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'Twas the Saints before Christmas …

Bradley Warshauer tells a tale of Black and Gold, frankincense, myrrh and Rob Ryan

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Chapter One from The Christmas Book of the Who Dat Nation

Now, in those days the people were much saddened, for Goodell's retribution had been harsh and unmeasured; their team had suffered greatly, and the people had also suffered, because of his malice. But in the night a new star shone brightly, and gave the people hope, and three banished kings saw it and began their journey across the desert bearing gifts.

  The first king, who was by name known as Sean, had long wandered the wilderness alone, but it was known he could do so no longer, for the people had for much time cried out for a defense.

  "How long, O Sean!" they said with one voice. "How long must every quarterback look like a great quarterback? How long will every third down be cause for great alarm?"

  Sean, the wandering king, heard their cries, and looked to the shining star, which was shaped like a French lily. He would have a defense, but whom would he charge with the great task?

  The second king, who was Mickey, the counter of many numbers, had followed the star for some time, and when he saw Sean he embraced him and cried out, "Brother, you have returned, but have you found defense?"

  Sean, holding a gift of black and of gold, answered, "Not yet, for in these times defense is rare, and only the ablest of men can bring it. Pray, what gift are you bringing?"

  Mickey held to the heavens a purse and cried, "My gift I carry here, and it will do much for the people who desire defense, and the playoffs once more."

  "Come then. Let us follow the star," Sean said, and they embarked again together through the night.

{interlude}

There's a tendency to overrate the value of a given change to a team, especially in a sport like football, which, all its tactics and strategies and strange position names and funny scouting terms aside, literally involves men running into one another at full speed, on purpose, in an attempt to gain control over a stretched-out soccer ball that does funny things when it bounces.

  It's accurate to say the hiring of Rob Ryan and the subsequent resurgence of the New Orleans Saints' defense in 2013 has been one of the primary reasons behind the fifth season of double-digit wins since the arrival of coah Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees.

  But, given the at-times difficult path to those wins, it's obviously wrong to believe that a competent defense would alone mean a dominant Saints team and a trip to New Jersey. Football has too many moving parts and too much chaos.

  Every season is different from all the others, and every game is different from the ones that came before it and which will come later. As fans, observers, commentators and writers, our response to the chaos is to create stories. We apply the human narrative structure. This can make the sport easier to understand, and also more enthralling; it also can make the results seem predestined, even though they're not, and that can kill the mood.

  The Saints are a good, but not dominant, playoff-caliber football team because their defense generally does pretty well and because Brees is usually pretty wonderful; there are significant personnel issues on the offensive line and perhaps even at the skill positions. Good but not great can mean a struggle to make the playoffs, and it can mean an early exit from them.

  It also can mean a championship. For evidence, please see the 2012 Baltimore Ravens.

Chapter Two from The Christmas Book of the Who Dat Nation

At that time there was a man named Rob. Now, this man Rob was a son of kings and brother to princes, and he did indulge in many meretricious libations and did enjoy the jocular company of men.

  Rob toiled under the reign of a certain emperor of the south and west, commanding the emperor's defense, but his toils were not rewarded, and his defense was not vaunted, and the emperor, to make an example before his host, banished Rob to the wilderness.

  And Rob cried out: "Let he who doubts me know of the depths of the emperor's wrongdoing; I will be out of work for like five minutes."

  A king of the middle west heard Rob's cry and decreed Rob should command the army of his defense. It was then that the star of the French lily appeared in the heavens, and Rob, desiring to follow it, departed the middle west.

  During this time the kings Sean and Mickey came upon Rob in the desert, and were much dismayed by his unkept hair and soiled clothes; but Rob, seeing their dismay, assuaged their fears and cried, "Strangers, do not fear, for this is the uniform of my people, and I have great faith. Tonight there is a star over a faraway city, and to this star I go."

  The king Sean did embrace Rob and cried, "Friend, we too follow the star. Would that you command my defense."

  The king Mickey, taking gold from his purse, did offer some of it to Rob and said: "You shall be the third king, and we will together serve the people under the star. What gift have you brought for them?"

  "Let us follow the star," said Rob. "And let us together give our gifts."

{Interlude}

The most important revelation of 2013 for the Saints should have repercussions that reach beyond the season, affecting the team's fate for many years. A year ago the Saints' defense seemed aimless and, with few exceptions, talentless. Now it seems stocked with outstanding young players, especially on the line.

  What changed?

  Certainly the arrival of Rob Ryan, who has built his schemes around his players' abilities, has helped. But the arrival of competent defense in New Orleans has its roots in decisions made since the 2011 draft.

  In 2011, the Saints drafted defensive lineman Cameron Jordan with the No. 24 pick in the first round. A year later, they drafted defensive lineman Akiem Hicks in the third round, and before this season, with the pick they acquired thanks to the Chris Ivory trade, they selected defensive tackle John Jenkins.

  Those three players, lined up next to outside linebacker/defensive end Junior Galette, whom the Saints had patiently developed for two years after signing him as an undrafted free agent, have given the Saints their best defensive front in more than a decade.

  Youthful inconsistency has still been an issue, but when these four players are at their best they are a terror for opposing offenses — and their youth itself is the most important thing about them. They're all cheap, for one thing, allowing the Saints more flexibility elsewhere on the roster.

   And it's likely none of them has reached their peak. They should continue to develop, particularly Hicks, who seems poised for the kind of leap between 2013 and 2014 that Cam Jordan took between 2012 and 2013.

  The Saints should be able to keep this unit together for a long time. That means the future of defense in New Orleans is bright, which should make Drew Brees' twilight years more fun for us all.

Chapter Three from The Christmas Book of the Who Dat Nation

Now, in those days the capital of the Who Dat Nation was the Superdome, as it is now, and it was there that the star led the three kings Sean, Mickey, and Rob, who, when they saw their destination, rejoiced exceedingly. One by one they presented their gifts to the fans.

  The king Mickey opened his purse and said, "My gift is young talent: Kenny Vaccaro, Cam Jordan, Akiem Hicks, Junior Galette, Kenny Stills, and others. Inexpensive this talent is, and around it we will build this team for an era."

  The king Sean said, "My gift is efficiency, for Breesus, who is our great warrior, has thrown too many interceptions."

  The king Rob opened his treasure and brought it before the people and cried, "My gift is defense!"

  And the Who Dat Nation cheered.

  Amen.

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