It’s the End of an Era for the Saints

Nov 17, 2019; Tampa, FL, USA;New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton reacts against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orlean Saints are at a crossroads in 2021. After 15 years with the Saints, quarterback Drew Brees retired earlier this offseason, and for the first time in the Sean Payton era, the Saints quarterback position is in question. For 2021, it seems like either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill will be the starter, but neither are options that bode well for the Saints right now. But with Brees retiring, it’s time to take a look back at his time with the Saints, before projecting their future. 

Early Years

After spending his first five years with the Chargers, Brees became a free agent after the 2005 season. Not getting the deal he wanted from the Chargers or the Dolphins, who had concerns over Brees’s shoulder, Brees signed with the Saints. Brees was an immediate success with the Saints, leading them to the playoffs and being named first-team All-Pro in his first season in 2006. For a franchise that had gone 3-13 the previous year, Brees and Payton in their first season with the team led them to an NFC Championship game appearance. Brees continued to put up excellent numbers the next two seasons, but the Saints missed the playoffs both years. It was in 2009, where Brees’s legacy with the Saints was made. 

The 2009 season had Brees finishing second in MVP voting while leading the Saints to a 13-3 record and the number one seed in the NFC. Brees led the team to the Super Bowl that year, where he earned Super Bowl MVP honors in a win over the Payton Manning Colts. In just his first four seasons, Brees had taken a team and city that had been wrecked by Hurricane Katrina and brought them their first-ever championship. There has been controversy around this championship, with the Bountygate scandal being outed in 2012, but this was still a Super Bowl win for Brees and the Saints. Brees by this point had built his legacy in New Orleans and would be the face of the franchise for the rest of his career. 

Post-Super Bowl Years

After the Super Bowl championship, the Saints experienced a bit of a “Super Bowl hangover”. While they made the playoffs in 2010, they were eliminated in the Wild Card round. Brees had his best statistical season in 2011, where he threw for 5476 yards and 46 touchdowns, leading the Saints to a 13-3 record. However, they were eliminated in the Divisional round by the San Francisco 49ers. After missing the playoffs in 2012, Brees and the Saints ended the 2013 season with another Divisional round exit, to the Seattle Seahawks. From 2011-13 Brees passed for over 5000 yards and 39 touchdowns every year. Brees was in the conversation for the best quarterbacks every year and was a perennial Pro Bowler. 

The next stretch of years, however, was a disappointing one for the Saints. While Brees continued to put up numbers and lead an efficient offense, the Saints finished 7-9 every season from 2014-16. This was due to the defenses being one of the worst in the league every single year. No matter how many points the offense, led by Brees, would score, the defense just couldn’t stop the opposing team. Brees led the league in passing every year during this stretch, however, and continued to be the sole reason the Saints were competitive these years. 

It was in 2017 when things turned for the better. They had an outstanding draft class which included CB Marshon Lattimore, OT Ryan Ramczyk, S Marcus Lattimore, and RB Alvin Kamara. That season, Kamara won offensive rookie of the year, while Lattimore won defensive rookie of the year. Led by this draft class and second-year receiver Michael Thomas, the Saints went 11-5 and returned to the playoffs. However, their season once again ended disappointingly with the Minneapolis Miracle. This didn’t stop the Saints, who came back in 2018 with a 13-3 record and the number seed in the NFC. Brees posted his best season passer rating, with 115.7, which was good enough to lead the league. However, they lost the NFC Championship game to the Los Angeles Rams after a controversial pass interference no-call. 

The 2019 and 2020 seasons also had the Saints winning the division each year but continued to end in playoff disappointments. After losing to the Vikings in the Wild Card round in 2019, the Saints finished the Brees era with a Divisional Round loss to the Tom Brady led Tampa Bay Buccanneers in 2020. Brees will go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, and he revived a Saints franchise that was at their lowest point before he joined them. And while he will always be remembered for his Super Bowl championship, the last four years of the Brees era will also sting a bit with how they ended. 

Future Outlook

The Saints are wildly considered to have one of, if not the best, rosters in the NFL throughout the past couple of years. However, along with the Brees retirement, there is another problem for the Saints. Expensive contracts to players such as Thomas, Kamara, DE Cameron Jordan, and RT Terron Armstead have caused the Saints to be close up against the cap. They still have extensions they would need to give out to other key players, such as Lattimore and Ramczyk. The Saints will have to work out some salary cap magic to avoid letting these key players hit Free Agency next spring. They already saw key veterans such as Janoris Jenkins, Sheldon Rankins, and Emmanuel Sanders leave this offseason. The outlook so far seems to be negative for the Saints in 2021, especially with no certainty at the quarterback position. 

While the 2021 outlook for the Saints may not be great, if the Saints can work the salary cap and sign some of their expiring contracts to extensions, they could still keep a solid core of players around the quarterback position. And if the Saints can find their quarterback of the future in the upcoming drafts, expect Sean Payton to coach him up into a strong starter. However, as the roster is constructed right now, it does seem like the Saints are in a difficult position to repeat the success they had under Brees.