METAIRIE, La. -- The obvious choice is 2009.
That was the only Super Bowl team in New Orleans Saints history. And they proved just how good they were in the playoffs by rolling through future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Kurt Warner, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning.
But if it's possible to just compare regular seasons, the battle for "best team in Saints history" is awfully tight between '09, 2011 and this current 2018 edition -- all of which finished 13-3 and led the NFL in point differential under the direction of coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees.
"At the end of the day, the 2009 team has to be the best team in Saints history -- right now, anyway," said former Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief, who retired last offseason and now serves as the team's radio play-by-play man.
But Strief admits it's "splitting hairs" and sounded more conflicted the longer we talked.
"Pure regular season, I'm taking '11. I think the 2011 team accelerated into the playoffs. And if that team had been better earlier in the year, we win the Super Bowl," Strief said of a team that still holds the NFL record with 7,474 yards gained in a season -- but entered the playoffs as a No. 3 seed and lost a 36-32 divisional-round heartbreaker at San Francisco.
"But I think that if this team gets on a run and wins the Super Bowl and plays to its potential, then I think that this probably is the best team we've had," Strief said. "The issue right now is that this offensive line has been so beat up [for the past several weeks] that it's kind of holding everything back.
"If this offense had maintained that type of production they had earlier in the year, then there's probably no question. I think this is the most complete team [Payton] has ever had. While that '09 team may have had more talent on defense, this is a better defense."
Linebacker Scott Shanle, who played on the '09 and '11 teams and now analyzes the Saints for Cox Sports Television, also ranked the 2009 team as the best overall and the best regular-season team in a close three-team battle.
"I think that 2009 team was good enough to go 16-0," Shanle said of a team that started 13-0.
"Obviously this team has to complete what they started," Shanle said. "I think a Saints-Chiefs Super Bowl would be awesome. But I think when it comes to Drew's legacy, beating Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in the Super Bowl would almost do more even though that [Patriots] team is not as talented as they've been."
So let's break it down.
The case for 2009
The end result makes this pretty obvious. But even if we're just talking regular seasons, a strong case could also be made for 2009 as the most "complete team" in the Payton-Brees era.
Although the defense ranked 25th in the NFL in yards allowed and 20th in points allowed, the Saints became legendary for their ability to force turnovers in their first year under aggressive defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
That defense's legacy will always be somewhat tainted by the bounty scandal (Payton and Williams were both suspended for a full season after the NFL found that players were rewarded for big hits that knocked opponents out of a game -- though all player punishments were eventually rescinded on appeal since there was no evidence they were targeting opponents with an intent to injure). But there is no denying how disruptive they were. They ranked second in the NFL in the regular season with 39 takeaways, then added eight more in the postseason -- including cornerback Tracy Porter's unforgettable interceptions against Manning and Favre in the Super Bowl and NFC Championship Game.
The offense, meanwhile, was outstanding as usual, leading the league with 31.9 points and 403.8 yards per game. And Strief said this was New Orleans' best run game with All-Pro guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks in their prime -- even though the actual runners are better now with Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram.
"They could run on anybody," Strief said. "I don't think teams could've stopped us from running on them in 2009, especially in the playoffs."
Last but not least, Strief and Shanle both talked about the intangible "focus" that the 2009 team had, starting in the offseason with the most competitive practice sessions between offense and defense that they had ever been a part of.
"You can't just look at the stats," Strief said. "That '09 team, when I think back to practices, that team was so competitive. There were like fights all year long."
"Everybody knew it was time to win," Shanle said. "Once we started winning early in the season, you could just feel that everybody had that look in their eye like, 'Hey, our time is now.'"
The case for 2011
I have actually spent years referring to this as the best Saints team, but that's mostly because it was perhaps the greatest offensive season in NFL history.
The 2011 Saints still hold the NFL record for yards gained. Brees shattered the NFL's single-season passing record (since broken) with a career-best 5,476 yards to go with his career-best 46 touchdown passes. Tight end Jimmy Graham and all-purpose back Darren Sproles had seasons for the ages. Evans and Nicks were still in their primes. And the offense was loaded with players such as Graham, Sproles, Marques Colston, Pierre Thomas, Ingram as a rookie, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and Chris Ivory.
They won their final eight games of the regular season, then routed the Detroit Lions in their playoff opener. The Saints won the final seven games of that streak by an average score of 40-20. But then they suffered that devastating playoff loss at San Francisco, thanks to five turnovers in the first 35 minutes, even though Brees nearly brought them back with 462 passing yards and four TD passes.
"I mean, gee whiz, we were scoring 40 points, 500-plus yards of offense [on a regular basis]. We were just destroying people," Brees said recently when discussing that season as the "one that got away."
"I think talent-wise, that was the best stretch of offensive football probably in NFL history," Strief said. "The last eight games and the playoffs, it was insane. It was like watching college games."
But as Strief and Shanle both pointed out, that team's 5-3 start proved costly since they wound up as a No. 3 seed. Shanle said the unforgivable loss to the 0-6 St. Louis Rams in Week 8 was the one that cost them a Super Bowl.
And the 2011 team probably ranks third among these contenders when it comes to both defense and that intangible focus Strief and Shanle talked about both the 2009 and 2018 teams having.
The case for 2018
The offensive numbers aren't as eye-popping, but they are as efficient as ever. Brees set personal bests with a passer rating of 115.7, an NFL-record completion percentage of 74.4 and just 5 interceptions to go with 3,992 passing yards and 32 TD passes.
The Saints don't have the same depth of playmakers as they had in 2009 or 2011, but receiver Michael Thomas (franchise records of 125 catches and 1,405 yards) and Kamara (18 total touchdowns) are probably the two best individual playmakers in franchise history. The offensive line, when healthy, is more stacked across the board than ever with Pro Bowl-caliber players at all five positions.
Meanwhile, both Strief and Shanle say this is the best defense yet in the Payton-Brees era, ranking 14th in the NFL in both points and yards allowed and second in rushing yards allowed.
"Obviously taking the ball away, that was our thing. Super aggressive, blitzing. But when you talk about consistently being a great defense, I have no problem admitting that this year's defense was probably better over the long haul," Shanle said of a unit led by Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan, tackle Sheldon Rankins, linebacker Demario Davis and defensive backs Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams, among others. "By the end of the season, they were even the reason why they were winning games."
Brees, Shanle and Strief all pointed to a stretch in the middle of the season where the Saints won at Baltimore, won at Minnesota, beat the Rams at home, won at Cincinnati, then destroyed the reigning Super Bowl champion Eagles at home 48-7 as the stretch that defined just how good this 2018 team can be.
"I think it has elements of [the Saints' best offenses], but the story's not complete yet. Still chapters to be written," Brees said recently when asked to make a case for the 2018 offense. "But you guys have seen it, felt it and been a part of it this season. We've had our moments where we just felt like we were unstoppable. Pick your poison. A lot of guys, a lot of places where the ball could go, a lot of guys who can make plays, certainly starting with the guys up front.
"So I feel we can draw upon that -- that confidence, momentum and understanding what we've done and what has helped put us in this position."
If the Saints turn it on again like that in January and February, this debate might rage forever.