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Cleveland: On the 2016 New Orleans Saints

Rick Cleveland
Rick Cleveland
Just when everyone was about to write the obituary for the 2016 New Orleans Saints, the San Diego Chargers happened.

Playing at home, leading by two touchdowns with six minutes to go and possessing the football, the Chargers fumbled the ball and victory away. The Saints, to their credit, took advantage of back-to-back Chargers fumbles for an unlikely 35-34 victory.

Had the Saints lost, they would have entered this bye week as one of only two winless teams in the NFL. As it is, the hapless Cleveland Browns, still paying the price of Johnny Manziel, own the dubious distinction of being the lone 0-4 team.

Two ways to look at these Saints:

  • One, Sunday’s most unlikely of victories, just prolonged the inevitable. The Saints are a fading shadow of the ball club that won the Super Bowl seven seasons ago. New Orleans ranks No. 32 of 32 teams in points allowed and No. 31 of 32 teams in giving up yards. Offensively, they don’t protect Drew Brees well enough, they drop too many of Brees’ passes and don’t run the ball particularly well. They are a team on life support.
  • Two, for all their weaknesses, the Saints are tied for second only two games out of first place in the NFC South. Injuries, particularly in the secondary, have decimated the ball club, but the Saints should get some of those guys back. Keep in mind, the Saints lost by one point to the 3-1 Oakland Raiders and by three points to the New York Giants. The Saints could have beaten the division-leading Falcons, if it were not for a fourth quarter pick-six. Thanks to the victory over the Chargers, there’s hope.
  • ••

Because of their proximity and their history, the Saints remain the NFL team of most Mississippians. Yes, the Dallas Cowboys, especially now with rookie Dak Prescott, and the Giants, with Eli Manning, have much support in the Magnolia State. But the Saints remain Mississippi’s most favored NFL team.

Mississippians suffered through those early years when the Saints played football as if they were starring in a Saturday Night Live skit. You know: When they played in old Tulane Stadium. When they had an astronaut for a general manager. When Billy Kilmer was booed like Christians in the old Roman Colosseum and was sacrificed like one, too. When the halftime shows were more entertaining than the games. When they did not have a winning season for their first 20 years of existence.

We were sacked along with Archie Manning. We ached with Deuce McAllister’s knees. We endured Hurricanes Camille and Katrina along with the black and gold.

And then we exulted in 2009 when Sean Payton and Drew Brees guided the Saints to the NFL Championship. The Black and Gold were champions at last.

  • ••

Since that 31-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Jan. 31, 2010, in Miami, the Saints have gone 11-5, 13-3, 7-9, 11-5, 7-9 and 7-9. The trend is not positive. And that brings us to the current 1-3 Saints.

What to make of them?

Drew Brees still plays the game at an extremely high level. Given protection, a semblance of a running game and competent receivers, he’s still one of the elite quarterbacks in the sport.

But Brees lacks all that support and the injury-decimated defense, statistically the league’s worse, stays on the field far too long.

Complicating matters, Brees makes one of the league’s highest salaries, as well he should. The Saints salary cap situation is among the league’s worst. Brees’ contract, even restructured as it is, does not help in that regard.

It probably should be time to think about starting over, getting what they can for Brees and building for the future. The unlikely victory over San Diego probably delays those discussions, but for how long?

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address isrcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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