It was seemingly over before it even began.
That's how some viewed the New Orleans Saints' 2012 season. A season-long suspension for head coach Sean Payton was the lowlight of numerous punishments for coaches, executives and players that casted a pall over the team's attempt to repeat as NFC South champions.
When it was all said and done, seven wins in their final 12 games wasn't enough to offset a 0-4 start. The Saints finished 7-9 and out of the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
But Payton is back and so are high expectations for a team that remains one of the most exciting in the league.
And the New Orleans Saints will be in the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons…
If: New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan can fix a unit that was not only the worst in the league in 2012 but one that gave up the most total yards in one season in NFL history. The Saints were dead last in the league against the run while only the Buccaneers gave up more passing yards per game. And only the Tennessee Titans (471) gave up more points than New Orleans (454) in 2012. It's out with the 4-3 and in with Ryan and the 3-4 and the former Dallas defensive coordinator is hoping newcomers such as outside linebacker Victor Butler (Cowboys) and cornerback Keenan Lewis (Steelers) can help.
And: Quarterback Drew Brees continues to put up phenomenal numbers and at the same time can cut back on the miscues. In 2012, Brees threw for 5,177 yards and 43 scores, both the top figures in the league for the second straight season. But the Saints' prolific passer also tied for the NFL lead with 19 interceptions and all told, totaled 20 of New Orleans' 24 turnovers this past season. Again, having Payton back on the sidelines should help Brees rectify some of those issues.
But: If the Saints don't find some offensive balance (which would help their defense), the team is destined to put a lot of points on the board once again and give up just as many. New Orleans won seven games in 2012 and outscored their opponents last season by a combined seven points (461-454). Even without Payton on the sidelines, the team wound up second in the league in total offense, including first in passing yards per game. But the Saints totaled 370 rushing attempts for 1,577 yards, the latter figure ranking 25th in the league last season.
So what do you think? Fixing that defense is obviously a major priority that won't necessarily be easy. And while the Atlanta Falcons won the NFC South by six games over the Saints, Panthers and Buccaneers, all four clubs finished 3-3 within the division in 2012. With Payton back are the Saints back as well? Or are there simply too many issues in the Crescent City?
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, can be heard on Yahoo! Sports Radio and many other networks and was blessed with an encyclopedic memory. Ready to talk NFL? Follow him on Twitter at @BaxFootballGuru.
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