We used to be, tiny Saints Christmas Mouse. We used to be.
How good is Drew Brees still, to this day? So good that his big plays against one of the NFL's best defenses made a game that otherwise would have been a third consecutive boring blowout loss into a shootout thriller.
Brees is not actually alone out there. He has a little help. Though his career began so slowly that his reputation among the fan base has never recovered, Mark Ingram has developed into a very good running back. Every week, it's up to Brees and Ingram to manufacture yards and points, because around them is a near-total lack of talent.
Offensive tackle Terron Armstead is a good football player, though he's been injury prone. Center Max Unger has been quiet and invisible, which on this Saints offensive line is a good thing. And Brandin Cooks has his moments. Otherwise, the Saints' offense is a collection of castoffs and has beens. Players like receivers Willie Snead and Brandon Coleman would be fine role players in the lower reaches of a depth chart; the Saints play them as starters.
Cap issues aside — and there are a lot of cap issues — the Saints need help all over their offense. They need receivers. They need to upgrade from their revolving door situation at left guard, find an heir to the aging Jahri Evans at right guard, and pray that first round pick Andrus Peat can take over for Zach Strief next year at right tackle. They need depth at tight end and probably a new starter, given Benjamin Watson is 35 years old.
The Saints need as many as five or six new starters on offense next year — and that's assuming Sean Payton and Drew Brees return.
But that's the good
half of the team.
The JV Squad
On defense, the Saints are so over-matched each week that they may as well be lining up with a junior varsity unit vs squads of seniors. As an exercise, I threw together the complete list of Saints defenders who are really good football players at this very moment, and it goes something like: Cam Jordan.
That's not being entirely fair, of course. Delvin Breaux has flashed real skills at cornerback and is a keeper. Linebackers Stephone Anthony and Hau'oli Kikaha probably are in the same boat — they could be integral parts of a good defense.
Kenny Vaccaro, too, has played pretty well this year.
Beyond those five, though, is a wasteland. There are good role players to be found (defensive linemen Bobby Richardson comes to mind, and guys like cornerback Damian Swann have potential) but to field a competent unit in 2016 the Saints will need upwards of half a dozen or more new starters or depth chart contributors.
It's tough to identify any other NFL roster with less top-to-bottom talent than the Saints. If you remove the quarterback position from the equation, I doubt anyone would switch places with New Orleans. Even the 2-10 Cleveland Browns would hesitate before trading their defense — ranked 29 in the league — for the one we've got here in New Orleans.
What's incredible is these Saints are 4-8 but are an historic Brees seven touchdown performance and one Brees game-winning pass away from being 2-10 themselves. At no time on Sean Payton's watch has the Saints' roster packed less punch.
The funny thing is, keeping the Saints' lack of talent in mind can make gameday pretty fun. The team's 41-38 loss to the Carolina Panthers in the Superdome last night was the most fun I've had watching a Saints game since the win over Atlanta earlier this year. It was like watching an overmatched, under-talented college team give everything and go down to the wire against a vastly superior school from a better-funded conference.
Remove yourself from all expectations, even of good things happening on a play to play basis, and find yourself pleasantly surprised when you have an off chance to win a game. That's not a bad way to coast through the end of the year.
That's when the real action will begin, anyway. After all, the one constant, beyond terrible defense, of these later Sean Payton years is off-seasons full of chaos. Get ready for that. By next spring, the 2015 might seem like a relaxing break from the unending turmoil we've suffered since the 2011 season came to a close.