METAIRIE, La. - The New Orleans Saints finished their turbulent 2021 season at 9-8 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2016. It was an emotionally-draining roller-coaster ride for everyone involved: players; coaches; fans; and media. The Saints raced to a 5-2 start, nosedived into a five-game losing streak in the middle and finished strong to salvage their fifth consecutive winning season, the longest streak in club history.
Saints beat writers Amie Just and Luke Johnson and columnists Jeff Duncan and Rod Walker recently huddled to discuss the Saints’ 2021 season and what the club’s game plan should be for the 2022 offseason.
In today's Part 1, we review the season and analyze what went right and what went wrong:
Now that you’ve had a few days to reflect, what grade would you give the team for the 2021 season and why?
Jeff Duncan: A B grade seems fair to me. The injuries, suspensions and COVID-19 infections were unfortunate and certainly greased the disastrous five-game losing streak, but the Saints also suffered inexcusable losses to the Carolina Panthers and New York Giants early in the season when they were playing with relatively healthy lineups. If they’d won either of those games or that ugly home loss to the Falcons, and they wouldn’t have needed help to make the playoffs late in Week 18.
Luke Johnson: Let’s call this an A with the understanding that this season was graded on an extreme curve. Maybe this is proximity bias speaking, but I can’t think of another NFL team in my lifetime that was so consistently pummeled with bad news and still managed to be in the hunt by season’s end. In the end, it didn’t matter that this team ranked No. 28 in total offense (a low during the Sean Payton era) and missed the playoffs. It was remarkable the Saints even gave themselves a shot.
Amie Just: I’m going with a B, also grading on a curve. The Saints went through a lot this season and were still on the cusp of making the playoffs. I grade them down a tad because of the offense, but again, the ineffectiveness there at times can be reasoned away, too. The Saints will say, and have said, “no excuses,” but I think, all things considered, this is about as good as they could have done, big-picture-wise.
Rod Walker: Rod Walker: It’s a B- for me. Yes, you could put an asterisk beside the whole season for all the Saints went through. But there were some moments, particularly that late game collapse to the New York Giants, that we shouldn’t give them a free pass for. The offense’s struggles, even with all the injuries, shouldn’t be overlooked. And it’s hard to grade higher than a B in a season that included a 5-game losing streak, regardless of the circumstances.
What was the most disappointing part of the season?
Jeff Duncan: The Michael Thomas situation was a killer and totally avoidable. There’s no reason to rehash the whole imbroglio, but the loss of Thomas devastated the Saints offense and had a cascading effect on their depth chart. Injuries during a season are unavoidable and inherent to the NFL. This was something entirely different, and as Sean Payton would say, there were a lot of dirty hands involved. It never should have reached the point it did. The Saints offense never really recovered from the setback.
Luke Johnson: The worst part about this season was that the Saints got an incomplete evaluation of quarterback Jameis Winston, with his season being cut short at seven starts. New Orleans knows what it has in Winston as a locker room presence, but it was never able to fully deploy him before an injury ended his season, playing a mostly conservative brand of offense. Winston showed he can take care of the football, throwing only three interceptions in 161 attempts, but he never got a chance to fully take off in this offense. Did the Saints see enough? The next few months should be telling.
Amie Just: Echoing Luke here: the fact that Jameis Winston only played in seven games. Is that enough to rehabilitate his on-field reputation? I don’t know. The Saints did, at times, treat him like a game manager, but it worked. The Saints went 5-2 in his starts. To me, he looked like he was on the right trend, throwing just three interceptions compared to 14 touchdowns in what was a small sample size.
Rod Walker: Seeing the stellar effort of the defense go to waste. For the most part, this was a championship caliber defense. This is a defense so good it held Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers to just three points in the opener and then three months later went on the road and shut out Tom Brady. Unfortunately, the offense couldn’t quite match it, ranking near the bottom of the league. Remember back when it used to be the other way around when the offense had to do all the heavy lifting?
What was the most encouraging part of the season?
Jeff Duncan: I was impressed with the leadership of the entire team from the front office to the coaching staff to the players in the locker room. Despite the adversity, nobody made excuses and no one pointed fingers. That’s a testament to the strong leadership in the locker room from guys like Cam Jordan, Demario Davis, Terron Armstead, Jameis Winston and Alvin Kamara and to the winning culture built and cultivated by Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis.
Luke Johnson: Maybe this doesn’t qualify as the most encouraging — I think that’d be the whole surviving the turbulence of this season thing — but I was impressed by this rookie class. The Saints look like they have a couple potential studs in Pete Werner and Paulson Adebo, Payton Turner was looking like an excellent prospect before an injury ended his season, and Ian Book and Landon Young should be, at the very least, solid depth prospects.
Amie Just: Some of the two positions that worried me coming into the year were cornerback and linebacker. I wasn’t sold on Paulson Adebo being the starter after sitting out for a full year and then making the jump to the NFL, but he proved me wrong. Sure, there are some things to clean up, but his performance was a pleasant surprise. The same can be said for Pete Werner. When Kwon Alexander couldn’t go due to injury or COVID, Werner stepped up and played well as a rookie.
Rod Walker: The defense would be my obvious answer. Without them, 9-8 could have easily been 6-11 or 5-12 or worse. But even more specific, I’d say the play of Marcus Davenport and Cameron Jordan. Davenport missed some games again, but boy did he wreak some havoc in the 11 games he played in. And was there a player in the NFL who finished the season stronger than Jordan? He recorded 8.5 sacks over the last four games of the season. And let’s not forget Blake Gillikin, who made sure the Saints didn’t skip a beat without Thomas Morstead.
The Saints finished the season ranked 28th in the NFL in offense, which is highly uncharacteristic of a Sean Payton offense. In your opinion, what were the main reasons for the offensive struggles?
Jeff Duncan: There were many contributing factors, but the biggest was up front. The Saints offense goes as its front five goes, and the Saints offensive line was riddled by injuries all season. The starting unit played less than 30 combined snaps together and the lineup was often missing multiple starters. It’s difficult to get anything going when your line play is so inconsistent. Even with the decline in quarterback play from Drew Brees, I think the offense could have produced at a successful level if the line had stayed healthy.
Luke Johnson: Before we get into the offensive injuries, of which there were plenty, let’s make sure we understand that the Saints weren’t exactly lighting scoreboards up even when they had Winston under center. Part of this was, I think, a stylistic choice: New Orleans knew the strength of its team was its defense, and it played that way. But this season just reinforced to me that this team needs more playmakers, and it can’t just go into the 2022 season simply expecting Michael Thomas will return to his 2019 form.
Amie Just: It’s myriad things that all confounded on each other. The Saints were essentially at full health, outside of Michael Thomas and Erik McCoy, offensively for the head scratching Week 2 loss at Carolina. I think some of this is by design — the Saints’ offense was tailored around Drew Brees for forever — but the injuries played a part, too. I’m not convinced 2022 is going to be any better, though. Not until the quarterback and receiver positions get figured out.
Rod Walker: If you thought there wouldn’t be much drop off in the first year without Drew Brees, you were probably being unrealistic. We saw it in 2020 the first year Tom Brady left New England (they went from eighth to 27th in total yards) and we saw it in 2011 when Peyton Manning sat out with an injury with Indianapolis (they dipped from fourth to 27th). So the offense was bound to take a step back. Not having Michael Thomas, losing Jameis along with three prominent pieces of the offensive line (Armstead, Peat and Ramczyk) didn’t help matters.