Kristian@wwl.com - With the Saints set to begin training camp in just about three weeks, there are a ton of questions surrounding the Black and Gold as they embark on the 2012 season. It’s a season in which they insist will not be distracted from a tumultuous off-season filled with the "Bounty" scandal that cause their head coach to be suspended for the entire year.
Bounty hangover: Will the Saints suffer from a bounty hangover? Will the team get out of the gates quickly despite having to answer seemingly endless questions about the alleged “pay for pain” program implemented by the team from 2009 to 2011? I think this will be a non-factor. The Saints have a load of veteran leadership on this team. Quarterback Drew Brees is still in the mix, and with that is a chance for greatness. Don't count on a bounty hangover here.
Hard feelings: Will Drew Brees have hard feelings over contract talks that dragged on into the summer? Once the deal is done (and it WILL) get done before July 16th) both sides will “kiss and make up,” and that will be that. The Saints won't hold a grudge and Brees won't hold one either. This is business. The deal will get done, and both sides will say how much they love one another. It's like a marriage… they're arguing a bit right now...then it's good old-fashioned soul mate love. Get the Barry White CD ready.
Hosting the big one: The Super Bowl is in New Orleans in February of 2013. Will the Saints feel the pressure of being the first team to play in the big game in their own home stadium? Nope! They're embracing it! They've made it clear that is their goal. Normally, I’d call the Saints the “underdog” in this situation…but again it goes back to veteran leadership and the Saints are one of a handful of teams that can handle this kind of pressure.
Payton missing: How much will the Saints miss Sean Payton? I think this is the biggest wild card in the group. They're going to miss him in more ways than his ability to coach the team on Sundays. Payton is revered for his preparation. He's got a tremendous knack for knowing what buttons to push throughout the week to get his team’s attention for the upcoming game. Payton not being in the building will hurt. I think he's good for 2 or 3 wins a year. Joe Vitt is a fantastic motivator, but he's no Sean Payton. And, don’t forget, Vitt himself will miss a few games.
New defense: How long will it take the Saints defense to jell? The Saints have three new linebackers and a defensive scheme that is vastly different than the one they ran under Gregg Williams for three seasons. Steve Spagnuolo's defense is complex and has a lot of variables to it. How quickly the unit can digest the new system will be a big factor in how successful this team will be in 2012. The good news is they aren't starting a bunch of rookies on top of learning a new scheme. This shouldn't be a big problem either.
Encore for Sproles: Can Darren Sproles duplicate his fantastic season of a year ago? When Sproles arrived, it was easy to see how quick he would fit in to the Saints offense. Nobody had any idea that he would be so dynamic in his first season with the black and gold, without the benefit of having a full off-season to learn the offense. Sproles is a match-up nightmare for teams, and I think he can be just as good or better in 2012.
Fan reaction: I'm interested to see just how the fans are going to react this season. The Who Dat nation rallies around their team like no other fan base in the NFL. With the chips stacked against their team, the fans will likely bring their A game to each and every Sunday afternoon in the Superdome as they typically do. However, I think the environment in the Dome will be even more electric and intense than ever before. The Fans have taken this off-season personally, and they don't intend to sit back and watch passively. The Superdome could be the toughest place in the league for visiting teams. The opposition can thank Mr. Goodell if it's impossible to hear in that place this season. Bring ear plugs and Tylenol, because you're in for a raucous time on Poydras street.
Graham reaper: Jimmy Graham had a coming out party in 2011, and can he "two dat" again? YES! No doubt he will. If Graham stays healthy, he's the kind of weapon Brees and company love to isolate on linebackers and Safeties. He's too fast and too big to handle. He's still an NFL puppy, but a bulked-up Graham could be in for another monster year in 2012.
Pete Carmichael calling the shots: With Sean Payton suspended for the entire season, its Pete Carmichael's turn to call the offensive plays in the Saints Krew de Drew offense. Will he have the same knack for dissecting defenses as his mentor? I know this...it will make it a lot easier with Brees under center. He is tremendous at keeping you out of the wrong or bad play. I don't expect a drop off in offensive production without Payton. In fact I think you might see even more aggressive playing calling in Patyon's absence, if nothing more than to prove a point.
Health: As with everything in the NFL you have to stay healthy at key positions. If the injury bug starts to bite at the offensive line position, the Saints could be in trouble. Other than Drew Brees, the Saints can plug in a couple of guys and not miss a beat due to injury. Health and some good bounces of the ball are a must for the Saints in 2012.