Borrowing the title from an epic movie, the 2012 offseason for the New Orleans Saints was truly "The Longest Yard."
In a period months which seemed like years, the Saints went from being the darlings of the country to becoming the black sheep of the NFL. Labels of dirty, cheating, dishonest, arrogant and awful were heaped upon the team in swift, decisive fashion by critics.
We are weary of the word "bounty." It has taken on an all new meaning for those who follow the black and gold.
Suspensions, lawsuits, the seemingly endless saga of trying to sign Drew Brees dominated the landscape.
The worm finally seemed to turn when Brees agreed to terms and pledged his love and loyalty to New Orleans and the Saints. Fans began to feel better again.
Now, it is back to the business of games.
Training camp has opened and the preseason begins the first week of August. Perhaps the most accomplished player in New Orleans Saints history (William Roaf) will be formally inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame before the Saints actually play in the game itself. The focus is back on football, not a moment too soon.
How will this Saints team deal with the distractions? Can it overcome not having its driving force at the helm in Sean Payton? Can Joe Vitt handle the responsibility of filling the sizeable hole left by Payton, a brilliant strategist and game day coach? How will the team handle it when Vitt disappears for his suspension? How will the suspension of Mickey Loomis affect the squad? What about the suspensions of Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma and how they will impact the defense?
On a national level, pundits have pontificated far and wide about how the Saints will slip this season. Many have them winning eight or nine games. Really?
Atlanta is a trendy pick to win the NFC South. That is the same Falcons team that could not score on the Giants in the playoffs last season. Many others say Tampa Bay will be much better with a new coach. This is a team that not win a game in over two months of the season last year. Others love Carolina to be the big surprise this year with the emergence of Cam Newton. We will see.
I will take the Saints to win the division once again.
This is the Saints, a team that won a Super Bowl in the 2009 season, came back in 2010 and won 11 games and won 13 a year ago while setting numerous offensive records in a dizzying display of skill.
Despite losing Carl Nicks and Robert Meachem, the offense should not skip a beat. Brees is Brees. Enough said. The running back stable is deep and the respective talents of the four primary players compliment each other nicely. Ben Grubbs is a very good player, ready to step in for Nicks. Joe Morgan, Nick Toon and Adrian Arrington are more than capable of picking up the slack for Meachem. Jimmy Graham is a year older and already elite in the NFL.
Defensively, the addition of Brodrick Bunkley should solidify the defensive front. Cameron Jordan should be a better player. Sedrick Ellis must play better. Martez Wilson is a wild card as a pass rusher at defensive end.
Three new linebackers bring needed athleticism and striking ability to a mediocre corps without Vilma. Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain. The secondary remains a question mark. Safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper must find a way to make a play and Jabari Greer must stay healthy while Patrick Robinson must continue to improve. Can Johnny Patrick become a good nickel back?
Garrett Hartley is back to kick while John Kasay is waiting in the wings. Thomas Morstead is perhaps the best punt/kickoff combination specialist in the league. Darren Sproles is an excellent return man while Morgan could provide a boost as well if Courtney Roby is not retained.
On paper, the Saints are as good, if not better than last year. How that translates on the field remains to be seen. The losses are substantial. How long will the scars from the offseason of discontent linger?
In spending some time around Saints folks, I get the distinct impression that they are more than motivated to prove the pundits wrong. I get the distinct impression that they are hyped to succeed and to stick it in the NFL's face, feeling that they have been wronged.
The Saints were wrong to break rules. That is a given. Punishment, as I have stated on many occasions, was warranted. Like many, I feel the penalties levied by Roger Goodell were too harsh. The Saints certainly feel that way.
Coaches frequently use motivational tactics to get their teams ready to play. Suffice it to say that the Saints will not need spirited speeches, emotional outbursts from Vitt or whoever is serving as the boss to feel they have something to prove in 2012.
While there are substantive questions, the Saints feel they will have answers, providing them in demonstrative fashion, making a real run at playing in Super Bowl XLVII on February 3, 2013. As if they did not have enough motivation already.
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