Saints set a new standard in dominant season opener

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The New Orleans Saints entered their season opener Sunday with so many questions to be answered.

How would Jameis Winston perform as the successor to Drew Brees?

How would the replacements for a dozen key performers handle their new roles?

How would the cornerbacks hold up against reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers?

How would the Saints perform in the strange surroundings in Jacksonville, Fla., and in the wake of a shortened preseason and two-week displacement due to Hurricane Ida?

In the 38-3 beat-down of the Green Bay Packers, every question was answered positively, some to a degree that even the most optimistic of Saints fans might not have envisioned.

Winston was nearly perfect in his first start, greatly outperforming Rodgers by throwing five touchdowns (and zero interceptions) among 14 completions and a mere 148 passing yards.

Rodgers meanwhile threw two interceptions – one to rookie cornerback Paulson Adebo and the other to veteran safety Marcus Williams.

Juwan Johnson seized the opportunity presented by the off-season release of tight ends Jared Cook and Josh Hill and caught two touchdown passes.

Chris Hogan caught another touchdown as part of the rebuilt wide receiver corps, and Deonte Harris and Winston teamed on a 55-yard touchdown that demonstrated the deep element that was lacking in the latter seasons of Brees’ Hall of Fame career.

Shortly after the game concluded, Brees good-naturedly noted on the NBC pre-game show: “I guess apparently this is what the Saints have been missing over those last couple of years.”

As for the displacement and change-of-venue stuff, the Saints have always been resilient under head coach Sean Payton, who awarded game balls Sunday to the support staff responsible for the relocation and the logistics of preparing away from home.

On this opening day, the Packers looked like they were playing a generic season opener, the Saints looked like they were on a mission.

Surely the Saints heard the doubters during the off-season and training camp and that probably fueled them. But during the last two weeks in the Dallas-Fort Worth area they undoubtedly took stock of what had happened to the New Orleans area and much of the state of Louisiana because of Ida.

They knew what this game meant to all of their fans, many of whom were displaced as they were but in far less comfortable circumstances, many of whom were at home but still without power, many of whom were a few steps onto the road to recovery but struggling nonetheless.

They knew they had an obligation to treat this game as more than a generic season opener but as a season opener that could be uplifting to a whole bunch of people who needed a whole lot of uplifting.

“Even though we’re not back at home,” linebacker Demario Davis said after the game, “our heart is with our friends and family back in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region.”

Putting the questions and the emotions aside, other elements of this performance reinforced what already was apparent.

The Saints defense was fourth in the NFL in yards allowed last season and appears destined to be even more dominant this season.

It held the Packers to their lowest point total in a game that Rodgers started and did not leave early due to injury, though he did leave this one early in the fourth quarter because it was a lost cause for Green Bay.

And sometimes the forest gets overlooked for the trees.

There seems to have been a lot of fretting about this player being gone or that player being unavailable to start the season or the unfairness of the Ida complications.

But Payton is an elite coach.

He doesn’t fret over things he can’t control. He focuses on the things he can control.

The Saints didn’t have their expected home-field advantage, but they did have the advantage of having held training camp in Metairie in heat and humidity similar to what awaited in Jacksonville and couldn’t be simulated by the Packers in Wisconsin.

So Payton emphasized time of possession with a an effective running game and an effective short passing game that kept the Packers defense on the field.

Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen started utilizing the Saints exceptional depth on the defensive line at the outset, keeping fresh players – particularly pass rushers – on the field consistently.

The Packers wilted and the Saints rolled to as dominant and complete a performance as this franchise has ever had.

The questions that accompanied this team into the opener were all based on the past.

From here on out this team deserves to be evaluated strictly on how it maintains the standard it set in Jacksonville.

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Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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