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. 

22 October 2012

Week 7, Saints at Bucs: The Arrival of Big Poppa

First, the stats.

Final Score: Saints 35, Bucs 28
Record: 2-4
Stat Chart:






THE ARRIVAL OF BIG POPPA

You know what was encouraging? Yesterday's game looked a lot like 2011, and the seasonal timing coincides similarly to the beginning of last season's nine-game winning streak.

There is hope yet. 

The best news was that for a large part of the game, the 2011 offense returned: getting down two scores, and then rattling off 28 consecutive points in a blinding flurry of Brees' wizardry. It was beautiful. 

Didn't we all know what was coming at the end of the first half when the FOX cameras panned to Garrett Hartley on the sideline? Dick Stockton was droning on about the Saints moving the ball into FG range before half. And we were all like, "uh, no." This is TD range, dude.

To that point, Brees had already rendered the Bucs' secondary withered and limp, and you just knew another TD was coming. 


That's how it felt last season. Every game down the stretch in 2011 was sprinkled with that magic dust of victorious inevitability, and for awhile yesterday, it felt just like that again. Remember all the close games the Saints escaped from last year? Houston, Carolina, AtlantaTennessee. 13-3 probably didn't come as easily as we remember it.    

Yesterday was a lot like that. It was terrifying and maddening at times, but they got it done. 

That's the Lance Moore I remember. That's the Joe Morgan we've been hoping for, the one who brings the nuclear option to the offense. That was the offensive line of recent yore, keeping Brees clean and allowing him to scavenge and bewilder. 

It wasn't a complete game for the offense, but it was damn close. Keep that up, and the Saints will be back in this thing. Really, the only disappointing part of the offense's contribution was their inability to stomp the Bucs' throat sometime during the late third/early fourth quarters. 

Now that was a Payton signature. Putting the bad guys away. Surgically and effortlessly bleeding them out before they ever saw escape as a viable hope. Yesterday? That was the little (big) piece that was missing. 

Carmichael couldn't properly fit into his executioner's mask, and as the season goes along, he seems in desperate need of that devil on his shoulder in the form of Sean Payton. The Walter White to his Jesse Pinkman. 



As for the defense, I think we know what we're in for by now. 513 yards? 7.5 yards per play? Josh Freeman dusting off his Warren Moon circa-1990 form? 

Save for a handful of plays here and there, it hasn't gotten any better by and large. 

Week by painful week, Gregg Williams looks smarter and smarter doesn't he? 

There was a moment of clarity with Spagnuolo in that game, a stupid little metaphor that seemed revelatory: Spags wandering the sidelines, squinting into the sun's oppressive glare, his reddened face relentlessly pummeled by the heat. 

Yet there were no sunglasses, no hat, no visor. Nothing. Just butt naked vulnerability. It seemed fitting. 

For all his flaws, bad angles, and generally chaotic style, Malcolm Jenkins significantly impacted the game with just one play, all on sheer effort. 

Along with Joe Morgan's mindbogglingly rewatchable TD reception, we very likely got the two signature plays of the Saints' 2012 season yesterday. 

We can bitch and moan all we want, but these guys care. And giving up isn't on the menu of options. That counts for something. Jenkins might never evolve into the player I've hoped he'd become, but he has a knack for making big plays periodically. His play vacillates wildly between the extremes, and if the coaches can help him locate a middle ground, he might finally get there. 

His physical skills surely aren't lacking. 

Lastly, and most important, let's give an affirmative nod to Akiem "Big Poppa" Hicks. :yes: 

throw your hands in the ay-er ... if yous a true playa

For all the memorable plays in yesterday's game, I'll probably remember it for Akiem Hicks' arrival as a big time player. 

It's been a long while, but all appearances point to Hicks being a true standout. This dude is going to be a monster, and as has been pointed out numerous places, he made his mark on the goal line stand yesterday. It was the impressive, defining moment of the infantile stage of his pro career. 

Since preseason, virtually every time Hicks has been given a chance, he's made the most of it. When all the pundits say he's "raw," they're right but they're missing the bigger point. You don't keep a talented, impactful player off the field because he hasn't yet neared his immense ceiling. Anybody remember Jimmy Graham in 2010? Into the fire you go, young man. 

They can't keep Hicks off the field any longer. The quicker he develops, the better the defense will be. The same philosophy holds true for Martez Wilson and Junior Gallette. 

In the meantime, if the defense continues to push the envelope of futility, at least they're developing the young players who'll be front and center in the next few years. 

And maybe, just maybe, they'll help the Saints' defense turn it around in time to salvage the 2012 season.  

12 October 2012

The Many Lies of BountyGate

One Head, Affected
Let's take a short moment to review the cascade of bullshit that's rained down on us since BountyGate's inception. There's a whole lotta lying going on these days.

After spending too many months outraged and angry, I'll attempt to keep this as lighthearted as possible. It's Friday, after all.

If you're interested in reviewing the flaccid state of the NFL's evidence in detail, then go here and here. If you want a broader commentary on BountyGate, then read this.

In the meantime, below is a quick review of the NFL's mendacious machinations along the way.

Here goes:

March 2nd: The NFL accused the Saints of running a three-year "bounty program funded primarily by players." By May 2nd, the NFL amended its terminology to more broadly read "pay for performance/bounty program." On September 12thin his words, Goodell said plainly "there was a bounty." You mean, just one? Not a three-year program? (See 2:05 of the linked clip.) 

March 2nd: Jonathan Vilma was accused of placing a $10k bounty on Brett Favre. On May 2nd, Vilma vehemently denied, in WTFOMG ALL CAPS, offering the bounty.

June 18th: The NFL produced a transcription of a shady handwritten note that indicated a $35k bounty on Favre, including a pledged contribution from Joe Vitt. So wait, was it $10k or $35k? And was it offered by Vilma or other people or what? Don't worry, though, they've cleared it all up for us lowly peons who have trouble following all the lies. On October 9th, the NFL declared Vilma was responsible for the bounty "in the specific amount of $10,000." You see, "specific." They're on it, fellas. It's all on the up-and-up now.

After the handwritten note surfaced on June 18thVitt denied pledging the aforementioned money. The NFL eventually cleared him of the accusation on June 20th. But remember everybody, the handwritten note is clear-cut, legitimate, damning evidence. Even though it says Vitt pledged $5k to something called a "QB out pool" and even though the NFL said he did/but then didn't offer that $5k, the handwritten note is the smoking gun. Clearly we should all trust Mike Cerullo's recollection of what might have occurred, as well as his noble intent. The note itself? See it transcribed in section 10 here.

March 12th: Anthony Hargrove is first mentioned for demanding payment of the Favre bounty on the sideline during the NFC Championship game. On June 19th, Hargrove adamantly denied he said "pay me my money." With "absolute certainty," Hargrove declared he said nothing of the sort. A day later on June 20th, a former Saints' teammate backed Hargrove.

I like this next one a lot. This takes some serious balls. On May 3rd, hired gun Mary Jo White said Anthony Hargrove "acknowledged that the program existed [and] acknowledged his participation" in it. But uhhh, oops? On May 7th, Hargrove's actual declaration leaked, in which Hargrove "denied knowledge of any bounty or any program." Nothing to see here, folks. Forget this even happened.

June 1st: The newfangled "bounty ledger" (OOH SO OFFICIAL!) indicated three payments (that's all? only three?) made for "cart-offs" in the 2009 Bills game. But that was quickly debunked, so the NFL amended their report to say it was actually the 2009 Panthers' game. But you know, that was also debunked by multiple sources. Well shit.

So upon re-issuing player sanctions on October 9th, the NFL then claimed it was actually the 2010 Panthers game. Of course. We know that's what you meant all along, guys. Honest oversight, I'm sure. Must be tough keeping up with all 50,000 pages.

The problem, though? The three players who departed with injury--Jonathan Stewart, Matt Moore, and Tyrell Sutton--all left the game due to clean, legal hits. And there's no accompanying evidence that there was: 1) a bounty on any of these players (absurd even is the thought); or 2) post-game payments made for the legal hits. But somebody got hurt in a Saints' game one time, so clearly: HEINOUS PAY-TO-INJURE PROGRAM!

June 19th: The NFL said that Mike Ornstein corroborated the bounty on Favre. A few hours later, Ornstein said bullshit (I'm paraphrasing here) ... At this point, we should at least marginally appreciate the NFL's commitment to just making shit up whenever need be.

September 17th: The NFL's star witness, Gregg Williams, submitted an affidavit that implicated Vilma for the Favre bounty. In a flimsy attempt to cover his own ass, Williams also said "it was never my intent to cause our opponents to be injured." You mean, besides the January 2012 speech before the Saints' divisional playoff game against San Francisco? The one where you exhorted your defense to--among other things--"fuckin' take out [Crabtree's] outside ACL." What was your intent there, Gregg? Come on. Should we really trust Gregg Williams as a credible witness at this point?

September 17th: Also in the affidavit, Williams states he "was never given any money by anyone" for bounties. But guess what? On September 18th, the NFL released Mike Cerullo's accompanying affidavit in which Cerullo says "I personally collected the money that Mr. Vilma left on the table ... and subsequently gave it to Mr. Williams for safekeeping." Uh oh, someody's full of shit here.

But hey everybody, it doesn't matter! The Saints are clearly guilty! Just trust Goodell when he says he "weigh[ed] such differences and [made] a determination about what did and did not occur." Yes, of course. Roger Goodell is now divining the specifics of purported events. And anyway, Williams and Cerullo are both credible! Neither of them has any ulterior motive either!

October 9th: The NFL revealed that former Vikings' player Jimmy Kennedy came forward with information of a bounty on Brett Favre, and that the NFL "promptly investigated ... and interviewed Mr. Kennedy." You know what happened next? I bet you do... On October 10th, Jimmy Kennedy said that never happened, neither the submitted information nor the interview.


You told me this ...You told me that ... I see it in your eyes ... lies, lies, lies


Ok, that's all for now. I'm sure there will be many more future lies, so the fun's not done just yet. Stay tuned! In its own perverse way, BountyGate is the gift that keeps on giving.

Lastly, I feel certain I've missed plenty of stuff. Who can keep up anymore? Please feel free to add anything I've overlooked in the comments. 

Enjoy the bye week.

08 October 2012

Week Five, Chargers at Saints: Deus Ex Machina

First, the stats.

Final Score: Saints 31, Chargers 24
Record: 1-4
Complete Box Score
Stat Chart:





DEUS EX MACHINA
For a second there, it looked like the 2012 season was officially circling the drain.

With Sean Payton agonizingly and helplessly watching the game fall apart from the late second quarter to the early third, a gift suddenly appeared to alter the game's course: a lone penalty flag.

That flag allowed the Saints to avoid what seemed like their grisly, inevitable destiny both on Sunday night and, perhaps, the season.

When Melvin Ingram hit Brees in the face, thus negating a Chargers' defensive TD that would've put the Saints in a 31-14 hole, the Saints had renewed hope.

They didn't make it easy; that's for damn sure. But they got there. And 1-4 headed into the bye instead of a hopeless 0-5 makes a world of difference right now.

Remote though it may be, there's still hope lingering. With the way last night ended, you'd have thought the Saints won the NFC Championship. That's how monumentally collective a reprieve from grief a victory finally delivered.

Though it goes without saying, it's been a long god damn seven months for the Saints and their fans.

Last night, even if only temporarily, a little bit of order was restored: some records broken (Brees and Colston); a raucous Dome crowd; Sean Payton, Mickey Loomis, and Joe Vitt in the building; and a much-needed win.

I think we all realize by now that nothing is coming easily this year, but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy this win for the next two weeks. Maybe the Saints can build on it, and rattle off a winning streak. It's not out of the question. Though circumstances are wildly different now, the Saints have unleashed winning streaks of 13 games ('09), six games ('10), and nine games ('11) during the past three years.

Objectively, that seems like a much bigger stretch this season. But you know what? I bet the players and the coaches believe it can happen. So let's see what they do going forward. And instead of immediately looking ahead and seeing what's to come, let's take some time to enjoy this win. They might be few and far between this season.


If there's one thing more annoying than the Saints' refusal to run the ball, it's the stubborn belief that "balance" is not all that important.

I'm not talking about a 50/50 split between running and passing, but it can't continue to be the lopsided 71/29 proposition it's been this season. That is absurd, and it's unsustainable.

The Saints are never going to consistently win being a partly one-dimensional team. An inept defense and an incomplete offense do not a winning team make. That's what the Saints were in 2007 and 2008: a passing offense and not much else. It's not a recipe for success.

I talked about this earlier in the season, but failing to develop some semblance of relative balance is weak strategy. Without the threat of balance, you're simplifying the demands on your opponents. You're allowing them to more effectively narrow your range of options, and as a result scheme more effectively.

I'll say it again: it’s not so much an effort to meet some arbitrary benchmark as it is an attempt to keep the opponent’s defensive decision-making as complex as possible.

Making it easier for your opponents is not the goal. Why do you think Brees is constantly under fire when he's throwing the ball? It's because opposing defensive coordinators can predict with a high degree of certainty that the Saints are going to throw, and thus scheme to combat that threat optimally.

Yes, the offensive line isn't as good as it's been in years past, but there's more to it than just that.

Last night, NBC showed a graphic of the Saints' passing percentages by downs. It went something like this:


  • 1st down: 53%
  • 2nd down: 86%
  • Third down: 93%
  • Fourth down: 100%


That's laughable. It's so skewed, you wonder if the coaches are even aware of it. It's to the point that tendencies are straying into rote, dogmatic dependency at the expense of the greater good.

Call it whatever you want, but developing tendencies that are so glaringly transparent is the essence of poor coaching. We should all hope this will be rectified during the bye week.


And now for the defense. Just ... holy shit. 

I think we can stop debating whether it's coaching, scheme, or personnel to blame. It seems obvious that this is a perfect storm of ineptitude by all three. 

The run defense is so poor, it's on pace to be one of the 15th worst since the 1970 merger. 

More relevant, since 2000, the only teams that have been this bad at defending the run were the 2008 Lions (0-16) and the 2010 Bills (4-12). The Saints are on pace to be worse than those Lions, and markedly worse than the '10 Bills. 

The only sliver of hope I see for the defense--in general--is that Martez Wilson and Junior Galette will continue to log significant snaps like they did last night. At this point, why limit their snaps because they're a liability in the run game? What difference does it make? It'd be tough to be much worse, and at least they can rush the passer.

Both of them looked promising to my bourbon-soaked eyes last night.  

It's one thing that the run defense is so poor, but the pass defense isn't much better either. Through five games, the Saints are surrendering a 104.5 passer rating. For comparison, Alex Smith (yes, Alex Smith) leads the NFL with a 108.7 passer rating this year. Were it not for Matt Cassel's stinkbomb in week three, the numbers would be really ugly. 

So for those scoring at home, what we have here is an historically atrocious run defense, combined the league's third-worst pass defense.

This is how your defense puts itself on pace to surrender 7,312 yards this season which, of course, would be the worst of all time. By a lot. 

Like last night, we might witness the shattering of a few more all-time records before it's all said and done this season. 


05 October 2012

By the Numbers: The 2012 Saints Through Four Games

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

Offense
* Points/game: 10th
* First half points scored: 10th
* Second half points scored: 7th (tie)
* Red zone scoring % (TDs): 3rd (tie)

* Yards: 8th
* Yards/play: 7th
* 3rd down conversion %: 9th

* Rush yards/game: 26th
* Rush yards/attempt: 9th
* Rush play %: 32nd

* Pass yards: 3rd (adjusted for sack yards lost)
* Pass yards/attempt: 14th (tie)

* DVOA: 11th
* WPA: 20th

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

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

* Yards allowed: 32nd
* Yards allowed/play: 30th
* 3rd down conversion % allowed: 19th

* Rush yards allowed: 32nd
* Rush yards allowed/attempt: 30th

* Pass yards allowed: 24th
* Pass yards allowed/attempt: 30th

* DVOA: 28th
* EPA: 32nd

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

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

Drive Stats
* Offense
     - Average starting field position: 28th
     - Drive success rate: 9th
     - Points/drive: 10th

* Defense
     - Average starting field position: 22nd
     - Drive success rate: 29th
     - Points allowed/drive: 29th

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

Special Teams
* Thomas Morstead
     - Punting, gross average: 3rd (51.1)
     - Punting, net average: 3rd (45.9)

* Kickoff returns: 7th
* Punt returns: 21st
* DVOA: 16th

01 October 2012

Week 4, Packers at Saints: A Step Behind

First, the stats:

Final Score: Packers 28, Saints 27
Record: 0-4
Complete Box Score
Stat Chart:



A STEP BEHIND

In case it escaped your notice, the Saints have already lost more regular season games than they did in 2011. Just like that. After four weeks, the season is officially on life support if it wasn't already.
  
The weird thing is that the Saints have lost by only 8, 8, 3, and 1 point(s). No matter how sloppily and disjointed they've consistently played, they've been in every game at some point in the 4th quarter.

They may have played poorly, but they haven't given up. Nor should we. 


Because the games have all been within reach does not discount the fact that the Saints have thoroughly earned their 0-4 record. They have. It just goes to show what a lot of talent and a coaching void will get you: not very much. 

There's still a lot missing and yet there were plenty of signs of normalcy--the good kind of "normal"--on Sunday. It wasn't enough, obviously, but it seemed like a familiar team we were watching. During the three weeks prior, it wasn't just that the Saints were losing, but that they were suddenly unrecognizable. 

Against the Packers, it felt better and it was a thoroughly enjoyable watch. The first three games were excruciating and inevitably doomed in their own ways. Yesterday was exceptionally entertaining and I didn't feel that pall of death hovering. Until I did. But by then, it was too late to ruin the day. Mostly, it was a fun game to watch.  

For this season, that might have to suffice for the positivity. 

Was it not fantastic to watch Graham Harrell tool out and botch that exchange? Was it not even more perfectly righteous when Jenkins recovered the fumble, after having knocked Rodgers from the game? You could almost hear the legions of mouthbreathing haters screaming all the predictable shit about the "evil Saints" at that moment. And then Joe Morgan soon turning the fumble recovery into a stellar 80-yard TD, and swinging the game in the Saints' favor? 

It was a decidedly brilliant "we make the rules, pal" moment. 

That sequence had it all: comedy, excitement, hopefulness, efficiency. More important, it was a glimpse of the familiar winning team we've come to know these past years. Even if it was only a brief moment, it was a reminder they're still in there somewhere. If those are the slivers of sustenance we have to subsist on this season, then so be it. 

Because unfortunately it's going to take their maestro to elicit that greatness on a consistent basis, and that's not happening any time soon. Unless, of course, Joe Horn is onto something

After four weeks, it's clear where Payton's absence is most recognizable: gameplanning, adjustments, and self-scouting. As just one example, consider the immense impact Payton might have on Spagnuolo's defensive schemes through the self-scouting process. Would it not be incredibly beneficial for Payton, widely considered the league's preeminent offensive mind, to illustrate where Spags' defense is weak? And how he would go about exploiting those weaknesses? 

Think of the advantage in that, week in and week out. And think of how that might mask some of the defense's many shortcomings. And that's just one example of where Payton's absence is noticeable. 

That's the thing with Payton: he's always been a step ahead; he's always had a smart plan and a bevy of adjustments at the ready. He's schemed to consistently keep opponents on their heels, to induce them into making an adjustment he's already planned for. Without him, it's the Saints who have consistently been on their heels. Instead of making adjustments after a few quarters, it took the Saints three f*cking games to do so. 

These days, it's the opponents who are a step ahead and the Saints a step behind. That's how you bumble your way to 0-4, having lost each game by an average of five points doing mindlessly stupid shit. 

I feel clinically insane for ever having misunderstood the impact of Payton's absence. 

Teams don't win solely on talent, and I have no idea why I thought the Saints could. Look at San Diego these past several years. Or Philadelphia. Or Dallas. 

There's so much more to it, and now we've got a front row seat to watch just how far talent alone will take you. To this point, that would be "not very far." 

It's one thing to endure losses when the team is bad. But it's another kind of (new) pain to watch a talented team constantly fall short. At least it's something new, I guess. 


Postscript
In the first half yesterday, I found myself morbidly fascinated with the defense's spectacular helplessness. It was an exercise in rubbernecking, and I was almost giddy for the defense to get back on the field. If it was going to be bad, I was excited to see just how bad. For the most part, they did not disappoint in their futility. 

The defense is perilously close to being historically inept. Last year we were treated to a kindler, gentler, rewarding display of historic achievement by the offense. 

This year, the script has been flipped. History's drunken cousin has rolled into town, looking to make a mark of his own. We might as well get on board and have some fun with it.