28 September 2014

Apathy

Nothing kills quite as assuredly as does apathy.

And right now, the Saints are an apathetic mess.

After four weeks, it's difficult to maintain hope that it will get significantly better for the Saints this season.

On offense, the Saints look passive and nonthreatening. On defense, they look confused and unmotivated.

And overshadowing the whole affair is whether we're now watching the slow death of the Payton/Brees era. Nine seasons in, and it's a fair question to ask. If that's the case, what exactly are we witnessing right now? A temporary bump in the road? Or the inexorable fade to black?

Of particular note this season is the Saints' coaching, or lack thereof.

The defense has fallen off a cliff. A season after being the backbone of a resurgent 2013 squad, the Saints' defense is lifeless in 2014. The pass rush is non-existent, and stands out among this team's shortcomings through four games. A year ago this was a defensive line productive, youthful, and imposing. Today, it's little more than a picket fence.

Whether this is attributable to complacency among the players, or the exploiting of Rob Ryan's schemes after a year's worth of film, is up for debate. Regardless, the defense is surrendering a near league-worst 6.1 yards per play and that starts with a lack of impact up front.

In the secondary, far too often have we seen opponents roaming free in friendly swaths of inviting turf, as if left alone to graze idly at their leisure. It's like opposing offenses are conducting operations on a Canadian Football League field. As much space as you need.

There have been blown assignments and bad angles, an unwillingness to tackle, and an inability to turn the ball over. Defensive adjustments come too late, or seem pointless.

There's ... just ... nobody in charge on the defensive side of the ball.

Combine the ineffectiveness of Rob Ryan's schemes with a dearth of on-field leadership, and you're left with a defense that, thus far in 2014, has shellshocked us back to the wretched haunts of 2012.

At this point, it's tough to dismiss the void of leadership and intelligence created by the departures of Vilma, Greer, Will Smith, Harper, and Jenkins in the offseason. There has to be something to that.

It's not that the defense lacks talent. Instead, it appears to lack for direction, preparation, motivation.

This extends, too, to the offensive side of the ball.

As an example, on offense, the Saints expended a noticeable effort involving Travaris Cadet in Sunday's game. Cadet had more touches than PT, Stills, Cooks, and Colston. It felt like some dopey rehash of the 'Mike Karney ... SURPRISE!' game from 2006 in Dallas, a desperate twist on an old trick from an aging dog.

Along those same lines, you had the most fruitless and depressingly comical of all fake punts, at the most critical of times, in a spot where they'd fool nobody, the last wilting move of a group devoid of direction, a lounge act befitting of Jake LaMotta.

The advancing age on the Saints' offense is noticeable. That's understandable and easy to accept. What's confusing is the slow pace to adapt to those changing conditions, to alter their approach to better fit the resources available.

Here, just let Wang explain from last year. This rings more true than ever:
They're older, they're slower, they're not as explosive, they're not as powerful up front, their weaknesses are becoming easier for opponents to exploit, and Sean Payton's schemes have gotten a bit stale. After all, they've been doing pretty much the same things, with pretty much the same guys, for eight years now. That's a long time.
...
But eventually, patching it up with duct tape to restore it to 90% of its previous functionality for the umpteenth time is no longer gonna be sufficient. Because it's still degrading, slowly but surely. Better to "fix" it for real at the first sign of a significant leak — when it's not really "broken" per se, just aging and weakening — than after your basement is already flooded.

I think that's where the offense is at this point. It's still "elite" but not nearly as elite as it once was, and it won't be "elite" for much longer without something a little more aggressive than just another couple layers of duct tape.
...
Or, to put it another way, it's not just the hardware, it's the software. Both are still functional, but both are overdue for an update or three."

And yet here they are four games in to 2014, this piece of wisdom from last year stinging with renewed truth.

An uninspiring, journeyman kicker. Meachem instead of Morgan. An endless loop of ineffectual bubble screens. Seam routes lobbed into heavy traffic. An offense resigned to making adjustments instead of forcing them.

The question now, for 2014, is whether this will all come crashing down. This just a month removed from what seemed like legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.

My, how the tables have turned.

One of these years the Saints were going to face the end of an era. Is this it, in all of its dulled glory? Or will they right the ship and contend for a division title?

I don't have an answer, but I'll be watching with rapt attention one way or the other. There's some sort of history to be made here, it would seem.

I will leave you on a high note, with this gleam of hope from the Black and Gold Review:

The Saints are in a mess right now. But if anybody’s going to get them out of it, it’s Sean Payton. The 2014 season has been a spectacular disappointment, and the Saints are probably at their nadir. They could stay here for a while. But they might not. This is a new era, with new rules, and nobody has any damn clue what happens next.

                     

14 September 2014

Lightweight

I don't have much to say about the Saints' first two games, as those games seem relatively self-explanatory.



Mostly, I am floored to the point of being nearly speechless. What in the everliving fuck is going on?

Anyway, the Saints have been outcoached, underprepared, and indifferent in both games; moreover, in the waning moments of each half in both games, the defense has cowered and surrendered in a manner that would offend even the French.

If you watched the first two games, it's no surprise the Saints are 0-2. They're not very good right now. Anybody--whether the fans or Drew Brees--can rationalize how the Saints might've just as easily won both games. That, though, ignores the fact that the Saints have been outplayed in each game. The last-minute field goals only obscure reality.

Regardless, nobody gives a shit about sample size at this point. It is what it is.

It's all been bizarre so far in 2014, a theme that not's unfamiliar to the Payton-era Saints. I guess we shouldn't be surprised. This should almost feel expected at this point.

Maybe my (or our) expectations were inverted this year, and the Saints are just circa-2008 mediocre. But it doesn't quite feel like that yet. It moreso feels like they've been fucking off and admiring themselves in an ever-foggy mirror, and now they're backed into an unenviable corner in the third week of the season.

It doesn't seem like it should be this way, but this is where they are. 0-2, staring down the barrel of the most-embarrassing 0-3 start in franchise history, and equally relevant, all but eliminating themselves from postseason contention with a loss.

Just two weeks ago, only the Seahawks, Broncos, and Patriots had better (technically, worse) Super Bowl odds than the Saints.

I refuse to believe this is suddenly post-peak-Sean-Payton-era Saints, or the "closing of the window," or whatever the fuck. This just seems like a group of dudes that doesn't really give much of a shit.

Criticize Mark Ingram as we Saints' fan have over the years, but if every player on this team gave as much of a shit as Ingram (and Jimmy Graham) does, I can't help but to think this season would have unfolded much differently.

What's even worse is these lightweights on the team--specifically, Junior Galette and Khiry Robinson--calling out fans on fucking Twitter after the Browns' game. Are you shitting me? What kinda chumps are dotting the Saints' roster? You don't see Drew Brees or Jimmy Graham or Jahri Evans or Marques Colston or Pierre Thomas or Peyton Manning or Tom Brady or Demarcus Ware or Patrick Willis crying about "fake fans" after a tough loss. Give me a fucking break, you buncha amateurs.

You wanna be a leader right now, Junior Galette? Maybe start by shutting the fuck up every now and again. You want a Superdome that produces the league's best homefield advantage? Then don't shit on the people who make it happen.

These same "fake fans"? These are the same people who spend their hard-earned dollars, money that's incredibly valuable to them, to support you, to contribute to a framework that enables you to secure a $40 million contract after years of hard work. So lucky should all people be after many years of busting their asses.

You're not special. And we're not impressed. So can it, hero.

They elected this dude the captain of the defense? What kinda second-rate, overmatched leader resorts to something so weak? Look in the mirror, big fella. Say all you want about Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper. In spite of the endless disdain heaped upon them both as Saints, neither saw fit to deflect their own shortcomings on to the fans who support them. That's because neither one of them is fucking weak. What about you, Junior?

And maybe that goes a long way in explaining the importance of the "Captain" designation, and why to this point, the Saints' defense has looked utterly bereft of any direction, whether through the defensive captain, his teammates, or the dude in charge, Rob Ryan.

They don't have much time to get it straight.

Here's to hoping they will.

03 August 2014

Great Expectations

Over the past two months, the budding hope for the Saints' 2014 season has only intensified.

courtesy of nola.com

Where the offseason--through free agency signings, a promising draft, and the retention of key players--built on the strong returns from 2013, this year's training camp has thrown more gas on to the now blistering fire of great expectations for the 2014 Saints.

Still a week removed from the team's first preseason game, there's an enveloping sense of championship-season-in-the-making. Though these expectations are similar to other preseasons of the Sean Payton era, this year feels just a bit different.

During the 2009 preseason, there was confidence and hope after a few seasons of falling short in a variety of ways. In 2011 there was intrigue amidst the chaos of the lockout, yet one that failed to hint at the dominance we'd eventually witness during that season.

Now? I can't shake the feeling there's a deep-rooted, impenetrable belief that this season is destined to be a defining moment of the Sean Payton era, at least from a purely 'football' perspective. That, of course, offers needed context considering the impossible-to-predict renaissance of 2006, the enduring beauty and joy of 2009, and the face-melting thrill-ride of 2011.

In spite of the regression that was a side effect of Bountygate, there remains the hope that what once seemed inevitable--Lombardi Gras II--still has a heart that beats on, one that refuses to recede into history with a listless fade.

There's a finality to the Payton-Brees Saints that's yet to be determined, and if the abundant evidence from this preseason is any indication, that resolution portends something inescapably special. Forgive me for refusing to let it go completely, but Roger ain't getting the last word here. Fuck that. You know it's what they're all thinking.

If you think this all sounds like hyperbole that's a result of my bias as a Saints' fan, well, you're probably right. But you should know that I am not alone.

In early July, the venerable (and hopefully not senile) Archie Manning said of this Saints' team: “I think the Saints’ line-up on paper to start the season is maybe as strong as I’ve ever seen before.” A week or so later, Albert Breer, the striving heir apparent to Peter King, referenced the Saints' "supreme confidence." 

Confidence is at such a peak level that Drew Brees indicated he wanted to play football for another ten years. He wasn't joking. Not to be outdone, Sean Payton said he's ready to coach until age 80.

Sensing the moment, Thomas Morstead pondered punting a football over a mountain, or a hill, or something.
 
Drew Brees then went on to call Pierre Thomas "the best all-purpose back in the league."

And for good measure? Brees has been doing stuff like this when practice ends:


As an aside, while we're hyperbolizing, it's not implausible to think that Brees is set for a career year, in spite of how good he was in '08, '09, '11, and '13. Favre did it at 40. Peyton did it at 37, after several neck surgeries. Let's not go kicking dirt on Drew Brees's prime quite yet. Haven't you been paying attention these past fourteen years?

Terron Armstead, who has apparently had a standout camp, will play a central role in helping Brees maintain the otherworldly benchmarks Brees has set. Here's Brees on Armstead:
“You love everything you see. Not only just his talent, but you see it in his eyes ... What I see with him is intensity and confidence, and that is what you love to see in a left tackle, ready for any type of challenge.”

Remember, Armstead ran the fastest 40-yard dash of any lineman in the history of the NFL Combine. You should probably read that sentence again. This dude is quite an athlete. He also has the Pine Bluff, AR-connection with Willie Roaf. That seems like some kind of affirming fate.


And in case you missed it, Armstead also appears to be rather strong:

If all that not's enough, Brandin Cooks has wholly captivated his Saints' teammates, media, and fans more so than any other player. Ben Watson said of Cooks, "this kid is at a different speed."  Keenan Lewis has since dubbed Cooks "Lightning."

Darrin Gant of Pro Football Talk, after watching Cooks effortlessly outrun Saints' defenders, commented: "... the video of [Cooks] pulling away from the Saints defense is frankly alarming."

Frankly. Alarming.

Thank you for that, Darrin. We'll all be sure to run that into the ground by week four. But for now, thanks!

In an interview this past week, Jim Henderson said Cooks hasn't dropped a pass thrown his way at camp.

And finally ...

Are you paying attention, Atlanta?

Because this is what's coming in week one, against a team that owns you.

Brees, Graham, Cooks, Khiry ... Junior, Akiem, Cam, Vaccaro ...

I hate to leave out Colston, Stills, Jahri, Jairus, Bush, and Keenan. But there are almost too many good players to name right now. Meantime, Matt Ryan is probably futzing over what to wear for his HBO debut on Tuesday.

You know what this is shaping up to be? Elephants versus pissants, in the parlance of Thomas Pynchon. I wonder if Hard Knocks, as it chronicles the Falcons' buildup to their season opener against the Saints, will remind its audience that Sean Payton is 12-2 versus Atlanta? You know, just for context, and for shits and giggles too.

One thing I'm sure HBO won't mention, but bears repeating, is that Sean Payton has not lost a game in the Superdome since October of 2010. 2010! The opposing defensive coordinator in that last Dome loss? None other than Rob Ryan.

Now Payton and Ryan are teamed up again for another crack at a Super Bowl title. Hyperbole aside, a 6-2 road record in 2014 and things will be looking swell for homefield advantage and another Super Bowl appearance for the Saints.

Last season, they pried the door back open a little bit.

This year, let's hope they kick that motherfucker down.

18 May 2014

No Simple Highway

As it turns out, getting back to the Super Bowl isn't quite so easy.

Now five seasons removed from their greatest moment, the Saints, older and wiser in ways, younger and more promising in others, approach 2014 with the residue of a championship increasingly faint, the present challenges perhaps greater, the fleeting nature of opportunity threatening, yet the hope of a new day once again beaming in the distance.

Navigating their way back to the Super Bowl has been a circuitous, and at times torturous, route for these Saints. They've been turned away and denied repeatedly, by Seattle, San Francisco, Commissioner Goodell, and Seattle again.

Perhaps the fifth try will be the proverbial charm.


Over the course of eight seasons since Sean Payton arrived, including the asterisked one, the Saints have relied on a unique resiliency to make their mark.

In 2006, it was an unexpected ascension to the franchise's first NFC Championship Game after the tumult of Katrina and wholesale renovation of the team. Three seasons later, the Saints unleashed a torrent of fire on the NFL in winning their first 13 games, shrugged off a three-game losing streak, and then historically dispatched three Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks in the postseason en route to their first Lombardi trophy.

Remember-me shots, still ringing out.

Two seasons later in 2011, behind an offensive machine of mythic proportion, the Saints, primed to double-down on championship glory, endured the most bitter of postseason defeats against the most bitter of rivals.

From that point forward, it's been a process of reconstruction for the franchise.

The Saints' resiliency has continued to be tested in ways unforeseen: that crushing postseason defeat, Bountygate, interim-interim coaches, the Spagnuolo disaster, and an aging roster among other factors.

After being reinstated in early 2013 from a season-long exile, Sean Payton, wasting time no more, immediately fired Steve Spagnuolo, hired Rob Ryan, and set out to fix the team's Achilles heel: its defense.

A bit more than a year later, and Payton has accomplished that particular task.

Rob Ryan and his marauding band of pillaging Huns have helped the Saints transition into a new era against newly-competitive foes, reformulating the team's identity, re-energizing the fanbase, and--most importantly--setting the table for a championship run in 2014 after a highly-promising beta test last season.

The Saints' defense is on the precipice of busting the "window" wide open or, better yet, opening for the franchise a completely new window from which to dream.

Building on the newfound strength of their defense, the Saints targeted and signed Jairus Byrd as their priority free agent this offseason. At the time of Byrd's signing, Mickey Loomis handed Byrd the NFL's largest-ever contract for a safety, making a mockery of the notion that the supposed "cash-strapped" Saints would stand pat this offseason.

Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiit.

Loomis, of course, continues to do what smart businessmen have done throughout the history of enterprise: anticipate.

Understanding that the salary cap isn't so restrictive as it's set to continue ballooning in the coming years, facile at restructuring contracts to fit the team's current needs, and realizing that available cap space on a championship contender is the most foolish of gold, Loomis did again what he does best: he improved his team with a thundering stroke of mastery while the pretenders gawked with exasperation and dismay.



How ya like them apples, haters?

Listed by some as the #1 free agent available in 2014, Jairus Byrd brings to the Saints hawkish range at free safety as one of the NFL's best takeaway artists. As it stands, Byrd is set to become the Darren Sproles to Malcolm Jenkins' Reggie Bush.

Byrd's signing was made all the more enjoyable because:

1.) The Falcons had pursued Byrd as their "big target in free agency" and whiffed in favor of the Saints, forgetting that top-level players who toil away in obscurity for years aren't keen on rebooting their careers with perennial also-rans. Well, except for Tony Gonzalez, I guess.

... This was soon followed by ...

2.) buffoonish Falcons' fans celebrating like they orchestrated some third-rate coup when the Falcons signed Saints' safety Rafael Bush to an offer sheet as a restricted free agent. Of course, as always, #LoomisMath prevailed, the Saints matched the Falcons' offer, and Bush remained a Saint. Predictably, immense Falcons' butthurt ensued.

Just prior to that, the Saints signed Roland "Champ" Bailey to fortify the cornerback position. Before muddling though injuries in 2013, Bailey produced a stellar 2012 campaign that saw him make second-team All-Pro. A future Hall of Famer, Bailey possesses not only a worthy skill set, but he also offers a veteran presence that will replace, on an otherwise youthful defense, the longstanding leadership of the now-departed Jonathan Vilma, Jabari Greer, Will Smith, and Roman Harper.

With Bailey in the fold, the Saints now mirror on defense the valuable leadership credentials they boast on offense with Drew Brees.

As if all that wasn't enough, the Saints went out and used four of their six draft picks on defense: a cornerback with massive upside (think Akiem Hicks or Jimmy Graham), two linebackers, and a safety.

If you doubted the Saints were assembling a second championship run on the strength of their defense, may your skepticism now be revisited.


That's not, though, to minimize the importance of the offense in 2014.

However you prefer to frame it, and as good as the Saints' offense is, it's undeniable that they labored in 2013 like they rarely have since 2006. In weeks 11-16, the crucial six-game stretch of the team's schedule, the Saints averaged 17.8 points per game. For context, over the course of the entire season, that would have ranked the Saints 30th of 32 teams.

Aside from the offense's poorly-timed struggles during that stretch, Drew Brees performed wildly differently in home and road games. Brees' touchdown/interception ratio at home was an absurd 27/3; away from the Dome, it tumbled--precipitously--to 12/9.

In the Superdome, Brees' passer rating was an outstanding 126.3. On the road, it fell to a pedestrian 84.8. The 41.5 differential represented a significant 30%+ swing in efficiency, a deficit the Saints struggled to overcome in going 3-5 on the road (a road record, mind you, that ultimately prevented the Saints from securing the ever-essential homefield advantage for the postseason).

Combine those factors with the Saints' periodic troubles producing points down the stretch, and it represented an area that demanded attention.

Enter Brandin Cooks.

A 5'10 crate of dynamite, Cooks scored 18 touchdowns in his last season at Oregon State, led the nation in receiving yards, returned punts, and ran the fastest 40-yard dash of any wide receiver in this year's draft class.

Good enough?

Unsurprisingly the Saints traded up seven spots to draft Cooks in the first round, a player who compares favorably to both Steve Smith and Randall Cobb. More importantly, Cooks provides an element sorely lacking from the Saints' offense in 2013: a player capable of flipping the field, or scoring from anywhere, with the slightest of openings.

Cooks should pay immediate dividends and, alongside Kenny Stills, inject some additional youth into (what was last year) an aging wide receiving unit.

Here's Cooks' wide receiver coach from college:
“For me, it’ll be that he’s the gold standard of receivers going forward. He was the most complete football player that I’ve ever been around. For there to ever be another one to have all the things that he had … I couldn’t even imagine."

A former scout now with NFL Network, Daniel Jeremiah says of Cooks:
“The entire field is open to this guy. Courage is not a problem.”

Combined with Stills' presence as a downfield threat, Cooks will undoubtedly force opposing defenses to utilize what Bill Belichick calls the G.T.F.B. defense: "get the fuck back."

As a result, this should loosen up the middle of the field where Jimmy Graham dominates, an area Dr. Wang has analyzed and labeled "The Smooth Up In Your Jimmy Zone™."

Regardless, Brandin Cooks is set to play an immediate role in the Saints' offense, presumably inheriting a portion of Darren Sproles' touches and meanwhile looming as a legitimate Desean Jackson-esque downfield terror.

Be-fucking-ware.

Not since Reggie Bush in 2006, or the raw Jimmy Graham in 2010, have the Saints drafted an offensive player with such potential who fits so seemingly perfect into the offense.

Listen to Mike Riley, a Sean Payton confidant and Cooks' head coach at Oregon State:
"[Cooks'] work ethic is at the highest level. His character is at the highest level. And of course, his talent speaks for itself ...
He is really competitive. I mean, really competitive ... He's always going the extra mile in everything he does. He'll be an immediate pro. He'll always be on time, and they'll never have any trouble with him ...
Everyone in New Orleans is really going to like him once he gets down there. He's just one of the guys and that's what makes him so special because for us he was kind of a superstar, but he never carried himself that way."

Umm. Sold.


The Saints' two key transactions this offseason were: 1.) signing an All Pro-level safety to produce turnovers, an area the Saints' defense struggled with last year; 2.) drafting this year's fastest, most productive wide receiver to kickstart the heart of the offense.

If you're judging the offseason by the addressing of major needs, then the Saints' moves rate as a surefire success.

Now the long march back to the Super Bowl continues.

The current Saints' roster appears to be the most talent-rich group ever assembled in New Orleans.

From a defensive line and secondary that both rate among the league's very best, to multiple future Hall of Famers, to three All-Pros on offense, to the Saints' all-time leader in every meaningful receiving category, to the excellent Thomas Morstead, to emerging talents like Kenny Stills, Khiry Robinson, and Brandin Cooks, the 2014 Saints are undeniably loaded.

What's their destiny?

I can't wait to find out.

(19-0)

09 March 2014

Sea Change

The second installment of the Sean Payton era is in full bloom.

Earlier this year, the Saints jump-started their offseason by releasing Will Smith, Roman Harper, and Jabari Greer: all valued, productive, respected players who helped the Saints win their first Super Bowl.

With those cuts made, the Saints took another step forward on Friday and released Lance Moore and Darren Sproles. Pierre Thomas's future in New Orleans, meanwhile, hangs in the balance.

The carnage will probably continue in the coming weeks.

While it stings to watch these players depart, their bonds to the team and fanbase remain indissoluble even if their playing careers don't. Their departures, and career resumptions elsewhere, are the natural end-result of the NFL's salary cap infrastructure.

Equally relevant, these moves--especially on offense--are a reflection of the Saints' desire to comprehensively revamp its roster and reinvent itself.

This process started last year with Rob Ryan and the defense. It transitions now to the Saints' offense.

The release of Darren Sproles, particularly, is the clearest indication that the Saints' offense is indeed undergoing a shift in focus. Without Sproles (who occupied the same role previously held by Reggie Bush), the Saints appear to be transitioning to a new foundation on offense for 2014.

courtesy of The Advocate

Were the Saints intent on retaining the nearly-identical offensive philosophy employed for years, it seems unlikely they'd have released Sproles (who probably has a few good years remaining). Of course, the Saints might seek a replacement for him via the draft or free agency to maintain the status quo.

Considering Sproles' efficacy as a pass-catcher, between-the-tackles runner, blocker, and return man, simply "replacing" him won't be such an easy task.

But, there might be something else at the heart of this. Maybe replacing Sproles isn't part of the plan. Perhaps the Saints are phasing that traditionally-central role out of their offense, or at least relegating its importance.

Here's Mike Detillier, two months ago:


The first hints of Sean Payton tinkering with a shift in offensive philosophy came last season.

Specifically, Payton placed a strong emphasis on time of possession; displayed an eagerness to rely on his defense; and revealed himself a bit less aggressive than he'd been in the past.

There are some examples here, but this is the key part from the Black and Gold Review (October 2013):
The Saints are playing good football in a way that shows they are aware of their own mortality. 
Maybe this is a continuation of a Sean Payton maturity arc that started with him carrying what Bill Parcells called “the virus”–his propensity for tactical hyperaggression–and developed into effective strategic hyperaggression that dictated the terms on which the Saints played their games. 
Maybe that arc has continued, leading Payton to a new reliance on old football maxims like clock-control.

When you examine how, as the 2013 season wore on, Payton relied increasingly on his running game to notable success (comprehensively analyzed here at moosedenied), it appears that the moves of this 2014 offseason are the logical extension of the shift Payton committed to as 2013 wore on.

Let Ralph Malbrough, our illegitimate heir apparent to Buddy D, explain:


With respect to the fact that Mark Ingram seemed to break through in the second half of 2013, and that Khiry Robinson flashed such impressive skills that Bill Parcells compared him to Hall-of-Famer Curtis Martin, Sean Payton probably sees these players' skills as 1.) too significant to marginalize in favor of a lopsided, pass-centric attack with years of mileage on its once-innovative frame; 2.) part of the formula for competing with the NFC's defensive-minded, physical teams in Seattle, San Francisco, Carolina, Arizona, and even St. Louis (who embarrassed the Saints in 2013).

Instead of blindly adhering to a style that sparked the ascension of the Saints' franchise and, partly, defined an era of passing supremacy in the NFL, Payton appears to be adapting his approach to fit within both the components of his team and the competitive framework of his conference.

Woe is the man complacent to change.

I am not suggesting that the Saints will suddenly morph into a "three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust" offense.

Not at all.

I'm proposing that the style we've witnessed for nearly a decade (pass-heavy, up-tempo, quick-strike, highly-specialized, multiply-packaged) will recede in favor of a style better suited to today's competitive landscape. Specifically, that style might look like (GASP!) a more balanced attack that is less reliant on the pristine conditions of a dome.


Perhaps most meaningful, the realities of an aging roster and a bloated salary cap have also induced the sea-change we're witnessing.

As mentioned ad naseum, the Saints had the NFL's oldest offense in 2013. Just as the Saints saw great success with a rebuilt defense and new scheme in 2013, they are working to replicate that (to a degree) on offense in 2014: younger, faster, cheaper, different, better.

Even if that's a stretch, playing Russian roulette with the salary cap every year has finally forced the Saints to unload the proverbial bullets from the gun and adopt a saner, more sustainable process. Complicating matters is that the Saints have three all-pro players on their offense (Brees, Jahri, Graham).

Complain all you want about how a handful of players' salaries warp the cap, but that is an inescapable reality when a team has several great players. Equally important, that is a reality Saints' fans should be overjoyed to embrace, not bemoan like spoiled, no-good pissants.

You either 1.) have great players, or 2.) have a ton of cap room with which to retain valuable, though not essential, players in perpetuity. You can't have it both ways, though.

The great players are going to get paid. Call me crazy, but I prefer to root for a team that's willing to pay the great players instead of jettisoning them the moment they are due what they've earned.

Go check out the rosters of Oakland, Jacksonville, and Cleveland. Plenty of cap room there. No need for them to release reliable veterans. Their Super Bowl odds, though? Not so great.

With top-level players and a consistently competitive team, roster sacrifices are as unavoidable as they are unpalatable.

On all of this, here's more from the Angry Who Dat blog:
The cap hell the Saints are currently in is the culmination of at least half a decade of kicking the can, pushing salary cap problems down the road via restructuring and cuts and bonuses and oddly-structured contracts, in an effort to keep The Window open. It was going to catch up sooner or later, and this happens to be the year. 
Don’t subscribe to melodramatic bullshit that puts the onus on one player to take less than he deserves so you can keep your tiny running back with the bad knees for one more year. 
This is what happens to successful football teams in the salary cap era. They lose favored players. I know, it’s a new experience for me too.

The gutting of the Saints' roster isn't over yet, either.

We still await the fates for Pierre Thomas, Zach Strief, Brian de la Puente, and Malcolm Jenkins. Rafael Bush, through the mechanics of his contract tender, might move on as well. And of course, a resolution to Jimmy Graham's contract situation is still to come. Who knows how that might play out?

Fortunately for the Saints, Rob Ryan and a young, worthy defense arrived in 2013. Their ascent should continue in 2014, this just in time to compensate for salary cap limitations and transition on the offensive side of the team.

As of today, only five teams have better Super Bowl odds than the Saints do for this upcoming season.

Fret not.

Hope is aplenty.

02 March 2014

The Jimmy Situation

Here we go again.

The Saints placed the non-exclusive franchise tag on Jimmy Graham, setting in motion the crucial stage of Graham's contract negotiations.



Under the specifications of the non-exclusive tag, Graham is now free to negotiate with any team in the league. Should he sign a contract with a new team, the Saints, if they choose not to match the offer, would receive two first-round draft picks as compensation for losing Graham.

Likely before any (meaningful) negotiations take place, however, there is the issue of whether Graham will be designated as a tight end or a wide receiver. That decision will come at the hands of an NFL arbitrator who will, for all practical purposes, define the salary demands Graham will eventually make.

Either way, Graham is going to command a large contract. Testing the market will clarify Graham's true value, and it remains to be seen who will pursue (negotiate with) Graham.


For whatever reason, the conventional wisdom right now seems to be this: no team will pursue Jimmy Graham because the combination of signing him to a big contract and giving up two first-round picks is unreasonable.

(If it matters, this has been prevalent on message boards, twitter, and in the media.)

Not gonna happen, they all say. Dismissed as even possible. Completely implausible that some team will make a play for Graham.

The faulty assumption is two-fold here: 1.) that it would be a "mistake" for another team to sign Graham and surrender two picks to do so (would it be?); 2.) that no owner/GM would be "dumb enough" to surrender two picks and give Graham a big contract (would that be "dumb"?).

Yet year after year we see NFL teams make risky, and many times crazy, decisions. Somehow though, when it comes to Jimmy Graham--because he's overrated or something--no team would even consider the idea. Preposterous, they say!

But then ...

* The Seahawks traded three picks for Percy Harvin: a first, a third, and a seventh.

* The Colts gave up a first-round pick for Trent Richardson, a player far less valuable and accomplished than Graham.

* The Raiders traded first- and second-round picks for a then 32-year old Carson Palmer.

* The Jaguars drafted a fucking punter in the third round of the 2012 draft.

* The Falcons traded five--FIVE!--picks for Julio Jones: a swapped first, a future first, a second, a third, and a fourth.

So there's no way any team will pursue Graham because the compensation will be too steep? Is that the logic?

Sorry, but that logic isn't exactly airtight.

Jimmy Graham is 27 years old, with a lot less football mileage on him than most of his peers. He's one of the league's very best offensive weapons. He's scored the most receiving touchdowns in the NFL over the past three years. During the same timeframe, he's fourth in receptions and eighth in yards. He's #1 in all of the aforementioned categories for tight ends during those seasons. His prime years are likely ahead of him.

Ridiculous is the notion that not one team will make a serious run at signing Graham. Is it likely to happen? Maybe not. But it's certainly a possibility given Graham's production, age, unparalleled athleticism, work ethic, and the existing precedents as mentioned above.

You think, say, the Packers and their $35 million in available cap space won't wrack their brains to find a way to land Graham?

Granted, some team will have to pony up a significant amount of money to sign him (in addition to giving up two first rounders).

But the salary cap just went up by $10 million this season, mitigating the impact of Graham's contract on the 2014 cap. Additionally, the salary cap is expected to rise again in 2015. Considering teams that are already under the cap--a few of them far beneath--and with respect to the cap increase, some teams out there will have a lot of money to spend.

Some of those teams include Oakland, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Miami, Green Bay, Minnesota, Cincinnati, Washington, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Buffalo, Carolina, and the Jets. All of these teams have between $20 and $60+ million in available cap space.

Yet none of them will go after Graham?

GTFO


This assumption (that no one will pursue Graham) might also be tied to a growing, yet moronic, notion that Jimmy Graham is somehow overrated. Or soft. Or a product of the system. Or easy to TAKE OUT OF THE GAME! Or some other bullshit nonsense like that.

In real life, Jimmy Graham has been one the NFL's very best pass-catchers for three straight seasons. He's played through injuries. He's been a model teammate. Yet now that Graham is in line for a contract commensurate with his value, he's suddenly an unnecessary luxury.

Right.

This paranoid line of thinking has led the most querulous of Saints' fans to prefer Graham be signed away in exchange for two first-round draft picks. And that, of course, is related to this weird fetishization of the draft as an all-encompassing panacea for the Saints' needs.

Sure, two first-round picks might be preferable if every little thing goes right. But it doesn't usually work out that way.

I'll take the proven commodity (you know, the guy who's an all-pro, the guy who's caught more touchdowns than anyone else over the last 48 games) instead of unknown, future potential.

This especially rings true considering Drew Brees's age, and the shrinking opportunities to win another Super Bowl in the next few seasons. Removing Graham--a young player on the Saints' league-oldest offense--robs the teams of its best weapon at the worst possible time.

With the Saints' wide receivers aging and under-producing in 2013, losing Graham would further hamper a Saints' offense already in need of another high-quality receiving option.

If some other team extends to Graham an offer that the Saints can't (or won't) match, then so be it. The worthy compensation will assuage the loss.

That, in my opinion, is not the preferable outcome though.

The preferable outcome is retaining Graham, one of the NFL's best players.

More importantly, if the Saints' goal is to win the Super Bowl in 2014, then signing Jimmy Graham would be a good place to start.

26 January 2014

The Second Coming (featuring Rob Ryan and KDFV)

This actually happened:
During Monday's "NFL Insiders," [Chris] Mortensen revealed executives told him, "If [Rob Ryan] wants to be a head coach, he has to cut his hair. It is about image for these guys. They want a CEO-type. That's what they want."
In a league that's grown increasingly absurd, hypocritical, and even hateable, "hair length" is now too a thing.

It saddles up next to: consistently god-awful officiating, annoying Thursday Night Football, a vile commissioner, endless TV commercial breaks, an inevitable transition to an 18-game season, a multi-day Pro Bowl draft (really!), personal seat licenses, etc., etc., etc.

Rob Ryan, a guy who orchestrated one of the most singularly impressive coordinating jobs in recent NFL history, can't even get a head coaching interview--an interview!--because of his hair.

Yet another round of breathtaking idiocy from the Goodell-era NFL.

But anyway, Rob, please, don't cut your hair.

New Orleans is your destiny. With the Saints, you are in your element: larger-than-life, successful, loved, and on the brink of a Super Bowl ring.

You are not some retread in an ugly suit (hi, Mike Nolan!).

Don't let the sociopaths break you. If the majority of these owners value conformity over talent, "image" over substance, then let them forever wallow in their fetid stew of mediocrity.

Am I right, Jerry Jones?

Rob, your fate is to build a defense that will ultimately be compared to your dad's '85 Bears' unit, the benchmark for defensive greatness. This is your legend waiting to be written, your pedigree waiting to be fully realized. Embrace it.

New Orleans is the place to do it. In a city historically filled with cult heroes and outlandish personalities, you are a prodigy. Fulfill your destiny. You're not that far off, anyway. If the transition in year one was from "worst ever" to "top five," then what's the ceiling here?

You have the full support of everyone involved: the owner, the coach, the players, and the community. Your defense is young, hungry, and talented. They are on the precipice of ushering the Saints into a new, post-Bountygate era of success.

See:

Kenny Vaccaro, 22
Glenn Foster, 23
Corey White, 23
Tyrunn Walker, 23
Akiem Hicks, 24
John Jenkins, 24
Cam Jordan, 24
Junior Galette, 25
Rafael Bush, 26
Victor Butler, 26
Malcolm Jenkins, 26
Patrick Robinson, 26
Keenan Lewis, 27
Curtis Lofton, 27

Are you shitting me? Look at that!

There you have a deep core of talent and youth, already burnished by regular season experience and two playoff games in 2013.

Cam Jordan and Junior Galette finished 5th and 6th in sacks this season, one of the very best passing rushing duos in the league, one that appears to have its best days ahead. In Akiem Hicks, the Saints may just have the second coming of Haloti Ngata. Whether that comes to fruition or not, Hicks is perhaps the greatest "talent" on the Saints' defense and seems to be just scratching the surface of his immense skills.

I mean, look at this monster ... I BELIEVE I CAN FLY




Additionally, as we saw several times during the season and the playoffs, Keenan Lewis gives the Saints "shutdown corner" capabilities. Curtis Lofton is the among the most reliable, durable, and smart of middle linebackers.

Then you have the duo of Kenny Vaccaro and Rafael Bush at safety--the modern, reformulated answer to Brett Maxie and Gene Atkins.

In Bush, the Saints have a player who's gotten better the more he's played. He can play a few positions; he's been an excellent special teams player; he always seems to be in the right spots; and, Kenny Vaccaro notwithstanding, Bush is probably the team's best tackler.

Rafael Bush takes the best traits of Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins, and blends them into one coherent whole. It's taken some time, but with Bush, the Saints finally have their answer at free safety after years of searching.

In late December, Rob Ryan called Bush "an ascending football player." In consecutive playoff games at Philadelphia and at Seattle, Bush played as well as anyone on the Saints' defense.

And then there's Kenny Vaccaro.

KDFV. Kenny Dwayne Fuckin' Vaccaro.

The face of a resurgent, multi-faceted defense and the face of the Saints' youth movement.



With Vaccaro, the Saints' defense possesses an adaptability, toughness, and unpredictability that it hasn't had in quite some time. As has been noted countless times, Vaccaro lined up during the season as a strong safety; free safety; cornerback; nickel corner; and linebacker.

Adapting Vaccaro's varied skill set to each opponent has allowed Rob Ryan to:

1.) Create unpredictability, thus limiting exploitable tendencies opponents will inevitably identify

Where's there no consistent pattern to the usage of Vaccaro--the centerpiece of the Saints' defense--there are fewer available formulas for disassembling the Saints' defensive strategies.

Simply put, with Vaccaro, the Saints can more capably alter the way they play defense each week. As a result, this makes the Saints' defense a more complex puzzle to solve.

2.) Erase an opposing strength

This is sort of a corollary to the point above.

As we saw during the season, Rob Ryan often used Vaccaro to neutralize an opponent's key area of strength: tracking tight ends like Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten; lurking near the line of scrimmage against run-heavy teams; playing the slot corner and deep safety against pass-centric opponents; and also blitzing on a randomized schedule.

Since his days at Texas Kenny Vaccaro has been deployed as an "eraser of individual facets of an offense," and Rob Ryan has used Vaccaro in much the same way with the Saints.

What's more is that opposing offenses are accountable to Vaccaro's roles, not just his "position" as listed on a roster sheet. In other words, opposing offenses are most likely planning for the Saints' defense plus Kenny Vaccaro. This, of course, makes gameplanning against the Saints' defense a bit more difficult.

Vaccaro is to the Saints' defense what players like Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles, Percy Harvin, Danny Woodhead, etc. are to their team's offenses: a player with a wide variety of skills used in varying ways, whose weekly role is tailored to the team he's playing.

As far as defenses go, there aren't many players like this around. The Saints certainly haven't had a player like this on defense in recent memory, and they are fortunate to have landed Vaccaro. He's been the perfect representation of the Rob Ryan defense: aggressive, adaptive, and smart.

Kenny Vaccaro's most ready comparison, and this has been examined elsewhere, is to Troy Polamalu--a player who single-handedly changes the way opposing offenses scheme and execute against his team.

With Vaccaro's arrival representing the transformation of the Saints' defense, the Saints are positioned to remain competitive into the latter stages of Drew Brees's career. Like with Kenny Vaccaro, the future holds much promise for the Saints' defense.

The timing couldn't be any more perfect.

An older Brees shouldn't be burdened, disproportionately, with the Saints' fate on a weekly basis.

Instead, complementary forces are the formula for the Saints' continued success in this post-Bountygate era. That's started with defense in 2013, and may too be in the cards for a "different" offense in 2014.

Here's Wang surmising on a changing offense, in an effort to both better support Brees and mirror the defensive transformation from 2013:
A confluence of circumstances has presented the perfect opportunity for Sean Payton to take a cue from the wildly successful defensive rebuilding effort and make a bold decision to change the approach on the offensive side of the ball. An opportunity to be "multiple" in ways that for the most part simply haven't been possible until now.
126 rushing yards at a rate of 4.2 yards per on the road in a monsoon against the #2 rushing defense in the league, 185 rushing yards at a rate of 5.14 per on the road in the cold against the #10 rushing defense, and 108 rushing yards at a rate of 4.15 per on the road against the #7 rushing defense in 3 of the last 4 games should serve as the writing on the wall. The big neon sign that reads "Hey Coach! HELLO!"
...
So the stage is set. The writing is on the wall. This is your best chance at winning on the road, outdoors, in inclement weather, in December and January. And if it works on the road in inclement weather in December and January, it damn sure isn't gonna be any less effective indoors in September.
...
The point is that opportunity is there for the Saints' o-line to undergo a quick and thorough transformation mirroring the wildly successful 2013 d-line transition. To get younger, meaner, more athletic, more physical, and more versatile/well-rounded. Which will in turn allow the late-season rushing success to become a permanent fixture in the offense, thereby creating a different kind of "multiple" for Sean Payton and Drew Brees to work with. The kind of "multiple" opposing defenses aren't used to having to deal with when playing the Saints.
Along with the continued growth of the Saints' defense, one of the most compelling elements of 2014 will be how the Saints' offense evolves after an uneven 2013 season.

Whereas in early 2013 fixing the defense was the key to the Saints' competitive hopes, in 2014 adjusting the offense is the key issue for a Super Bowl run.

With that, things are looking up for the Saints in this new year.

Let's just hope that Rob Ryan doesn't cut his hair any time soon.