The New Orleans Saints, BountyGate And History’s First 7,000-Yard Defense
The New Orleans Saints were at the center of the football world for all the wrong reasons last year, when they were hit with the closest thing to the death penalty the NFL had ever seen.
The 2012 Saints were busted during BountyGate – the team’s pay-for-pain scandal in which cash rewards were reportedly dished out for inflicting injuries upon opponents.
The Gridiron Godfather Roger Goodell wreaked unnecessary vengeance upon the team, suspending for various lengths of time head coach Sean Payton, assistant head coach Joe Vitt, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma (pictured), defensive end Will smith and former Saints defenders Anthony Hargrove and Scott Fujita.
The results were especially gruesome for the Saints defense, which was overrun last year like the Mexican-American border before harvest season.
The most painful statistical wound was measured by total defense: the 2012 Saints surrendered 7,042 yards of offense (440.1 YPG) last year, the most yards allowed by any defense in the history of football.
They were the first 7,000-yard defense in NFL history and light years worse than the No. 31 team in total defense: the 2012 Giants surrendered 6,134 yards (383.4 YPG).
The previous records for defensive porosity were set by two famously bad Colts teams.
The 1950 Colts, an expansion team from the old AAFC, surrendered 438.7 YPG. They went 1-11 and folded at the end of the season, before re-emerging under new ownership in 1953. Even those abysmal Colts, playing in one of the highest-scoring seasons in NFL history, were 1.4 YPG better than the 2012 Saints.
The 1981 Colts surrendered a total of 6,793 yards (424.6 YPG), the most total yards allowed by any team before the 2012 Saints. The 1981 Colts went 2-14, barely squeaking out a pair of book-end wins by a total of 3 points over the equally hideous 2-14 Patriots.
The Saints were also among the worst in the NFL last year in every Cold, Hard Football Facts defensive Quality Stat, including 32nd and dead last in:
In fact, the Saints allowed 5.17 YPA on the ground, making it one of the worst run defenses in the history of football.
The true miracle about the Saints is that they actually won seven games while anchored down with one of the worst defenses in the history of football, even if you adjust for the changing standards of the times.
Drew Brees and the offense were once again brilliant, and the team actually went 7-5 after losing its first four games out of the gate. Brees led the NFL in both passing yards (5,177) and passing touchdowns (43) for the second year in a row, though his 19 INTs were also the most in the NFL.
The football world wondered how Brees and the Saints would perform without offensive mastermind head coach Payton on the sidelines.
Clearly, the offense continued to fire on all cylinders, or something damn close to it.
New Orleans finished the year No. 2 in total offense (6,574 yards), No. 3 in scoring offense (28.8 PPG) and actually outscored its particularly dismal defense (461-454).
But there was no rest for the wicked bad defense in the wake of BountyGate.
Here’s a look at how the Saints stacked up last year in every one of our Quality Stats. No team in football – in fact, few teams in history – were so dominant on offense and so dismal on defense in the very same season.
The point-counterpoint between offense and defense was pretty obvious:
- No. 2 on the Offensive Hog Index; No. 32 on the Defensive Hog Index
- No. 3 in Real Passing YPA; No. 32 in Defensive Real Passing YPA
- No. 8 in Real QB Rating; No. 28 in Defensive Real QB Rating
- No. 8 in Offensive Passer Rating; No. 28 in Defensive Passer Rating
It’s also amazing how far the Saints have fallen since their Super Bowl-winning campaign of 2009. The Saints that year were an average to below average defense that had a knack for forcing turnovers and especially interceptions, giving it a Super Bowl-caliber performance as measured by Defensive Passer Rating (No. 3 in DPR in 2009).
This ability to force INTs proved itself in the Super Bowl win over the Indianapolis Colts, when Tracy Porter’s pick-six off Peyton Manning sealed the victory for New Orleans.
Even with Super Bowl-winnning defensive coordinator Gregg Williams still on the staff through 2011, the unit had declined dramatically. It was already teetering on futility in 2011. That defense simply fell aprt in historic fashion on 2012.
Here’s how the Saints defenses stacked up in their Super Bowl-winning season of 2009, the pre-BountyGate season of 2011 and again last season.
Scoring Defense (PPG)
Total Defense (YPG)
Defensive Passer Rating
Defensive Real Pass YPA
Defensive QB Rating
Defensive Hog Index
Negative Pass Play%
Defensive Rush YPA
Steve Spagnuolo, the Saints defensive coordinator last year and once the It Kid of defensive masterminds, was fired after just one year. He was replaced by Rob Ryan, who didn’t exactly impress with Dallas Cowboys, who fielded some of their worst defenses in his two years as DC.
Needless to say, Ryan and Payton have plenty of work cut out for them. The pressure is on the offense, too: Drew Brees has clearly been in the prime of his career over the last five years.
But that sweet spot for a quarterback generally lasts from their late 20s to their early to mid 30s. Brees is now 34 and the good times for his arm and the Saints offense aren’t going to last forever.
The pressure is also on one other key player: No. 15 overall draft pick Kenny Vaccaro, the nation’s top-rated safety out of Texas.
When the Saints won their Super Bowl, they did it thanks in large part to future Hall of Fame safety Darren Sharper, who came in as a free agent and instantly made the Saints a defense to be reckoned with and even fear.
He led the NFL in interceptions (9), return yards (376) and return TDs (3) in 2009 and is No. 6 in NFL history with 63 career INTs (tied with Ronnie Lott).
Among players who joined the NFL since 1970, only Rod Woodson picked off more passes (71). Sharper barely played after that 2009 season, thanks to injuries, and is now out of football.
For our money, Sharper was the MVP of the 2009 NFL season and it’s no coincidence that the New Orleans defense, just good enough for that one year, fell apart without him.
It’s unreasonable to expect Vaccaro to become that Next Great Safety, in the mold of Lott or Sharper. But they need impact in the secondary.
And if he provides it, the Saints and their dangerously good offense could become a threat to win it all again in 2013, just a year removed from the great disaster of BountyGate and history's first and infamous 7,000-yard defense.