- Eddie Matz, ESPN Senior Writer
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If a strong running game and solid defense are the kinds of things that excite you, you might want to save yourself five minutes, click the back arrow on your browser, and read up on ground-and-pounders like the Texans, Vikings or Seahawks. If, on the other hand, what floats your boat is prolific passing and points (both scored and allowed), may we suggest the 2013 New Orleans Saints?
When it comes to safe bets in the Crescent City, saying that the Saints are going to throw the ball ranks right up there with saying that there will be a slight uptick in hotel visits come Mardi Gras. Since coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees came to NOLA in 2006, the Saints have never ranked lower than fourth in passing yards. Over that span, they've put the pigskin in the air 4,406 times, the most of any team in the National Fling-It League, and nearly 100 times more than the next closest squad (Detroit).
"We have something really good going here," says Brees, who's thrown for 33,571 yards over the past seven seasons, or more than all but 21 other quarterbacks have amassed in their entire careers. Among other things, what Brees and the Saints have going is continuity.
Every starter other than OT Jermon Bushrod, who signed with Chicago in March, returns on an offense that was the NFC's best (411 yards per game) in 2012. That includes steady receiver Marques Colston, who's somehow never made the Pro Bowl despite topping 1,000 yards in six of his seven seasons in New Orleans (the only time he didn't was in 2008, when he missed five games due to injury). It includes fourth-year tight end Jimmy Graham, the 6-foot-7 matchup nightmare who's so good that last season, when persistent wrist issues "limited" him to 85 catches for 982 yards and nine TDs, it was considered a down year. It also includes RB Darren Sproles, a receiver in running back's clothing whose 161 catches over the past two years are more than all but seven wideouts, and the underrated Lance Moore, an eight-year vet who historically feasted on underneath routes (11.4 career yards per catch prior to 2012). But last year, following the departure of Robert Meachem, Moore emerged as the team's deep threat (16.0 yards per catch). "We never look forward to playing him," says one NFC West scout of Moore. "He has a knack for coming up with big plays."
But perhaps the biggest playmaker of all -- the most exciting weapon on a 2013 squad that's chock-full o' daggers -- is a guy few people outside the 504 area code have even heard of: Joe Morgan. Projected to replace Devery Henderson as the team's third receiver, the third-year man out of Walsh University averaged a ridiculous 37.9 yards per catch last season, best in the NFL among players with at least 10 receptions. Of course, the guy distributing the ball is kind of fun to watch, too.
During his time in New Orleans, Brees has set NFL records for most passing yards in a season (5,476), highest single-season completion percentage (71.2) and most consecutive games with at least one passing touchdown (54), just to name a few. "He knows where to put the ball," says the NFC West scout. "He knows who's hot, who's available, and he gets the ball into his playmakers' hands." Yet as exceptional as Brees is, the best thing about the Saints' offense, if you're a football fan in search of excitement, just might be the Saints' defense.
New Orleans' offense has thrown the ball at least 60 percent of the time in five of the past six seasons. Not coincidentally, the Saints have ranked in the bottom 10 defensively in five of the past six seasons, including 2012, when they were softer than a freshly baked beignet, finishing dead last against the run (148 yards per game), 31st against the pass (293 yards per game) and dead last in total defense (440 yards per game). They allowed a league-high 12 plays of 40 yards or more (exciting in its own right, so long as you're not part of Who Dat Nation), including the two longest pass plays of the 2012 season (95 yards to Vincent Jackson; 88 yards to Pierre Garcon) and the second-longest running play (91 yards by Jamaal Charles). They were the first squad in NFL history to give up 7,000 yards and generally brought new meaning to the term "Big Easy." In other words, the Saints' D consistently put the Saints' O in situations where it had little choice but to chuck it. Good news is, for those seeking Sunday stimulation, things aren't likely to change in 2013.
The belief in the bayou is that new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan (Steve Spagnuolo was axed after just one season), with his sexy hair, purebred pedigree, and 3-4 scheme, will magically turn the Saints' D around. "We're playing the way we like to play, which is aggressive football," said middle linebacker Curtis Lofton during OTAs in early June. "We're cocky and we'll play anybody. We have that kind of mindset and we're looking forward to it."
Mindsets can only do so much, though. The truth is, despite all of Ryan's sizzle, his defenses typically fizzle. In nine seasons at three different stops as an NFL coordinator (Oakland, Cleveland and Dallas), Buddy Ryan's kid has helmed just one unit that ranked among the league's top 10 in yards allowed. Even more alarming if you're a Saints fan is that in seven of those nine years, Ryan's defenses finished in the bottom 10. Now he takes over a perennially punchless group that hasn't registered more than 35 sacks since 2006 and isn't all that different personnel-wise from the bunch that was arguably the worst in NFL history.
Complicating matters is the fact that free-agent signee Victor Butler -- who played for Ryan in Dallas and was slated to start at outside linebacker, and whom Ryan essentially had hand-picked to lead the Saints' transition to the 3-4 defense -- tore his ACL during June OTAs and is lost for the season. Sure, first-round safety Kenny Vaccaro and third-round nose tackle John Jenkins will help, but relying on a couple of rookies to transform the Nawlins D is kind of like relying on a couple of icepacks to solve global warming. In other words, another 7,000-yard season isn't entirely out of the question.
Even in those rare instances when Payton's gang fails to thrill on defense or offense, it doesn't mean they won't blow your skirt up with special teams. Just ask the Colts, who in Super Bowl XLIV were caught by surprise when Payton, with his team trailing 10-6 at halftime, called for an onside kick to start the second half (New Orleans recovered, scored a touchdown six plays later, and went on to win 31-17). It's that kind of unconventional leadership -- it was the only time in Super Bowl history that a team attempted an onside kick prior to the fourth quarter -- that has folks in New Orleans geeked about Payton's return to the sidelines following a yearlong suspension in the wake of Bountygate. "I've never seen him as excited, as ready for a season as he is right now," says Brees. "You can feel the energy."
2dBy Dan Graziano