Saints’ Head Coach Sean Payton, Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen and their staff should be proud of the job they did this season – turning a typically weak defense into a quarterback-carrying machine. Powered by stars like Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore and 100 sack club member Cameron Jordan, the Saints allowed only 19.7 points per game, good for fourth in the league.
The front four performed at an elite level, ending the season fourth in tackles for loss, fifth in quarterback knockdowns and knockdown percentage, and seventh in sacks while only having to bring a blitz 22% of the time, 24th in the league. The secondary more than pulled its weight, catching 18 interceptions with three returned for touchdowns while only allowing 20 passing touchdowns and finishing with the fifth-best adjusted net yards per pass attempt. The most coveted stats acquired this season, though, have to be the rush defense’s astounding 3.7 yards per attempt, the very best in the NFL, coupled with a 43.5% red zone touchdown rate, also the league’s best.
Sadly, this season’s offense was a completely different story. Things might seem simply mediocre at first glance, as the team only managed 21.4 points per game, good for 19th in the league, but this was not the result of the NFL’s usual suspects of poor play calling, a bad quarterback, or terrible offensive line. This was the culmination of some of the worst injuries and cap space luck imaginable.
First, superstar wide receiver Michael Thomas ended up missing the entire season due to a late ankle surgery and complications stemming from his subsequent rehab. Star running back Alvin Kamara also only started ten games due to a knee injury. Then, the new starting quarterback, Jameis Winston, who seemed to be off to a fine start, posted a 4-2 record and an average passer rating of 102.4 before tearing his ACL midway through a week seven matchup.
Backup jack-of-all-trades Taysom Hill had sustained a concussion two weeks prior and was still inactive, so third-string quarterback Trevor Siemien stepped in and proceeded to start and lose the next four games. Hill stepped back in as starter and went 2-1 before catching COVID-19 after week 15, forcing the team to start rookie Ian Book, who proceeded to etch a passer rating of 40.6 and throw two interceptions against a very beatable Dolphins team. Dropping stretches of mostly winnable games contributed to the mediocre final record of 9-8 and kept the Saints out of the playoffs.
Looking at other offensive stats, Deonte Harris had a breakout year both as a deep threat receiver and a kick and punt returner, ranking top ten in the league for both yards per catch and yards per return. Alvin Kamara, despite time missed, still managed to make the Pro Bowl by tallying 1,337 combined rushing and receiving yards. But looking at the offense, there was no typical 1,000 yard running back or 1,000 yard wide receiver. No quarterback on the team managed even close to 200 attempts, 60% completion rate, or even 1,200 yards.
According to Pro Football Reference, the qualified passers in Winston, Hill, and Siemian posted approximate values, numbers to indicate the value of their season to the team, of five, six, and four respectively. For reference, Drew Brees never posted an approximate value season under ten while on the Saints, even in his twilight years.
Not that it’s fair to compare these players to a future Hall of Famer, but this highlights the kind of quarterback play needed to make a deep playoff run in the NFL. While talent and luck often have a say, continuity and chemistry are the most important contributing factors to winning in any team sport. A deficit in those areas crippled the Saints this season.
(*All stats compiled from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise stated)