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.

10 January 2014

Alligator Blood

A week ago, Wang called it "surviving."

Over the past six weeks, that's exactly what's happened.

The Saints haven't dominated, or even reassured. They've lost as many games as they've won. They've dicked around and looked completely lost at times.



Yet with some seemingly reptilian blood, their heart beats on this season. And now, in the most unwelcome of environments, the Saints are lurking on the outskirts, angling for one more skirmish.

In Seattle, they've certainly found the trouble they're looking for.

"We got our wish" said Marques Colston about the rematch with the Seahawks.

Careful what you wish for and all that, but nah.

This season just wouldn't be complete without another game versus Seattle. For a significant portion of the regular season, the Saints and Seahawks were on a crash course for a huge postseason clash.

Now, it's finally here.

For better or for worse, this game will define the Saints' 2013 campaign. Will the Saints shock the world? Will they live on to see another fight after this weekend? 

If the past two years have revealed anything, it's (ahem) the abundant evidence of the Saints' strong survival instinct.

Here's Mike Florio reflecting on that sentiment in the current moment:
The NFL wanted to make an example out of the Saints.  The Saints have instead become an example for how an organization can overcome adversity, regardless of its source or legitimacy.
The first road playoff win in Saints franchise history would have been significant regardless of when it happened.  That it happened one year after the league office delivered a potentially crippling blow to the team makes it even more impressive.
Of course, all signs now point towards the Seahawks walking over the Saints on Saturday.

But remember: Pete Carroll winning three straight games against Sean Payton isn't some inescapable certainty, especially not against a Saints' team that's proved deft at upending convention.

The Saints might be left for dead at the moment, but they haven't been killed off completely.

And for that, there is always hope.  

"hanging around, hanging around ... kid's got ... alligator blood ... can't get rid of him"



Now, a comparison.

During the 2011 season the Saints played a monumental divisional playoff game against an NFC West opponent, one which surely altered the course of the Saints' franchise history.

At that time the Saints were the NFL's hottest team, doing much more than just surviving, having won nine straight games by an average margin of 17 points. They had accomplished that on the strength of a devastating offense, and heading into that playoff game against the 49ers, the Saints' (and their fans') confidence was at a stratospheric level. The idea that the Saints might lose that game, even to a 13-3 Niners' team with the league's best defense, seemed remote.

To many of us at that time, the Saints' second Super Bowl win was nearing formality. It wasn't "if," only "how."

But then Pierre Thomas got wrecked a yard from the 49ers' end zone on the game's opening drive. From that point forward, the Saints descended into a bizarre freefall that didn't reach its rock-bottom until early in the 2013 calendar year.

Only when Sean Payton took the sidelines this season did that freefall ultimately end.

A short eighteen weeks later and we've reached today, back in motherfucking Seattle for a second time this season, back with one more chance to fell the big, juiced Russian. What more could you ask for?

Like two years ago, the Saints now face another immense divisional playoff game against an NFC West opponent. Only this time, nobody gives the Saints a shot to win -- not after "BeastQuake" and the "Monday Night Massacre" or whatever unfortunate names they're calling those games now.

For the Saints, though, this game stands to be the impetus for a narrative-dismantling win and a franchise-altering year.

Where the loss two years ago in San Francsico (one in which the Saints seemed destined for victory) marked the beginning of a dispiriting, scarring year, a win in Seattle on Saturday (a game nobody expects the Saints to win) might provide a diametrically-opposite, elevating effect.  

The game, in short, is a rare opportunity to bring it all full circle: a win that catapults, erasing the despair of a loss that buried.

As the storylines and expectations are vastly different this time around, so too might the outcomes in these oddly similar circumstances.

It might be a longshot,  but then again that's the best part of this whole damn thing.

On that, here's the Yellow Blog:
What I'll add to that is there's a goddamn narrative at work in all of this.
What the Universe is proposing to do is take this "team who can't win on the road" or in the cold and send them on a 4 week odyssey where they begin by facing [a deep freeze in Philadelphia], then back to Seattle, the scene of History's Greatest Disaster. Then, if they overcome that, they're likely off to San Francisco where there is all manner of unfinished business to deal with.
Finish that up with a win in The Coldest Super Bowl Ever and there's that epic 2013 Sean Payton Revenge Tour we all bought in on at the beginning of this season.
How do they accomplish that?

With respect to the elements, probably with the old-school sensibility of a running game and defense. Quaint, I know.

Perhaps fortuitously, current circumstances are conspiring to force the Saints' hand in that direction, one which might represent their optimal victory formula anyhow.

Against the Eagles last weekend, the Saints surrendered to what they've often flirted with this year: the realization that their best chance of winning, especially away from the Superdome, is a measured, run-conscious offense complementing the newfound strength of their defense.

Who says the Saints can't grind out a 17-13 victory in the rain and 20 MPH winds?

Anyway, how many countless times have the iterations of your life proved your preconceptions and expectations completely wrong?

Certainty is the domain of fools.    

Am I right, ESPN?




Lastly, make of this what you will.

An aging Michael Jordan, instead of relentlessly attacking the rim, instead of taking it all upon himself, now at the Point distributing the ball, now in the low post relying on a fadeaway jumper, shifting his game away from an eroding skill, smart enough to realize what gives him the best chance of subjugating his opponent, an older, wiser, alternately-equipped champion with the requisite cunning to understand the end game:

Last man standing.

Alligator blood.

27 December 2013

Last Call

The fate of the 2013 Saints, quite ominously, hangs in the balance with one game left in the regular season.

A fatalist might say they're already circling the drain.

courtesy of NJ Newsday

Plummeting to this point has been an exercise in frustration, considering where the Saints were and where they are now. Over the course of the last month, the Saints have been in a freefall.

They've lost three of four games. In two of those losses, they've been decidedly beaten by more physical, energetic, better-prepared teams. In the other loss, the Saints displayed a trait that's becoming disturbingly familiar: blowing a late lead against a good team on the road.

In all, the last month of Saints' football has made moderate the once-lofty expectations for the season.

After enduring the fugue state of 2012, the strangest year an NFL team has surely ever faced, the Saints of 2013 have been quite vexing and odd in their own right.

They've taken "weird" and made it an art form.

And I'm not just talking about CrossFit and "sudden" and Ms. Mae's and Garrett Hartley and an untested rookie left tackle taking his first snaps in week 16.

I'm talking about an offense and a defense that have flipped scripts, and a season with swings as volatile as an Archie Karas bender.

It all started in weeks one and two when the Saints submitted tepid offensive performances, and escaped each of those games with wins on the game's final play. Over the next three weeks, the Saints normalized with strong home wins versus Arizona and Miami in addition to a then-promising road win in Chicago. The 5-0 start, though, was probably a bit misleading.

In week six at New England, the 2013 Saints showed their dark side for the first time.

They slogged through a lifeless first half before claiming a second-half lead; failed to kill off the Patriots (and the clock) multiple times late in the game; and eventually allowed an all-but-certain victory to slip through their grasp as time expired.

In that game, we saw flaws that would haunt the Saints all season long: an unhealthy dependence on Jimmy Graham; a running game incapable of finishing out games; and quizzical playcalling in key moments.

Over the next five weeks the Saints regained their footing and won four of five (BUF, DAL, SF, at ATL), only losing to the Jets on the road.

At 9-2, with a showdown looming in Seattle for control of the NFC, the Saints then unraveled like a runaway ball of baring yarn.

The Seahawks pistol-whipped the Saints with menace and efficiency, a kind of beating foreign to the Payton-era Saints. Just when the Saints seemed to pass off that performance as anomaly in beating the Panthers 31-13, they then turned around and got out-everythinged in St. Louis during a deflating loss.

This past week in Carolina, with the #2 seed on the line, the Saints' offense looked laboriously hopeless.

Even after taking a fourth quarter lead, essentially on the back of Jimmy Graham, the offense couldn't close the game when given the opportunity. On the game's penultimate drive, the Saints' defense--after having played its best game of the season--cracked and surrendered the game-winning touchdown on a dizzying, stomach-turning, "oh god, please no" thirty-second touchdown drive.

As far as football is concerned, that loss was almost too much to take.

It meant the Saints, likely the league's best home team, boned a golden opportunity for a bye and a home playoff game: the postseason scenario these Saints, "headcases" as the Angry Who Dat blog calls them, badly need.

What's happened over the course of 2013 is the fundamental change in the way the Saints win and lose games.

The deeply-rooted expectation that the offense will uphold its end of the bargain is no longer truth. For this season, at least, the Saints are not capable of shooting themselves out of trouble on their way to victory.

Their formula for winning seems to rely on an ever-narrowing set of conditions and when one little thing goes awry, like a Brees interception that's immediately converted into 43-yard touchdown run, it seems like it's too much to overcome. For whatever reason, and this is just my opinion, the Saints have appeared more fragile as the season has worn on.

Finally the loss in Carolina capped off a brutal month of losses, one that saw the Saints go from near-top of the conference to now clinging to their playoff hopes with a game to play.

Like it or not, the Saints are in the midst of an epic collapse.

The question remains: are they down for the count?


Over the past five games, the Saints' offense has scored a mere 84 points (16.8 ppg).

That's the second-worst five-game stretch for points scored during Sean Payton's tenure; in 2007, the Saints scored just 79 points in their first five games on their way to a 1-4 start.

Before our eyes, the Saints' offense has aged like Lounge Act Elvis. No longer the King.

They've devolved into a plodding unit, one far less threatening and fast than we've seen in the past. They're heavily reliant on Jimmy Graham; the offensive line is terrifyingly gauzy; the rushing attack is an afterthought; downfield threats seem non-existent; and the wide receivers have fallen off the grid.

The Saints' wide receivers account for just 36% of the team's receptions, an amount far less than any other season since 2006.

Take a look:



Most damningly, though, is the play of the offensive line. Through fifteen games, the Saints have surrendered 36 sacks. The previous high since 2006 was 26 sacks (2012), this year representing a 38.5% increase over their previous worst mark.

By contrast, in 2008, Drew Brees was sacked just 13 times while attempting 635 passes (a sack rate of just 2%). This season Brees has taken 36 sacks in 619 passing attempts, his sack rate nearly tripling from its best mark during the 2008 season.

The problems with the 2013 Saints (like every team) are varied, but the simplest explanation for the team's shortcomings, especially over the last month, is this: the Saints are a pass-heavy team that can't pass-block.

I'm far from an expert, but that seems like a fatal flaw.

Regardless, that inherent conflict has probably exacerbated the offense's other issues and as a result, the offense today appears as mild as it's ever been under Payton.

It's not all for naught, though.

What the offense has done well, even though this might sound incorrect, is protect the football this season.

This might also explain Brees's increased sacks, as he is loathe to favre it downfield like he has in the past. Either way, the Saints have turned the ball over only 19 times this season. This is tied with their best mark (2011) during the Payton era. For context, the Saints turned the ball over 28 times during the 2009 season.

If there's one thing promising about the offense at this late stage in the season, it's this. As we've seen countless times, offensive turnovers are the Saints' kryptonite. Avoid those, and the outlook vastly improves.

Though the Saints have turned the ball over six times in the last month, that's been a diversion from the norm this season. This trait (BALL SECURITY) is reassuring should the Saints make the playoffs, assuming they correct the recent lapses.

It's not too late to get it back.


On the other side, thank god for Rob Ryan and the Saints' defense.

Without them, the Saints would surely be staring another 7-9 season in the face.

Through fifteen games, the Saints' defense is fifth in points allowed (19.1) and fourth in sacks (47). The Saints' 47 sacks are their highest mark since the 2001 team recorded 53.

When the Saints' offense hasn't made their life unnecessarily difficult, the Saints' D has been up to the task all season long. If the Saints make the postseason, especially as a road team, the Saints' defense--and pass rush--should give them a fighter's chance to win.

The problem, though, is the loss of the secondary's two best players in Jabari Greer and Kenny Vaccaro.

The loss of Vaccaro, and its domino effect, seems especially troubling as it: 1.) likely moves Malcolm Jenkins away from cornerback duties and into a more traditional free safety role where he's been inconsistent for several seasons; 2.) forces Roman Harper to take on more responsibilities, some of which have catastrophic potential.

Don't forget that Rob Ryan called Vaccaro the best safety in the NFL. Hyperbole aside, that's an indication of how important Vaccaro is to the Saints' defense. Without him, the Saints lose their most physical and diverse player.

Rafael Bush's return from an ankle injury is coming at a good time, and with him back in the lineup, the drop-off from Vaccaro might not be all that damaging.

Still, it's a big concern.

The true band-aid for Vaccaro's absence, however, will be a fierce pass rush.

Cam, Junior, Akiem ... duty calls.


After fifteen games there is, of course, the not-insignificant matter of hope.

Why should we fans have hope for how the remainder of the season unfolds?

There are a few reasons.

1.) First among them is rooted in data: the Saints' "strength of schedule" and "strength of victory" statistics this season.

As illustrated in the Black and Gold Review's "Are the Saints Secretly Great?" piece, these two stats correlate strongly with postseason success during the past five seasons.

This season, the Saints have played the league's third-toughest schedule (and the toughest for any team vying for postseason contention) and also possess the best "strength of victory" mark in the NFC (this stat reflects how good, collectively, the teams are that the Saints have beaten).

Here's the distillation from BnG Review:
Last year, Super Bowl champion Baltimore was tied among AFC playoff participants for toughest strength of schedule, having faced a slew of teams that produced a .496 winning percentage. And Baltimore’s strength of victory was second among playoff teams only to New England’s.
 ...
In 2011, Super Bowl champion New York, which barely made the playoffs, struggled through a strength of schedule of .520, second-toughest among all NFL playoff teams, and had the best strength of victory, .465, of any NFC playoff team. Guess which NFL playoff team faced the toughest schedule in 2010. That’s right: Super Bowl champion Green Bay, also with a .520.
...
Jump back to 2008 and the trend re-asserts itself: the champion Steelers had the toughest schedule of any playoff team in the entire league.
...
So what does all this mean? ... it gives those who adore the team one last thing to pin our hopes on.

And you know, "one last thing to pin our hopes on" is all we Saints' fans have ever needed.


2.) The Saints are great at home.

Since 2011, Sean Payton's Saints are 16-0 at home. This includes a 2011 wild card win over Detroit. If that trend continues on Sunday versus Tampa Bay, the Saints will qualify for the playoffs again this season.

And while the prospect of taking to the road for the playoffs isn't all that palatable, that fate is not yet decided. Far from it.

For that, we look to the Falcons and Tony Gonzalez. Ugh.


3.) Can the Falcons send Tony Gonzalez out a winner?

On Sunday, if the Falcons beat the Panthers and the Saints beat the Bucs, the Saints secure the #2 seed in the NFC. With that comes a bye week and a home playoff game.

Normally I would think in a scenario like this, with the Falcons wrapping up an extremely disappointing season, they would just roll over against the Panthers who still have a lot to play for.

But ... the Falcons are at home against a divisional opponent they know well. Combine that with Tony Gonzalez, universally-respected as one of the NFL's great competitors, playing the final game of his Hall of Fame career, and I expect the Falcons to play hard in attempt to send him out on as high a note as possible.

For his part, Gonzalez has played through injuries during a season in which he returned, fruitlessly at it turns out, for one last shot at a Super Bowl. At any point during the season's second half, Gonzalez could have let up. But he didn't. Here's to hoping Gonzalez's teammates return the favor and win one last game for him.

(Yes, I'm rooting for the Falcons. It's been that kind of season. You do what you gotta do. Desperation calls.)


With the Falcons-Panthers game at noon and the Saints' game at 3:25, we could be set up for something momentous on Sunday afternoon. It is by no means out of the realm of possibility.

Personally, I refuse to think it will happen any differently. It has to be this way: the Bucs standing between the Saints and the #2 late Sunday afternoon.

As we all know, crazy shit happens every weekend in the NFL. This weekend will be no different; it's only a matter of whom the crazy shit happens to.

In the past several years, the Saints seem to be magnets for crazy.

Maybe, just maybe, Carolina will get spun up in the vortex and fuck it all up.

Anyway, after all of this, what's the point in giving up hope now?

The one thing that would make this Saints' season all the more strange is that, after the last month of wallowing in the shit and staring down a devastating collapse, the Saints somehow manage to emerge
with the #2 seed.

Really, it would make perfect sense.

The last game of the season is setting up to be the most compelling of all. Don't turn away yet.

There's always a way.

Until there's not.

13 December 2013

The Unrelenting No. 9

When Drew Brees signed with the Saints in 2006, who thought Brees was poised to be an all-timer?

No one, save for perhaps Brees, even pondered that possibility.

But eight years later, that's exactly what he has become: one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.



An idea implausible in 2006, and maybe an idea still implausible to those who don't pay close enough attention, is in 2013 an oft-confirmed reality.

In a wider context, considering the Saints' tortured history at the quarterback position, the seeming impossibility of what Brees has accomplished makes his ascension all the more distinct.

The disparity between that initial expectation level and the current reality is staggering.


The first glimpse of what's now considered "Vintage Brees" came during the 2006 regular season, in a week six game against Philadelphia.

In that game, the Saints built a 17-3 halftime lead. By the fourth quarter, the Saints had ceded 21 unanswered points and were trailing 24-17. To most of us, this blown lead was "Vintage Saints" in progress. Same ol' Saints and all that.

Brees, though, had another idea.

Early in the fourth quarter, he hit Joe Horn for a game-tying 48-yard touchdown. Then, with eight-and-a-half minutes left in the tied game, Brees orchestrated the kind of drive that's become one of his trademarks. On that drive Brees went 8/8, connecting with six different Saints. The offense calmly and methodically bled the clock down to three seconds, and John Carney kicked the short winning field goal. Game over. Saints win.

Pre-Brees, the Saints never won those type of games.

Then again, this was a new day and it was one of many turning points, or maybe just revelations, during Brees's tenure in New Orleans.

During this past weekend's Saints-Panthers' game, we saw another routinely great Drew Brees performance.

On Sunday night against Carolina, a team whose defense had surrendered a meager twelve touchdowns all season, Brees accounted for four touchdowns (nearly scoring a fifth) while Saints' and NFL fans batted nary an eye.

Impressive as it was, it wasn't all that surprising. We've seen it countless times.

Though Carolina's defense has been excellent this year--one of the best in the league--it was no match for Brees who systematically disassembled a group that had, to that point, allowed just 13.1 points per game.

This was the same sort of de-puzzling that has defined Brees's career in New Orleans, one where, when given enough time to make pre-snap reads and cycle through his progressions, Brees instigates the rout.

It's an art of calamity: graceful execution on one end precipitating an unalterable catastrophe on the other, a kind of reimagined butterfly effect.

If that was all familiar and mundane, Brees eclipsed 50,000 yards passing for his career, a benchmark that aligns him with the NFL's incomparable greats at the position: Favre, Peyton, Marino, and Elway.

Think about that for a second.

After years of a bumbling Aaron Brooks; the comical symmetry of Ditka's Billy Joes; the fruitless reclamations of Jim Everett, Heath Shuler, and Kerry Collins; the not-quite-good-enough Bobby Hebert era; and the what-could've-been Archie Manning era, the Saints, suddenly, field one of the all-time greats at quarterback.

It's a bit mind-boggling, all things considered.

Even more impressively Brees reached 50,000 yards faster than any of those aforementioned players, emphatically reaffirming that, while he's frequently left unmentioned, or at least relegated to a second tier, among the game's all-time greats, he's outpacing them in some of the very categories used to define "all-time."

Nonetheless, for one reason or another, the achievement was given short shrift.

After the game, here's what Sean Payton said about it:
"A lot of places if the quarterback hits 50,000 yards they would have fireworks, stop the game, and we just kind of had a little nod ‘atta boy,’ but that is a pretty unique feat when you look at the history of our league."
Yes, a unique feat.

Reserved for the best of the best.

On top of this, Brees set two more NFL records on Sunday night. First, Brees threw his 30th touchdown pass for a sixth straight season, besting the mark Brett Favre set during Favre's thrice-MVP-garnering prime in the mid '90s.

Then, for another NFL record, Brees surpassed 4,000 yards passing for the year, his eighth consecutive season of doing so. Nobody else has more than six, and none of those are active streaks.

All of this, mind you, happening (or culminating) in just one game: a seasonal devouring of the Panthers' league-leading defense; a career achievement of the highest order (50k yards) that places Brees alongside the game's very best; and two more NFL records added to his already-impressive portfolio.

Those new records saddle up next to these (in part):

* Three of the NFL's six 5,000-yard passing seasons, including the top spot
* The two best seasons in NFL history for completion percentage
* The most passes completed in a season
* The most consecutive games with a touchdown pass (not sure why Unitas isn't included in the link)
* The active leader in postseason career passer rating, and second all-time slightly behind Bart Starr

While Brees has, when it comes to Super Bowl wins and statistical benchmarks, been the NFL's best quarterback since 2006, he's universally slotted behind both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady as "best of their generation" quarterbacks.

Though Peyton's and Brady's inclusions are of course well-deserved, it's Brees that should be mentioned alongside them and not a notch below. Mentioning this might be insecure nitpicking, but I don't really give a shit about all that. Right is right.

When Brees is mentioned with Peyton and Brady, and frequently Aaron Rodgers and soon Russell Wilson, Brees always seems to be an "oh yeah" inclusion. An afterthought.

In 2011, Wang called Brees perhaps the "single least-celebrated All-Time Great player in league history." Two years later with a host of additional achievements to boot, nothing much has changed in that regard.

One Super Bowl win for both Favre and Peyton has been enough, in combination with their statistical achievements, for them to be in the "best-ever" debate.

But Brees? Not even close.

It hasn't even been enough to garner him an MVP trophy.

No matter, Brees continues to draft a masterpiece, vast in scope, that is increasingly difficult to ignore. Week after week, there's something more.

For Brees, there will be time later to reflect on and admire his body of work. For now though, there's always another expert to humble.

It's not just that we'll never see something like this again in Saints' history, it's that we might not ever see it again in NFL history: a host of passing records being toppled on the reg by one guy.

He's our guy, and that's pretty god-damned great.

What's supposed to be an infrequency Drew Brees has made the norm.

If there's anything missing (there's not), it's a second Super Bowl title. With that, Brees will have built a resume as flawless as they come.

Eight years ago it would have been the height of lunacy to consider a Saints' quarterback a Hall-of-Famer and, with a few more key accomplishments, the best of his vaunted generation.

But Drew Brees is only 34 years old, and that is what's in play. If you're still doubting Brees at this point in his football career, then you need a history lesson.

This thing ain't over just yet.

For Drew Brees, for the Payton-era Saints, and for Saints' fans chasing the elusive high of that first title, a second Lombardi Trophy elevates this era of Saints' football into a whole new stratosphere for each party involved.

For Brees, the stakes are as high as possible.

Is No. 9 primed to deliver another championship, and with it, cement his legend?

May we all be so lucky.

04 December 2013

The Stench of Lies

A budding narrative, fulfilled.

The trend of the Saints coming up short in big road games continued.

Moreso than ever, Monday night confirmed an already-entrenched truth no matter how distasteful it is.

welp

By my count, this was the worst performance submitted by a Payton-led Saints' team. It's not even close, really.

This was worse than 2007 in Indianapolis, a far less talented Saints' team facing an all-time great quarterback in a season opener. This was worse than the 2011 playoffs in San Francisco, a game in which the Saints turned the ball over five times, fell behind 17-0, rallied for two 4th quarter leads, only to blow it at the end. This was worse than the 2010 playoffs in Seattle, a Saints' team depleted at runningback (7th-string?), beat up on defense, yet still scoring 36 points in a losing effort.

If there was any parallel to Saints' games of the recent past, it's to the fourth quarter of the 2006 NFC Championship Game in Chicago. Then, an overmatched Saints' team eventually collapsed under the crushing weight of the moment and the elements.

Since that defeat in Chicago, losses under Payton have been largely defined by sloppy, frustrating, avoidable circumstances.

This "loss profile" under Payton has been maddening because the Saints, in spite of the lapses, have still hung around to play competitively deep into most of the games they've eventually lost.

On Monday in Seattle, though, the Saints were annihilated.

The 20-point first half deficit felt more like 200.

It was shocking and demoralizing, probably because nothing like that has happened in a very long time.

For years, as fans, we've been on the favorable side of these kind of beatdowns. You know all the games I'm talking about.

Unfortunately and inevitably, it was our turn to watch the tragedy unfold from the other side.

In a similar vein, 2013 has been a weird season.

Don't get me wrong. It's been a lot of fun. But it has been odd. And in Seattle, the season took a turn for its most confounding.

Are the Seahawks that superior this season? Are the Saints that ill-equipped away from home? Or was Monday night just an exercise in extremes?

For the majority of the season, the Saints relied on consistent defense in winning nine of their first eleven games. That this has been central to the Saints' success is strange enough, considering the horror show of 2012 and the less-than-exemplary defenses during Payton's run.

But the compounding impact of an offense perhaps at its weakest under Payton has made 2013 all the more bizarre.

After watching the Saints ring up record numbers against Dallas a month ago, it would be easy to dismiss the notion of a struggling Saints' offense. To do that, though, would be disingenuous considering the offense's performances week by week.

On the whole this year, this has been an offense defined less by lethality and more by pragmatism. This is a decided shift from years' past.

Sean Payton has oft repeated a Parcells' mantra this season: "It doesn't have to be aesthetically-pleasing to be effective." Payton has adopted this as philosophy, without question.

In the past, it seems, the offense has been more prone to dictate how defenses play them by attacking them in a variety of ways. This season it feels like they're more passive and content, only taking what's given.

Maybe I'm just talking out of my ass here, but that's what it seems like to me.

This also might be a function of an offense in transition, one too reliant on parts that need upgrading.

The image I keep coming back to, when I think about the Saints' offense, is one of an aging prizefighter struggling to recapture the form of his once dominant past.

On Monday in Seattle, the Saints' offense generated fewer than 200 yards and scored just one measly touchdown. There's no context needed to understand the helplessness of those numbers.

In the biggest game of the Saints' season, Payton's offense came up the smallest it ever has.

Considering this season in total, it's tough to solely attribute the offensive shortcomings in Seattle to aberration. Perhaps most revealing was that the Saints (on offense) were as healthy as they've been all year, riding a three-game winning streak, and coming off of ten days of rest.

All for naught.

If Monday night was supposed to clarify where the Saints stand this season, it didn't do that.

It might have affirmed Seattle as the NFL's best, but it left the Saints' reality a bit more muddied.

Sunday night against Carolina, though, should go a long way in clearing a suddenly foggy mirror.

Are the Saints more average than they are great? Or was that an impostor's performance in Seattle?

...

So ... how ya feeling?


But wait, there's some good news too!

The season isn't over! The Saints have the second-best record in the conference! A playoff berth is nearly clinched! The Saints still have the inside track for the #2 seed in the NFC! Crazy shit happens in the playoffs every year! Flawed teams win the Super Bowl all the time!

For all we know, we're just getting started here.

A primetime game in the Superdome is on tap.  

... cried to the southern wind
heading for a showdown ... 

Guess who's coming to town?

You guessed it! Another team that sports a pastel in their uniforms! MODERN AND STYLISH!

Let's take a quick glance at the media's new favorite team, the Carolina Panthers:

Their coach, Ron Rivera, looks confused a lot of the time:



Cam Newton's douchebag coefficient (thanks for the metric, Larold!) is off the charts:



Steve Smith, an insane person, will probably start a fight with the Saints' Gatorade cooler at some point (deep down, I kinda love Steve Smith though):



Mike Mitchell, some low-rent jagoff, decided it would be a good idea to taunt Drew Brees prior to playing him twice. Smart.



Jerry Richardson, the Panthers' owner, is evil incarnate. I mean, look at this fucker:



So what's going to happen on Sunday night?

At this point, who the hell knows?

The Saints are favored by four points if that helps. Ron Rivera's Panthers are 2-2 against the Saints, with two losses in 2011 and two wins last year.

The Panthers have won eight games in a row, and they're surrendering a league-best 13.1 points per game.

On Sunday they'll be looking to validate their ascent on national television against the division boss.

This is a huge moment for Carolina. The script is laid out perfectly. Are they ready?

As for the Saints, how will the loss in Seattle affect them? Was the loss just a minor blemish? Or was it a harbinger of fate? How will the Saints' offense handle a second-consecutive game against a top defense? Will their primetime dominance at home continue?

Ultimately, I can't see the Saints falling short at home, in primetime, on the heels of an embarrassing loss.

The promise of 2013 can't fade that abruptly.

If it does, I'll need therapy.

(I probably do anyway)