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)