Saints making foes pay for last season
The only matchup of undefeated teams this weekend is between the Saints and the Dolphins, neither of whom were expected to be 3-0.
By anyone. I mean, you might have expected both teams to improve from their 7-9 records — in the Saints’ case, tied for the worst in the Drew Brees era, which dates to 2006; in the Dolphins’ case, the third season in four that they’d finished as such — but neither squad projected out to be among the league’s top tier, which, at least as of right now, they are in one of the big stats that matters, point differential.
Even more of a sign that they aren’t flukes: unlike the Chiefs, who are coasting on an unsustainable no-turnover streak to start the season, the Dolphins and Saints both have four turnovers, basically league median.
Unlike the Dolphins, though, we at least think of the Saints as a blue-chip franchise, or have been since Brees rode into town. The Saints are one of those teams, like the Packers, Steelers, and Patriots, who we recently expect to see in the postseason, even if we don’t necessarily see them going that far; it just feels like they belong.
Last season, the Saints were subjected to one of the greatest indignities any professional sports franchise has had to deal with: the year-long suspension of their head coach, Sean Payton, plus the other myriad penalties and suspensions that came with it, as a result of the Bountygate scandal.
Regardless of whether those suspensions and penalties were justified, which, of course, doesn’t matter — they happened — they had the effect that nearly every sort of punishment has on a group of people, in this case players, coaches, and fans, when its’s handed down by another, higher organization: they ticked everyone off.
Because that’s the thing about penalties and suspensions and fines and the like: if you’re part of the body being fined, you may understand why it’s happening, you may even think it’s justified, but you’re not going to be happy about it.
Repentance and humility has no place in competitive sports, on a team and organization level. (For players, it’s a little different; a player can disappear from the NFL. A team can’t, or not really — not for any reason within its own control.) In fact, the NFL’s hammering the Saints resembled nothing so much as the way that the NCAA belittles and humiliates its member schools.
Now, there are few debates in sports more intense than the one over intangibles, and how much they matter, and how much can be predicted by stats and metrics, and whether momentum exists, and whether the emotions of a player or a team make any difference in how that player or team plays its sport.
I don’t have any answers for you. What I do have is a suggestion: the Saints are playing like men possessed. This probably has more to do with the huge jump in their defensive play from last year to this year, tied to the return of Payton as well as the hiring of Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator and the switch to the 3-4 and the emergence of Cameron Jordan — all of these, of course, related to one another.
At least for the sake of the league, though, it’s working out pretty great that all of a sudden the Saints are great again, the year after they were arbitrarily reduced and hamstrung by the NFL.
The comeback story is one of the greatest and oldest in human history, whether it’s that of biblical prophets overcoming their miscues or the literal return of Odysseus.
The NFL’s got a comeback story happening right now, in technicolor, and it doesn’t look like the Saints are primed to stop yet; they’re talented and well-coached, with a two-game head start on the Panthers and the Falcons and a dead fish in the Tampa Bay Bucs.
Whether Goodell planned for it, the drama he created has once again worked out in his favor, enhancing the narrative in the already narrative-rich world of professional football.
And whether the Saints’ quest for vengeance actually has anything to do with their 3-0 start, and what should be an impressive season, it just doesn’t matter: the two will be linked. Correlation doesn’t mean causality, but sometimes, it makes for a better story.