Last season, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees nearly broke Dan Marino’s single season passing yards record. He fell just a few yards short of breaking the record on the final play of the final game of the 2008 season. While Brees had a great season individually, the Saints as a team were the definition of average, finishing with an 8-8 record. So far in 2009, they are one of the last remaining undefeated teams in the NFL. So, the question is, are they for real, or are they either just on a hot streak or playing cupcakes?
In this post, I will compare the Saints’ per game statistics from 2008 with those of the first quarter of 2009. For each season, I will also compare their league rankings in offensive and defensive points, total yards, passing yards, and rushing yards. Then, I will do the same for their average opponents’ rankings. This should give some indication as to the level of competition from last year to this. Finally, I will also show the average opponents’ rankings for their remaining opponents this year to see if their schedule will get harder than it has been so far.
First, let’s compare the Saints’ per game numbers of 2008 with those of the first four games in 2009.
|New Orleans Saints Year to Year Comparison|
The main reasons that the Saints were not serious contenders for a playoff spot in 2008 were their defense and running game. With the exception of their rush defense rank (17), their defense and rushing offense all ranked in the bottom third of the league last year, which we will see below. As we can see from the above table, though, New Orleans’s offense and defense are putting up better numbers in just about every way. While Brees is averaging about 63 fewer yards per game passing, the offense is more balanced, averaging nearly 67 more rushing yards per game. The improved balance has led to fewer interceptions (0.63 fewer/game) and more points, just over a TD more per game.
The defense is also putting up better numbers. They are allowing over 8 fewer points per game so far in 2009, over 44 fewer yards per game (about 10 fewer passing and 34 fewer rushing yards), and fewer TDs on both the ground and in the air. They are also forcing more TOs: 1.56 more interceptions per game and 1.88 more total TOs. The biggest part of this is due to the early success of Darren Sharper, which I mentioned in my Around the NFL in Week 4 post. Not only is he leading the league in interceptions, with 5, he returned two of them for TDs, to get within two of Rod Woodson, the all time leader in INTs for TDs. Having discussed their per game numbers, let’s compare their rankings from 2008 against 2009 so far.
|New Orleans Saints’ Rankings|
|Off Pass Yds||1||10|
|Off Rush Yds||28||2|
|Def Pass Yds||23||13|
|Def Rush Yds||17||8|
Based on these numbers, the Saints are clearly playing more balanced football with a higher performing offense and defense than in 2008. Their offensive passing rank is lower than last year, but that is more than made up for by the improved running game. The question now is: Are they doing that against the same level of competition as last year?
The table below contains the Average Opponents’ Rankings for the Saints’ opponents in 2008, so far in 2009, and remaining in 2009. I decided to include the “remaining in 2009″ rankings because I was curious to see what their remaining level of competition looked like.
|Average Opponents’ Rankings|
|2008||2009 Q1||2009 Rem|
|Off Pass Yds||16.5||17||15.5|
|Off Rush Yds||13.06||18.75||9.33|
|Def Pass Yds||18.19||18||13.08|
|Def Rush Yds||19.5||16.25||17.58|
First, let’s just look at the numbers for 2008 and 2009 Q1. The opponents’ average offensive rankings in 2009 Q1 are all close to or less than those of 2008. The biggest difference is in Rush Yards rankings, which drops an average of over 5 spots. The others are pretty close, although Total Yards is also about 3.5 lower than 2008. Some of the difference is probably accounted for the Saints’ defensive improvement. New Orleans’s defensive rankings improve much more than the difference in opponents’ offensive rankings, which suggests legitimate improvement, not just better numbers due to inferior competition. The 2009 opponents’ offensive rankings would also be impacted by the fact that the Saints’ defense is putting up better numbers.
Now, when looking at the Saints’ opponents’ average defensive rankings, it does not seem that there is drastic difference in the the rankings from 2008 to 2009 Q1. The biggest changes are higher opponents’ rankings in total yards and rushing yards. Since the Saints biggest improvement so far this year is in rushing the ball, this also suggests that the Saints’ improvements are legitimate. They’re not just playing teams that are seives against the run.
Finally, I wanted to take a look at the current rankings of the teams left on the Saints’ schedule. The biggest differences are in opponents’ average rushing rank, which is significantly higher (almost 9 spots higher), and the defensive pass yards rank. With the improved running game, the higher opponents’ defensive pass rankings shouldn’t be an issue. However, it’s possible that the Saints’ rush defensive rank will suffer, even if the unit is playing better than last year.
Having looked at all of these numbers, I have to conclude at this point that, yes, the Saints are for real. They have the best balance they’ve probably had in team history. Currently, the rush offense is ranked 2nd in the league, their QB is one of two in NFL history to pass for over 5,000 yards, and their defense is much improved in all aspects. This appears to be a team with few weaknesses at this point, if any. We will see how the rest of the season plays out, but up to this point in the season, there is no legitimate reason to doubt that the Saints are championsip contender.