Lewis: Here’s hoping the Saints aren’t hoping this year _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram

Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis likes to talk about how there are teams in the NFL that expect to win, and there are teams that only hope to win. The difference, he emphasizes, is the ability to overcome adversity.

Well, a decade after the Saints faced unimaginable adversity along with the rest of the region, overcame it a year later in the most electrifying moment in the history of the franchise — not to mention the city — and have subsequently won a Super Bowl while posting the seventh-best record in the league since 2006, the team appears to be sliding into that “hope to win” category.

A 7-9 season in 2014 that no one saw coming and the resulting changes — some to be expected but others unanticipated and in some cases questionable — will do that to you.

And just like that, the dreaded “hope” seeps into the conversation.

“We just didn’t play well last year,” veteran tight end Benjamin Watson said. “We didn’t execute game plans, and we didn’t do much of anything well consistently. The hope and desire is that we don’t repeat that this year.”

Easier said than done.

Going into training camp, only two other teams had traded, released or lost via free agency players accounting for more 2014 snaps than the Saints.

But who would have predicted that Jimmy Graham and Junior Galette, both of whom signed big contracts just last year, would be among the departed?

Whereas a year ago there was confidence all around that this team should be in the Super Bowl conversation, you can now get 40-1 odds on the Saints to win it all.

They haven’t been this much of a long shot since 2006, when the team came back to New Orleans after its post-Katrina sojourn.

That season, however, turned into a magical run to the NFC championship game, and Loomis, among others, is talking about turning back the clock to that year.

Then — as now — Drew Brees was the quarterback. And at age 36, he remains at the elite level.

There aren’t five other QBs in the league you’d take over Brees, either for one game or an entire season.

But the pieces around him are shifting, and not necessarily for the better.

The trade of Graham, with whom Brees had formed a matchless pitch-and-catch combination, along with other moves, meant that four of last season’s top six receivers are gone — and with them 53 percent of the receiving yards.

The Graham trade did mean the acquisition of Pro Bowl center Max Unger, who has brought a much-needed upgrade to a position vital in protecting Brees.

But the team also expended the No. 13 pick in the draft on tackle Andrus Peat, who was not expected to play this season and whose practice performances have been a disappointment.

C.J. Spiller brings a dynamic to the backfield that has been missing since the Darren Sproles trade; second-year wide receiver Brandin Cooks is a potential game-breaker; and Brees remains a physical marvel. But expecting another No. 1 offense is a bit much.

The defense, which ranked next-to-last in 2014, is another matter.

The relationship between Sean Payton and Rob Ryan remains tenuous. No matter what anybody says, bringing in Dennis Allen as “senior defensive assistant” sets up the potential for internal conflict.

And while cutting Galette may have been a necessary move considering his reported alienation from the same teammates who voted him a captain just last season, it subtracts a player who had 22 sacks over the past two years.

There have been quality veteran additions such as Brandon Browner. And draft picks Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha will have immediate impact.

But several unproven (Delvin Breaux), injured (Jairus Byrd) and underperforming (Dannell Ellerbe) players are going to have to come through for the defense to return to anywhere near the No. 4 ranking it achieved in 2013.

Maybe the best thing the Saints have going for them is that the rest of the NFC South appears no better than a year ago, when Carolina won it with a 7-8-1 record.

For the Saints, despite their deficiencies, it could come down to the Jan. 3 game at Atlanta with both teams at 7-8 and the title on the line.

At least that’s what it looks like from here, albeit through Black & Gold-colored glasses.

But like the Super Bowl predictions of last year, that’s looking too far down the line.

“We had a lot of high hopes last year,” Watson said. “Obviously, there were a lot of high expectations outside and inside the building.

“But outside expectations don’t matter, and even our expectations don’t matter. It’s about coming out hungry and doing what it takes to win football games.”

Not just hoping to.