Graham's health drives Saints

It's not a stretch to say Jimmy Graham has been the revitalizing force in New Orleans. AP Photo/Stephan Savoia

Despite dropping their first game of the season over the weekend in Foxborough, the New Orleans Saints have emerged from the post-Bountygate Era as a legitimate contender in the NFC. Rob Ryan deserves a heap of the credit, as the Saints have seen their league-worst 14.8 percent defensive DVOA in 2012 turn around to a middling minus-3.2 percent in 2013. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.) Under his watch, Cameron Jordan has blossomed, and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro has been an instant upgrade on Roman Harper, changing how versatile the Saints can be on passing downs.

However, the offense has also received a bit of a bump, as seen in the table to the right. While the defense was a disaster in 2012 and took a fair share of the blame, the Saints offense also wavered, dropping to the ninth best in the league by DVOA after being less than a percent away from the top offensive unit in 2011.

While New Orleans is still being weighed down by a rushing attack that is struggling to generate a push, the pass offense has rebounded to be just about as good as it was in 2011. And like Ryan's presence on defense, the easy analysis is to point to what was missing in 2012: head coach Sean Payton. Payton, suspended from the NFL for his involvement in Gregg Williams' bounty infractions, missed all of the season and was barred from communicating with his players. It created a lot of ill will in New Orleans, both from the fan base and the team, and led to some rather unprecedented circumstances.

So it's a nice, neat, perhaps even emotional angle to say that Drew Brees missed his coach, and Payton's great play-calling, and that the offense suffered without him but has now returned.

But the overlooked reality is that the Saints also missed the healthy Jimmy Graham in 2012. And after he spent the first five weeks of the 2013 season abusing defenders left and right, it's imperative Graham remains healthy if the offense is going to maintain its current form.