Press pause on your jubilance — or at least turn down the volume on it.
Yes, football is back. The Steelers and Patriots open things in earnest Thursday night. After months of waiting to get on the other side of practices and exhibitions, the real deal will be out there on the field this week. It’s time to celebrate.
Except in New Orleans.
This won’t be the real deal. It will be close. But in terms of expectations, consider Sunday’s game in Arizona against the Cardinals a soft opening.
The revamped secondary — talked about since early in the winter after Brandon Browner, Delvin Breaux, P.J. Williams, Damian Swann and Kyle Wilson were brought in — has depreciated because of injuries. Safety Jairus Byrd is put on ice and cornerback Keenan Lewis will likely be out of action for at least month following hip surgery.
And this offseason’s marquee signing, running back C.J. Spiller, will also likely be out of action this week against the Arizona Cardinals. So, yes, some of the menu will be available. But it won’t taste the same until the chefs have all the ingredients they ordered up this offseason.
The current view is a bit unsettling, particularly in the secondary. A few months ago, the team expected to have Lewis and Browner serving as the starting corners, and Williams, a third-round pick who was placed on injured reserve, was supposed to be the nickel back. New Orleans will instead march Browner, Breaux, and Swann out as the top three cornerbacks.
It won’t be how it was designed, by any stretch, and that’s somewhat concerning. But coach Sean Payton said he’s confident the trio will rise to the occasion.
“One is coming from New England (Browner), one is coming from Canada (Breaux) and the other one is coming from college (Swann),” Payton said. “But again, the guys that we put out there — we are preparing all week and making sure however we align, whether it is just two corners, three corners, or even more than that, this is a real good offense we are playing.”
One of the more curious areas in the initial 53-man roster is at safety, where the team only has strong safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Jamarca Sanford and Rafael Bush and Byrd at free safety. If Byrd is unavailable this week, as expected, the Saints will only have Bush available at his position.
It would create a borderline emergency situation if Bush goes down this week and no one else is added to the roster between now and Sunday. This, however, is another area in which Payton expressed confidence where others see doubt.
“Obviously I’m not uncomfortable right now,” Payton said. “We’ll always be smart approaching the first game.”
Coincidentally, while the missing players are an issue for the Saints, it’s also created problems for the Cardinals early in their preparations.
It will soon become clear which players will not be on the field this week, but Arizona still spent the early portion of the week preparing as if Byrd, Spiller and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe will be on the field Sunday.
There was no choice. Information has been scant on several players and the Cardinals had to act as if they would play. But beyond that, the fact that there isn’t much film on the players coming up behind some of the other injured guys, such as Breaux and Swann, has compounded the difficulties faced by the Cardinals’ staff.
“It’s easier when you know who the starters are and what their roles are,” Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. “When you are opening up, there are new faces and injured players on both sides. It’s a little bit of a chess game.”
New Orleans will still be figuring those things out. If the offseason was about finding answers to questions and building confidence in some of those areas of doubt, the Saints, at least externally, did little to quell concerns.
There are still questions about the pass rush, the third and fourth receivers, and now the ability of the secondary to cover without Lewis and Byrd. Some of those questions will start to come into focus this weekend.
But most won’t. That’s what a soft opening is all about. Spiller will be a big piece of the offense. It’s impossible to move toward a conclusion without him on the field. It’s the same thing for the defense if Byrd is out of action.
The same is true for Lewis, to a degree, but being without him for a big piece of the offseason is part of the reality of the season. The Saints must answer questions without him. His return should be viewed as a bonus, an injection of talent.
Until then, enjoy the view. See the direction things are headed. But be aware that the second or third look at this team could be completely different than the first.