Can Saints Stay Among the NFC Elite?: A Fan’s Analysis

The Philadelphia Eagles have a lot of obstacles other than themselves in the NFC for next season. Of course, Eagles fans like myself have to worry about the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys before thinking of opponents outside of the NFC East. One of those NFC superpowers is in very dire straits, however, now that the New Orleans Saints have been crippled by Roger Goodell.

With Sean Payton suspended for a year for allowing Greg Williams' bounty program to happen, and with the actual players involved still yet to be punished, the Saints could be a shell of their old selves in 2012 and beyond. As such, will New Orleans actually be a Super Bowl threat again in spite of what happened, or do the Eagles and the NFC elite have one less team to worry about?

The Saints learned to win last year while Payton had an injured leg in midseason and couldn't do as much. However, he could at least be near the sidelines and still do his job then, whereas Goodell has now actively banned him from even that until 2013. But New Orleans will probably promote one of Payton's coordinators for continuity's sake - which it hopes will yield the usual high octane, high stakes gambles that have defined the Saints.

Filling in for a coach is relatively easy, even when that lost coach is Payton. Filling the gap for multiple suspended players could be something else, depending on how Goodell comes down. Multiple Saints accused of taking place in "Bountygate" may face suspensions soon enough, yet Goodell is unlikely to suspend anyone for a year or so.

But he could take several games away from many players and make it much harder for the Saints to start off well. Given how good starts are very necessary in the NFL - as the Eagles learned when they started so badly last season - New Orleans' Super Bowl hopes could take a big hit with a mediocre early record. What's more, the Atlanta Falcons and perhaps even the Carolina Panthers would be poised to take advantage in the NFC South.

However, all of this may be moot if Drew Brees is throwing for over 5,000 yards again. But even he is a question mark in New Orleans, considering how it gave him a franchise tag this year instead of a long-term deal. Although Brees is the symbol of the Saints and New Orleans, he still couldn't get a big new contract yet - which is just one of many ways that this offseason has gone horribly wrong.

Yet now that Brees might be all they have soon enough, the Saints have to hope the contract dispute doesn't affect him - both in his play and his desire to stay in New Orleans. It looks even worse now that the Eagles actually gave DeSean Jackson the big new contract he wanted, despite his far more problematic behavior. If New Orleans still can't give Brees enough to keep him satisfied, even now, "Bountygate" might not even be close to rock bottom for the franchise.

The Eagles still have the Giants, Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers and likely a surprise team or two to get through on the road to the NFC title. But not having the Saints on that elite list makes it a little easier by definition.

And yet if Brees and company put all this behind them and win big anyway, there may be no more dangerous team in the NFC. After all, the Saints have already overcome a hurricane and their franchise's formerly pathetic history to become champions - although the way they did it is now threatening to drop them off again.

Robert Dougherty is a life-long Philadelphia resident who has followed the Eagles since he was eight years old.

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Updated Friday, Mar 23, 2012