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.


21 September 2015


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.


22 August 2015

Slip Sliding Away

The Saints lost half of their passing game production from 2014.

Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills, Pierre Thomas, and Travaris Cadet accounted for 51% of the team’s receptions and 52% of passing yards last season, in addition to fifteen of Brees’s 33 touchdowns.

For a team dependent on its offense, and an offense centered on its passing game, there’s a gaping hole to fill in 2015. Who’s gonna do it? Among Brandon Coleman, CJ Spiller, and the combination of Ben Watson/Josh Hill, it’s tough to tell if the Saints have adequately addressed this need.

Coleman, for all of his potential, is unproven. CJ Spiller just had knee surgery. Ben Watson is kinda old. Josh Hill might be the most reliable of this group right now.

On the fringes, Joe Morgan and Seantavius Jones have had quiet preseasons to date. Nick Toon is destined for the dust bin. Maybe the favorably-named Willie Snead can do things?

Either way, the Saints’ passing game needs more than an aging Marques Colston and a rising Brandin Cooks. Identifying and developing productive complements is the second biggest issue facing the Saints’ offense. The ball isn’t gonna catch itself.

None of this matters, of course, if the Saints offensive line isn’t up to the task. That’s priority number one. As in every year of the Sean Payton era, the offensive line is the most essential piece of the puzzle. Thus far it looks … pretty ok.

Mad Max Unger and Tyrannosaurus Armstead, potential All-Pros, offer the best case for a dominant line in 2015. Former All-Pro Jahri Evans and veteran mainstay Zach Strief? Eh. Also kinda old. But I’m betting they’ll be just fine.

The concern is at left guard. Tim Lelito. Camp reports on Lelito have been nondescript, neutral at best. If Lelito can’t get it done, maybe Andrus Peat is an option here? The good news is that the spot between Armstead and Unger is probably the least critical position along the line. The bad news is that the offensive line doesn’t have much depth.

With respect to a defense that can’t be counted on, and a set of offensive skill players that might struggle towards mediocrity, the 2015 Saints will go as far as their offensive line takes them.

On defense, who the hell knows what’s going on.

With all the objectivity I can muster, I think there’s a decent amount of talent on the defense. Rookie Stephone Anthony looks as composed, smart, and talented as Jonathan Vilma was.

In another promising development, Stan Baptiste has made significant strides since a lost rookie season. A strong performance in the first preseason game, and solid returns from practice sessions, offer hope from the 2014 second-rounder that many have written off as a bust. Equally encouraging, he's inherited Pierre Thomas's Jordan-inspired #23.

Still, there are plenty of concerns on defense.

Like last year, the entire secondary is injured. Or, at least all of the starters are: Keenan Lewis, Brandon Browner, Kenny Vaccaro, and Jairus “cadaver” Byrd. Hell, even everyone’s new folk hero in Delvin Breaux is banged up. When is this shit gonna end?  

Will Vinnie Sunseri and Rafael Bush have to go it alone?

If that’s not enough, Akiem Hicks is now nursing an injury. Not only is Hicks a big, bad motherfucker embarking on a contract year, he’s the best player on a defensive line desperate for talent. Hell, desperate for bodies.

At least they had the foresight to retain Tyrunn Walker. Oh, wait, shit.
... ANYWAY ...

A league source told Larry Holder that the injury to Akiem Hicks isn’t serious.

Run this through the Sean Payton Injury Translator (SPIT™) and it probably means Hicks has a ruptured spleen.

Complicating matters is that the Saints are currently paying this jagoff tens of millions of dollars* to play for another team:


* also see: Contract Negotiating Gaffes 101

On top of this, as in 2012 and 2014, there seems to be plenty of confusion and disorganization among the defensive coaches and players. Do we even know who’s calling the shots on defense? Rob Ryan? Dennis Allen? Sean Payton? This is shaping up to be as bad an idea as an interim-interim head coach. What could possibly go wrong?

Meanwhile, here’s a 2015 training camp drill:

That’s marvelous.

Who the hell is coaching these guys? 

Really though, it’ll all be okay, because this is 2006 Redux. Or something.

Here’s a quote from Brees: 
“You almost have to kind of rewind, start back over, like in ’06 where we’re coming and it’s a clean slate, start fresh, everybody has something to prove and we’re here to compete, we’re here to grind, and don’t take anything for granted.”

 Then there’s this from Loomis:
“That was a theme that we talked about early on: getting back to some of those values and some of the processes we had in 2006, treating ourselves like we are starting fresh and new.”

 Saints’ fans have pounced on and run with this comparison, optimistic as it is.

I don’t see many similarities other than two teams not expected to contend for a title during their respective preseasons. If not downright crazy, it’s a bit premature to start drawing comparisons between the 2015 Saints and one of the most iconic teams in franchise history. Slow down.

Didn’t we learn our lesson after all of the typical idiocy during the 2014 preseason?

I guess it isn’t intended as a direct comparison, but cherry-picking favorable similarities is a fast track to massive disappointment. This is more a criticism of fan sentiment than it is of the team’s philosophy, but finding a Payton-era doppelganger for the 2015 team is impossible.

Think back to 2006.

The Saints had it all fall into place. A legendary draft class. A franchise icon still near his peak (Deuce). The two best wide receivers in franchise history. An endless supply of will, toughness, heart, soul, and earth-rattling momentum in the form of Steve Gleason. A motivated-at-his-peak Drew Brees looking to prove the world wrong (thanks, Nick!). Ultimate team-first guys like Fujita, Stinchcomb, Will Smith, Devery, Carney, et al. A young, highly-talented offense. A coach poised to revolutionize the modern NFL passing attack. A favorable schedule. A playoff bye at 10-6.

Will the 2015 Saints have most of those things? Perhaps, but probably not.

2015 is uncharted territory for an era that might be irrevocably crumbling, a fate both unfortunate and inevitable.

Ok, it’s not all negativity and sarcasm.

You want some optimism? Nobody knows anything. That should be painfully clear after last season.

Other than Roger Goodell stepping in a pile of shit every year, there are few constants in the NFL. Terrible divisions suddenly become dominant. Future Hall of Famers suddenly lose it. An obscure grocery clerk toiling away in Nowhere, USA leads his perennially-underachieving team to a Super Bowl victory. A dude with a shoulder wrecked beyond all measure becomes one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks of all time.

The beauty of now is that anything is in play. 

Maybe it really is all random.

But most important, it will be fun.

(At least until the Saints crash and burn and lose five consecutive home games to end the season, amirite?)