It seemed like it was over before it even got started.
Entering 2012, the New Orleans Saints were in position to reach the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season, an unprecedented feat for a franchise that first took the field in 1967.
However, the numerous ramifications of the "Bounty Gate" investigations involving the team and its conduct under head coach Sean Payton and then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams included Payton being suspended for the entire '12 season.
And when it was all said and done, a 0-4 start would result in a 7-9 showing. Now the club looks to start a new postseason streak.
So it's onto 2013, and here we will take a look at five players who could be critical to the team's success this upcoming season. While in some cases the obvious will be stated, in other instances the focus will be on a newcomer to the team or a performer looking to rebound from a disappointing year.
So here are five players to keep an eye on this season when it comes to the New Orleans Saints:
QB Drew Brees: In 2011, Brees set an NFL record with 5,476 yards passing and also threw for 46 scores. A year ago, the prolific signal-caller led the league with 5,177 yards through the air as well as 43 touchdown passes. But even those amazing numbers did not result in a championship either season. With Payton back at his side, it's hard to believe that Brees won't have another scintillating year. But a little balance from the running game, a key factor in the team's Super Bowl season of 2009, would be a very big help.
TE Jimmy Graham: After a phenomenal 2011 campaign that saw him total 99 receptions for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns, Graham tailed off a bit last season. However, a "bit" for the one-time Pro Bowler still meant 85 catches in 2012, nine of those for scores. Dating back to Week 15 of 2010, the rangy target has scored at least one touchdown in 18 of 34 regular-season games and a total of 24 touchdowns in those 34 contests. Brees certainly has a lot of options with wideout Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Joseph Morgan, but Graham has helped elevate Payton's already-explosive passing attack.
NT John Jenkins: There's a new sheriff in town in the form of new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who spent the last two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. It's safe to say that the coach has some work to do considering the Saints gave up 454 points last season, second-most in the NFL, and allowed the most total yards in one season in NFL history. Jenkins, a third-round pick in April, hopes to solve one of the team's major issues last season as no club in the league gave up more rushing yards per game than New Orleans.
OLB Will Smith: This will be an interesting experiment as the talented defensive end moves to outside linebacker in Ryan's 3-4 defense. The nine-year veteran totaled just 6.0 sacks last season and has just 18.0 sacks the past three years combined (Smith totaled 13.0 sacks during the team's Super Bowl XLIV title season of 2009). It is worth noting that outside linebacker Victor Butler, signed from Dallas this offseason, tore his ACL last month and may miss the entire 2013 season.
CB Keenan Lewis: The Saints didn't have a lot of money to spend this offseason, but they were quick to secure the services of Lewis, who made good on his first season as a starter a year ago with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Talk about opposite ends of the spectrum? But the emerging cornerback goes from the team that gave up the fewest yards in the league in 2012 to the club that allowed the most. In a division that boasts the likes of wide receivers Roddy White, Julio Jones, Steve Smith, Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, the addition of Lewis was a no-brainer.
So what can we expect from the Saints in 2013? Can the team bounce back from an unimaginable 2012 campaign? And who else will play an extremely pivotal role in the team's fortunes this season?
One way or another, the Saint will be involved in a lot of exciting football.
Russell S. Baxter has spent the last 40-plus years watching football. He is the founder of ProFootballGuru.com, writes for numerous websites and publications across the country and is blessed with an encyclopedic memory. Ready to talk NFL? Follow him on Twitter at @BaxFootballGuru.
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- Jimmy Graham