The ultimate redemption for New Orleans head coach Sean Payton following his year-long "Bountygate" suspension would be leading the franchise to another NFL championship.
Payton made a successful return in 2013, guiding the Saints to an 11-5 record and a second-round playoff appearance that ended with a loss in Seattle. But there is a feeling of "what could have been" had the Saints not gone 3-5 on the road and squandered the chance to play at home with a first-round bye after a Week 16 loss at eventual NFC South champion Carolina.
Getting to host playoff games inside the Louisiana Superdome — where the Saints went undefeated last season — is viable with the team New Orleans is set to field.
The three-season slide of the defense ended under the auspices of coordinator Rob Ryan and the 3-4 system he installed. New Orleans ranked fourth in the NFL last year in total yards allowed, sacks and scoring defense despite a series of injuries to veteran players and standout rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro. Particularly encouraging was the blossoming of defensive end Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette, who combined for half of the Saints’ 49 sacks. The Saints believe they have now improved a shaky secondary with the free-agent signings of safety Jarius Byrd (Buffalo) and cornerback Champ Bailey.
Offense has never been a concern since the Payton-Drew Brees era began in 2006. It isn’t this year either as the Saints should finish as a top 10 unit for a ninth consecutive season. Some tweaks must be made to replace two departed stalwarts in wide receiver Lance Moore (released) and running back Darren Sproles (traded), but there is major promise in young wideouts Kenny Stills and 2014 first-round pick Brandin Cooks. Plus, tight end Jimmy Graham is fresh off signing a new long-term contract.
Put it all together and Payton’s squad appears more primed to make the push for another Lombardi Trophy than in any season since the 2009 Saints won Super Bowl XLIV.