Rick Cleveland

Losers turned winners: Don’t count Saints out just yet

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas, right, is greeted by teammate Willie Snead after scoring a touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif.
New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas, right, is greeted by teammate Willie Snead after scoring a touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif. AP

It appears many of us wrote the 2016 New Orleans Saints obituary a tad too soon.

Losers of four of their first five games, the Saints have won four of their last five and are 4-4 headed into the second half of the NFL season.

Those four victories, step by step, have moved the Saints off the DOA list, on to life support, to critical condition and now alive and well.

To be exact, they are just one and a half games behind the NFC South Division-leading Atlanta Falcons. They still have serious cases of defensive maladies, but they have a Hall of Fame quarterback, Drew Brees, who gives them a chance for long-term survival.

Two ways to look at this:

  • One: The Saints keep getting key injured players back and of their eight remaining games, five will be against teams with losing records.
  • Two: The Saints are a mediocre team in a league filled with mediocrity. Of 32 NFL teams, 21 have records within one game of .500. The New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys are the only two teams that have lost fewer than two games. Twenty-seven of 32 teams have lost three games or more. In the NFL, parity is a fact.

Either way, the Saints have won their way back into the playoff hunt. They easily could be in even better shape. The Saints lost one game by a single point, another by three and still another by six.

It would be silly to put too much emphasis on what the Saints achieved this past Sunday, winning big on the road against the San Francisco 49ers. After all, the Niners might just be the league’s worst team. After an opening-day victory, the Niners have lost seven straight, and six of those have been by double digits. And still, the 49ers put up a season-high 486 yards against the porous Saints defense.

Other than Brees, here’s what should give Saints fans the most hope: The defense should improve now that cornerback Delvin Breaux, easily their best pass defender, and first-round draft choice Sheldon Rankins are back. Rankins, an explosive tackle out of Louisville, came off the bench Sunday but should give the Saints an improved push up front once he acclimates to the NFL’s faster pace. Breaux is an upgrade, period, a cover guy with all-league skills.

The Saints can only hope that Rankins advances at nearly the pace second-round draft choice Michael Thomas has. Were it not for Dak Prescott, Thomas would be a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year. Long and fast and with dependable hands, Thomas has become Brees’ go-to guy with a team-leading 47 catches, including five for touchdowns. He will only get better.

That said, the Saints remain Brees’ team. The receivers change from year to year and so do the people blocking for him, but Brees keeps on dealing. He remains as accurate a passer as anyone who has played the sport. This season, he ranks second in the league in passing, behind only the Falcons’ Matt Ryan, completing 69.7 percent of his throws for 336 yards per game.

Remember when we wondered how Brees would do without All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, who was dealt to the Seattle Seahawks to clear salary cap room? Well, he found Ben Watson for 74 catches last year. Graham caught 48 for Seattle. Now, Watson has gone to Baltimore and Coby Fleener and Josh Hill have combined for 36 catches.

Marques Colston gone? Plug in Thomas. Lance Moore gone? Plug in Willie Snead. The point is, no matter who the receivers are, the ball will be there for them. And it will be there to catch in stride.

Brees, at 37, still has his fastball.

The season’s second half begins Sunday when the Denver Broncos, defending Super Bowl champions, go to New Orleans. It is a measure of the league’s parity that the Saints, 7-9 a year ago, opened as a one-point favorite over the Broncos, who are 6-3 this season with losses in three of their last five games since winning their first four.

Sunday’s game, with a noon start in the Superdome, should give us a much better reading of where the Saints stand in 2016.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.