22 August 2012

The Saints' Offense: A Philosophy of More

photo courtesy of danandersonphoto.com
Why is the Saints' offense so good?

There are obviously a number of reasonable answers, but aside from the usual suspects--Payton, Brees, talent identification and acquisition, excellent cap management, etc.--what stands out most is the multi-dimensional offensive model that Payton has developed the past six seasons.

The offense is littered with a collection of players whose individual strengths highlight their contributions to an all-world offense.

And while Brees and the offensive line make it all work, the composition of surrounding parts provides an offensive diversity that's unmatched in the NFL. The toppling of records is no accident.

Sean Payton's ideology focuses on collecting the widest variety of options available, and ensuring that he has a tool for every task. It goes far beyond the simplistic philosophy of acquiring players based solely on speed, size, collegiate pedigree, or whatever else.

Payton's offense functions more like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces--when viewed in isolation--might not look quite right, but when fused together form a composite that is wildly difficult to defend.

In 2011 the Saints scored 62 offensive TDs, one fewer than the Packers league-leading 63. Of those 62 TDs, nine different Saints players scored multiple offensive TDs. This not only tied for the league-lead (Lions), it exceeded the totals of teams like the Packers (7) and Patriots (6) who scored at will last season much like the Saints did.

While the likes of Rob Gronkowski (18 TDs), Calvin Johnson (16), and Jordy Nelson (15) led their clubs in TDs, Jimmy Graham produced the Saints' highest output at a more modest 11 TDs.

This is a good thing. It not only makes the offense less prone to a production drop-off due to injury, but it also complicates matters for opposing defenses trying to neutralize scoring threats.

To wit, the Saints' top-two TD producers in 2011--Graham and Sproles--accounted for just 32.2% of the team's total offensive TDs. Contrast that to Gronkowksi and Calvin Johnson, individually, accounting for 32% of his respective team's offensive TDs.

Among the eight highest-scoring teams in the NFL last season, the Saints' top scoring tandem of Graham/Sproles accounted for the lowest overall percentage of offensive TDs. Again, this is good.

Here's the accompanying breakdown for each of the NFL's eight highest-scoring teams in 2011:


Let's take it one step farther. Here are the contribution percentages for the top-four TD producers for each of the league's eight highest-scoring teams in 2011:


Think about it for a second. The Saints scored 42% of their offensive TDs in 2011 with what one could consider the Saints "5th option" and beyond. That is staggering. The 26 TDs the Saints' offense scored outside of their top-four producers were still more than the offensive TDs posted by STL, KC, CLE, JAX, and IND.

And this is what makes the Saints' offense better than the NFL's other great offenses: unrivaled diversity. It's a philosophy of "more." The more the options, the more the personnel packages, the more the variety of formations, the more the stress imparted upon opposing defenses. While the Saints' offense might resemble a socialist model in its distribution tactics, paradoxically, greed rules the day.

So as Saints' fans rightfully debate the popular "Ivory vs. Cadet" topic about who's better suited to being the team's 4th RB, it's important to note "role" and remember "options." While at first glance Cadet's skill set might seem ideally suited to the Saints' offense and special teams, Ivory offers a specialized skill that's in short supply on the roster. Further, Cadet's pass-catching ability--probably his best "skill" at this point--duplicates that of Sproles', PT's, and Ingram's, thus rendering Cadet's overall value a bit less relevant.

Though it's ultimately a moot point because both players will likely make the roster--assuming the Saints decide to break with last year's decision to carry two fullbacks--the larger point is that Ivory should not be so easily and suddenly dismissed because he's considered a one-dimensional "power back." His value to the Saints' offense is precisely connected to that dimension--one that ensures maximum diversity in the offensive arsenal and one that the Saints surely prize.

Where y'at Roby?
And finally, this leads us all the way back to Robert Meachem.

Of course it does.

Replacing Robert Meachem is not quite the simple task that many people have apparently made it out to be. First of all, the role of a "4th WR" in the Saints' offense is not one of marginal relevance.

Further, attaching Meachem's significance to that of a "4th WR" is a lazy oversimplification. Meachem played more snaps than any other WR on the team last season; he was much more than just a situational player. And his replacement in 2012 might be thrust into the same role if circumstances dictate.

While Meachem wasn't central to the offense's success like Graham, Sproles, and Colston were, he was nevertheless valued: he knew the playbook; was a reliable run blocker; and specialized as an excellent deep threat.

Since '09 Meachem has averaged 15.4 yards per reception. This ranks 12th in the NFL, and Meachem's Y/R eclipses that of Devery's during the same time span.

It's not going to be as simple as "plugging someone in"; while Meachem himself might not be critical to the offense, the execution of his role certainly is. So who will replace him? As of now, it's probably a combination of Courtney Roby and Joe Morgan. Nick Toon hasn't practiced in weeks due to a chronic foot injury; Adrian Arrington is rehabbing from knee surgery; and Andy Tanner suffered what appeared to be a high ankle sprain in last week's game.

Whoever gets Meachem's snaps is faced with replacing one of the league's better deep threats and one who was trusted by Payton in every offensive situation. Regardless of who ultimately wins the job, it's critical that Meachem's role be executed in a manner that allows the Saints offense to function with similar efficiency.

If the Saints intend on maintaining the best-ever offensive form they unleashed on overmatched defensive opponents in 2011, then ensuring that their multi-dimensional model is fully intact is of utmost importance in 2012.

13 August 2012

All About Brees

photo courtesy of CBS Sports
There's been much discussion about who will replace Joe Vitt as interim head coach when his six-game suspension starts prior to week one.

Steve Spagnuolo, Aaron Kromer, Pete Carmichael, Jr., or someone else? How will the team handle yet another interruption, another transition?

Will the newest interim coach be prepared to handle the pressure?

Let me give you an answer: it doesn't really matter.

Regardless of who is listed as "Head Coach" in Payton's absence, this is now Drew Brees' team to lead. It's not so much about Vitt or Spags or Carmichael or Kromer as it is about Brees.

The Saints probably aren't winning a Super Bowl this year simply on the merits of an assistant coach stepping up to "do his job." But they are capable of winning another Super Bowl with Brees fully assuming the role as the team's central personality, motivator, and guiding force. Do you doubt him? He's the figure that everyone in the organization will naturally gravitate towards now. Especially in the face of crisis, should it arise. Mostly, it seems like Brees has been preparing for this since he set foot in New Orleans.

Don't get me wrong. I have ultimate confidence in Carmichael and Spagnuolo handling the technical aspects of strategizing, game-planning, playcalling, and whatnot. But it's in the unforeseen and most challenging of circumstances that a leader is truly relied upon; and Brees moreso than anyone else in the Saints' organization possesses the smarts, instincts, and universal respect to lead the team through the shit if need be. I'm not saying Brees should be the coach; I'm just saying that it's mostly Brees' leadership, not that of an interim coach, that will make the difference when the going gets rough.

More than ever, the Saints aren't just dependent on the limits of Brees' physical talents, but they are now beholden to the extent of his direction, crisis management skills, and composure. There's no one--at least within the Saints' organization--better equipped to fill the nuances of Sean Payton's void than Brees.

Surely Payton didn't understand the prescience of his words in 2009's America's Game when he called Brees "an extension" of himself. And now it's come full circle.

In fact, we've seen it played out publicly in the recent months. Suddenly Brees has emerged from a public persona carefully crafted, corporatized, executed, and messaged on-point at all times; he's now taken on a much more outspoken, defiant tone in the aftermath of BountyGate. And why? Because it's what his team needs at the moment. It's not so much of a departure from the brand-building norm as it is an adaptation to circumstance.

In April, Brees was one of the first individuals in the Saints organization to come forward and publicly state that the NFL had shared "no meaningful evidence," calling into question the veracity of the bounty accusations.  In late June, Brees appeared on David Letterman's show and pointedly declared that the NFL engaged in what "seem[ed] like a smear campaign ... with no true evidence." Brees called the accusations "heinous" and the process "unfair," and called on the NFL to "put forth the facts and the truth." This was a key moment for Brees, as he seized upon the opportunity to deliver his message to a wider demographic. It was an ideal stage to make an impact outside of traditional NFL target audiences, and on a much bigger scale.

photo courtesy of AP, begging for a GM Wang photoshop
He wasn't just selling something this time. He was assuming a new role as the central voice of his organization.

A month later, Brees was quoted in Peter King's popular MMQB column saying that "nobody trusts [Goodell]," in reference to widespread player sentiment.

Amidst all the other previous hints of a change, this was a marked elevation in rhetoric from Brees--clearly the strongest, most direct, and most controversial--that stood in stark contrast to the carefully-managed, public image he'd branded for years.

It was a purposeful and indicative shift in stature.

Finally, this past Friday, Brees attended Jonathan Vilma's most recent hearing in Federal Court.

When asked by reporters the purpose of his appearance, Brees said "I'm here really on behalf of our entire team, the New Orleans Saints organization to support Jonathan Vilma."

On behalf of the organization. I think that says it all.

*************************************************************************************************************************

CREATING AN IDENTITY
If you've followed Brees closely enough during his tenure in New Orleans, you frequently hear him say that there are always areas for improvement.

Where Brees can specifically improve this year is as a leader and motivator and, in an even greater capacity than before (though hard to fathom), the true face of the organization. He's already in the midst of it.

Brees will be hard pressed to improve on the field by throwing for 5500 yards and 50 TDs. But he can evolve in ways much less quantifiable, though equally influential to desired outcomes. Let's face it, Brees' importance this season resides less in generating his optimal statistical output than it does in his leadership qualities.

If Brees accrues fewer yards, throws a handful more interceptions, and sees his completion percentage dip a bit, it's far from devastating to the Saints' hopes.

What's more important is that Brees leads the team through what will be, at times, a tumultuous road this season. His leadership, in all likelihood, will be tested in ways it hasn't previously been. If that means a drop-off in production, so be it. That was probably going to happen anyway. It's going to take more than just mind-boggling stats and pre-game chants this year; I'm sure that Brees knows this, and it appears he's already taken the reigns on filling Payton's void in his own way.

The chief focus--far from setting records--will be to put the team in the best possible position for a postseason run without Coach Payton. How to best accomplish that? Once the postseason starts, Brees will be at his best. He always has been. His career postseason rating over nine games is 103.9. He's averaged 333.1 yards per game and a 66.8% completion percentage, with 22 TDs and just 4 INTs.

The key is just getting there without the mastermind of the program. I very seriously doubt there's any person better suited to the task than Brees, and that's why obsessing over interim coaches isn't all that important right now. Not only is Brees ideally positioned and prepared for the task, he appears ready to welcome this season's challenge and overcome it.

In an interview with Marshall Faulk prior to the Hall of Fame game, Brees said that "at some point, it's up to the players to take hold of this team, to create an identity."

Who better than Brees to make it happen?

02 August 2012

By The Numbers: Inside Domes and Out

photo courtesy of SI
Since 2006, the beginning of the Payton-Brees era in New Orleans, the Saints have played 104 games in the regular and post seasons.

Of those games, 51 have been at home and 53 on the road.

While it's fairly common knowledge that the Saints have been one of the NFL's best road teams under Payton, ranking third in total victories since 2006 and first since 2009, there's still conventional wisdom among pundits and in national media circles that suggests the Saints are a much different (read: worse) team on the road.

While part of that perception stems from high-profile postseason losses in difficult outdoor venues (Chicago '06, Seattle '10, San Francisco '11), it's hard to tell if that perception has any truth to it. The distinction that's often missed is in separating road games in domes from road games played outdoors.

Of the 53 road games under Payton, the Saints have played 13 of those games (~25%) in domes and have lost only three times (Indy '07, Atlanta '08, St. Louis '11). Playing in road domed environments has hardly proven difficult. But what about those other 40 games played outdoors?

First, here's a look at yards gained/allowed and points scored/allowed in dome and non dome venues under Payton:




More importantly, here's a snapshot of the Saints W/L record in the two settings, along with some accompanying stats:





That's a fairly stark disparity in win percentage, and certainly indicates that the Saints aren't nearly as good outdoors as they are in a dome. I know this isn't much of a revelation, but the numbers more clearly and specifically illustrate it. I've been as guilty of this as anyone, but it seems disingenuous to state in blanket that the Saints are an elite road team. In a way it's true, but that statement needs to come with a qualification: dome game or outdoor game?

Put the Saints in a dome, whether that be in New Orleans or elsewhere, and they're probably the best team in the NFL. Outdoors, though, they're much closer to "good" than they are to "great."

Above, the stats that seem most important are turnover margin and passer rating differential ("QB Rating Diff.").

The turnover margin speaks for itself, and has been beat to death over the past several years so I'll refrain from rehashing it here. What's really surprising (or not) is that the Saints are -15 in aggregate turnover margin since 2006. The fact that they've been able to overcome that to become one of the NFL's best teams speaks volumes for their talent, coaching, and persistence.

The second noteworthy stat, passer rating differential, measures the difference between Brees' passer rating and the Saints' opponents' passer ratings. Kerry Byrne of Cold Hard Football Facts and Sports Illustrated refers to passer rating differential as the "mother of all stats." Byrne sums it up like this:

Passer Rating Differential is the most important stat in football. It's the one indicator virtually guaranteed to separate winners from losers ... Put most simply, wins and losses move in lock step with Passer Rating Differential (PRD) ... How good is the stat? Consider that 40 of 71 NFL champs since 1940 (56 percent) finished No. 1 or No. 2 in Passer Rating Differential.
In domes, the Saints have posted a blistering +20.6 PRD, but it falls way off  to +7.5 outdoors. Why? Mostly because of Brees being less than amazingly good and the Saints' D being anything more than mediocre. It's also fair to say that Brees' ratings, in whole, mirror the overall efficiency of an offense that operates at its peak absent random weather and field conditions.

The Saints' defense has been incredibly consistent, if not spectacularly mediocre, at defending opponents' passing attacks both indoors and out. Under Payton, opponents have posted a 83.5 passer rating in domes and an 84.6 rating outside. It's Brees' performance that has produced a bit more volatility. Take a look:


When Brees' performance is less-than-superhuman, the Saints seem to be eminently beatable and that happens more frequently when they're outdoors. Is it fair to say that the Saints are largely dependent on the performance of Brees? I think so. Groundbreaking analysis, I know.

Brees has been so good in domes, averaging a passer rating of 104.1, that the Saints have won 70% of their games by outscoring opponents by more than a touchdown per game. For better perspective, Brees' passer rating in domes equates exactly to that of Aaron Rodgers' career passer rating which ranks #1 all time.

All of this is to say what's intuitively graspable: Brees and the offense are at less than their best outdoors, not simply on the road. And because the Saints have lived and died on the merits of their offense under Payton, when the offense is at less than its best, the team is vulnerable.

While it's factually accurate to say the Saints are one of the NFL's best road teams, that's really just a compartmentalized way of saying they're one of the NFL's best teams. But simply assuming that the Saints are one of the NFL's elite road teams doesn't really dig beneath the surface to find a second layer that's perhaps more revealing.

Since 2009, the Saints have been a bit better outdoors (13-7, 65%). The problem is that, aside from the Super Bowl, they've lost each of the outdoor games that I would identify as the most challenging: Baltimore '10, Seattle '10 wildcard, Green Bay '11, San Francisco '11 divisional.

In those four games, they're -7 in turnover margin and their PRD is a whopping -17.1. Lastly, they've surrendered a soul-crushing average of 37.3 points in those games. So maybe not much is changing, but it's a new year so there's hope.

Will it change for the better this season?

The Saints play six games outdoors this year: Carolina (wk 2), Green Bay (wk 4), Tampa Bay (wk 7), Denver (wk 8), Oakland (wk 11), and the Giants (wk 14). It will be interesting to see if the past six seasons are a predictor of 2012's outdoor results, or if a new defense and an effective running attack can bridge the gap between "good" and "great."