31 December 2012

Week 17, Panthers at Saints

Later this week, when life slows down a bit, I'll be writing a 2012 season-ending post. 

Until then, here are some stats. 

Score: Panthers 44, Saints 38
Record: 7-9
Stat Chart:


29 December 2012

Week 16, Saints at Cowboys

Due to holiday travel, I was unable to write anything for week 16.

In the meantime, here are the stats from week 16:

Score: Saints 34, Cowboys 31
Record: 7-8
Complete Box Score
Stat Chart:


17 December 2012

Week 15, Bucs at Saints: Trouble No More

First, the stats.

Score: Saints 41, Bucs 0
Record: 6-8
Complete Box Score
Stat Chart:





TROUBLE NO MORE

As far as 2012 Saints' football goes, this was about as perfect a week as possible.

The past 11 months have been neither enjoyable nor encouraging but, like many things in life, they turn for the better after awhile. In a seeming moment the discontent and disillusion faded, with hope and a promise of redemption assuming their place.

So begins the transition to the 2013 Saints' season.


In the span of six days, the Saints were vindicated from the injustices of BountyGate; Drew Brees reminded us why he secured a $100 million contract; the defense--once saddled with the infamy of historic futility--delivered the team's first shutout since 1995; backup safeties intercepted two passes; Cam Jordan's steady ascension continued; Mark Ingram made his presence on the field worthwhile; Joe Morgan reinforced his burgeoning relevance as a big-play threat; and the Saints scored over 40 points for the first time in nearly a year.

All of those issues, heretofore thorns, anxieties, and uncertainties that pestered, suddenly vanished into irrelevance. Ephemeral or not, this week's reassurances were a refreshing exhalation and a sign that hope reigns.

And, of course, Joe Vitt called Mike Cerullo an idiot.

Wins, all around.

But with normalcy returning, and with the hope of next season already on the horizon, one issue--the largest of all--still remains: Sean Payton.

Will he or won't he coach the Saints again?

How did we even get here?


In September 2011 Sean Payton signed a five-year contract extension with the Saints. At some point after that--we don't know exactly when--the NFL decided that a provision in the contract was unacceptable, and subsequently rejected the contract.

As a result, when he's reinstated, Sean Payton will no longer be under contract with the Saints.

The provision in question (the one the league rejected) enabled Payton to void his contract if Mickey Loomis was fired, suspended, or in any way no longer with the team. This was viewed by some as the "Rita Clause," with Payton hedging against his reservations of working directly with/for Rita Benson LeBlanc.

For whatever reason, the NFL saw this provision as unacceptable.

After this, it gets--and still remains--exceptionally murky.

When exactly did the NFL reject the contract? When did they relay this information to Sean Payton and the Saints?

In March 2012 during Sean Payton's BountyGate appeals, Payton inquired (to Roger Goodell) as to the status of his contract extension and at that point, Goodell informed Payton the NFL had rejected the contract.

For those scoring at home, that's a full seven months after the contract was signed and submitted to the league for approval.

Why did the NFL take so long to make this determination? Why did it take seven months to officially reject the contract based on one simple clause? Further, in the seven months that Payton awaited approval of his extension, were he and the Saints aware of the reason the contract was under review? Were they allowed to re-negotiate during that time period? Did they know what was happening?

These questions appear to remain unanswered, and they yet again cast a cloud of suspicion over the NFL.

Most important, why wasn't the extension rejected in a timely manner that would have allowed Payton and the Saints to re-negotiate during the 2011 season? And why finally give Payton official notice at a time when he was suspended, and thus unable to resume the re-negotiation process?

Was the NFL intentionally obstructing Payton all along? Was this a result of Goodell's personal vendetta against Sean Payton?

Something's wrong here.


In the meantime, the Saints fell apart. Payton, without a contract, quickly acquired a massive amount of newfound contract leverage.

And so the season's biggest question now remains: will Sean Payton re-sign with the Saints, or will he go elsewhere?

Only Sean Payton knows this, and it is completely up to him. By all appearances, Tom Benson has offered to make Payton the NFL's highest paid coach, but that only matters if Payton is willing to return. What we're less sure of--obviously--is what Payton is thinking or considering right now.

When circumstances change, so may outcomes.

Over a month after Jay Glazer reported that Payton "absolutely plans" (key word: "plans") to return to New Orleans, Glazer then reported (yesterday) that Payton wasn't "going to limit his options."

Why the change in tone? Surely this is just agent-speak, but does that make it untrue?

There are plenty of reasons the Saints are the logical choice for Payton: his relationship with Drew Brees and Mickey Loomis; an established system and functional roster; widespread community support (does this matter?); loyalty to the organization and the city (does this matter?); and perhaps a desire to restore what BountyGate unjustly dismantled.

Does Payton want the last word in New Orleans (I think he does, but it doesn't matter what I think), or does he want to start anew?

The odds probably favor Payton returning to the Saints. But how can we really know?

And if the Dallas job becomes an option?

To speculate:

What if Dallas is Sean Payton's dream job? What if Payton has decided that being close to his kids is more important than having an optimal relationship with his QB and GM? What if Payton harbors a tinge of ill-will toward Tom Benson for not more aggressively fighting Roger Goodell on BountyGate?

What if Payton's reticence to work with Rita LeBlanc outweighs his hesitation to peacefully coexist with Jerry Jones? What if there are other opportunities besides Dallas that Payton might be interested in? What if Payton simply wants a fresh start in his career?

This is obviously all baseless speculation, but it's worth mentioning precisely because Payton remains unsigned.

The fact that we're at this point is concerning enough.

Most recently? Tom Benson has vowed to sue the NFL should Payton ultimately sign elsewhere. Not a slow moment around these parts, ever.

It's been quite a renaissance for Benson these past seven years, and the Payton contract situation is his next big challenge. I guess if the worst case scenario unfolds, we'll at least be treated to the entertainment of Old Man Benson summoning his inner Al Davis.

Regardless of what happens, the shame in all of this resides in the nebulous circumstances surrounding the rejection of Payton's 2011 contract. That's what brought us to where we are today. It seems like this should have been resolved well over a year ago. But the NFL dragged it out for some reason.

And now we wait.

Trouble no more?

12 December 2012

Chasing the Ghosts of BountyGate

On Tuesday, Paul Tagliabue inched BountyGate toward its conclusion and provided a worthy context for the events in question.

Tagliabue exonerated the players--vacating their suspensions completely--while at the same time indicting Saints' coaches and the organization for their roles in the farce that is BountyGate.

When you parse the specifics, Tagliabue accused Saints' coaches of administering a pay-for-performance program and one (only one) "alleged bounty," sharply contrasting with Roger Goodell's initial portrayal of an institutionalized pay-to-injure program that routinely targeted opponents for injury.

What it boils down to is Saints' coaches being punished for administering a program largely in theory, not for anything that ever happened on the field. Supporting this assertion, Tagliabue stated "none of the discipline of any player here relates to on-field conduct."

It's a crystal-clear admission that whatever transpired in the locker room for motivational purposes never morphed into malice on the field. This is at the heart of the NFL's misguided quest to use the Saints as a public exhibit--a symbolic pelt--in their transparent, hollow campaign to champion player safety and insulate themselves from future litigation.

By Tagliabue's logic the players are innocent of any on-field transgressions while the coaches are guilty of administering a purportedly malicious program, one that no player ever implemented to the detriment of any opponent's wellbeing for three seasons.

The logic behind this--that the coaches established a program, yet the players never executed it in a manner that would invite discipline--is illustrative of the flimsy foundation that the BountyGate accusations have always rested upon.

What's more is that Tagliabue assented to a league-wide culture that has fostered the "acceptance of pay-for-performance reward programs," one in New Orleans that he said--via its evidence--supports the "realities of NFL team workplaces." More damning to Goodell's and the league's initial allegations is this precedent for handling pay-for-performance programs that reward clean, legal hits:

"[T]he League has not previously suspended or fined players for some of the activities in which these players participated and has in the recent past imposed only minimal fines on NFL Clubs - - not players - - of a mere $25,000 or less."

Tagliabue is specifically referring to similar programs run in Green Bay and New England in 2007 and 2008 (pg. 17) where the clubs were fined only $25,000. Reflecting Goodell's bias and overreach, Tagliabue asserted that the disparity in sanctions "raises significant issues regarding inconsistent treatment between players and teams." 

In this context, the truly egregious and unjust punishments from Roger Goodell are more apparent than ever before. Even his predecessor admits it.

Further, Tagliabue explained that the NFL rules regarding entrenched pay-for-performance systems--which he examined in History of Performance Pools in the NFL (pg. 14)--are not "fully articulated" and that they lack a "concrete set of guidelines or prohibitions."

It's a reflection of the nebulous nature of 1.) the league's position on and 2.) what comprises said programs, and sheds a light on the coaches' denials; perhaps what Goodell accused the coaches of administering (pay-to-injure) wasn't in fact being administered, hence the presumed obfuscation.

No matter, Tagliabue espoused a belief that this program went awry in New Orleans, calling it "deeply misguided." When you consider that no discipline was levied for on-field misconduct, this statement reeks of hyperbole and may be included solely for the benefit of protecting Roger Goodell against further litigation.

Aside from one alleged bounty on Brett Favre, the evidence supporting a "deeply misguided" program is bare and, perhaps, nonexistent. As for the Favre bounty that the NFL was never capable of proving existed, Tagliabue said:

"Adding to the complexity, there is little evidence of the tone of any talk about a bounty before the Vikings game. Was any bounty pledged serious? Was it inspirational only? Was it typical 'trash talk' that occurs regularly before and during games? The parties presented no clear answers. No witness could confirm whether Vilma had any money in his hands as he spoke; no evidence was presented that $10,000 was available to him for purposes of paying a bounty or otherwise. There was no evidence that Vilma or anyone else paid any money to any player for any bounty-related hit on an opposing player in the Vikings game."

No clear answers. No evidence.

Anthony Hargrove's suspension Tagliabue called "unprecedented and unwarranted." Though Goodell punished Hargrove for making false statements to investigators, Tagliabue said "it remains unclear what exactly Hargrove was asked by investigators regarding the Program." 

Think it through.

Goodell suspended Hargrove for lying, but wasn't sure what Hargrove had been asked. Doesn't the accuser require knowledge of the question before he can determine if the accused's answer is a lie? Right, Mary Jo White?

Who's the liar here?

Of Scott Fujita, Tagliabue called his non-participation in the Saints' program "undisputed," a judgment that may powerfully bolster another future lawsuit versus Goodell.

Tagliabue called Goodell's punishment of Will Smith "inappropriate when most or all of the Saints’ defensive unit committed the same or similar acts as those underpinning the discipline of Smith." Those acts? Participating in a pay-for-performance program that even Tagliabue conceded "the league has tolerated." 

In full rebuke, Tagliabue chastised Goodell for violating "basic requirements for consistent treatment."

Basic.


Ultimately, Tagliabue fairly and correctly exonerated the players while assigning blame--tenuous as it may be--to the Saints' coaches in order to prevent Goodell from being exposed to the full brunt of Jonathan Vilma's pending defamation lawsuit.

Make no mistake about it: the CBA Appeals' Board overturned Goodell's ruling, Judge Berrigan castigated Goodell for his actions, and then Tagliabue vacated completely the punishments. That's a damning sequence of events for the commissioner, especially in light of the harshness of the penalties. This was a fuck-up of massive proportion.

Had Tagliabue found Goodell's investigation and punishments credible, he certainly would have upheld them. But he didn't. Never mind the spin and rhetoric coming from Greg Aiello and the NFL.

The proof is in the deed.

The fact that the NFL is now so desperately trying to shape these developments, a familiar act that's characterized their Bounty strategy along the way, is an indication that they're unwilling to let the actions speak for themselves.

In the end, it's obvious what happened.

The NFL took one alleged bounty from seasons ago, distorted it to represent a three-year pay-to-injure program, decimated the Saints with sanctions, held them high as a trophy of culture change, and then conducted a PR campaign under the auspices of benevolence and player safety.

The Saints and their fans were the collateral damage. Peripherally, Goodell slapped into line a franchise that dared defy him and exacted retribution on a coach (Payton) he was unable to keep under his terrorizing thumb.

It's a sad chapter for the NFL and, as always, we the fans are as big a loser as anyone in this stupid clusterfuck. What a god damned waste.

At the very least, the players and Saints' fans have been vindicated.

Not all is lost.

10 December 2012

Week 14, Saints at Giants: A Weary Pantomime

First, the stats.

Score: Giants 52, Saints 27
Record: 5-8
Complete Box Score
Stat Chart:





A WEARY PANTOMIME

They tried, but they failed.

The 2012 Saints are a brittle shell of their former dominant selves, and no amount of acting can any longer convince anyone that recapturing a past glory is in any way conceivable. At least not at present.

The party is officially over. The question now is: for how long?

For a large part of this year, they--and we--staged a performance, gauzy and unconvincing, in which rationalization played the lead role. There was the veteran locker room and battle-tested coaching staff. The historically-great offense. The quarterback foremost among his peers, gifted on the field and governing off of it. There was the league's most sought after defensive coordinator, infusing the team with a new scheme and a new hope. There were assistant coaches on the brink of their own stardom.

Relapsing into glories was an inevitability. Until it wasn't.

In the end it was all bluster and histrionics, fanfare and delusion.

Without Sean Payton, those foundations were of little consequence and the 2012 Saints sans Payton have been impostors.
courtesy of greenwichtime.com

After all that's happened, it's hard to fault them. But either way, it is the bare truth.

It's both easy and reassuring to assume that if Payton returns to New Orleans, it will be business as usual next year and a restoration of order will be soon underway.

But is that really the truth?

Making that assumption right now seems disingenuous and does a disservice to the evidence 2012 has offered us: a lack of consistent preparation; an incapacity for in-game adjustments; a perplexing deployment of offensive weapons; aging skill; the fatal rash of turnovers; a bewildering inability to catch the ball; and an overall failure to play a complete game in all three phases through 13 games.

Is all of that solely attributable to Payton's absence? Or is something more involved, a confluence of events conspiring to sink the Saints back to mediocrity?

Has the roster aged past efficiency? Are they less talented than many of us have assumed? Did Payton alone coax from them a level of performance they're incapable of attaining without him?

Can one person--Payton--be the panacea that cures the omnipresent ills of this season?


COMING UP SHORT

During the course of this season Drew Brees has morphed into an aberrant persona, timid and desperate and panicked and myopic. His trademarked assertive, gambling ways--throwing back shoulder, passing into tight windows, challenging multiple coverage, refusing to quit on plays--now reek of an obstinate, doomed recklessness.

Where these traits were once the natural byproduct of confidence and opportunity that led to the team's ascension, they now too often look like fatal reliance on an untrustworthy skill. The failure by Brees to recognize this--that assuming mammoth risk in situations that are incongruous to positive outcome--is perhaps the most mystifying development of all this season.

I guess one should never underestimate the power of denial.

Without Payton, Brees has been more scattershot and less precise, more damningly chaotic and less reassuringly composed. We're getting to the point where brushing off these performances as anomaly becomes more and more difficult.

Brees has three games to restore some faith.

Falling in line with Brees' shortcomings this year is the disappointing, and vexing, third season for Jimmy Graham.

I'm far from an authority on what's caused Graham to noticeably, instead of naturally, regress from the lofty heights of his 2011 campaign, but my best guess is that he's distracted and unfocused. Many times this season I've had the feeling that Graham's mind is less than centered on the task at hand. Maybe I'm wrong, but that's what I see.

Nowhere is Payton's absence more clearly illustrated than in the Jimmy Graham of 2012 vs. the Graham of 2011. Where Graham in 2011 was efficient, aggressive, and imposing, the Graham of 2012 has been inconsistent and modest, prone to stretches of mindless error and shrinking presence.

This might also be partly attributable to scheme and gameplanning, but Graham--like his team--has mostly come up short this season. What's fair to realize is that this is the first time in three seasons Jimmy Graham has invited criticism for his play on the field.

In 2010 he was wide-eyed and green, but steadily improving and impactful. Then in 2011 he arrived with a gusting ferocity--uncoverable, terrorizing, spectacular. And now in 2012 he's encountered an inevitable dose of professional adversity as his performance recedes.

What's crucial is how Graham responds over the next three weeks. Will he end the season on a high note before negotiating a new contract in the offseason? Or will he meekly whimper away, letting his 2012 season cast doubt upon what he so convincingly achieved in 2011?

I feel highly certain it's the former, but it will be reassuring to see it happen.

With three weeks left, and the Saints out of contention, it will be noteworthy to see who plays for pride and who goes through the motions.

This Saints' roster is in transition, and we'll receive some clues over the next three games of who will and won't be back in 2013.

As for the Saints' prospects in 2013 and beyond?

The answers are unclear beyond rote speculation, but one thing is certain: absent Sean Payton in 2013, the Saints' lackluster results in 2012 might be less fleeting and more defining than any of us cares to accept.

07 December 2012

By The Numbers: The 2012 Saints Through 12 Games


After twelve games, here are the Saints' league-wide ranks in a variety of statistical categories.

Arrows indicate mobility since week eight; adjustments reflect league ranking, not raw statistical output. Numbers italicized in parentheses indicate previous ranking after eight games.

Offense
* Points/game: 5th  (8th)
* First half points scored: 3rd  (4th)
* Second half points scored: 12th --same--
* Red zone scoring % (TDs): 1st --same--

* Yards: 6th  (5th) 
* Yards/play: 3rd (t)  (6th)
* 3rd down conversion %: 5th  (7th)

* Rush yards/game: 26th  (30th)
* Rush yards/attempt: 9th (t)  (17th)
* Rush play %: 31st  (32nd)

* Pass yards: 3rd  (2nd)
* Pass yards/attempt: 6th (t)  (7th)

* Point differential: 15th  (16th)

* DVOA: 9th  (7th)
* WPA: 14th  (10th)

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Defense
* Points allowed/game: 26th  (29th)
* First half points allowed: 32nd --same-- 
* Second half points allowed: 12th  (25th )
* Red zone scoring % allowed (TDs): 16th  (15th)

* Yards allowed: 32nd --same--
* Yards allowed/play: 32nd --same--
* 3rd down conversion % allowed: 11th  (13th)

* Rush yards allowed: 32nd --same--
* Rush yards allowed/attempt:  32nd  (31st)

* Pass yards allowed: 30th  (29th)
* Pass yards allowed/attempt: 31st --same--

* DVOA: 30th --same--
* WPA: 30th  (32nd)

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Assorted
* Turnover Margin: 10th (t)  (11th)
* Penalties: 13th (t)  (12th)
* Passer rating differential: 21st  (22nd)

Drive Stats
* Offense
     - Average starting field position:  29th  (32nd)
     - Drive success rate: 3rd  (6th)
     - Points/drive: 4th  (5th)

* Defense
     - Average starting field position: 19th --same--
     - Drive success rate: 32nd  (31st)
     - Points allowed/drive: 26th  (30th)

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Special Teams
* Thomas Morstead
     - Punting, gross average: 2nd (50)  (1st [51.2]) 
     - Punting, net average: 1st (45.9) --same-- (1st [46.1])

* Kickoff returns: 5th  (9th)
* Punt returns:  19th (tie)  (23rd)
* DVOA:  8th  (16th)

30 November 2012

Week 13, Saints at Falcons: The Gallows Pole

First, the stats.

Score: Falcons 23, Saints 13
Record: 5-7
Complete Box Score
Stat Chart:




THE GALLOWS POLE

In retrospect, it couldn't have ended any other way.

After a nightmarish calendar year for Saints' football, it was only fitting that the Saints took a killshot in the Georgia Dome against the fraudulent Falcons, on a night where Drew Brees, for the second straight week, submarined the team with an unrecognizable performance, and thus bookended this horror show that started 11 months ago with the playoff loss in San Francisco. Two rivals, two seasons, two bitter losses.

This was a perfectly deflating way to bring the strife and the frustration and the injustice and the shortcomings of 2012 all full circle.

A disaster in whole.

It started back in January with the Saints as the hottest team in the league--winners of nine straight--rolling into San Francisco against one of their longtime rivals, a team that haunted my adolescence with their mostly effortless domination of the Saints. This was a time to make it right, but that never happened. When the Saints shit the bed, when they lost that game in heartbreakingly cruel fashion, I never imagined there was a lower point for the franchise this year.

But it's been a continual erosion since, from the heights of championship aspiration, tantalizingly out of reach early in 2012, to a lifeless swing from the gallows pole late in the year, as the team's fortunes have reversed in grotesque fashion.

In Atlanta last night, the Falcons all but destroyed the Saints' playoffs hopes for 2012 and sealed what was likely the Saints' inescapable fate this season.

For it to be at the hands of a different team seems almost averse to script. Where January in San Francisco was vicious and portending, yesterday in Atlanta was ephemerally stunning but mostly just sad.

In between those two games came BountyGate, a sinister episode of devilish proportion, one that dragged the team and its fanbase through a series of damning events that are still yet to be decided.

It is BountyGate that compounds the sting of these losses, and serves as a continuing reminder of what could have been. What should have been. The scars of BountyGate will remain in perpetuity, but the freshness of the wounds manifests a sting that cruelly reminds us that this was once a championship-worthy contender, suddenly and savagely chopped down at the knees in a hollow, transparent, bullshit Goodellian show of force.

On a damn near weekly basis, there's an episodic feeling of being wholly wronged by the NFL, for them having taken from us what we earned from years of love and loyalty and undying hope: a championship contender, year in and year out.

When the Saints finally transcended failure and futility, the NFL reached out and snatched it from us in a diabolical blame-shifting maneuver. And it is both enraging and terribly sad.

Roger Goodell, that bilious, vile shell of a human being, committed a devilish act of unforgivable magnitude against the Saints and their fans and for that, we should never forget. Fuck him.

DREW BREES

In what is likely to be an omnipresent series of articles wondering "What's wrong with Drew Brees?", here's one person's opinion. Brees is a man stretched much too thin, who finally froze and cracked under the thunderous pressure of 2012.

Since 2006 Brees has gone from a boyish gym rat to a husband and father of three; the NFL's highest paid player; the face and voice of the NFL's Players' Association; BountyGate's most outspoken critic; a businessman; a ubiquitous corporate sponsor; a genuine philanthropist; and the face of the Saints franchise and the New Orleans community.

And finally, it was too much for him to handle. Last night Brees shattered into a million dulled shards in front of our eyes, in a performance as shocking as it was bad.

courtesy of USA Today
A spectacular unraveling.

At this point in his career, with his skills and achievements and high standards, Brees aimlessly staggered into uncharted territory last night.

After two weeks of debilitating decisions on the field, when the Saints' hopes hung by a baring thread, this bizarro version of Brees was devastating in all the wrong ways.

It was his teammates who held up their ends of the bargain, and Brees who shuttered victory.

It would be silly to think that Brees is immune to failure, that he and he alone can elevate the Saints from the depths of their shortcomings, but when your contract consumes nine digits, when the team, by and large, puts its eggs all in one basket, it is that person's responsibility to deliver on that trust and expectation.

When Brees so centrally impacts outcomes, he is fair game for praise and criticism alike. He doesn't get "Breesus" unconditionally. It comes with the territory. It's not so much that Brees played a couple of bad games. It's how and when he did it. And because it's unlike him to do so, and so foreign for us to experience, the magnitude of that failure is greatly amplified, especially when it's connected to the events of 2012 in composite. It's a fitting footnote to the season.

This isn't to be ungrateful for everything Brees has done for the Saints' organization; that should go without saying. It's only to say that Brees, like every other player on the Saints' roster, is subject to a rational criticism when he comes up short.

I'm sure Brees will rebound and finish the season on a strong note. That is his wont. My hope is that he'll be reunited with Sean Payton, a coach that can both ground and guide Brees most effectively, and relieve from him the pressure of being all things to all people. It's as unrealistic as it is unsustainable.

Which finally leads us to ...


SEAN PAYTON

If there was ever a one-week stretch where the effects of Sean Payton's absence were so clearly illustrated, this was it. To examine in detail the varied situations where Payton would have, likely, made all the difference would be a pointless meandering.

His importance is beyond dispute, and it was absurd and delusional for me to think the Saints would be contenders without him.

Payton's return to New Orleans, while uncertain at this point, is essential if the Saints harbor legitimate championship aspirations in the coming years. With him, a return to normalcy is likely. Without him, the prospects are much less clear.

It is Payton who has unearthed and maximized the talents of countless players: Brees, Colston, Moore, Graham, PT, Ivory, and a host of other players. These players are representative of Payton's core strengths, and it feels like I've taken for granted what Payton has built in total.

It is much more than being the NFL's best playcaller and offensive mind. That is but a small, though important, piece.

It's equally about his organizational infrastructure, his eye for talent, his ability to relate and motivate, his willingness to risk and think unconventionally, and his unrivaled competitive nature. Many of these elements have gone missing this season, and it's no surprise their absence has resulted in more losses than wins through 13 weeks.

If 2012 stands to be but an unfortunate detour on an otherwise rewarding journey, Payton's return in 2013 is essential.

Let us hope.

26 November 2012

Week 12, Saints vs 49ers: Domino Theory

First, the stats:

Score: 49ers 31, Saints 21
Record: 5-6
Complete Box Score
Stat Chart:




DOMINO THEORY

A traumatic flashback.

That's mostly what yesterday's game elicited.

The symmetry between Sunday's loss to the 49ers and January's painful divisional round playoff loss was agonizingly similar, and the 49er-associated miseries of this year, and of many years gone past, only deepened.

Like Pierre Thomas' fumble on the two-yard line in last season's playoffs, Brees' first-half interception set in motion a chain of events the Saints proved incapable of recovering from.

Last year it was a fumble that culminated in the loss of a key offensive cog, an opening drive that produced no points after a methodical march, a long TD surrendered to Vernon Davis, a Brees interception, another 49ers TD, a Roby fumble on the ensuing kickoff, a subsequent 49ers' FG, and the resulting 17-0 hole the Saints couldn't emerge from. Remember all of that? Ouch.

That's why yesterday's loss hurt so much, and probably in disproportionate measures: because it tore open a wound that's still not fully healed.

On Sunday, it was Brees throwing one of the most dispiriting, ill-timed interceptions I can recall. After handling the 49ers for much of the first half, and with a chance to take a double-digit lead into halftime of a game the Saints' home crowd was increasingly impacting, Brees giftwrapped a stunning equalizer and stabilized a woozy team previously backing into the ropes.

In the span of the next three minutes, the 49ers scored twice more, once on the second half's opening drive, and yet again on a Brees' pick-six. 21 points allowed in under four minutes. Brutal.

When you combine that with the sudden reversal of the Saints' optimal strategy of playing with a lead, to being forced to battle back against the league's best defense, it was another domino effect that proved too onerous to overcome, and one that prolonged the agony of that recent playoff loss.

An odious doppelganger, if you will.

And one that we should, finally, bury in all of its hideous revulsion.

As much as I'd like to write this game off as the Saints being outplayed by a superior team--much like I did after the Denver game a few weeks back--I can't bring myself to do it because I just don't believe that.

This was a self-inflicted loss, one heavily weighted by poor decision-making by the Saints' best player on two different occasions. While the Saints might be well capable of beating San Francisco any given week, the fact is that the Saints gave it away yesterday, just like they gave it away last January. And now they're in the tightest of spots with five games to play.

LOOKING FORWARD

The good news? Yes, there is some of that. It wasn't all bad yesterday because the entirety of the Saints' wild card competition lost: Seattle, Dallas, Tampa, Minnesota, and even Green Bay.

With five games left, the Saints are still one game back and right in the thick of things. Getting into the postseason probably means rattling off five straight wins, but 4-1 over the next five might still be good enough to do it.

There were enough positive signs yesterday to reinforce the notion that the Saints are continuing to improve, and still getting closer to playing their best football of the season. Winning five straight isn't out of the question, but it will take smart football and a little bit of luck.

It all starts with Atlanta on Thursday night. Why should we be confident for victory on a short week, on the heels of an incredibly physical game, against a 10-1 team?

1.) History: the Saints are 11-2 against the Falcons since 2006, and the Falcons have repeatedly proven adept at coming up short in big spots.

2.) Desperation: though it might not truly be the case, it feels like the Saints are playing for their season on Thursday. Time to pull out all the stops.

3.) Depth: the Saints can materially benefit from the depth of their RB rotation this week. Because the Saints' RBs share the workload so widely, the rotation should be less impacted by the short week and ready to exploit the Falcons' soft run defense.

4.) Brees: coming off of poor performances in which the Saints have lost (I identified 23 games), Brees has been pretty damn good. His passer rating is a combined 99.5 in those games; he's averaged 283 yards, 7.3 ypa, and 69% completions with a 2.7:1 TD:INT ratio.

The Saints are 15-8 in those games.

Further, in 13 career games against the Falcons as a Saint, Brees has a 99.8 passer rating; he's averaged 295 yards, 7.7 ypa, and 67.4% completions with a 2.4:1 TD:INT ratio.

All signs point towards Brees playing a good game on Thursday night, which usually means good things for the Saints. Let's not give up just yet.

Don't fret. The loss to San Francisco was by no means devastating to the Saints' playoff hopes, and the season starts anew in just three days.

It's time for the Saints' $100 million man to, in his own words, go out there and earn it.

19 November 2012

Week 11, Saints at Raiders: Can't You Hear Me Knocking?

First, the stats.

Score: Saints 38, Raiders 17
Record: 5-5
Complete Box Score
Stat Chart:









CAN'T YOU HEAR ME KNOCKING?

courtesy of Getty
Quick. 

Who’s the hottest team in the NFC? 

If you guessed the Saints, winners of five of their last six and three straight, then you’d be right. 

All of a sudden, at 5-5, with a head of billowing steam, an emerging identity, and a reinvigorated purpose, the Saints have arrived, just in the nick of time, to kick in the back door of a party nobody wants them attending. 

Knock knock, bitches. 

Just when we were ready to shovel dirt on this thing after the debacle in Denver, the Saints have reeled off three quality wins to claw back to .500 and, equally important, climb one game back of a wildcard spot with six games to play. Seattle, Minnesota, and Tampa Bay sit at 6-4, with the Saints lurking dangerously in the shadows at 5-5. 

Hold the fucking phones. 

This thing’s just getting started. 

Hear me prowlin 
Im gonna take you down 
Hear me growlin ...

Hear me howlin 
And all, all around your street now 
Hear me knockin 
And all, all around your town 


In four weeks, Joe Vitt has transformed a largely tentative, passive team—one marked by an unsightly, delicate finesse—and infused it with a purposeful, salty disdain. 

Absent is the rudderless wandering for identity and adjustments, and present is a clear-minded, physical philosophy. 

We all realize that Vitt can’t replicate Sean Payton’s quick-mindedness and innovative scheming. But Vitt has been every bit Payton's equal when it comes to leading the team, in providing them with an attitude and an intensity. Further, the stage isn’t too big for him. Right now, Vitt's presence alone counts for a lot. 

His players have responded accordingly, and the results speak for themselves. 

Maybe I’m just seeing things, but there’s a definitive attitude shift, one familiar with Payton’s presence: a swagger, a defiance, a willfulness, an overwhelming confidence. Vitt’s bestowed it on the team just like Payton did, and it is infectious. 

That mindset has manifested itself in a running game that’s produced 140+ yards in three consecutive games, in a defense that’s turning the ball over and pressuring the QB with more regularity, and in a team that’s won three straight by an average margin of 13 points. 

Mark Ingram looks, more or less, better than he ever has. It might have taken Ingram a season and a half, but the light's been turned on. Much like CJ Spiller in Buffalo who wallowed for a season-and-a-half, underwhelming and battling the “bust” label before breaking out, Ingram appears to be blooming late and proving his worth. 

With Ingram’s development and Chris Ivory’s ascendance—not to mention the presence of PT, Sproles, and Cadet—the Saints are in possession of an unfathomably deep and talented backfield, one capable of carrying the offense if need be. The runningbacks' involvement has shifted from a Sproles/PT-centered model, one reliant on draws, screens, tosses, and misdirections, and has been re-engineered as a more traditional power rushing attack featuring Ivory and Ingram. Sledge and Dredge, if you will.

This defining physical element, combined with the well-established primacy of the Saints’ passing game, has vaulted the Saints right back into contention. It's not exactly the nuclear offense of 2011, but it's come together pretty damn well at this point. 

The defense, too, hasn't been bereft of a worthy contribution of its own recently.

Where's this coming from?

I don't really know, but having Vilma back on the field seems to be making a positive difference.

If it's only for his ability to properly organize the defense and check into audibles, then that's an enormous benefit.

Just being in the right set/formation is, you know, really important.

More, Malcolm Jenkins' inconsistency seems to be receding in favor of hawkishness, and he's played two consecutive excellent games.

Whether this will continue for the remainder of the season is anybody's guess, but we might be on the cusp of witnessing an upward trajectory in Jenkins' career.

Equally important is that the front-seven has finally asserted itself. Yesterday it did so to the tune of three sacks, four hits on Carson Palmer, and four tackles for losses. This on the heels of seven sacks, eleven hits on Michael Vick, and eight tackles for losses against Philadelphia; and one sack, five hits on Matt Ryan, and four tackles for losses against Atlanta.

Signs of improvement, indeed.

After starting 0-4, it would have been a lost cause for most other teams. But Drew Brees and the Saints aren't a team that convention can quickly shoehorn into futility, and the 5-1 stretch has both provided some hope and illuminated the Saints' talent and resolve. 

They’ve rattled off winning streaks—consistently—during the past three seasons, and it’s happening again now. Will they sustain it? 

While the pundits discount the Saints’ chances and focus on how difficult their upcoming schedule is—and sure, it is—they all miss the larger point that it’s the Saints who are now presenting the difficult matchups.  

We’ve all paid close attention to the Saints' recent winning trends. Do you really think the Saints, right now, are anything less than confident that they’re winning the next game on the schedule? 

Maybe that’s what it will take to really set this fucker ablaze and put the league on notice: exacting some much-needed revenge on the grating 49ers, the NFC’s self-appointed, tough-guy contender. 

If the Saints really are going to kick down that door, if we’re really going all storybook with it this year, then a statement win against San Francisco is next on the docket.

It’s an imperative.

12 November 2012

Week 10, Falcons at Saints: No Sympathy for the Devil

First, the stats.

Final Score: Saints 31, Falcons 27
Record: 4-5
Complete Box Score
Stat Chart:




NO SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL

You want to know the difference between the present-day Falcons and Saints?

Matt Ryan has a career-best day and the Falcons lose.

When Brees has a career day? The Saints beat the NFL's model franchise by three touchdowns.

Nowhere is the dichotomy between the two organizations more indicative than at the quarterback position. We've seen it for the past several seasons, and we saw it again yesterday.

Even when Ryan's at his best, it's still not good enough.

Try as the Falcons might to convince themselves they've "made the leap" (or whatever), the reality is that they're a lot like the Hasselbeck-era Seahawks. They're good enough to get it done against inferior competition, but not quite tough enough to win when it really matters.

When you strip away everything else, Matt Ryan's on the path to being the Bobby Hebert to Drew Brees' Joe Montana. Until Falcons' fans grasp and accept this, they'll continue to bear the torturous brunt of coulda-woulda-shoulda.

We've been there already. They might be wise to heed the precedent. Deep down Falcons' fans probably realize this, as difficult as it might be to admit.

Come on, now. If there was ever a time for the Falcons to solve the Saints' riddle, to heal the lingering wounds of repeated beatings past, yesterday was the day. An 8-0 Falcons' "juggernaut" facing their hamstrung and coachless division rival; benefiting from a career day from their QB; jumping out to a 10-0 lead in the first six minutes; and yet still ... They. Just. Couldn't. Do. It.

What else can you ask for, for god's sake?

While we're at it, let's go ahead and get this out of the way: we need to stop calling this a rivalry. It requires another name. "Rivalry" implies something other than the consistent losing ways the Falcons have exhibited in this series. For the past six-and-a-half seasons, it's been utter domination by the Saints.

11-2.

Had it not been for Garrett Hartley boning a 29-yard FG in overtime in 2010, the Falcons would have one lone, sad little victory to show for their efforts in this "rivalry" since Payton arrived.

The funny thing is that the Saints haven't consistently dominated another team so completely, ever. The fact that it's the Falcons, and that one team has aligned itself among the NFL's elite, while the other desperately attempts to convince itself it will get there, makes the end results all the more resplendent.

Imitation only gets you so far.

The Falcons can say it all they want, they can feign it as convincingly as possible, but until they topple the Saints, until they emerge from the NFC, and until they lift the Lombardi, they'll be nothing more than striving, second-rate wannabes.

In the meantime? We (still) make the rules.


THE IVORY EFFECT

I don't know if Aaron Kromer will eventually be an NFL head coach or not.

But if not, it won't just be because he guided the Saints to a 2-4 record in the six games he coached.

It will be because he was too stubborn or too shortsighted to play Chris Ivory.

That Kromer would overlook this proven talent, and further forgo Ivory's tenacity--a missing element that begged for inclusion--won't go unnoticed when it comes to Kromer's future prospects as a head coach.

The fact that Kromer coordinates the running game makes it all the more glaringly faulty.

What Ivory provides is an ingredient vital to the Saints' optimal, winning offensive identity: a physical, bruising rushing presence. It was there in 2006 with Deuce, in 2009 with Mike "PUT ON THE CLEATS!" Bell, and with Ingram/Ivory in 2011. When Ingram proved incapable of providing it in the first few games, Kromer was decidedly slow on the uptake.

Failure to make proper adjustments in the NFL often results in plain, old failure, and Kromer's refusal to play Ivory might (unfortunately) be the legacy of his six-game stint.

With Ivory these past two games, the Saints' offense has unleashed the added dimension that's been integral to their success under Payton.

We can all debate the merits of balance--or ponder what that term even means in relation to the Saints--but the truth is that when the Saints run the ball effectively, when they merge rushing purpose with passing finesse, they are an offense unstoppable. At this point, what more evidence do we need?

Further, what we might be witnessing under Joe Vitt is an offensive identity modestly in transition, at least for this season. With the embarrassingly rich collection of talented RBs the Saints possess, it would be neglectful (or just dumb) to limit their involvement and the matchup quagmires they present.

If that means figuring out how to distribute the ball among four RBs, then I'm sure Brees and Carmichael are more than capable. If it means that Mark Ingram feels threatened by Ivory's presence, and that he'll continue to play as well as he has recently, then something worthwhile is underway.

If it means a handful fewer targets for JG80 Jimmy Graham, and perhaps more subsequent single coverage, then maybe that's a good thing. If it means Joe Morgan's deep speed will be a distant concern for opposing defenses, then the Saints' offense will be in better shape.

Regardless, what we can all agree on is that the Saints are a better team with Ivory's physical presence, and a more complete offense with the RBs involved in the game. For the first time this season, the Saints outrushed their opponent and for the second consecutive game, they've rushed for 140+ yards.

With Vitt settling in for the final seven games, the offense just might be onto something.

As of today, the Saints are 1.5 games back of the last wildcard spot with seven games to play. After an 0-4 start, just being in the conversation is good enough. Let's leave it at that for right now.

Not only is it much too early to worry with the future possibilities, it would be criminal to not spend the week enjoying this win and reveling in the continued dominance.

Good times never seemed so good.

08 November 2012

By the Numbers: The 2012 Saints Through Eight Games

After eight games, here are the Saints' league-wide ranks in a variety of statistical categories.

Arrows indicate mobility since week four; adjustments reflect league ranking, not raw statistical output. Numbers italicized in parentheses indicate previous ranking after four games.


Offense
* Points/game: 8th  (10th)
* First half points scored: 4th  (10th)
* Second half points scored: 12th  (7th)
* Red zone scoring % (TDs): 1st  (3rd)

* Yards: 5th  (8th)
* Yards/play: 6th  (7th)
* 3rd down conversion %: 7th  (9th)

* Rush yards/game: 30th  (26th)
* Rush yards/attempt: 17th  (9th)
* Rush play %: 32nd --same-- (32nd)

* Pass yards: 2nd  (3rd)
* Pass yards/attempt: 7th (tie)  (14th)

* Point differential: 16th

* DVOA: 7th  (11th)
* WPA10th  (20th)

--------------------------------------------------------------

Defense
* Points allowed/game: 29th (tie)  --same-- (29th)
* First half points allowed: 32nd  (31st)
* Second half points allowed: 25th  (26th)
* Red zone scoring % allowed (TDs): 15th  (14th)

* Yards allowed: 32nd  --same--  (32nd)
* Yards allowed/play: 32nd  (30th)
* 3rd down conversion % allowed: 13th  (19th)

* Rush yards allowed: 32nd  --same--  (32nd)
* Rush yards allowed/attempt: 31st  (30th)

* Pass yards allowed: 29th  (24th)
* Pass yards allowed/attempt: 31st  (30th)

* DVOA: 30th  (28th)
* EPA: 32nd --same--  (32nd)

--------------------------------------------------------------

Assorted
* Turnover Margin (0): 11th (tie)  (8th)
* Penalties: 12th  (27th)
* Passer rating differential: 22nd  (27th)

Drive Stats
* Offense
     - Average starting field position: 32nd  (28th)
     - Drive success rate: 6th  (9th)
     - Points/drive: 5th  (10th)

* Defense
     - Average starting field position: 19th  (22nd)
     - Drive success rate: 31st  (29th)
     - Points allowed/drive: 30th  (29th)

--------------------------------------------------------------

Special Teams
* Thomas Morstead
     - Punting, gross average: 1st (51.2)  (3rd [51.1])
     - Punting, net average: 1st (46.1)  (3rd [45.9])

* Kickoff returns: 9th  (7th)
* Punt returns: 23rd  (21st)
* DVOA: 16th --same-- (16th)


06 November 2012

Week 9, Eagles at Saints: Strange Magic

First, the stats.

Final Score: Saints 28, Eagles 13
Record: 3-5
Complete Box Score
Stat Chart:





STRANGE MAGIC


Maybe Steve Spagnuolo is yet to find that magic wand he keeps talking about, but he and Pete Carmichael summoned some strange magic on Monday night and provided a glimpse of promise for the season's second half.

It was a throwback primetime performance, just a week after the Saints were pasted and embarrassed in Denver.

So what happened? The Saints' defense was hostile enough to shut out the Eagles in five red zone trips and produce a vaunted, adjusted PTOMAC of +6.

Seven sacks, twelve QB hits, and eight tackles for loss? Well I'll be damned.

Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma dusted off their vintage 2009 forms and helped the Saints stay one game back in the loss column for the last wild card spot. Imagine that: Vilma and Smith, staving off suspensions, helping the Saints hang around for another week. So go ahead commish, take a moment and suck on that, why don't you?

Cam Jordan played (I think) his best game as a professional, and continues a steady upward trajectory after a season and a half of NFL football. All's not lost.

Though the Eagles' offensive line appeared staggeringly insufficient, the Saints' front seven (dare I say?) dominated them. That's all that really matters right now. There's proper perspective to be accounted for, but the Saints' defense flashed some signs last night. Even if it was for just one game, it was a welcomed sight. Kill The Head and all that.

There's ... CLICHE WARNING! ... something to build on.



In a similar vein, the offense looked like a different, better unit against the Eagles. Last night's gameplan and overall efficiency, combined with the explosive capacity displayed two weeks ago in Tampa, shows that the offense is close to finally putting it all together.

It couldn't come at a better time with the villainous Falcons coming to New Orleans in a few days.

What's strange about those two previously mentioned offensive performances? In the two games that the offense has looked its best, they've been without Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles respectively.

Presumably, this has forced Carmichael to re-think his gameplans and take an approach that's not heavily centered on the offense's two best playmakers.

In the recent past, the Saints' offense has defined itself through its incredible diversity and shared-wealth philosophy. At times this season, it's seemed like the offense has strayed from that concept because of the immense playmaking capabilities of Graham and Sproles, and thus lulled the offense into predictability and stagnation at times.

Added to that is that opposing defenses are better prepared to defend Sproles and Graham after digesting a year's worth of :gamefilm: on their roles in the Saints' offense.

Without Graham in Tampa, Lance Moore and Joe Morgan were more prominently involved and heavily contributory. Last night without Sproles, the Saints employed a more traditional power rushing attack with efficient games from PT, Ivory, and Ingram.

That Philadelphia was likely not fully prepared for this approach reveals the significance of the creative scheming and diversity that's been lacking without Payton calling the shots.

This isn't to suggest--at all--that the Saints' offense is better off without Graham and Sproles. Of course it's not. But it is to say that, without them, Carmichael has designed his most effective gameplans.

Ideally, the recognition of this--creativity, diversity, unpredictability--will help the offense finally put together a string of 2011-ish offensive performances when Sproles returns. A fully healthy offensive squad, plus gameplanning more varied and less reliant on two players, will help the Saints make a run in these last eight games.

They're not out of this thing just quite yet, so stay tuned. There have been plenty of moments of despair this year, but there's still a little beam of hope bouncing off the walls of this dark cave of a season.

And really, the timing couldn't be any better with the Falcons coming to town. The Saints are fresh off their best win of the season and have won three of four after a disastrous start.

All of a sudden, it feels like their confidence is soaring as the hated, undefeated Falcons come strutting in. A statement win next weekend will make this strangest of seasons all that more compelling.

29 October 2012

Week 8, Saints at Broncos: A Graying Promise

First, the stats.

Final Score: Broncos 34, Saints 14
Record: 2-5
Stat Chart:



A GRAYING PROMISE

When we look back on the disappointment that is 2012 Saints' football, when we accept a reality that's birthed a suddenness of irreversible mediocrity, we'll look back on this game as a signpost in the post-BountyGate, Payton-less Saints. 

This was a thrashing in primetime, a stage the Saints have largely dominated the past three years. Once facile at serving up momentous, definitive beatdowns while the football world watched in unison, the Saints found themselves squarely on the receiving, pummeled end last night. 

It was all too likely.  

This was a game in which each of the Saints' lingering, fetid sores were savagely exposed, left to fester and ooze, their unsightliness stark and recoiling: the inability to produce a semblance of resistance; a staggering virus of drops; the continued failure to run the ball; an incapacity for in-game adjustments; and an unwillingness to tackle all crystallized in a signature loss. 

Worse, the futility of it all reinforced the dripping anguish that's soaked the Saints' franchise since San Francisco in late January. It's been a slippery slope of collapse, a precipitous fall from the heights of championship aspiration, and one can only hope this is the low point and recovery is at hand.

The bigger issue is that this team wouldn't be anything other than average even with Sean Payton in the fold. There's just no way to elevate beyond mediocrity--at best--when your team's defense is so bad that words can't properly articulate its spectacular dysfunction and historic marks for futility pale in comparison.  

It's easy to convince oneself that 2012 is a lost season, to chalk up the misery to the collective forces of outside influence, to await a return to glory in 2013, but that would be to blind oneself to the fact that the Saints' roster needs help. It's no longer a plug-and-win scenario when Sean Payton returns. 

This is an aged, talentless defense devoid of a functional scheme that's in dire need of a complete overhaul. That's abundantly clear at this point. Spagnuolo might continue to receive the benefit of the doubt for inheriting a bad defense in the middle of unprecedented turmoil, but that doesn't alter the fact that he's made the absolute worst of it. How else do you explain the historic futility? In fact, the defense seems to be getting progressively worse, if that's even possible. 

Yes, it's just one loss. But it seems like more than that; it feels like the inevitable coalescing of numerous shortcomings, all distilled into an unfamiliar, damning portrait of reality.  

When you combine the state of the defense with looming salary cap restrictions and an aging roster, there's no guarantee that Payton's return will be an all-encompassing panacea. And that's ok. We just shouldn't assume a restored order at this point. If the team is in the midst of graying promise, then that's an acceptable transition. The difficulty, for me at least, is in turning away from the denials and rationalizations, and embracing reality. 

If I've learned one thing from this season, it's that objective expectations are hard to come by. 2013 and beyond are complicated by myriad factors and the return of Sean Payton won't magically solve each of them. As for me, I am going to hope but not expect. 

There's probably still another Lombardi out there for the Brees' era Saints, but whereas a year ago it seemed like a given, it now feels a lot more remote. 

For the remainder of 2012 at least, the victories will come in different forms. Remember, there's still plenty of fun to be had this year. We might as well get started having it.