For the Saints, the 2021 season ended in the most 2021 way possible
The Saints should be playing this weekend.
Right now, I should be lubricating my voice with generous amounts of White Claw in the parking lot of SoFi Stadium in preparation for the Saints’ Wildcard match-up with the Rams.
Instead, I am alone, in the dark, in my home, playing video games, pretending that there are no NFL playoff games on TV.
“Atlanta will be on the couch, and we’re gonna be on the couch right next to Carolina,” Cam Jordan said last Sunday after defeating the Falcons 30-20.
The Saints held up their end of the bargain and dominated their rivals from wire to wire, but the L.A. Rams lost to the resurgent 49ers, and now the 2021 Saints will be fossilized at 9-8, a winning team, but excluded from the postseason for the first time since 2016.
Last Sunday in Los Angeles, the Rams blew a 17-0 lead. They choked like a meat-loving Midwesterner trying to scarf down a vegan breakfast burrito. That’s the only reason, right? The Saints should be in the playoffs, after all.
Well, to quote former Saints head coach Jim Mora, could’ve, would’ve, should’ve is the difference. The 2021 Saints didn’t control their own destiny because they lost too many games. You can call Rams QB Matthew Stafford a “choke artist loser” all you want (and you certainly should do that), but the Saints missed the playoffs because they were 9-8 and the 49ers were 10-7.
You could argue the Saints played (and lost) two games that should’ve been postponed for COVID-19 reasons – their divisional match-up in Carolina, because the coaching staff was decimated, and the Monday Night Football game against the Dolphins, because 22 players were on the COVID list.
But what about the games in which the Saints just flat out laid an egg? What about the Falcons game in the Superdome, or the 11-point 4th quarter lead they blew against the Giants at home?
The whole point of Mora’s infamous rant was that the team wasn’t good enough to eek out the close ones, and that’s exactly what happened in 2021. The Saints were dealt a bad hand on numerous occasions and fought like hell to remain in the hunt until the very last minute of the last Sunday of the regular season, but it still wasn’t enough.
The ’21 season was exhausting. In addition to the aforementioned COVID issues and random stinkers, the Saints had to endure Drew Brees’ heir apparent suffering a season-ending injury; their star wide receiver not playing a single snap; injuries to every single position group on the offense; a season-ending injury to their kicker; multiple suspensions; bad officiating at every turn; and relocation because of Hurricane Ida.
There were great moments, like obliterating Aaron Rodgers and the Packers 38-3 and sweeping Tom Brady and the Bucs. At some point, those games will be looked back upon fondly.
But for this writer, now is not the time. The 2021 season was a minefield and somehow the Saints almost made it across despite stepping on a few live rounds. It was tough to sit through, and now that it’s over, it’s time to move on and not dwell on what could have or should have happened.
In the words of Mike Ditka, another former Saints head coach, you live in the past, you die in the past.
But that’s not to say that it’s all bad.
Fellow Boot Krewe Media podcaster Chris Rosvoglou brought up an interesting point in his Saints-Falcons postmortem this week. If the Saints hadn’t waded through so much adversity, would they be the same team they are now?
Had they not blown a late-game lead against the Giants, or squandered comebacks against the Titans and Falcons, or had to play a game with street free agents on the o-line and their rookie 4th string quarterback, would their defense be as stellar as it was down the stretch? Would Taysom Hill have developed the poise and comfort under center that he appeared to display in the last quarter of the season?
If the team is to take the next step toward becoming a contender again, could they have done so without the harrowing experiences of 2021?
It’s true that the NFL is more often than not about the bottom line. But it’s also true that players and coaches learn from their experiences. The Saints have most of their core under contract for 2022 and will likely retain much of the talent on defense, in addition to (ostensibly) getting Michael Thomas back on offense. Who’s to say a healthy player here and a free agent there won’t put this team back into serious contention? Who’s to say the returning players won’t be battle-hardened from the gauntlet of 2021?
This team reminds me of the 2008 squad. Drew Brees and Sean Payton’s third season together featured the league’s top-ranked offense paired with the 26th-ranked defense, and a few missed kicks turned what could have been a 10 or 11-win team into an 8-8 team on the outside of the postseason looking in. In that off-season, the defense was improved and the Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009.
Now, the inverse is true of the franchise. The defense is championship-worthy and the offense struggled. The Saints are just a little positive offensive regression away from being right back where the Who Dat Nation expects them to be.
We’re on to 2022.