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John DeShazier: Saints regained their place in NFL hierarchy with Sean Payton's return

Youthful team should be able to build off of successful season

Consider 2013 a season of returns for the New Orleans Saints, in at least two significant ways.

First, Coach Sean Payton returned to the sideline after a year absence, giving the Saints the on- and off-field direction, purpose and accountability that he'd become synonymous with in his previous six seasons.

Second, the team returned to the position of legitimate contenders, who won the first road playoff game in franchise history and advanced to within a victory of the NFC championship game. The Saints' season ended with a 23-15 loss to the Seahawks on Saturday at CenturyLink Field in Seattle.

A season after a 7-9, non-playoff finish, in which the defense allowed an NFL-record 7,042 yards (440.1 per game) during the regular season, the Saints went 12-6 (including playoffs) and sliced their regular-season yards allowed to 4,891 (305.7 per game), and cut it even more in the playoffs, to 266.5 yards in the two games, under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

"I was proud of how our guys fought and competed this year," Coach Sean Payton said. "They found a way to win 12 games. Obviously, it wasn't enough for what we aspire to do.

"It's a young team with a lot of new faces. We have an important off-season. We have got time, we'll have meetings on Monday and begin our work toward improving.

"I thought they fought hard this year, that's one of the things that I told them. It's disappointing, it's disappointing to lose in a playoff game, so close to where your final goal is, and yet I thought there were a lot of good signs from a lot of good young players and veteran players, too."

The Saints opened the season 5-0 and came within a game of winning the NFC South title and securing the No. 2 playoff seed, a home playoff game (they finished 8-0 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome this season) and a first-round bye.

Absent that, the team traveled to Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia and beat the Eagles 26-24 on Jan. 4, giving the franchise its first road playoff win after five losses.

New Orleans fell short in Seattle on Saturday despite outgaining the Seahawks 409-277 in total yards, limiting Seattle to 13 first downs and holding Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to a career-low 103 passing yards.

One turnover, two missed field goals and eight penalties (for 74 yards) contributed to the Saints' shortfall. It was a missed opportunity that players were well aware of.

"It hurts," said quarterback Drew Brees, who completed 24 of 43 passes for 309 yards and a touchdown against Seattle. "This is my 13th year, and you just don't know how many more of these opportunities you have left. That's why it stings."

Some of the sting soon may be alleviated by the knowledge that the Saints appear poised to extend their run as contenders, primarily due to Payton's aforementioned infusion of youth to go along with veteran talent like Brees.

Brees had another stellar passing season – 446 for 650 (68.6 percent) for 5,162 yards and 39 touchdowns, with 12 interceptions, during the regular season. He was sacked a career-high 37 times, but became the only quarterback in NFL history with three consecutive 5,000-yard passing seasons. He's the only NFL quarterback with more than one such season, and has half of the eight 5,000-yard seasons in NFL history.

Tight end Jimmy Graham (86 catches for 1,215 yards and a league-leading 16 touchdowns) emerged as the best in the league at his position, and the Saints became the first NFL team to have four players with at least 70 receptions (Graham, Pierre Thomas, Marques Colston and Darren Sproles).

Both guards – left guard Ben Grubbs and right guard Jahri Evans – were chosen for the Pro Bowl, along with Brees and Graham and defensive end Cameron Jordan.

And there was an undeniable youth influence on the team. ![]( "new orleans saints")

Rookie Terron Armstead (22 years old) finished the season as the starting left tackle, and helped pave the way to 146.5 rushing yards per game in the playoffs, after the Saints averaged 92 per game during the regular season.

Rookie receiver Kenny Stills (32 receptions for 641 yards and five touchdowns) led the league in average yards per catch as a 21-year-old.

Safety Kenny Vaccaro (22) was one of the league's top defensive rookies, and finished with 79 tackles, an interception, a sack, a forced fumble and seven passes defended. And he was an intimidating physical presence from the first day of practice. Vaccaro was placed on injured reserve after the 15th game of the regular season with a fractured ankle that required surgery.

Free agent rookie running back Khiry Robinson (24) led the Saints in rushing (13 carries for 57 yards and a touchdown) against Seattle. Rookie defensive tackle John Jenkins (24) was pressed into starting duty due to injuries, and responded with solid defensive play and 21 tackles.

And rookie free agents Glenn Foster (23), Josh Hill (23), and Rod Sweeting (23) all made the team and played at defensive tackle, tight end and cornerback, respectively.

Add in that Jordan (24) led the team with 12.5 sacks, Junior Galette (25) was a close second with 12, Corey White (23) gained valuable experience as a starting cornerback and Akiem Hicks (24) was a force at defensive tackle, and enthusiasm over the team's youth is quantifiable.

It was one of the reasons the Saints were able to overcome a flood of injuries.

Projected starting linebackers Victor Butler and Will Smith and potential No. 3 receiver Joseph Morgan never played a regular-season down; each was injured leading up to the regular season. Linebacker Jon Vilma, the defensive signal caller and leader for his previous five seasons, made a one-game cameo before he was shut down.

Patrick Robinson, who started 16 games at cornerback in 2012, played two games before injuring his knee and heading to injured reserve. Jabari Greer started 10 games at cornerback before he, too, was placed on injured reserve after injuring his knee.

Both starting safeties (Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins) missed starts, as did right tackle Zach Strief, receiver Lance Moore and Evans.

"This is a young team, there are guys that this experience is invaluable for," Strief said after the divisional playoff game. "There is momentum here going into the offseason. I really do feel like six weeks ago we would be sitting here saying, 'I don't know who exactly we are. I don't know if we know, I don't know if anyone knows.'

"But you go through these last couple of weeks, this team has heart, this team had a lot of resolve and you are proud of the way that you finished. Yet it doesn't matter, the end game is winning the Super Bowl and we can't do that now.

"But I think there is certainly momentum, and I think there are guys that like being here and want to get better, and that is certainly a good thing for the program."

For a program that has advanced to the playoffs five times in Payton's seven seasons, has won the franchise's only road playoff game and its only Super Bowl, there was much good that came out of the season, one that can be considered a season of returns.

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