Finally, at long last, it’s time to play football — real football.
It’s time to stop talking about the bounty scandal, time to forget Drew Brees’ contentious contract negotiations, time to put that playoff loss at San Francisco in the rearview mirror.
When the New Orleans Saints line up against the Washington Redskins in the regular-season opener Sunday, it’ll be full steam ahead — even without suspended coach Sean Payton.
While the bounty penalties handed down by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell scared many fans, here are five reasons why they can still be successful and at least win the NFC South for the fourth time in seven seasons.
1. They still have the most productive offense in the NFL.
The Saints lost one major cog in the offense that shattered the league’s single-season record with 7,474 yards, and it was a BIG loss — All-Pro guard Carl Nicks.
But they replaced him with Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs and have all their other key weapons back in Brees, Marques Colston, Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, Jimmy Graham and Jahri Evans.
They may not get 7,474 yards, but they should be good, barring major injuries.
2. Payton’s clone is calling plays.
One of the big fears of fans when Payton was suspended was the loss of his play-calling abilities.
They shouldn’t worry. Pete Carmichael Jr. has worked at Payton’s side for six seasons and has been with Brees for 10 seasons counting their time with the San Diego Chargers.
Carmichael put his stamp on the team last season when Payton fractured his leg and called plays that produced 474.1 yards and 37.0 points a game.
3. An improved defense.
Under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, they won’t be as reckless as they were under Gregg Williams.
They’ll play more zone coverage, which won’t leave defenders vulnerable to big plays. Spagnuolo will rely on the front four to produce pressure and will sprinkle in a staple of his — the zone blitz — to confuse the passer.
They should also be better against the run after allowing 5.0 yards a carry in 2011.
4. This team is built to handle adversity.
No matter what they face, the Saints, more often than not, usually make their way through difficult times.
Whether it’s going to London for a game, or leaving town early for a storm, or surviving major injuries, they take on the personality of Payton, who always seems to keep the waters calm when all heck breaks loose.
5. Coaching chemistry and player leadership.
With the exception of Spagnuolo and two assistants, one on each side of the ball, the staff has been together a while. There’s no jealousy or egos involved and they all share a common goal of getting their team through this unusual season.
The same goes for the players, who have a core group of leaders to make sure they do what they would do if Payton were around.
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