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Cleveland: New Orleans Saints End 2014 Season with a 7-9 Record

The New Orleans Saints limped, not marched, home with a 7-9 record, disappointing for a team that entered 2014 with Super Bowl hopes and a future Hall of Fame quarterback.
drew_brees_616Best way to describe this Saints season: Finally, when they really needed to lose, they won.
The Saints will draft 13th this spring. They would have drafted ninth had they lost to the Tampa Bay Bucs, whom they trailed by 13 entering the fourth quarter Sunday. Tampa Bay, thanks to its hard-earned, come-from-ahead defeat to the Saints, will draft first. So it is that the Saints can expect to face Marcus Mariota twice a season for the next few years. Unless, of course, the Bucs screw up the first pick, which is entirely possible.
Saints fans of a certain age can remember when seven victories would have been reason for an early Mardi Gras celebration. That time has passed. If anything, this season served as a reminder of how miserable a football season can be when you turn the ball over far too often on offense and can’t stop anyone on defense.
The Saints have major work to do. But before we go there, let’s examine what happened this season when the Saints ended an 11-game home winning streak and began a five-game home losing streak. Yes, it was that bad.
First and foremost, the Saints turned it over too often and didn’t get it back enough. They turned it over 30 times, which will get you beat even when you gain more yards than any other team in the league, which the Saints did. Conversely, the Saints created only 17 turnovers. That’s a negative 13 in the turnover department. Only the Oakland Raiders were worse.
Turn those turnover statistics around, which you can’t do, and the Saints would have won their division easily and would still have those Super Bowl dreams.
The Saints didn’t catch any breaks, health-wise, either. They spent heavily in the free agent market for a difference-making safety, Jairus Byrd. When I say spent, I mean spent. Byrd signed a six-year, $56 million contract, which is what a difference maker is supposed to make. But Byrd played only four games before a knee injury ended his season.
The Saints used their top draft pick to add badly needed speed to the offense in the person of Brandin Cooks. Cooks led NFL rookies in catches before suffering a broken thumb, which caused him to miss the final five games.
Too, Jimmy Graham, the highest paid tight end in the business, played much of the season essentially one-armed because of a shoulder injury. Graham couldn’t make the kind of plays this season that led to his four-year, $40 million contract. Several other key Saints missed games or parts of games.
It’s an all too familiar story with losing football teams: injuries and turnovers.
The Saints had other problems: pass protection, inability to stop the run (or the pass), and receivers, as a group, who couldn’t get open. Often, when Brees had time, he just didn’t have anyone open.
Difficult decisions must be made. Veteran wide receiver Marques Colston would count $9.7 million against the 2015 salary cap. For all his production over nine seasons, is he worth that much in season No. 10?
Mark Ingram, who rushed for a career-high 964 yards, becomes an unrestricted free agent. Can the Saints afford to pay him? I doubt it. The Saints enter 2015 , as one expert put it, “in salary cap hell.” They need to unload salaries and/or restructure contracts, not pay more.
Another decision: Keep defensive coordinator Rob Ryan or let him go? Did last year’s genius become this year’s dunce that quickly? I’d keep him.
The clock is ticking on Drew Brees, who will turn 36 on Jan. 15. As long as the Saints have Brees, they have a chance to be among the NFL’s elite. But Brees, as good as he is, becomes another guy when pass protection breaks down, receivers can’t get open and the defense can’t get off the field.
The good news? The Saints have the NFL’s best punter in Thomas Morstead. And even that comes with bad news. When you turn the ball over 30 times, your punter is under-used.
Rick Cleveland rcleveland@msfame.com is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

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