor.
By the way, Pat, if you are going to sign with the Bills, hold out for good money.