Farewell, Black and Gold 2012_lowres

The New Orleans Saints after defeating the Dallas Cowboys 34-31 Dec. 23.

It's over. The most tumultuous New Orleans Saints season in recent memory concluded with Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers. It was fraught with bounty allegations, penalties and suspensions that led to a lost season.

  "Were there distractions? Yeah," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "Were there circumstances swirling around us that were just crazy and we had no idea what to expect? Challenges? Yes, most definitely. But ... we will not allow our team — to use that as a crutch or an excuse. Others might say, 'It doesn't matter. It affected you guys.' That's fine, but we're not going to go there."

  Brees may not want to go there, but Who Dats and media have been forced to as they watched the Saints deal with unprecedented challenges. No other team in NFL history had had to take the field with the loss of not only a head coach (Sean Payton), but the assistant head coach (Joe Vitt) and general manager (Mickey Loomis) — all important elements in the day-to-day operations of the team. Vitt returned after a six-week suspension and Loomis after eight weeks, but Payton was barred from the team for the entire 2012 season.

  The lack of leadership and Payton's game-calling input was clearly evident in the Black and Gold's four-game losing streak at the start the season. The Saints were missing that something that had made them one of the top teams in the NFL.

  What's done is done. It's time to look forward to next season.

  Now come the questions: How do we make sure this doesn't happen again? Will the team recover for the new season?

  I believe they will — with the return of Sean Payton. Yes, I am assuming Payton will return. But even if he doesn't, the leadership in place will be better organized than the jigsaw puzzle we saw this year.

  Will the Saints be a contender next season? They should be because of the team's nucleus of players, but it will be a challenging offseason for the front office.

  A recent report projected the Saints to be about $16 million above the salary cap heading into the 2013 offseason, and two cap casualties could be defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma. Smith is set to make $10.15 million in salary and bonuses, while Vilma would cost the Saints $6 million in salary and bonuses. Releasing them would cost the Saints $9.4 million, since bonuses are guaranteed.

  Left tackle Jermon Bushrod is the team's top unrestricted free agent. Wide receiver Devery Henderson and linebacker Jonathan Casillas are others whose contracts are expiring. Saints management will have to get below the cap so it can spend money to improve the team.

  Brees' cap figure reportedly more than doubles for next season, going from $7 million this year to $17 million to $18 million next season.

  The good news is the Saints don't need a massive overhaul, and the improvement we saw in the defense late in the season gives us hope. Young players like defensive end Cam Jordan, defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, and safeties Isa Abdul-Quddus and Rafael Bush matured as the season progressed. Offensively, receiver Joe Morgan and a healthy Nick Toon could rejuvenate a solid passing game. Late in the season, running back Mark Ingram showed the type of play the team hoped for when it drafted him in the first round.

  The Saints ended 2012 playing hard and winning games, which has many wondering what might have been if the Black and Gold had played that way all season.

  "I'd rather have a different title than Best Team Not in the Playoffs," Brees said. "You never want to hear 'not in the playoffs.' ... We want to finish strong, and we want to really have something we can build on moving forward."

  Moving forward can't come fast enough after this season. Bring on 2013.