27 July 2012

A Demise, Exaggerated

Let's be clear about one thing.

The Saints are pissed off.

(Before I continue, what follows was inspired by this post from one of my favorite Saints' blogs out there. One more disclaimer: this is going to be a bit profane.) 

Don't buy for one second the Brees-inspired, professionally-crafted PR statements of equinamity and
repose from the Saints from here on out.

It sure as shit ain't "business as usual" this year. Nobody's buying that one.

Far from it. All those talking points are just a transparent front to buy the team some goodwill in the legit media while they plot revenge.

This is a team on a mission to destroy everyone in its unforgiving wake, and moreover, defiantly scorch Roger Goodell right in his bloated, smug, preening face. Full measures. If there was ever a time to have Sean Payton in the mix, this would be it. But because he's the main casualty here, the principle motive rings even clearer and "win one for the Gipper" just got a salty, South Louisiana reboot. Here we come to get you.

Yes, this season has the potential for unprecedented glory. Take it in and revel in it for all it's worth, because these are the circumstances from which indelible memories are forged. It's all unfolding right now.

Forget 2006 and 2009. They are cemented in the pantheons and are unchallengeable. This is different.

Like '06, this is an opportunity for a unique, once-in-a-lifetime achievement. If what has transpired weren't so incredibly motivating and unfinished, it would be fucking tragic. Roger Goodell and BountyGate be damned.

Just remember that this is a chance to make history. A unique opportunity to stand alone. To deliver cold revenge. To sear a dynastic legend in blistering, indomitable fashion on home soil during the modern rebirth of New Orleans. That's all that matters now.

Historic greatness.

This is a franchise that was blindsided, upended, and railroaded by a scheming set of billionaires intent on optimizing their P/L statements at the expense of the Saints, their fans, and the city of New Orleans.

Don't let anyone tell you differently.

Fall guys color the course of human history, and the Saints are just another in a long line of patsies sacrificed in the name of power and money. But don't get it confused this time. This is a patsy that ultimately has a say in the matter.

The last chapter of this story isn't quite written yet.

This is a team with a QB who ranks among the best ever, yet continually falls short of being recognized as such. This is a franchise that is perhaps most well-renowned for paper bags. This is a fanbase, a city, and a team that was, by and large, left for dead nearly seven years ago. Dead.

And guess what? We're still here. Alive and prospering.

If the world at-large thinks that a little persecution and scarlet-lettering is going to deter a city, a team, and a leader who have marked their achievements through the rites of adversity, then they are all sorely mistaken.

Sorely. Fucking. Mistaken.

You think it's coincidence that Joe Vitt and a host of Saints' players testified under oath on Jonathan Vilma's behalf yesterday?

It was not just a revelation of the real truth, but more importantly a statement of intent. An affirmation of collective purpose.

This is a highly-talented, veteran team galvanized by cause, driven by the shortcomings of '11, and intent
on making right the injustices of BountyGate. Instead of focusing on why the Saints were persecuted, just think about how sweet it will be when Roger Goodell is forced to show up in the Dome--under a deafening chorus of deserved hate--and hand the Lombardi Trophy to Joe Vitt, Drew Brees, and Tom Benson.

Don't kid yourself, it's in play.

And most glorious will it be.

Buckle up and enjoy the ride because it's just getting started.

23 July 2012

Running Backs, Sean Payton, and 2012

While Sean Payton is properly recognized for his significant contributions to the state of the modern NFL passing attack, he's often overlooked for re-imagining the role and implementation of running backs in today's NFL.

There are a few reasons for this lack of notoriety: the conventional wisdom associating the Saints' offense with pass-centrism; the inconsistency with which the Saints' running game has performed under Payton; and, perhaps, the absence of a distinguishable, individual running back.

Regardless of these reasons, and no matter how Payton's contributions to the running game might be perceived, it's certain that Payton has markedly influenced how franchises utilize and value running backs.

In fact, Payton has been somewhat of a pioneer in his implementation of running backs over the past six seasons. When the running game has worked under Payton, it has done so with spectacular efficiency.

Here's a snapshot of the Saints' rushing attack during Payton's tenure:

Additionally, the Saints' league-wide ranking (by the traditional metric of yards gained) looks like this from 2006 to 2011: 19th, 28th, 28th, 6th, 28th, 6th.

Here are a few more interesting stats. When the Saints log 27 or more carries under Payton, the team is a blistering 43-4 (regular and post season). When the team rushes for 125 yards or more? A perfect 31-0.

It seems fairly obvious that there's a significant correlation between the efficacy of the Saints' rushing attack and the team's overall success under Payton. And while the reasoning behind this optimal level of performance is certainly more complex than just the effectiveness of the ground game, it's plain to see that when the Saints run the ball well, the team is virtually unbeatable because their offense is, literally, unstoppable.

The obvious problem is that the running backs, and the rushing attack by extension, haven't been reliable every year.

This inconsistency in the Saints' running game, year-over-year, is likely attributable to several factors, notably among them injuries ('10), lack of depth or overall talent ('07, '08), playing from behind ('07, '08), and perhaps an inconsistent application of the rushing attack in the overall offensive scheme.

And though Payton hasn't consistently executed it optimally, he's remained committed to getting it right. His usage of running backs in both the ground and air games has remained a work in progress, one that in the last three seasons has increasingly seen ineffectiveness and inconsistency give way to efficiency. But what happens this year without him?

During the 2009 season, Payton was perhaps the first coach (?) to fully implement a three-back system that segmented roles into specialization, thus limiting injuries; mitigating reliance on the production of one player; diversifying the offense as whole; and confounding opposing defenses with a myriad of additional formations. Aside from the fact that this approach expanded the offense, it produced a highly-effective ground game for the first time in Payton's four seasons as coach.

After a noticeable lapse in 2010, Payton fine-tuned his approach in 2011 by adding a fourth running back to the rotation and, more importantly, landing Darren Sproles.

Implementing Sproles into the Saints' offense brought to life--drastically and immediately--the dimensions that Reggie Bush tantalized the team with, but failed to consistently deliver, for years.

As a result of Sproles' devastating impact as both a runner and a receiver (scroll down a bit if you click the link), popular sentiment across the NFL has identified Sproles as the paradigm of modern NFL running backs.

That's right. A 5'6" running back in Sean Payton's pass-happy offense suddenly labeled as a "state of the art" running back. Thanks (again), AJ Smith. Who knew, right?

This familiar Smart Football article gives us a better understanding of Sproles' impact, and explains the running back's criticality in an advanced, diverse NFL offense.


Through Payton's standardization of the three/four-back system, coupled with his progressive application of running backs in the passing game, it seems probable that teams league-wide have started to re-examine their running backs' roles as a direct result of these advancements. And though this progression might not be popularly attributed to Payton, its impact and relevance is undeniable and Payton's innovations in this area merit praise.

Absent Payton in 2012, it will be interesting to monitor the performance of the Saints' running backs under Pete Carmichael, Jr. Because the running game has been so closely tied to the team's ceiling, it will be noteworthy to see how Carmichael utilizes his running backs this year. What stays the same, what gets phased out, and what gets added? Further, while there are certainly Payton-devised adjustments already in place for 2012, it will be Carmichael's job to refine and add adjustments as the season progresses. This should be fun to watch.

Perhaps most important is whether the Saints can do what they've been unable to do during the Payton era: maintain a high level of rushing efficiency in consecutive seasons. Many more questions abound:

Will the loss of Carl Nicks significantly impact the offensive line? Will Ben Grubbs fill in seamlessly? Will the rushing game be as dominant as it was in 2011?

How will Mark Ingram perform in his second season? Can he stay healthy? Where does Chris Ivory fit in this year?

Can Sproles continue to be a dynamic force at age 29?

Can Pierre Thomas maintain the high-value form that's made him an indispensable component and merited him elite status by practitioners of advanced metrics year after year?

If the recent past is any indicator, the success (and health) of the Saints' running backs will go a long way in determining just how good this team will be. Without Payton in the mix, predicting an outcome is an impossibility. It's now in the hands of the inconspicuous PCj, who just might be ready to impress upon the Saints' running backs his own brand of unsuspecting dynamism.

Let us hope.

12 July 2012

Payton Moments, Volume I

After reading this article yesterday, I thought about how in the midst of the distortions and treachery of the 2012 offseason, I had paid scant attention to Sean Payton and pondered much less on what his absence might mean to the Saints' franchise.

While I'm not going to explore that topic right now, I am going to shine a light--and perhaps in future posts, as well--on moments that have defined Payton and burnished his legend.   

Though Coach Payton won't be around this season, it's my opinion that it's important to keep him alive, if you will, in the public consciousness of Saints' fans as much as "telling stories" might allow. 

I realize that might sound oddly sentimental or even unnecessarily morbid, but maintaining Payton's influence on the mindset of Saints' fans can, in some ways, provide both a sense of calm and an air confidence. Anyway, it can't hurt to pay a little tribute every now and then.

With that said, here's one of my favorite Sean Payton stories. 

Circa December, 2007

In 2007 the Saints struggled early on, losing their first four games. In what would become among the defining traits of the Payton/Brees Saints, resilience and tenacity fueled a subsequent four-game winning streak and by week 13, the Saints were 5-6. While not exactly living up to the lofty expectations they established from a near-Super Bowl appearance in 2006, the team was still in the playoff hunt with five games to play. 

Enter 7-4 Tampa Bay, NFC South division leaders, for a showdown in the SuperDome. A victory by the Saints would put the team within one game of the division leaders with four games remaining. It was the pivotal game of the season. With a win, another division title was within reach. 

Fast forward to the second half, and Mike McKenzie has returned an INT for a TD giving the Saints a 21-20 lead. Then, with under four minutes left in the game, Will Smith sacks Luke McCown for a safety and gives the Saints a 3-point lead and possession of the ball. 

The Dome is going patently berserk, as it is prone to so often do. You know what I'm talking about. The Saints now have the ball at midfield and appear poised to finish off the Bucs with just about three minutes left to play. That is until Sean Payton boldly, and probably unnecessarily, calls a reverse on 2nd-and-10. Saints' fans watch in horror as Reggie botches the exchange with Devery and loses the ball. A mad scramble ensues and the Bucs recover. A stunned crowd in the Dome sits in silence. A few short minutes later, the Bucs score a touchdown and win the game. 

A truly deflating moment for the Saints. One that, for the most part, kills the team's postseason hopes and casts a cloud of doubt upon Sean Payton. 

After the game Payton acknowledges the risk of the playcall, shifts the blame away from his players, and heaps the responsibility for the outcome upon himself. A ravenous, opportunistic media lambastes him relentlessly for days. 

At the time, it's the nadir of the Payton era in New Orleans. 

The next week, the Saints played the Falcons in Atlanta on Monday Night Football (the game after which Bobby Petrino quit on his team and bolted for Arkansas). 

After forcing a quick three-and-out on the game's opening series, the Saints got the ball deep in their own territory at the nine-yard line. In front of a national TV audience, fresh off being skewered all week from every possible angle, what does Payton call on 1st down? 

An end-around to Devery in the shadow of his own end zone that gains 15 yards. You were saying? 

I still clearly remember bolting up and cheering a bit too loudly and inappropriately, like Gleason had just blocked another Falcons' punt or something. It was a glorious moment. 

Any potential misgiving or inkling of skepticism I might have had about Sean Payton instantaneously evaporated. It fully and immediately restored my hope of Payton eventually leading the Saints to a Super Bowl. In an otherwise disappointing season, it was a stirring moment of affirmation burned into memory. Aside from "Ambush," it's my favorite Payton moment. 

It underscored everything Payton stands for, even if at the time his personality and style were still developing in front of our eyes. Payton was still in the midst of branding himself as an unbowed, intrepid leader who was never afraid to fail, never scared to buck convention, never fearful of what the critics might say, and always oozing an extra-confident swagger every step along the way.

It was more than just a playcall. It was a statement, a reminder, a flag planted, a watershed. 

It was ballsy, brazen, and a downright defiant "fuck you" to every one of his critics. This was his deal. Step aside, please. 

That moment encapsulates Payton. It's that same mindset and philosophy that produced Super Bowl glory two seasons later. 

And that mindset will be partly absent in 2012. No matter the outcome of this season, it's Payton's presence that will be sorely missed even if it's replicated in some form by others. 

When you wonder if Payton will be the same guy when he comes back, just remember that at one time, one where he had reached a low point, Payton immediately rebounded forcefully and defiantly. Say what you will, but argue not with the means, nor with the ends. 

As much as I'm excited for 2012, I can't help but to now look forward to what will happen when Payton walks back into the Dome in 2013, poised for redemption. 

I imagine he'll be ready to come back as forcefully as ever. 

03 July 2012

An Offseason for the Ages (A Timeline)

If there's one thing to be thankful for as a Saints' fan these days, it's relevance. 

While the seemingly cataclysmic events of the 2012 offseason have spawned disquietude and rage, they've also fortified an already fearsome solidarity. 

The well-established, dual tenets of loyal fandom and proud insularity have undergone rebirth and are poised to reemerge stronger than ever in 2012. 

As it quickly fades away, this offseason like no other deserves a documented review.

What follows is a timeline of notable events in this strange, strange offseason that somehow, someway feels almost appropriately New Orleans.  

January 19: Highly-coveted and respected defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo joins the Saints to transform a defense that failed in the most inopportune moments during the past two postseasons. After a brutal Saints' loss to the 49ers in the divisional playoffs, this hiring signifies a positive offseason trend that fails to accurately portend. 

March 2: Out of nowhere BountyGate breaks, birthing a chapter in the NFL's history that will be noted as a landmark for many different reasons: the corruption of absolute power, the outing of a scapegoat, an overarching fear of litigation, and an accompanying realization of vulnerability. What was soon to unfold was both unforeseeable and unprecedented, and its ultimate resolution may never come full circle.

March 3: The Saints place the franchise tag on Drew Brees, much to the chagrin of Brees and Saints' fans alike.

March 13: Marques Colston signs a five-year contract extension, periodically pacifying the growing discontent of Saints' fans everywhere. 

March 13: Robert Meachem, author of one of the most memorable plays in Saints' history, departs for San Diego

March 14: To the dismay of nearly all Saints' fans, all-pro OG Carl Nicks signs with division rival Tampa Bay. A momentarily dismal loss. 

March 15: The Saints replace Carl Nicks with free agent Ben Grubbs, a highly-respected OG that former Saint and current pundit LeCharles Bentley praises

March 21: The NFL unleashes unprecedented, punitive sanctions on both coaches and the Saints' franchise in the aftermath of BountyGate. 

March 21: DT Brodrick Bunkley quietly signs with the Saints on the same afternoon that sanctions are announced, a transaction that Pro Football Focus calls "a superb defensive signing."

March 24: MLB Curtis Lofton shuns division rival Atlanta for the opportunity to join the Saints, citing the potential of winning a championship

March 26: In light of Sean Payton's yearlong suspension, the Saints court Payton's mentor, coaching legend Bill Parcells, to coach the team in 2012. Ultimately, Parcells declines. 

April 5: Sean Pamphilon--filmmaker, charlatan, opportunist, and delusional savior--releases inflammatory audiotape of Gregg Williams' speech recorded prior to the Jan. '12 playoff game in San Francisco. 

April 13: In the midst of the Saints' most volatile turmoil since Hurricane Katrina, Tom Benson buys the New Orleans Hornets

April 23: In another mind-boggling twist, ESPN implicates Saints' GM Mickey Loomis in a pre-Katrina wiretapping scheme, allegations that ultimately appear baseless. 

April 30: Joe Hummel, the NFL's lead investigator in the BountyGate scandal, suddenly resigns before player sanctions are dispensed, prompting speculation as to the nature of the timing in light of the growing skepticism regarding the veracity of the NFL's evidence. 

May 2: Doubling down on the draconian punishments levied against coaches, the NFL drops the hammer on players for their role in BountyGate. 

May 17: In one of the most head-turning developments in recent NFL history, Jonathan Vilma solidifies his legendary status in New Orleans by suing Roger Goodell for defamation

May 29: Amidst growing acrimony, and unable to work out an agreement with the Saints, Drew Brees seeks arbitration to clarify the status of his franchise tag assignment. 

June 8: Tom Benson hires ex FBI-director Louis Freeh to conduct a comprehensive internal investigation of the Saints' organization. 

June 26: The NFLPA launches an investigation of the Saints' contract negotiations with Brees, seeking to determine if the Saints have operated in good faith in light of Brees' strong union ties. 

July 1: Jonathan Vilma, rightfully disgruntled over the delay in appeal rulings, files another lawsuit--this one against the NFL over a variety of claims. 

July 2: Mike Cerullo is outed as the whistleblower in the BountyGate scandal. 

As I'm writing this, the news of Sean Payton's divorce filing splashed across the internet. In the meantime, there are two weeks left for Brees to sign a long-term deal. Moreover, we're still awaiting both clarification on the franchise tag from 'Special Master' Burbank and a ruling on the player appeals from Goodell. 

The train rolls on, and the Hall of Fame game is just a month away. No rest for the weary. An unprecedented season of both animosity and redemption is upon us. The game just got more fierce.  

Say what you will about the Saints and their fans. Aside from a few select venues anywhere in sports, you're not going to find a more steeled, expansive, dedicated, battle-tested fanbase than you will in the composition of Who Dats. And if you think we're suddenly backing down and meekly slinking away into the shadows because of a little adversity, then you'd be foolhardy and dead wrong. 

If it wasn't already, it's certainly personal now.  The season can't get here fast enough.