02 September 2016

Ten Years Gone

Here's a question: are the 2016 Saints worse than last year's team?

The 2015 Saints were particularly bad.

They rallied to finish 7-9. They fielded one of the worst defenses the NFL has ever seen. They overpaid free agent Brandon Browner, installed him as a team captain, and then watched Browner immediately cement himself as the worst defensive player in franchise history. The defense surrendered a league-worst 4.92 yards per carry, while allowing the most passing touchdowns in a single season by a significant margin. After week 10, they fired their itinerant, overmatched defensive coordinator.

This was a bad team.

(Remember the Saints barely escaping with a win after Drew Brees threw seven [SEVEN!] touchdowns against the Giants? That they won seven games in 2015 is a miracle and testament to Drew Brees's singular greatness.) 

In an attempt to remedy the defensive ills of 2015, the Saints replaced Rob Ryan with Dennis Allen, the Saints' fifth defensive coordinator in the past eleven seasons. Allen was marginally more effective in six games last year as the interim defensive coordinator; he's now had an entire offseason to improve a defense that can not possibly get worse. 

More importantly, the Saints cut Brandon Browner in order to rebuild a secondary that in 2015 surrendered a 116.2 quarterback rating to opponents, the worst mark in NFL history. Then a few weeks ago, the Saints doubled down and ushered out the loquacious, underwhelming Keenan Lewis.

Stepping in as starting cornerbacks this season are Delvin Breaux and PJ Williams. Breaux, whose travails are well known, is on the precipice of becoming the most beloved Saint in recent memory. If you trust Mike Detillier, Breaux is also the best cornerback in Saints history. Premature? Yep. Encouraging? Sure.

Williams is a high draft pick who's played well enough to acquire a central role after redshirting last season. Williams' production this year, whatever it might be, surely won't be worse than the indelible portrait of suck authored by Browner in 2015.

To bolster a linebacking unit that's been adrift since Jonathan Vilma departed, the Saints signed veteran James Laurinaitis. Having played 112 consecutive games, Laurinaitis provides an element sorely lacking on the Saints' defense since 2013: intelligence. For a defense that struggled mightily in 2015 with basic assignments, substitutions, and penalties, the addition of Laurinaitis should not be overlooked. After all, how many times can a team let an opposing tight end roam free?

If these changes elevate the Saints' defense from historically abysmal depths, the team might be on to something this year. This, however, rests tenuously on the Saints' offensive line. And unfortunately, the O-line is charting a course like that once-proud, iceberg-bound steamship of renown.

Where them deck chairs at, brah?

Andrus Peat, a left tackle in college, drafted to play right tackle for the Saints, failed to supplant Saints' right tackle Zach Strief this offseason. Strief, clinging to a fading skill set, is back for an 11th season. In the meantime Peat's been shuffled from tackle to guard on both sides of the line, and he's responded to each challenge with equal parts malaise. Sean Payton has acknowledged Peat's struggles, and is scrambling to make use of his 2015 first-round pick. Combine this with the fact that Terron Armstead is recovering from injury and that the other guard spot is equally unsettled, and you currently have an offensive line that resembles used gauze.

Protecting Drew Brees has always been priority #1 of the Payton-era Saints, and right now accomplishing that looks more difficult than ever.

Brees, meanwhile, enters the season playing out his contract for the third time in a Hall-of-Fame career. There's a reasonable chance we're seeing Brees's final season as a Saint. For 2016, Brees is equipped with his best wide receiving corps since the heyday of Colston-Devery-Moore-Meachem. Mark Ingram is at the peak of his career, and CJ Spiller looks healthy after a fruitless 2015 season. The skill positions are as capable as they've been since 2011, and yet the struggles of the offensive line overshadow the entire enterprise.

This is especially damning with respect to the 2016 schedule. The Saints face what appears to be a murderer's row of defensive front-sevens: the Panthers (twice), Chiefs, Seahawks, Broncos, Rams, and the Cardinals. Throw in Khalil Mack/Raiders and the always-maddening 49ers, and the outlook portends doom.

The Payton-era Saints have overcome so much: a franchise history of futility, a natural disaster, a witch hunt, poor drafting, a litany of bad contracts, and an addiction to bad defense. In spite of all this, it's been a spectacular ten-year run. What they, and Brees, might not come back from is an offensive line that can't do its job.

It looks bleak right now, but the season is yet to start.

Don't go waving that white flag just yet

10 December 2015

Endgame



At 4-8, the 2015 Saints are staring down the barrel of their worst season under Sean Payton.

via Sports on Earth


The Saints’ defense is as bad as one might imagine an NFL defense can be. The offense, while capable, represents the least imposing unit under Payton’s direction. The special teams have suffered through a rotating cast of kickers, punters, and returners. Injuries have abounded. The roster is shallow, combining a core of older players with a collection of inexperience and youth. The Saints’ salary cap is in poor shape—among the league’s worst—and will remain stretched thin in 2016.  

To these woes you can add uncertain futures for both the quarterback and the head coach.

Drew Brees is headed into the final year of the contract he signed in 2012. The Saints owe him a $19.75 million base salary next year that carries a daunting $30 million cap charge. Conventional wisdom says the Saints will extend Brees’s contract, mitigating the 2016 cap hit by signing Brees to a more team-friendly contract. With the Saints' 2016 salary cap already in poor shape, however, the Saints might let Brees play out his current contract and wait another year to determine his future with the franchise.  

Less likely scenarios involve trading or cutting Brees after this season. Trading or cutting Brees would generate a significant cap savings that would shift the franchise full throttle into the wilderness of "rebuilding." Also unlikely, but possible, is that Brees will simply retire after this season.

Right now, you’re looking at: a.) Brees’s final four games as a Saint; b.) another contract that keeps Brees in New Orleans for another three years or so; or c.) a farewell tour in 2016 as he plays out his current contract.

Intertwined with this is Sean Payton’s future as the Saints’ head coach. Payton is under contract in New Orleans for 2016 and 2017, though that does not preclude him from leaving at the end of this season. The rumors of Payton departing New Orleans have been consistent (if not rampant) this season, and with all the smoke, there’s probably a fire lurking somewhere. Does Payton want a fresh start elsewhere next year? Is he angling for a contract extension in New Orleans in the face of a tenuous ownership situation? Is the NFL media just drumming up filler because it sells?

For his part, Sean Payton has steadfastly maintained his commitment to New Orleans all along this year. During games, he’s been animated and intense and engaged for the most part. By his words and actions Payton looks invested in the Saints, though these final four games might change his mind. It's not out of the question that Payton is keeping his options open while his value is high, all the while attempting to mask those intentions.

If Payton stays in New Orleans, he is faced with rebuilding his defense (again) while continuing to overhaul the roster with talent and youth. Though the 2015 draft has produced positive results for the Saints, they’ve been blunted by the contracts the Saints have recently dispensed.

No contract failure is more glaring than that of Junior Galette, who hoodwinked the Saints before getting cut and saddling the team with a load of dead money. Lucrative contracts for Jimmy Graham, Jairus Byrd, Brandon Browner, CJ Spiller, and Keenan Lewis have not proven worthy either. For a premium price, the Saints have received middling-to-poor returns and a bloated salary cap. Those results might reside in the wisdom of signing said players, yet they also might point in another direction: coaching.

Why have players with extensive track records of success like Byrd, Browner, and Spiller failed--some spectacularly--in New Orleans? Are they damaged goods? Past their primes? Unmotivated? Or are they miscast and poorly prepared?

When you consider this in the context of former Saints having success in new locales—notably Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper, and Patrick Robinson—it’s fair to question whether the Saints’ coaches are capable of properly utilizing the resources at their disposal.   

Looking ahead, not only do the Saints need better players on their roster, they also need better coaches on their staff. I’d argue that the coaching element is more important, especially with a roster that will be getting younger.  

With four games remaining this season, the Saints face as much uncertainty as they have since early 2012. Big changes are ahead. Sean Payton has been with the team for ten seasons, an eternity for an NFL head coach. Drew Brees will soon be 37 and pondering his NFL endgame and life after football. The roster rebuild will continue. A defensive reboot will once again be on the way.

The Saints’ final four games won’t simply impact the team’s 2016 draft position, they will influence whether Sean Payton and/or Drew Brees return in 2016. If this is the last we see of the Payton-Brees combo in New Orleans, enjoy it.

It has been one hell of a fun ride.


05 November 2015

Doubling Time



After a humiliating loss in Philadelphia in week five, the 2015 Saints appeared to be, and probably were, the worst team in the NFL at 1-4.

via espn.com

Since then they’ve won three straight games against the Falcons, Colts, and Giants. Now midway through the season, it’s tough to tell if the Saints are poised to make a run or if they're just drunkenly shaking a Magic 8-ball every week. They’ve beaten the Brandon Weeden-led Cowboys; the Falcons at home on a short week; and a crumbling Colts team. Last week they beat the Giants in a freak show for the ages, a football game straight out of the mind of Salvador Dali.  

Now 4-4 at the halfway point, the 2015 Saints have been all over the map: frustrating (Tampa), hopeless (Philadelphia), surprising (Carolina), inspired (Atlanta), and explosive (New York). Their multiple personalities have kept us entertained along the way. Perhaps, after being left for dead just a few weeks ago, they might even be pretty good.

If it looks like we’ve seen this story before, it’s because we watched the 2007 and 2012 Saints battle back to 4-4 after poor starts. What followed in those years was less than inspiring, and there may be a similarly sad third act on the way soon.

For some reason though, this team's fate seems more hopeful.

But first, about that defense …

The Saints defense, as is its wont under Payton, has struggled mightily. They’re the league’s worst unit according to Football Outsiders. They’re allowing an average passer rating of 108.7, good (bad) for 30th in the league. They’ve given up a league-worst 6.4 yards per play. For context, the 2012 Saints defense, among the worst of all time, surrendered 6.46 yards per play—the worst mark in league history.

It hasn’t helped that Brandon Browner is drawing penalty flags at an astonishing rate, or that Kennan Lewis is hobbled with an injury. A guy that Saints fans (like me) have hailed as the NFL’s next great cornerback in Delvin Breaux has allowed five touchdowns in the past two games. The 49 points surrendered against the Giants are a record high against a Sean Payton-coached team.

The conventional perception that this Saints defense is a capable unit hasn’t matched its reality through eight weeks. Worse, it’s increasingly difficult to maintain confidence in a Rob Ryan-coached defense that’s been routinely outmatched for the last 24 games.  

It’s not all bad news, though. The Saints defense has been excellent on third down, fourth-best in the league. They’ve forced 12 turnovers, tied for sixth-best. 19 sacks are good for seventh in the league. Cam Jordan is playing at a Pro Bowl level. The defense’s youth—Kikaha, Anthony, Breaux, Swann, Richardson—offers some hope that the defense will improve in the season’s second half. Even better, they’ll be facing the league’s easiest schedule the rest of the way.

The second half schedule is:

  • vs. Tennessee (1-6)
  • at Washington (3-4)
  • BYE
  • at Houston (3-5)
  • vs. Carolina (7-0)
  • at Tampa (3-4)
  • vs. Detroit (1-7)
  • vs. Jacksonville (2-5)
  • at Atlanta (6-2)

Besides the schedule, the most confidence-inspiring factors for the remainder of 2015 reside in Sean Payton and Drew Brees. That’s obvious enough, but for a while this season, it looked like their individual bests were behind them. Brees injured his rebuilt throwing shoulder, faced an uncertain diagnosis, struggled for a bit, and then regained his form.

Early in the season, Payton, a year removed from securing the “Grandpa Sean” moniker, drifted aimlessly under a fog of caution before finally shaking off the cobwebs. In the past three weeks, we’ve seen fake field goals, punt blocks, flea flickers, mindless challenges, and 4th down aggression—all things we’ve come to know and love from the unpredictable and brazen Payton. Lately, instead of quarreling with Rob Ryan on the sideline, Payton has smiled and fist-pumped and hi-fived and hugged his players.

He’s got his damn Juicy Fruit back.


This past Sunday, for just the third time under Payton, the Saints scored more than 50 points (51 vs. Green Bay in '08, 62 vs. Indianapolis in '11).

Payton has a team and a locker room that he loves, and regardless of their expectations, the team is playing with joy and unity, a designed shift from the poison and acrimony of 2014, a current state that offers the best case for a strong finish this year.  

Most of all, Sean Payton has Drew Brees, a guy who, after all of these years, after all of the records, and after an endless parade of single-game heroics, just submitted the best regular season game of his career. There’s no point in even deconstructing its statistical brilliance or its context, a performance so singularly sublime it defies rote analysis.

With Brees still capable of that, a peak that seemed past but is obviously not, it’s impossible to discount the Saints in any game for the rest of this season.

As fun as it’s already been this year, maybe the real fun is just now getting started.

#WhoDat

21 September 2015

Killshot



It’s been a long time coming.

The Payton/Loomis regime was always crashing down at some point. This is an inescapable reality for every NFL team in any given era.  

Two weeks into the 2015 season, here we are faced with the ugly truth: the end of the greatest era in Saints football is on the doorstep.

For the third time in four seasons, the Saints have started 0-2. They're 7-11 in their last eighteen regular season games. They’re in a tailspin of increasing ferocity.

The modern Saints are a team built on offense, and today, that offense is a shell of its once formidable self. Since 2013, the Saints have parted ways with a long list of productive offensive players: Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, Lance Moore, Jimmy Graham, and Kenny Stills. To date the Saints have failed to suitably replace this talent and as a result, they are no longer capable of winning games on the strength of their offense—the once signature talent of Payton’s Saints.

In the first two games this year, the Saints offense has looked passive, non-threatening, meek. This is a trend that started in 2013, bled into 2014, and seems to have cemented itself permanently in 2015. They’ve failed to push the ball downfield. They haven’t run the ball particularly well. They seem to call screen passes every other play. They strike no fear.

It’s reflective of an offensive system now unimaginative and lazily, contentedly growing old. When the Saints offense dies, so dies the Payton-era Saints. It appears we’re witnessing the death rattle.   

Of course the buck stops with Sean Payton who, in my opinion, is in need of a fresh start.

Who would’ve thought Payton would ever take the ball out of Brees’s hands when the Saints had a chance to steal a win in Arizona late in the game? Who could foresee Payton punting from the opponent’s 35-yard line on the game’s opening drive at home against the lowly Bucs?

It’s been ten seasons in New Orleans for Payton, well past the average lifespan for an NFL head coach with one franchise. When you take into consideration the monumental task of rebuilding the Katrina team; the Super Bowl run; the Vicodin incident; Bountygate; a divorce; and whatever else we’re not privy to, it’s perfectly understandable to see why Payton is no longer at his best in New Orleans. We really shouldn’t fault him for a natural course of events. After all, he did the impossible in 2009. Duplicating that task was always going to be a fool’s errand, and he damn near did it anyway.

In recent years, he’s been hamstrung by his team’s drafts and contract management. The list of follies is almost endless at this point: extending the contracts of older guys like Roman Harper, Will Smith, Marques Colston, and Jahri Evans; a brutal track record in the draft embodied by Stanley Jean Baptiste; a mindless, poisonous contract extension for Junior Galette; the confounding Jairus Byrd experience; and spending valuable cap space on a luxury (C.J. Spiller) when you lack the basics (a #1 wide receiver, or a functional tight end, or a pass rusher).

This offseason, the Saints handed out hefty contracts to two runningbacks (!). Considering the Saints’ knack for finding cheap, young talent at runningback over the years, and with cap dollars at a premium, this was an errant choice with so many other holes at the time: wide receiver, tight end, cornerback, linebacker, and defensive line.

All of these missteps have eroded the Saints’ ability to compete, and it culminated in a home loss to a rookie quarterback on one of the league’s worst teams, a team that, the week prior, lost despairingly to a Tennessee Titans’ team that in week two lost badly to the hapless Cleveland Browns. This is where the Saints have arrived in 2015. At the bottom of the barrel.

They’ve lost six straight home games, their worst such streak since (gulp) 1979-1980.

And if there was ever one event that would push the Payton/Loomis Saints off the cliff, it was an arm injury to Drew Brees. Sadly, that might have happened when Brees took a nasty shot while following through on a pass against the Bucs. It might have been a fatal shot.

In 2014, Brees quietly labored through a rotator cuff injury. And since 2006, Brees has thrown an insane number of passes for the league’s pass-happiest offense. He is 36 with a significant amount of wear-and-tear on an already-once rebuilt arm.

Against the Bucs, the arm injury clearly bothered him and hampered his ability. Worse, Brees did something he’s never done in ten seasons in New Orleans: he threw duck after duck. Though I never counted myself among those who questioned Brees’s arm strength in the past, it was clear on Sunday that something was (maybe seriously) wrong, which may account for this:
Maybe it will all turn out to be nothing, and Brees will be fine.

But from what we saw on Sunday, and considering Brees’s age and his past, it’s time to brace for the worst. In the Saints’ past eighteen games, the team’s decline has proved precipitous and at this point appears irreversible.

It was always going to end like this.

No harm, no foul.

Back to reality.

#whodat