Saints could be team of next decade

Sean Payton and the Saints could be very good for a very long time. Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US Presswire

MIAMI -- For the past year, and especially over the past few weeks, we have heard a lot about the past decade.

There have been all-decade teams named by numerous media outlets and one by the NFL. Those have been all-star teams patched together from across the league. And when people talk about the 2000s, they usually talk about the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts as being the best teams of the decade.

That is understandable because those teams have won a bunch of big games and were the closest things we’ve seen to modern dynasties. But instead of looking back on the past decade, let’s spin it ahead to the next.

“Hopefully, in a few years, people are talking about the New Orleans Saints as the team of the next decade,’’ New Orleans center Jonathan Goodwin said.

The Saints as the team of any decade? Yeah, their history isn’t that great and Sunday marks the first time this franchise has been in a Super Bowl. But give it a little thought and maybe Goodwin’s wish isn’t that far-fetched.

The team that used to have fans wearing bags over their heads and calling their team the “Aints’’ isn’t what it used to be. These Saints aren’t some kind of one-year wonder. They’re for real and what has been the season of a lifetime for fans all around the Gulf region might only be the start of something bigger. This team has the chance to be very good for a very long time.

“This team has that kind of potential, no question about it,’’ veteran linebacker Scott Fujita said. “This is our first year really on the big stage. We’ve got to take care of this one and then we’ll worry about next year.’’

Fujita and his teammates have to focus on one game right now. But we have the luxury of looking ahead and people around the league, particularly those who have to compete most often against the Saints, are worried about them perhaps being in the early stages of a dynasty.

Take the Atlanta Falcons, for instance. They’ve long been considered New Orleans’ biggest rival and that rivalry may be better than ever over the next few years. The Falcons have put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history and, with Matt Ryan heading into his third year as the starting quarterback, the future appears very bright for the Falcons.

But everyone in Atlanta is well aware the Falcons probably will face a mighty obstacle in the NFC South over the next few years.

“The Saints have done a really good job in building that team,’’ Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “In my opinion, this league is really all about personnel moves and the Saints have made some great personnel moves. Having a quarterback like Drew Brees is incredibly important. That’s the biggest thing of all. But they’ve got even more than that. They’ve got incredible athletes like Reggie Bush and Marques Colston and some of their defensive players. They’ve got all the parts in place to be good for a long time.’’

As Dimitroff said, simply having Brees makes the Saints a legitimate threat to win any game they play. His numbers compare well to those of Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning and New England’s Tom Brady. In 2006, his first season with the Saints, Brees took his team to the NFC Championship Game. Just about everything else that could go wrong did over the next two seasons, but Brees was still good enough to keep the Saints around .500 and in playoff contention. When the Saints gave him a little bit of defense and a running game in 2009, Brees led New Orleans to 13 straight victories to start the regular season and two very impressive playoff victories.

“With the way Drew works and takes care of his body, he could have another five or six years like this left in him,’’ Fujita said.

Five or six years of Brees pretty much guarantees the Saints won’t just crumble any time soon. But there are so many other parts in place that you have to believe the Saints aren’t going to take any big steps backward even if they have some major injuries.

Just look at the draft class of 2006, the first season coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis worked together.

It featured running back Bush, strong safety Roman Harper, guard Jahri Evans and receiver Colston. Evans already is being recognized as perhaps the best guard in the NFL and Colston, a seventh-round pick, is generally viewed as an elite receiver. Harper has blossomed into a very solid safety. Although Bush may never truly live up to the hype that came as a Heisman Trophy winner and No. 2 overall pick, he’s had moments of brilliance in his hybrid role as a running back/receiver/return man. That draft is shaping up to be perhaps the best in Saints history, and Payton and Loomis haven’t fared badly in the drafts that followed.

Players such as receiver Robert Meachem, defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis and guard Carl Nicks already have developed into core players, and defensive back Malcolm Jenkins, a first-round pick in 2009, soon could join them.

“We’ve got good players on the line and the skill positions,’’ Goodwin said. “I think it’s possible that we could stay at a very high level. I believe in this team and I believe in this organization. A lot of the guys are still pretty young and they’ll only get better.’’

The same thing might have been said after the 2006 Saints reached the NFC Championship Game, but they slipped the next two seasons, mainly because of injuries. There also is the history of the NFC South, in which no team has won the division in back-to-back years.

But the current Saints might be set up in a way that they’re poised to break that streak and stay on top for a long time.

“I think we’ve learned what it takes,’’ Goodwin said. “We got to the NFC Championship Game the first year, but I don’t know that we really realized what it took to get there. The last two seasons, it kind of slipped. Coach Payton reminded us about some of the things we did in ’06. In ’07 and ’08, we didn’t finish games well. That’s why we wanted to improve on finishing games this year. We lost a lot of close games and we felt like if we could eliminate mistakes, we could win those close games.’’

Consider all that part of the growth process. But also consider that the Saints were able to get this far this season with some pretty major injuries. They played all season without Pro Bowl left tackle Jammal Brown and survived a stretch when starting cornerbacks Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer were out with injuries.

“The ’06 year was something magical,’’ Evans said. “We took the NFL by storm. We had some injuries the next couple years, but here we are in the Super Bowl and now we’ve got to stay here. The injury stuff is something you can’t really control. We just couldn’t get a streak together. You’re going to have adversity like that and it’s really about how you respond to it. I think we’ve learned from that and learned to handle adversity better. If we can keep doing that, we can stay on top.’’