14 March 2015

Warpath



via rookie.com

Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis are on the warpath.

It has been quite a spectacle to witness. 
 
In the three days since Free Agency commenced, the Saints have operated at a dizzying, furious pace.

First the blockbuster: Graham and a 4th for Unger and a 1st. Then in quick succession: Grubbs for a 5th. Browner. Spiller. Stills for a 3rd and Ellerbe. Keenan Lewis's future as a Saint hanging in the balance.

There were also the recent departures of Pierre Thomas, Curtis Lofton, and Corey White; the restructures/paycuts for Bunkley, Colston, and Hawthorne; the re-signing of Ramon Humber; and, of course, the contract extension for Mark Ingram.

The roster overhaul that started last year resumed, in a manner urgent and almost retributive, after the "best Saints' roster ever" went 7-9 in one of the most putrid divisions to pollute the NFL in decades. 

 A 2014 Saints' team so disappointing, frustrating, and unlikable that they produced a funereal opus so convincing, it made one nearly give up on the Payton/Loomis regime.

But they've managed a sharp change of course through the first three months of 2015.

Right now the Saints hold nine picks in the 2015 draft, five of those coming in the first 79 selections. Stockpiling these draft picks is something the Saints have rarely (if ever?) done under Sean Payton. After years of mismanagement, it's a necessity.

There are still plenty of areas to address, but the Saints are now in an excellent position to do so.  

It almost feels like this is the last chance for Payton and Loomis to get the draft right. 

If this fails, then what?


 But whether this new strategy and its latest transactions pan out is beside the point right now.

The point is that Sean Payton, first and foremost, is attempting to restore order after a lost season.

Not that it's surprising, but with the Benson-succession lawsuit serving as an ominous backdrop of dysfunction, Payton, and his facilitating consigliere, the inscrutable and adept Mickey Loomis, are executing a plan aimed at remaking the roster, alleviating the future constrictions of the salary cap, and taking control of a wayward and corrosive locker room.

Payton’s done this with such force and aggression—his familiar style—that it feels like he’s just now emerging from a post-Bountygate haze.

The early returns have been compelling, promising perhaps.

If Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis are going down in New Orleans, and circumstances beyond their control might eventually dictate that, then they are doing so guns a'blazing.  

It couldn’t be any other way.

04 March 2015

The Indomitable Pierre Thomas

No one player better embodied the Payton-era Saints than did Pierre Thomas.

Unheralded, selfless, diverse, smart, tough, and reliable. 

An undrafted free agent out of Illinois, Pierre Thomas came to the Saints in 2007 as an afterthought, a camp body, an insurance policy.

Just a few months later he'd won a spot on the team, beating out 4th-round draft pick Antonio Pittman, a player selected to eventually fill the shoes of an aging Deuce McCallister.

But it would be the then-unknown Pierre Thomas who would ably and memorably fill those shoes in the coming years, ultimately authoring a Saints' career among the best dozen or so in franchise history.



Our first glimpse of PT's subtle immensity came at the end of the 2007 season when he finally got his shot. Playing in Chicago, his hometown, PT made history. He became the first runningback to amass more than 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving in the same game at Soldier Field, the NFL's oldest stadium.

More than just that achievement, PT displayed in that game one of his greatest traits as an athlete: an innate ability to rise to the occasion, a trait, like the number 23, he shared with his hometown idol, Michael Jordan. While Thomas was never blessed with the otherworldy athletic gifts bestowed upon Jordan (who was?), he possessed a similar drive, dedication, and relentlessness--skills that would mark Thomas' career as a Saint. 

How many times did the first guy ever bring down Pierre Thomas?

Not many, if ever.

And that was because PT possessed "heart" in spades, a gift not quantifiable, or as easily recognizable, as 40-yard dashes or bench press reps. Lucky for that are we as Saints' fans. Because whatever Pierre Thomas lacked in size or speed or "measurables," he more than compensated for with his indomitable will to compete. Finally, Thomas' team-first humility complemented his heart and his will to win, a collection of traits that defined Sean Payton's Saints at their best.

By 2008, Pierre Thomas had supplanted Reggie Bush as the Saints' most valuable runningback. An idea once unfathomable was now one undeniable. PT's reliability and consistent production overwhelmed the uneven, though periodically jaw-dropping, exploits of a player not long before considered a franchise savior.

Thomas' wide-ranging skills--running, catching, pass-blocking, returning--made him an essential component of a roster on the precipice of greatness.

In 2009, Pierre Thomas cemented his legend as a Saint during the postseason. In the NFC Championship Game, Thomas scored on a long screen pass on the Saints' first drive to even the score at 7. Later in the game, he scored again. In overtime, in the game's most crucial moment, Sean Payton called on PT to return the kickoff. Thomas promptly returned the kick 40 yards, setting the stage for an historic overtime victory.

Not quite finished though, PT secured a critical first down on a fourth-and-1 leap to set up Garrett Hartley's game-winning field goal--a play in which a lesser guy would have fumbled, or been driven backwards, from the thunderous hit delivered by Vikings' linebacker Chad Greenway. 

Two weeks later in Super Bowl 44, Pierre Thomas scored one of the most iconic touchdowns in Saints' history on the most beautiful god damn screen pass you've ever screen. This was the finishing touch on Ambush, a sequence that catapulted the Saints to Super Bowl glory.






Lost in the shuffle is Pierre Thomas' 2011 playoff game against Detroit, one in which he quietly contributed 66 yards rushing and 55 yards receiving. Thomas' presence on the field, though, steadied a Saints' team that started slowly. His 59 first-half yards kept the Saints afloat while much of the team fumbled through a listless first half.

The next week in San Francisco, the Saints weren't so lucky. On the game's opening drive, Thomas, on the doorstep of the end zone, took a vicious hit and left the game with a concussion. The Saints then fell into a huge hole and never recovered that day, and one might argue that neither so have the Payton-era Saints.

With Pierre Thomas in the fold for that entire playoff game in San Francisco, one wonders how different Saints' history might look right now.




Nevertheless, for eight seasons, Pierre Thomas built himself into one of the very best runningbacks in Saints' history. While at first glance that might seem underwhelming, there's Deuce McCallister and George Rogers and Chuck Muncie and Dalton Hilliard and Rueben Mayes and Ricky Williams, all excellent runningbacks in their own right.

But Pierre Thomas stands alone, above, in a way. His unique, diverse style. His signature screen passes. His authoring of franchise-defining moments.

Without PT, a once forgotten player turned franchise great, there is no Saints' Super Bowl victory. For that, we should all remember #23.

Long may you run, Pierre Thomas.    

22 December 2014

Half Past Dead

The 2014 Saints' season was screwed when ...

... Jairus Byrd signed the largest-ever contract for an NFL safety, then had back surgery

... the Saints checked in to flowery wallpapered rooms in West Virginia

... Rob Ryan trimmed his hair before training camp

... the Saints cut all of their kickers during final roster cuts

... Champ Bailey didn't make the team

... Junior Galette was named captain of the defense

... the special teams didn't really have a punt returner

... the Tom Benson statue was unveiled

... Grandpa Sean showed up on the sideline 

... Marques Colston fumbled in overtime in week 1

... #FakeFans were maligned

... the offense struggled to score twenty points in their opening home game

... the defense (and Drew Brees) gagged away a 13-point lead in Detroit with < 4 minutes remaining

... prized free agent Jairus Byrd tore his knee and ended his season

... the 3rd down siren was born

... The Joker fondled Jimmy Graham

... the Saints gave up 51 yards to Michael Crabtree on 4th and 10

... roster shenanigans and splash reports dominated the headlines

... the offense scored just ten points in home games versus each of the Bengals and Panthers

... the team crash-landed into five-straight home losses to end the season

... Sean Payton got swept, for the first time, by a low-rent Falcons' team 


A proper summary can be found here:

http://www.blackandgoldreview.com/2014/12/08/decline-fall-paytons-empire-culture-gregg-williams-ruined-saints

04 December 2014

State of the 2014 Saints

It's the mark of a poor leader, one captaining a defense ranked 31st in points per drive and 32nd in yards per drive, during one of the more disappointing seasons in Saints' history, to take cheap shots at two Saints' defensive players instrumental in the Saints' lone Super Bowl title.

If you're looking for reasons why the Saints have underachieved this year, this is a good place to start:

http://www.nola.com/saints/index.ssf/2014/12/junior_galette_2.html 

18 November 2014

A Cold Shower

The Saints 2014 season has been a long, cold shower.

What was once championship promise has been all but been extinguished, the result of inevitability coupled with an old, familiar problem.

Sprinkle in what appears to be an undercurrent of torpor, and you get 4-6.  

First, the new issue:

Drew Brees is no longer great enough to elevate the Saints.

This isn't to blame Brees for the Saints' misfortunes this year. But it's a primary reason why the Payton-era Saints have started to noticeably fade. Over their last 20 regular season games, the Saints have produced a middling record of 10-10. This year, they've done almost nothing to live up to the ample preseason billing granted them.

For years prior, during his otherworldly prime, Drew Brees masked many of the Saints' flaws: unreliable defense, a toothless return game, a periodic indifference to running the ball, injuries, a shady kicking game, and turnover on the coaching staff among other issues.

These days, the masking's not so simple or effective.

Brees's dominance for, say, a four-year stretch vaulted the Saints from average to good, from good to great. For a team comprised of perceived afterthoughts, Brees was a sublime ingredient in a dish of leftovers. He almost single-handedly transformed the Saints into contenders. He helped fortify Sean Payton's reputation as the league's best offensive mind. He played perhaps the best half of football any quarterback ever has in a Super Bowl (18/19 to eight different Saints, 124 yards, 2 TDs, a two-point conversion, and 0 INTs for a 128.9 passer rating). Brees actualized for Saints' fans something that never seemed more than an afternoon daydream.

But that was always fleeting. So here we are, face to face with a new reality.  A lesser Brees, and a lesser Saints' team. It is the natural, inescapable course of events.

With Brees's decline in dominance, the Saints have struggled to regain their championship form.

In 2013 this was most noticeable on the road, where Brees's performance vacillated wildly from his masterful efficiency in the Superdome. These road struggles came in sharp contrast to a Saints' team that compiled the NFL's best road record from 2009-2011; they were reflective of a team, naturally less competitive on the road, unable to carry its weight absent the absolute primacy of its star player.

In 2014, this trend has continued. Brees has been at less-than-his-best; his teammates can't compensate; and as a result, the Saints have perfected the art of mediocrity.

As it relates to Brees, there are a few examples that stand out. The end-zone interception in week one in Atlanta. A brutal pick-six in week two at Cleveland. Three interceptions, and another mindless pick-six versus Tampa. A damning interception at Detroit. And two maddening turnovers at home versus the Niners. (Sometimes the other team makes great plays too, so some of this is to nitpick.)

The most noticeable example, however, came in the Saints' loss to the Bengals in week 11.

Brees played well, but his non-dominance generated only ten points in a game the Saints badly needed to win. At home. It wasn't a poor performance from Brees that doomed the team. In the past, that's mostly what it took to beat the Saints, especially in the Dome. Yet Sunday, on top of everything else that's happened this season, a perfectly worthy performance from Brees in the friendly confines of the Superdome wasn't enough for victory. Instead, it resulted in a 17-point loss.

And that, of course, says as much about the supporting cast and coaching staff as it does about Brees.  

This was a statement loss, persuasive and resonant: a Saints' team, as presently constituted, devoid of championship aspirations. That's not necessarily shocking, but it is a wholesale departure from the sentiments of just three months ago.

I'll say again, Brees does not solely shoulder the blame here. But he's no longer great enough to compensate for the shortcomings. And his teammates haven't been much help.

Which brings us to our second, and major, problem ... the defense.

Save for Keenan Lewis and Curtis Lofton, it's all gone wrong for the Saints' defense this year. Lack of pressure. No-shows. Blown assignments. Injuries. Hell, even Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper have salted the wound.

Anyway, there has been a seemingly endless series of crippling defensive breakdowns this year.

An inability to stop the Falcons with 1:20 remaining. Brian Hoyer blindly heaving the ball 30 yards downfield to a wide-open Charles Hawkins to set up a Saints' loss. A 73-yard touchdown by Golden Tate on 3rd and 14 when the Saints had the game all but won. The Tecmo Bowlish 51-yard completion to Michael Crabtree on 4th and 10. 3rd and 18 to AJ Green last week.

A. Cold. Fucking. Shower.

This is not a team plagued by bad luck, or an unlucky run of variance in close games. Believing that is to deny reality. This is a team that's been mind-numbingly bad at situational football, and has lost many close games as a result. That is attributable to both the players and the coaches. It's a systemic problem, not a sample size fluctuation.

Maybe the most frustrating part is that the defense has steadily improved as the season's worn on. But they've been beset by untimely lapses that have proved their undoing, time and again.

With consideration to a now-depleted secondary, will the defense make due over the final six games? 

And what about the Saints' coaches? Are they out of answers? Or is there life yet for the 2014 season?

Quite enjoyably enough, at 4-6, the Saints are still ideally-positioned to win their division and host a playoff game. Only a season this puzzling could produce such a now unfathomably joyous end-result. And that's why, despite the heartache and frustration and advent of a new reality, there still remains the lingering hope of "well, maybe if ..." for the remainder of the season.

If 2014 has taught us anything, it's that we have little clue about what's going to happen.

With that in mind, we'd all be wise to stay tuned.        

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.