27 December 2013

Last Call

The fate of the 2013 Saints, quite ominously, hangs in the balance with one game left in the regular season.

A fatalist might say they're already circling the drain.

courtesy of NJ Newsday

Plummeting to this point has been an exercise in frustration, considering where the Saints were and where they are now. Over the course of the last month, the Saints have been in a freefall.

They've lost three of four games. In two of those losses, they've been decidedly beaten by more physical, energetic, better-prepared teams. In the other loss, the Saints displayed a trait that's becoming disturbingly familiar: blowing a late lead against a good team on the road.

In all, the last month of Saints' football has made moderate the once-lofty expectations for the season.

After enduring the fugue state of 2012, the strangest year an NFL team has surely ever faced, the Saints of 2013 have been quite vexing and odd in their own right.

They've taken "weird" and made it an art form.

And I'm not just talking about CrossFit and "sudden" and Ms. Mae's and Garrett Hartley and an untested rookie left tackle taking his first snaps in week 16.

I'm talking about an offense and a defense that have flipped scripts, and a season with swings as volatile as an Archie Karas bender.

It all started in weeks one and two when the Saints submitted tepid offensive performances, and escaped each of those games with wins on the game's final play. Over the next three weeks, the Saints normalized with strong home wins versus Arizona and Miami in addition to a then-promising road win in Chicago. The 5-0 start, though, was probably a bit misleading.

In week six at New England, the 2013 Saints showed their dark side for the first time.

They slogged through a lifeless first half before claiming a second-half lead; failed to kill off the Patriots (and the clock) multiple times late in the game; and eventually allowed an all-but-certain victory to slip through their grasp as time expired.

In that game, we saw flaws that would haunt the Saints all season long: an unhealthy dependence on Jimmy Graham; a running game incapable of finishing out games; and quizzical playcalling in key moments.

Over the next five weeks the Saints regained their footing and won four of five (BUF, DAL, SF, at ATL), only losing to the Jets on the road.

At 9-2, with a showdown looming in Seattle for control of the NFC, the Saints then unraveled like a runaway ball of baring yarn.

The Seahawks pistol-whipped the Saints with menace and efficiency, a kind of beating foreign to the Payton-era Saints. Just when the Saints seemed to pass off that performance as anomaly in beating the Panthers 31-13, they then turned around and got out-everythinged in St. Louis during a deflating loss.

This past week in Carolina, with the #2 seed on the line, the Saints' offense looked laboriously hopeless.

Even after taking a fourth quarter lead, essentially on the back of Jimmy Graham, the offense couldn't close the game when given the opportunity. On the game's penultimate drive, the Saints' defense--after having played its best game of the season--cracked and surrendered the game-winning touchdown on a dizzying, stomach-turning, "oh god, please no" thirty-second touchdown drive.

As far as football is concerned, that loss was almost too much to take.

It meant the Saints, likely the league's best home team, boned a golden opportunity for a bye and a home playoff game: the postseason scenario these Saints, "headcases" as the Angry Who Dat blog calls them, badly need.

What's happened over the course of 2013 is the fundamental change in the way the Saints win and lose games.

The deeply-rooted expectation that the offense will uphold its end of the bargain is no longer truth. For this season, at least, the Saints are not capable of shooting themselves out of trouble on their way to victory.

Their formula for winning seems to rely on an ever-narrowing set of conditions and when one little thing goes awry, like a Brees interception that's immediately converted into 43-yard touchdown run, it seems like it's too much to overcome. For whatever reason, and this is just my opinion, the Saints have appeared more fragile as the season has worn on.

Finally the loss in Carolina capped off a brutal month of losses, one that saw the Saints go from near-top of the conference to now clinging to their playoff hopes with a game to play.

Like it or not, the Saints are in the midst of an epic collapse.

The question remains: are they down for the count?

Over the past five games, the Saints' offense has scored a mere 84 points (16.8 ppg).

That's the second-worst five-game stretch for points scored during Sean Payton's tenure; in 2007, the Saints scored just 79 points in their first five games on their way to a 1-4 start.

Before our eyes, the Saints' offense has aged like Lounge Act Elvis. No longer the King.

They've devolved into a plodding unit, one far less threatening and fast than we've seen in the past. They're heavily reliant on Jimmy Graham; the offensive line is terrifyingly gauzy; the rushing attack is an afterthought; downfield threats seem non-existent; and the wide receivers have fallen off the grid.

The Saints' wide receivers account for just 36% of the team's receptions, an amount far less than any other season since 2006.

Take a look:

Most damningly, though, is the play of the offensive line. Through fifteen games, the Saints have surrendered 36 sacks. The previous high since 2006 was 26 sacks (2012), this year representing a 38.5% increase over their previous worst mark.

By contrast, in 2008, Drew Brees was sacked just 13 times while attempting 635 passes (a sack rate of just 2%). This season Brees has taken 36 sacks in 619 passing attempts, his sack rate nearly tripling from its best mark during the 2008 season.

The problems with the 2013 Saints (like every team) are varied, but the simplest explanation for the team's shortcomings, especially over the last month, is this: the Saints are a pass-heavy team that can't pass-block.

I'm far from an expert, but that seems like a fatal flaw.

Regardless, that inherent conflict has probably exacerbated the offense's other issues and as a result, the offense today appears as mild as it's ever been under Payton.

It's not all for naught, though.

What the offense has done well, even though this might sound incorrect, is protect the football this season.

This might also explain Brees's increased sacks, as he is loathe to favre it downfield like he has in the past. Either way, the Saints have turned the ball over only 19 times this season. This is tied with their best mark (2011) during the Payton era. For context, the Saints turned the ball over 28 times during the 2009 season.

If there's one thing promising about the offense at this late stage in the season, it's this. As we've seen countless times, offensive turnovers are the Saints' kryptonite. Avoid those, and the outlook vastly improves.

Though the Saints have turned the ball over six times in the last month, that's been a diversion from the norm this season. This trait (BALL SECURITY) is reassuring should the Saints make the playoffs, assuming they correct the recent lapses.

It's not too late to get it back.

On the other side, thank god for Rob Ryan and the Saints' defense.

Without them, the Saints would surely be staring another 7-9 season in the face.

Through fifteen games, the Saints' defense is fifth in points allowed (19.1) and fourth in sacks (47). The Saints' 47 sacks are their highest mark since the 2001 team recorded 53.

When the Saints' offense hasn't made their life unnecessarily difficult, the Saints' D has been up to the task all season long. If the Saints make the postseason, especially as a road team, the Saints' defense--and pass rush--should give them a fighter's chance to win.

The problem, though, is the loss of the secondary's two best players in Jabari Greer and Kenny Vaccaro.

The loss of Vaccaro, and its domino effect, seems especially troubling as it: 1.) likely moves Malcolm Jenkins away from cornerback duties and into a more traditional free safety role where he's been inconsistent for several seasons; 2.) forces Roman Harper to take on more responsibilities, some of which have catastrophic potential.

Don't forget that Rob Ryan called Vaccaro the best safety in the NFL. Hyperbole aside, that's an indication of how important Vaccaro is to the Saints' defense. Without him, the Saints lose their most physical and diverse player.

Rafael Bush's return from an ankle injury is coming at a good time, and with him back in the lineup, the drop-off from Vaccaro might not be all that damaging.

Still, it's a big concern.

The true band-aid for Vaccaro's absence, however, will be a fierce pass rush.

Cam, Junior, Akiem ... duty calls.

After fifteen games there is, of course, the not-insignificant matter of hope.

Why should we fans have hope for how the remainder of the season unfolds?

There are a few reasons.

1.) First among them is rooted in data: the Saints' "strength of schedule" and "strength of victory" statistics this season.

As illustrated in the Black and Gold Review's "Are the Saints Secretly Great?" piece, these two stats correlate strongly with postseason success during the past five seasons.

This season, the Saints have played the league's third-toughest schedule (and the toughest for any team vying for postseason contention) and also possess the best "strength of victory" mark in the NFC (this stat reflects how good, collectively, the teams are that the Saints have beaten).

Here's the distillation from BnG Review:
Last year, Super Bowl champion Baltimore was tied among AFC playoff participants for toughest strength of schedule, having faced a slew of teams that produced a .496 winning percentage. And Baltimore’s strength of victory was second among playoff teams only to New England’s.
In 2011, Super Bowl champion New York, which barely made the playoffs, struggled through a strength of schedule of .520, second-toughest among all NFL playoff teams, and had the best strength of victory, .465, of any NFC playoff team. Guess which NFL playoff team faced the toughest schedule in 2010. That’s right: Super Bowl champion Green Bay, also with a .520.
Jump back to 2008 and the trend re-asserts itself: the champion Steelers had the toughest schedule of any playoff team in the entire league.
So what does all this mean? ... it gives those who adore the team one last thing to pin our hopes on.

And you know, "one last thing to pin our hopes on" is all we Saints' fans have ever needed.

2.) The Saints are great at home.

Since 2011, Sean Payton's Saints are 16-0 at home. This includes a 2011 wild card win over Detroit. If that trend continues on Sunday versus Tampa Bay, the Saints will qualify for the playoffs again this season.

And while the prospect of taking to the road for the playoffs isn't all that palatable, that fate is not yet decided. Far from it.

For that, we look to the Falcons and Tony Gonzalez. Ugh.

3.) Can the Falcons send Tony Gonzalez out a winner?

On Sunday, if the Falcons beat the Panthers and the Saints beat the Bucs, the Saints secure the #2 seed in the NFC. With that comes a bye week and a home playoff game.

Normally I would think in a scenario like this, with the Falcons wrapping up an extremely disappointing season, they would just roll over against the Panthers who still have a lot to play for.

But ... the Falcons are at home against a divisional opponent they know well. Combine that with Tony Gonzalez, universally-respected as one of the NFL's great competitors, playing the final game of his Hall of Fame career, and I expect the Falcons to play hard in attempt to send him out on as high a note as possible.

For his part, Gonzalez has played through injuries during a season in which he returned, fruitlessly at it turns out, for one last shot at a Super Bowl. At any point during the season's second half, Gonzalez could have let up. But he didn't. Here's to hoping Gonzalez's teammates return the favor and win one last game for him.

(Yes, I'm rooting for the Falcons. It's been that kind of season. You do what you gotta do. Desperation calls.)

With the Falcons-Panthers game at noon and the Saints' game at 3:25, we could be set up for something momentous on Sunday afternoon. It is by no means out of the realm of possibility.

Personally, I refuse to think it will happen any differently. It has to be this way: the Bucs standing between the Saints and the #2 late Sunday afternoon.

As we all know, crazy shit happens every weekend in the NFL. This weekend will be no different; it's only a matter of whom the crazy shit happens to.

In the past several years, the Saints seem to be magnets for crazy.

Maybe, just maybe, Carolina will get spun up in the vortex and fuck it all up.

Anyway, after all of this, what's the point in giving up hope now?

The one thing that would make this Saints' season all the more strange is that, after the last month of wallowing in the shit and staring down a devastating collapse, the Saints somehow manage to emerge
with the #2 seed.

Really, it would make perfect sense.

The last game of the season is setting up to be the most compelling of all. Don't turn away yet.

There's always a way.

Until there's not.

13 December 2013

The Unrelenting No. 9

When Drew Brees signed with the Saints in 2006, who thought Brees was poised to be an all-timer?

No one, save for perhaps Brees, even pondered that possibility.

But eight years later, that's exactly what he has become: one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

An idea implausible in 2006, and maybe an idea still implausible to those who don't pay close enough attention, is in 2013 an oft-confirmed reality.

In a wider context, considering the Saints' tortured history at the quarterback position, the seeming impossibility of what Brees has accomplished makes his ascension all the more distinct.

The disparity between that initial expectation level and the current reality is staggering.

The first glimpse of what's now considered "Vintage Brees" came during the 2006 regular season, in a week six game against Philadelphia.

In that game, the Saints built a 17-3 halftime lead. By the fourth quarter, the Saints had ceded 21 unanswered points and were trailing 24-17. To most of us, this blown lead was "Vintage Saints" in progress. Same ol' Saints and all that.

Brees, though, had another idea.

Early in the fourth quarter, he hit Joe Horn for a game-tying 48-yard touchdown. Then, with eight-and-a-half minutes left in the tied game, Brees orchestrated the kind of drive that's become one of his trademarks. On that drive Brees went 8/8, connecting with six different Saints. The offense calmly and methodically bled the clock down to three seconds, and John Carney kicked the short winning field goal. Game over. Saints win.

Pre-Brees, the Saints never won those type of games.

Then again, this was a new day and it was one of many turning points, or maybe just revelations, during Brees's tenure in New Orleans.

During this past weekend's Saints-Panthers' game, we saw another routinely great Drew Brees performance.

On Sunday night against Carolina, a team whose defense had surrendered a meager twelve touchdowns all season, Brees accounted for four touchdowns (nearly scoring a fifth) while Saints' and NFL fans batted nary an eye.

Impressive as it was, it wasn't all that surprising. We've seen it countless times.

Though Carolina's defense has been excellent this year--one of the best in the league--it was no match for Brees who systematically disassembled a group that had, to that point, allowed just 13.1 points per game.

This was the same sort of de-puzzling that has defined Brees's career in New Orleans, one where, when given enough time to make pre-snap reads and cycle through his progressions, Brees instigates the rout.

It's an art of calamity: graceful execution on one end precipitating an unalterable catastrophe on the other, a kind of reimagined butterfly effect.

If that was all familiar and mundane, Brees eclipsed 50,000 yards passing for his career, a benchmark that aligns him with the NFL's incomparable greats at the position: Favre, Peyton, Marino, and Elway.

Think about that for a second.

After years of a bumbling Aaron Brooks; the comical symmetry of Ditka's Billy Joes; the fruitless reclamations of Jim Everett, Heath Shuler, and Kerry Collins; the not-quite-good-enough Bobby Hebert era; and the what-could've-been Archie Manning era, the Saints, suddenly, field one of the all-time greats at quarterback.

It's a bit mind-boggling, all things considered.

Even more impressively Brees reached 50,000 yards faster than any of those aforementioned players, emphatically reaffirming that, while he's frequently left unmentioned, or at least relegated to a second tier, among the game's all-time greats, he's outpacing them in some of the very categories used to define "all-time."

Nonetheless, for one reason or another, the achievement was given short shrift.

After the game, here's what Sean Payton said about it:
"A lot of places if the quarterback hits 50,000 yards they would have fireworks, stop the game, and we just kind of had a little nod ‘atta boy,’ but that is a pretty unique feat when you look at the history of our league."
Yes, a unique feat.

Reserved for the best of the best.

On top of this, Brees set two more NFL records on Sunday night. First, Brees threw his 30th touchdown pass for a sixth straight season, besting the mark Brett Favre set during Favre's thrice-MVP-garnering prime in the mid '90s.

Then, for another NFL record, Brees surpassed 4,000 yards passing for the year, his eighth consecutive season of doing so. Nobody else has more than six, and none of those are active streaks.

All of this, mind you, happening (or culminating) in just one game: a seasonal devouring of the Panthers' league-leading defense; a career achievement of the highest order (50k yards) that places Brees alongside the game's very best; and two more NFL records added to his already-impressive portfolio.

Those new records saddle up next to these (in part):

* Three of the NFL's six 5,000-yard passing seasons, including the top spot
* The two best seasons in NFL history for completion percentage
* The most passes completed in a season
* The most consecutive games with a touchdown pass (not sure why Unitas isn't included in the link)
* The active leader in postseason career passer rating, and second all-time slightly behind Bart Starr

While Brees has, when it comes to Super Bowl wins and statistical benchmarks, been the NFL's best quarterback since 2006, he's universally slotted behind both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady as "best of their generation" quarterbacks.

Though Peyton's and Brady's inclusions are of course well-deserved, it's Brees that should be mentioned alongside them and not a notch below. Mentioning this might be insecure nitpicking, but I don't really give a shit about all that. Right is right.

When Brees is mentioned with Peyton and Brady, and frequently Aaron Rodgers and soon Russell Wilson, Brees always seems to be an "oh yeah" inclusion. An afterthought.

In 2011, Wang called Brees perhaps the "single least-celebrated All-Time Great player in league history." Two years later with a host of additional achievements to boot, nothing much has changed in that regard.

One Super Bowl win for both Favre and Peyton has been enough, in combination with their statistical achievements, for them to be in the "best-ever" debate.

But Brees? Not even close.

It hasn't even been enough to garner him an MVP trophy.

No matter, Brees continues to draft a masterpiece, vast in scope, that is increasingly difficult to ignore. Week after week, there's something more.

For Brees, there will be time later to reflect on and admire his body of work. For now though, there's always another expert to humble.

It's not just that we'll never see something like this again in Saints' history, it's that we might not ever see it again in NFL history: a host of passing records being toppled on the reg by one guy.

He's our guy, and that's pretty god-damned great.

What's supposed to be an infrequency Drew Brees has made the norm.

If there's anything missing (there's not), it's a second Super Bowl title. With that, Brees will have built a resume as flawless as they come.

Eight years ago it would have been the height of lunacy to consider a Saints' quarterback a Hall-of-Famer and, with a few more key accomplishments, the best of his vaunted generation.

But Drew Brees is only 34 years old, and that is what's in play. If you're still doubting Brees at this point in his football career, then you need a history lesson.

This thing ain't over just yet.

For Drew Brees, for the Payton-era Saints, and for Saints' fans chasing the elusive high of that first title, a second Lombardi Trophy elevates this era of Saints' football into a whole new stratosphere for each party involved.

For Brees, the stakes are as high as possible.

Is No. 9 primed to deliver another championship, and with it, cement his legend?

May we all be so lucky.

04 December 2013

The Stench of Lies

A budding narrative, fulfilled.

The trend of the Saints coming up short in big road games continued.

Moreso than ever, Monday night confirmed an already-entrenched truth no matter how distasteful it is.


By my count, this was the worst performance submitted by a Payton-led Saints' team. It's not even close, really.

This was worse than 2007 in Indianapolis, a far less talented Saints' team facing an all-time great quarterback in a season opener. This was worse than the 2011 playoffs in San Francisco, a game in which the Saints turned the ball over five times, fell behind 17-0, rallied for two 4th quarter leads, only to blow it at the end. This was worse than the 2010 playoffs in Seattle, a Saints' team depleted at runningback (7th-string?), beat up on defense, yet still scoring 36 points in a losing effort.

If there was any parallel to Saints' games of the recent past, it's to the fourth quarter of the 2006 NFC Championship Game in Chicago. Then, an overmatched Saints' team eventually collapsed under the crushing weight of the moment and the elements.

Since that defeat in Chicago, losses under Payton have been largely defined by sloppy, frustrating, avoidable circumstances.

This "loss profile" under Payton has been maddening because the Saints, in spite of the lapses, have still hung around to play competitively deep into most of the games they've eventually lost.

On Monday in Seattle, though, the Saints were annihilated.

The 20-point first half deficit felt more like 200.

It was shocking and demoralizing, probably because nothing like that has happened in a very long time.

For years, as fans, we've been on the favorable side of these kind of beatdowns. You know all the games I'm talking about.

Unfortunately and inevitably, it was our turn to watch the tragedy unfold from the other side.

In a similar vein, 2013 has been a weird season.

Don't get me wrong. It's been a lot of fun. But it has been odd. And in Seattle, the season took a turn for its most confounding.

Are the Seahawks that superior this season? Are the Saints that ill-equipped away from home? Or was Monday night just an exercise in extremes?

For the majority of the season, the Saints relied on consistent defense in winning nine of their first eleven games. That this has been central to the Saints' success is strange enough, considering the horror show of 2012 and the less-than-exemplary defenses during Payton's run.

But the compounding impact of an offense perhaps at its weakest under Payton has made 2013 all the more bizarre.

After watching the Saints ring up record numbers against Dallas a month ago, it would be easy to dismiss the notion of a struggling Saints' offense. To do that, though, would be disingenuous considering the offense's performances week by week.

On the whole this year, this has been an offense defined less by lethality and more by pragmatism. This is a decided shift from years' past.

Sean Payton has oft repeated a Parcells' mantra this season: "It doesn't have to be aesthetically-pleasing to be effective." Payton has adopted this as philosophy, without question.

In the past, it seems, the offense has been more prone to dictate how defenses play them by attacking them in a variety of ways. This season it feels like they're more passive and content, only taking what's given.

Maybe I'm just talking out of my ass here, but that's what it seems like to me.

This also might be a function of an offense in transition, one too reliant on parts that need upgrading.

The image I keep coming back to, when I think about the Saints' offense, is one of an aging prizefighter struggling to recapture the form of his once dominant past.

On Monday in Seattle, the Saints' offense generated fewer than 200 yards and scored just one measly touchdown. There's no context needed to understand the helplessness of those numbers.

In the biggest game of the Saints' season, Payton's offense came up the smallest it ever has.

Considering this season in total, it's tough to solely attribute the offensive shortcomings in Seattle to aberration. Perhaps most revealing was that the Saints (on offense) were as healthy as they've been all year, riding a three-game winning streak, and coming off of ten days of rest.

All for naught.

If Monday night was supposed to clarify where the Saints stand this season, it didn't do that.

It might have affirmed Seattle as the NFL's best, but it left the Saints' reality a bit more muddied.

Sunday night against Carolina, though, should go a long way in clearing a suddenly foggy mirror.

Are the Saints more average than they are great? Or was that an impostor's performance in Seattle?


So ... how ya feeling?

But wait, there's some good news too!

The season isn't over! The Saints have the second-best record in the conference! A playoff berth is nearly clinched! The Saints still have the inside track for the #2 seed in the NFC! Crazy shit happens in the playoffs every year! Flawed teams win the Super Bowl all the time!

For all we know, we're just getting started here.

A primetime game in the Superdome is on tap.  

... cried to the southern wind
heading for a showdown ... 

Guess who's coming to town?

You guessed it! Another team that sports a pastel in their uniforms! MODERN AND STYLISH!

Let's take a quick glance at the media's new favorite team, the Carolina Panthers:

Their coach, Ron Rivera, looks confused a lot of the time:

Cam Newton's douchebag coefficient (thanks for the metric, Larold!) is off the charts:

Steve Smith, an insane person, will probably start a fight with the Saints' Gatorade cooler at some point (deep down, I kinda love Steve Smith though):

Mike Mitchell, some low-rent jagoff, decided it would be a good idea to taunt Drew Brees prior to playing him twice. Smart.

Jerry Richardson, the Panthers' owner, is evil incarnate. I mean, look at this fucker:

So what's going to happen on Sunday night?

At this point, who the hell knows?

The Saints are favored by four points if that helps. Ron Rivera's Panthers are 2-2 against the Saints, with two losses in 2011 and two wins last year.

The Panthers have won eight games in a row, and they're surrendering a league-best 13.1 points per game.

On Sunday they'll be looking to validate their ascent on national television against the division boss.

This is a huge moment for Carolina. The script is laid out perfectly. Are they ready?

As for the Saints, how will the loss in Seattle affect them? Was the loss just a minor blemish? Or was it a harbinger of fate? How will the Saints' offense handle a second-consecutive game against a top defense? Will their primetime dominance at home continue?

Ultimately, I can't see the Saints falling short at home, in primetime, on the heels of an embarrassing loss.

The promise of 2013 can't fade that abruptly.

If it does, I'll need therapy.

(I probably do anyway)

24 November 2013

On The Come --or-- A Guide to Hating the 2013 Saints

As far as regular seasons go, I doubt there's been a more satisfying eleven-day stretch in Saints' history than the one we just witnessed.

Wins against Dallas, San Francisco, and Atlanta, and mounting butthurt among fans and NFL media centering on the Saints, have elevated this Saints' season to its entertaining best.

Let us recount with glee.

And for good measure, a fair dose of hate too.

First of all, among Saints' fans, there seemed to be an omnipresent angst after the Saints lost to the Jets in week nine.

On top of this, the Carolina Panthers then beat the 49ers in San Francisco. The media was in the midst of crowning Carolina the next big thing. A subset of Saints' fans across social media and message boards panicked. OH NO HERE COMES CAROLINA.

The neurosis wasn't all that surprising given this is a standard-issue response for Saints' fans scarred by decades of futility. The lingering memories of 2012 don't help either.

But then Dallas showed up in New Orleans, and the season took a turn for the better.

The Saints did their best 'Al Copeland' and delivered the gaudiest offensive performance in club history. They set an NFL record for first downs in a game. They set a franchise record for yards in a regular season game. They gained more yards in one game than any team since 1982*. (*regular season, non-overtime)

More, after the Saints humiliated the Cowboys in primetime, Jerry Jones lamented his decision to scapegoat and fire Rob Ryan:
“We thought it was best for us to go in the direction we are, and [firing Rob] doesn’t look good right now." 
As a scapegoat, Rob Ryan is right at home in New Orleans and his own personal motivations (re-proving himself, etc.) mesh ideally with a Saints' franchise doing the same. That little mea culpa by Jerry Jones got things rolling before the San Francisco game.

The fun was just getting started.

A few days later, Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers rolled into town. Ugh.

After consecutive games of battering and handling the Saints, the 49ers only improbably hung around this time before losing. The Saints beating San Francisco was something of an exorcism (for we Saints' fans at least), and it marked a turning point in the Saints' evolution this season.

Though Garrett Hartley's three fourth quarter field goals should have been the story of the game, especially considering the sun-drenched ice he'd been skating on, the lasting memory that emerged from the game was Ahmad Brooks' hit on Drew Brees.

You remember, the one where Brooks tossed Brees to the turf by his face/chin/neck--bloodying Brees' face in the process--and yet everyone outside of Saints' fans cried over the penalty called.

Because in today's NFL where QBs are virtually untouchable, it's crazy --CRAZY!--that the refs would flag this:

If the initial hit didn't deserve the flag, then the follow-through/to-the-turf-by-the-head certainly did.

Somehow, the esteemed legitimate media disingenuously positioned Brooks' hit--labeled a penalty "ten out of ten times" by the league's former head of officiating--as the game-deciding (and according to Trent Dilfer, "season-altering") play.

Never mind that the Saints scored twice after that play. Never mind that the 49ers gained a mere nine yards in the fourth quarter. Nah, that screws up the dumb-ass narrative.

Instead, you had Mike Greenberg spewing bullshit like this:
Yes, of course. Brees attacked Brooks with his own neck. Maybe you can chalk that up to mindless trolling, but I kinda doubt it.

And that wasn't it.

The NFL's preeminent attention-whore, Ray Lewis, wrongly called the play "the most embarrassing call in the National Football League since the tuck rule."

Way to understand a decade's worth of rules, Big Ray!

Then again, Ray never much gave a shit about those.

On top of this, Lewis offered to pay for half of Ahmad Brooks' eventual $16,000 fine, a move the NFL deemed acceptable. That's right, an outside party offering to pay a large amount of cash for an illegal hit: totally acceptable now! Lewis' reasons for offering to pay?

"Defenders has to be respected as men!" ... "THE NECK IS A PART OF THE BODY!"

Okey doke.

Paid, professional analysis right there.

Trent Dilfer, a former 49ers quarterback, said he was "offended" that Brees expected a penalty. His point was that Brees only had a "cut lip" and shouldn't have assumed a penalty in that situation. This apparently deeply offended Dilfer's high standards for NFL-bred toughness. Right.

By deriding Brees, Dilfer absurdly feigned a toughness of his own that couldn't in a million years hold a candle to the actual body of resolve, durability, and achievement that has defined Drew Brees' career.

But faking it has been Dilfer's modus operandi since his quarterbacking days in the NFL.

Ever the pseudo-intellectual, ever the man building an embarrassingly foolish vernacular of football terminology designed to make dumb people think he's smart (CASINO BLITZ! THERMOSTAT LEADER! FOOT PLATFORM! EXPLOSIVE SUDDENNESS! CONFLICT CATCH!), Dilfer and his shtick embody Charles Pierce's "average manhole cover," a phenomenon of phony articulateness unique to a multitude of self-styled NFL experts and one best represented by the apish Dilfer.

As if all that weren't enough Tedy Bruschi, a man still desperately clinging to the mundane, withered glories of days gone by, deluded in his recollection of factual reality, exhorted Drew Brees to "get tough."

No mention that it wasn't Brees' decision to throw the flag. Nor did Brees miss a play. Nor has he missed a game due to injury since arriving in New Orleans.

Never mind the fact that Brees guided the Saints down the field twice after the hit for the win. No mind that Brees recovered from one of the most devastating shoulder injuries without ever missing a game. That Brees, what a huge pussy! Right, Tedy?

In a sports media culture defined by hyperbole and driven by shallow, inane reactions, Bruschi and company sunk the basest of analyses to an embarrassing, moronic low.


(we'll save Mike Mitchell for next week) ...

This was just the beginning, though. It got better on Thursday night in Atlanta.

Akiem Hicks did this, without a penalty flag being thrown, and the pearl-clutchers shit their pants:

You wanna talk about the Saints tying asses in knots, league-wide?

That no-call on Hicks sealed the deal. OMG HOW CAN THEY NOT THROW A FLAG! NOT FAIR!

The laughs then reached epic levels when Jimmy Graham broke the Georgia Dome:

Next, in a most succinct embodiment of his capitulating wont, Matt Ryan did this on a key third down:

Instead of trying to score, Ryan just gave up.

It's not really surprising though, given Ryan's history against the Saints.

For the now-routine ending, Sean Payton, up four points, iced Matt Bryant as Mike Smith was again bested by a fourth-down decision.

From Jason Lisk:
"I don’t know what is more mind-numbingly awful. Mike Smith opting to kick a field goal down by four points with 2:24 left in a game, or the almost universal praise after the game that this was the right decision.
I can go about explaining it any number of ways, but this was a dreadful decision."
Bryant of course missed the FG, essentially sealing the Saints win.

Sean Payton is now 12-2 versus the "rival" Falcons. Accordingly, Arthur Blank's eye daggers:

Uh oh.

Let's all hope Coach Smith doesn't show up frozen in some sketchy meat locker. He might not be the greatest coach, but he does seem like a decent man.

The coup de grace, though, came when the Saints stiffed the NFL Network's post-game show.

After each Thursday night game, the winning team sends a player to sit on set with Rich Eisen and the crew. Interviews, recaps, bro-love, analysis, backslaps, and whatnot.

But the Saints? Nope, no thanks. Maybe next time, fellas. Talk amongst yourselves.

The reaction? Curt dismay from the league-owned network:


This three-game stretch, one in which the Saints won three games in eleven days, more than the sad Falcons have all season, forced the Saints into the NFL's collective focus.

For more than a week now, the Saints have commanded the NFL's news cycle in the only way they seem to know how: polarizing and defiant.

Fantastic. It's about time. I wonder if Rog is privately fuming?

At the same, it looks like it's all coming together for the 2013 Saints.

And it's happening at the perfect time with the showdown in Seattle on tap.

Ralph calls this "the biggest regular season game in Saints history."

It's hard to argue with that characterization. Considering the implications for homefield advantage and this game representing the last of the ghosts haunting the Payton-era Saints (a big win against a tough opponent in an outdoor, road environment), I'd say the stakes are as high as ever.

If you listen to the pundits, and a gaggle of Saints' fans too, you'd think the Seahawks were some unstoppable juggernaut.

Remind me: what have the Pete Carroll Seahawks ultimately accomplished? Losing to the Bears and Falcons in divisional playoff games?

Not exactly a terrifying body of work.

Let's consider that the Seahawks have played the fourth-easiest schedule in the league this year; have consistently struggled to beat mediocre teams like Houston, St. Louis, and Tampa Bay; have an offensive line that's been the team's weakness this year; are missing Brandon Browner, their #2 cornerback; and have yet to face a team as well-rounded, well-coached, and talented as the Saints.

Might the Seahawks be a tad overrated?

Somehow though, as plenty of people would have you believe, the Saints must play a perfect game in order to escape with a win in Seattle.

Bitch, please.

The Saints, against a top-12 schedule, rank in the top-5 in both points scored and points allowed. The offensive line is coming together, as the Saints have rushed for 5.1 yards per carry (437 total yards) over the past three games. Additionally, Brees has been sacked only three times in the last three games after being sacked twenty times through the first eight.

Equally important, the Saints--not the Seahawks, not the 49ers, not the Panthers, not the Bengals, not the Texans, not the Ravens--have the NFL's best defensive line in 2013. For a Seahawks' offensive line struggling to pass protect this season (Football Outsiders ranks them 30th), defending a Saints' defense ranked # 1 in adjusted sack rate will be no easy task.

It might buck the conventional wisdom, but that is a match-up squarely in the Saints' favor.

Unlike anybody in the Seahawks' front-seven, the Saints' Cameron Jordan is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

As I see it, almost all of the "difference makers" reside on the Saints' side. You don't really think Pete Carroll is going to outscheme Sean Payton in consecutive games, do you?

Is all that enough for the Saints to overcome the Seahawks' homefield advantage? I say yes.

Even as Saints' fans struggle to adjust to a different Saints' team, it seems like everyone else is even farther behind.

Whether the NFL media points this out (that the Saints are one of the better defensive teams in the NFL this year, and that's why they're well-positioned to win the NFC) in the lead-up to the game is anybody's guess.

The Seahawks--a team slated for greatness in the preseason and now riding the coattails of that confirmation bias--are 13-0 at home with Russell Wilson at quarterback. I guess that's where this whole "unbeatable" thing comes from.

But will it last another game?

Until the Saints win an outdoor road game like the upcoming test in Seattle, they'll continue to be doubted as true contenders outside of their home environs.

My guess is that, on Monday, December 2nd, the Saints will quiet the doubters.

18 November 2013


Not this face ....

But this one ....

Let's go ahead and root out the heresy.

This shit has gone on for far too long.

Things I'm suddenly no longer worrying about:

1.) The Saints potentially playing an outdoor road playoff game.
2.) The likely inclement Super Bowl weather posing a significant threat to the Saints, should the team make it to New York in February.

It's been a long time coming, but fuck all that.

The Saints have a real defense.

Not the genial, pliant, milquetoasty Gibbsian unit. Not the unsustainable, zero blitz-addled freakshow. Nor the fossilized, obstinate, inordinately complex, red-carpet-to-the-end-zone circus of pain.

No. None of that shit.

In 2013, we're talking about the real deal. Finally.

Courtesy of the shaggy, itinerant Rob Ryan--finding himself long-last at home in New Orleans, Rolling Rocks and 4-2-5's, and on a revenge tour of his own--this Saints' defense is now the differentiating factor in the hazy competitive landscape of the 2013 NFL.

Who saw that coming?

Yes, Rob Ryan is the hinge on which the league's balance of power swings this season.

As far as the Saints are concerned, this is the most welcome of developments.

Listen to Steve Gleason, for god's sake:
Thanks much, Jerry Jones. Mighty kind of you, especially after you let Sean Payton walk out of the building. Now if you don't mind, Monte Kiffin needs his afternoon cup of Sanka. Can you help out with that?

Ok. Enough dickishness.

Let's take a look at some numbers and factoids, shall we:

In consecutive games, the Saints have held the Cowboys and 49ers to under 200 yards of total offense. Moreover, the Saints have held five of their ten opponents under 300 yards of total offense this season. This, in a NFL, where offenses effortlessly roll up yardage thanks to a set of rules designed to benefit them.

For four straight games, opposing offenses (Bills, Jets, Cowboys, Niners) have converted less than 30% of their third down chances (14-for-48 to be exact). To date the Saints are third in the NFL in this category, a metric of the utmost importance. Even better? In the last two games, the Saints' defense has held the Cowboys and 49ers to a shameful 6-for-24 on third down.

And mind you, these are not bad offenses. The Cowboys' offense is among the handful of the NFL's best, and the 49ers came into Sunday's game ranked 9th in offensive DVOA.

In case you forgot, this is largely the same Niners team that scored 45, 28, and 31 in last year's postseason. You might have thought otherwise after watching them on Sunday, a game they desperately needed to win.

The Saints harassed Colin Kaepernick, a dude Ron Jaworski said not long ago could be one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time (WHAT?!?), sacking him three times and hitting him another six. For good measure, the Saints' defense sprinkled in five tackles-for-losses.

And did you see Akiem Hicks? Good god, man. Huge. Superfreak athletic. MOTIVATED. When he gets all King-Kong-beats-his-chest pissed off and then proceeds to smash apart the opponent's offensive line? Holy shit. He did that a bunch on Sunday.

By the way, you didn't forget about this did you?

If Cam Jordan is the defense's Jahri Evans, then Hicks is their Jimmy Graham.

This Saints' defensive line is a marvel. They may not be the defensive-line equivalent of the linebacking Dome Patrol, but they're pretty damned good.

The days of the Payton-led Saints getting pushed around on the line, battered against physical opponents, and labeled as "finesse" are over. You can largely thank Rob Ryan for that.

On the season, the Saints are fifth in points allowed per game (18.3), sixth in sacks, and seventh in passer rating allowed. These are the hallmarks of an excellent defense, one that has performed consistently now for ten games.

You can shed your fear. They sure as shit have.

Had it not been for two aberrant plays (the Lance Moore fumbled punt and the Corey White interception-fumble-whatever-the-hell-that-was), this game would have unfolded much, much differently.  That the Saints won the game on the last play distorts the reality of a dominating, physical performance.

As it turned out, this game was a rite of passage for the Payton-era Saints or, at least, the modern incarnation of them.

Hitherto, the Saints were 1-11 under Payton when their turnover margin was -2 or worse. Additionally, the Harbaugh-led 49ers were a dominant 32-3-1 when their turnover margin was zero or better.

But on Sunday that script flipped even though the Saints turned the ball over three times to the Niners' one.

After getting physically manhandled by the 49ers in both 2011 and 2012, the Saints played one of their more physically-imposing games in some time, rendering the highly-correlating-to-victory turnover margin moot.

The Saints won the battle on the defensive line against a Niners' offensive line that many consider to be the league's best. The Saints' offensive line, for their part, played equally well for a second straight week. They assisted the running game to the tune of 4.0 yards per rush on 23 attempts, and controlled the line of scrimmage in the process.

If a three-point win can ever be considered "dominant," then this was it.

By my estimation, this was a watershed moment for the 2013 Saints. Things look increasingly promising for the Saints' chances in the NFC.

Sunday was the practice test for the showdown in Seattle looming in two weeks. The Saints look as ready as ever.

In the interim, the Falcons are up on Thursday night.

Rock bottom looms, Atlanta.

11 November 2013

The 'Oh Shit' Moment

Now that is the Sean Payton offense we've been waiting for all year: the wicked, all-consuming torrent of catastrophic might.

Momentous, unyielding, and overwhelming, the Saints' performance on Sunday night was a reminder that at any given moment with Payton and Brees at the helm, the Saints are quite capable of delivering the most thunderous of beatdowns.

Lest we forget.

courtesy of espn.com

For parts of the season, the Saints' offense has sputtered. The offensive line has looked lost at times. The run game has disappeared for stretches. Sean Payton has confounded us with what appeared to be a crisis of identity.

On Sunday night, that all faded away in the afterglow of another primetime victory.

With Payton returning in 2013, and the otherwordly dominance of the 2011 offense still far from a distant memory, we hoped Payton would return the team to the peak it reached sometime late in 2011.

Though the Saints' offense played well through their first eight games this year, it wasn't what it had been at its best. Not even close, really.

The growing anxiety was that, perhaps, the very best of the Payton/Brees offense was in the rearview mirror and that, while still excellent, it wouldn't fully regain its definitive, crushing power of past days.

On Sunday, though, the Saints let everyone know the party ain't over just quite yet.

The Saints played a historic game, setting an NFL record with forty first downs. Even better they accomplished that feat on eighty plays, a first down every other play--a mark of unrivaled efficiency. Even more, the Saints produced the second-highest, non-overtime yardage total in the regular season since the merger (1970).

Of all the epic and vicious and enjoyable and defining and perception-shifting and hegemonic offensive performances the Saints have authored under Payton, this one was the all-around best.

Take a look:

As illustrated, these displays of offensive dominance had arrived with regularity by the second half of 2011. The Saints, then, had morphed into something approaching unstoppable.

A rule-making, runaway locomotive.

Sunday night's performance against Dallas wasn't just transcendent in the context of that established greatness, it also reintroduced the notion that it's not too late to get it back.

It reminded us that teams aren't defined by the first half of a season. It injected a dose of supreme confidence. It laid the groundwork of promise. It rattled the cages of neurotic Saints' fans who, sometime around 6:00 P.M. yesterday, had ceded the NFC South to the Panthers.

And finally, it forced the NFL to crane its collective neck and take notice.

These type of moments, in each of the Saints' best seasons of 2006, 2009, and 2011, have arrived with a definitive, primetime flair and announced the Saints as legitimate title contenders.

In 2006, it was a 42-17 thrashing of Dallas in which Sean Payton put his mentor out to pasture. In 2009, it was a 38-17 dismantling of the Patriots with Brees submitting perhaps the greatest single-game passing performance in NFL history. In 2011 it was a post-Christmas flogging of a footstool Falcons' team that fancied themselves upstarts, in which Brees broke the NFL single-season record for passing yards.

These are what I've referred to as "oh shit" moments in the past--as in, "oh shit, watch out, here come the Saints."

On Sunday night, we were graciously treated to the Saints' 2013 "oh shit" moment.

And it was glorious.

There was Marques Colston tossing aside reports of his demise. There was Mark Ingram running with anger and abandon. There was Pierre Thomas continuing to nudge himself into "Deuce" territory. There was Kenny Stills making yet another big play, downfield in traffic, for a touchdown. There was Brees painting another stunning masterpiece. There was the offensive line doing what we'd all hoped they'd eventually do. There was the defense again surrendering fewer than twenty points in the Dome. There was Sean Payton and Rob Ryan tormenting their former employer.

And on the other sideline there was a bewildered, dazed opponent waving the white flag.

Sunday was the game we've been waiting for since Payton was railroaded and suspended in early 2012.

May the dam now be broken.

The sobering bit of news from Sunday is the health of the Saints' secondary. Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins again sat out due to lingering knee injuries. Kenny Vaccaro departed after what appeared to be his
second concussion in three weeks.

Considering Vaccaro's style of play, this isn't the greatest of developments. If Vaccaro indeed suffered another concussion, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Saints shut him down for a few weeks. Multiple concussions in a condensed timeframe is, what I believe concussion experts tout as, a worse-case scenario.

Especially considering Vaccaro's status as a prized rookie, I would expect the Saints to err on the side of caution here. If Vaccaro's out, the Saints might be without their top three safeties against the Niners.

On the other hand, Glenn Foster and Corey White have continued to emerge as viable pieces for the defense. White especially looked impressive on Sunday night. His contributions seem all the more important considering the injuries in the secondary, and his previous experience at safety might pay dividends as the season progresses.

Foster's development after an excellent preseason, combined with Tyrunn Walker's return to health, means the Saints' defensive line should be loaded for the second half of the season. That will go a long way in helping the Saints deal with the run-oriented offenses in San Francisco, Seattle, Carolina, and St. Louis.

With seven games to go, securing homefield advantage looms as the likely deciding factor in the NFC this season. Accomplishing that (homefield advantage) means the Saints may indeed need to run the slate.

Last week, that seemed much less possible than it does this morning. Today, it's officially in play.

Now here comes San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle, Carolina, St. Louis, Carolina, and Tampa Bay. All conference games. Three home and four away.

First up comes the hated Niners, they the longtime shatterer of Saints' dreams. Exorcising the demons associated with the Harbaugh-led Niners is the first order of business on the way to homefield advantage.

It's not going to be easy, but Sean Payton has a bit of unfinished business after his bitter loss to the Niners in January of 2012.

If Payton aims to return better than he ever was, then beating San Francisco on Sunday is of the utmost importance.

Fly on, reckoning.

07 November 2013

Bully Culture

While The Angry Who Dat's website is down for maintenance, I'm honored to host his weekly post right here: 

I didn’t get a chance to write last week, because of the road trip to New York, and I haven’t yet written this week, and now my site is infected with some sort of malware, so thanks to Reid for letting me borrow a bit of space over here.

Suffice to say, Bills game good, Jets game bad. Offensive line, ugly. That’ll have to do for now, because I really need to get this off my chest.

Richie Incognito is an asshole.

I mean, goddamn. This dude is certifiable. In case you haven’t been paying attention, these are the absolute, uncontested facts of the situation:

1. Richie Incognito is a bully who forced teammates to pay for extravagant meals and jetskis, threatened their mothers, defecated down their throats, and left alone at lunch tables at such a frequency as to make one of them leave football completely.

2. Richie Incognito hates black people.

3. The Dolphins organization told Richie Incognito to do these things, explicitly lining out a plan to break Jonathan Martin mentally and emotionally.

I propose these penalties:

1. The entire Dolphins front office should be suspended from football operations for one year, reviewable in perpetuity.

2. Joe Philbin should receive show-cause for 18 months or until Richie Incognito is released from prison, whichever comes last.

3. Richie Incognito should receive a lifetime ban from football.

The things that have happened in Miami over the last 2 years serve as a poor example to our children and should never be allowed in football.

Some say we should take a nuanced approach; I reject that position. Peter King prizes his journalistic integrity and refuses to jump to conclusions, and I commend him for his professionalism. But the evidence is clear: Richie Incognito sent several voicemails and texts that were threatening in nature, and someone heard them. They reported on them, and we as a football-loving public have no need to question the nature of the calls, as it has already been questioned and confirmed as malicious by media sources.

I mean, he said bad words and made threats. There’s no such thing as bluster in the locker room – all things are taken at face value. When a guy says he’s going to slap your mother, or shit down your throat, or destroy your outside ACL, you don’t have time to determine whether that act is physically possible or if that’s an actual body part that humans have. You take the threat seriously, and you punish.

Obviously, people intending serious threats say things like “I’ll shit down your throat.” That doesn’t sound absurd at all, and would terrify me to the bone if I heard it on my voicemail. Nobody wants to eat another man’s shit. And no white person, NOT ONE, has ever been too stupid to understand the seriousness of the N-bomb and felt entitled to use it in a moronic way, unless they actually did hate black people. That’s just basic common sense, and you don’t get to the NFL and succeed In This League without common sense.

The organization is complicit in all of it, according to an unnamed source quoted by precisely one media outlet in Miami, and confirmed by no others, and that’s good enough for me. The media doesn’t get this kind of shit wrong, people.

Worse than the crime, as always, is the cover-up. In the face of conclusive, damning evidence to the contrary, the Miami Dolphins have denied any wrongdoing. The players in the locker room, without exception, claim that Richie Incognito is a good teammate. Someone clearly spent a great deal of time lining up ducks. This defiance, this bald-faced refusal to admit to a wrong that has been made so clear by partial transcriptions of voicemails and a singular anonymous source, is galling in nature and shocking in scope, and should not go unpunished.

History will see the Miami Dolphins for what they are: a pack of bullies who no longer deserve to grace a football field that bears The Shield; that monetary concerns will not allow for the simple removal of the entire franchise is saddening, but it is the way of this world. However, morality need not completely succumb to the drives of capitalism.

It’s important that the league take an immediate, harsh and decisive course of action to quell what has quietly but clearly become a problem endemic in the NFL. An example must be made of the Miami Dolphins. In a just world, the entire organization would be brought down.

And they’d have only themselves to blame.

04 November 2013

Walking The Tightrope

This was a familiar, ugly loss.

I'm sure there are innumerable ways to rationalize the Saints' performance against the Jets, or otherwise explain away its legitimacy.

But really, what we saw on Sunday was a coalescing of flaws.

courtesy of the NY Times

During the first seven games these flaws individually and sporadically interjected themselves, though never with enough of an impact to prevent the Saints from winning.

That changed on Sunday, and the Saints took a physical beating at the hands of a team less talented and led by a rookie quarterback. A team, mind you, that lost the week prior by 40 points at home.

The Saints' shortcomings were all too apparent on Sunday, and all too impactful for the Saints to overcome.

After eight games, we've seen a trail of flaws, shortcomings, and obstacles. They look something like this:

* an underwhelming, inconsistent offensive line
* injuries (revealing a narrow dependence on a handful of offensive players)
* lack of production from the wide receivers
* the absence of a functional running game
* poor run defense
* a non-existent return game

Each of these issues, which had reared its head at some point during the season thus far, played a key role in the Saints' loss to the Jets.

The Saints, like every team out there, have their imperfections. At times those shortcomings will collectively play a dominant role and lead to ugly losses. Not a huge deal, generally.

But in terms of the Saints' loss to the Jets, there's a little more to it than just that. And that's what's disconcerting.

We've seen this before. Sunday's loss looked eerily familiar to a handful of losses under Payton.

The script goes something like this: a road game against a physical opponent in imperfect conditions where the Saints fall behind in the first half; both fail to protect Brees and run the ball effectively when needed; make a series of boneheaded, outcome-shifting plays on offense; hang around to make a game of it; then lose in the shadows of a signature play or two.

Though infrequent, these games have become familiar and unsightly.

It's easy to deflect the relevance and proclaim the Saints as one of the best road teams over the past several years. That, of course, is inarguable (the Saints have won more road games than any team since 2009).

But in a way, it's a misleading characterization too. There's more to it than just the surface analysis. If there's a formula for beating the Payton-era Saints, it's to get them outside of a dome environment, beat them up, and force them to play from behind.

As such, a signature, tough road win remains the chief nemesis of Payton's Saints.

On Sunday, that nemesis bested the Saints yet again in a similar circumstance.

It's not just an easily-dismissed, random event. It seems more of a characterization, a bad habit, and the main weakness of the Payton-led Saints.  

In a vacuum, it's no shame that the Saints lost the game. And without question, this loss was far from damning to the Saints' ultimate chances this year.

But in the end, it presents a potential foreshadowing of what's to come if the Saints play on the road in the postseason. Avoiding that seems increasingly important.

The hope is that Sean Payton can develop a blueprint for winning games like these (outdoors, elements, vs. physical teams that present match-up problems, etc.) at some point very soon.

Either that, or the Saints can just lock up homefield advantage by winning the rest of their games.

With all that said, this is the single, most important takeaway from Sunday: one loss is not a referendum on the Saints' season.

Though there's a roadmap for beating the Saints, that's not to say the Saints are doomed or that they won't solve that puzzle as this season continues.

The Saints are 6-2 in a wide-open NFC. Every contender is flawed and beatable.

The Payton/Ryan/Brees triumvirate gives the Saints an opportunity to win every week. In fact, I'm not sure there's a better Coach/D-Coordinator/QB combo in the league.

In 2011, the Saints dicked around and lost three games in the first half of the season. Then they figured it out and made a run. Sure, the 2013 team isn't as strong (depth and talent-wise) as the 2011 team. But no matter, the point is that the Saints can still remedy what woes them and improve.

And anyway ... remember how badly the Saints throat-punched the overwhelmed, flawed Giants in week twelve of 2011? That same Giants' team limped into the playoffs at 9-7 and then won the Super Bowl.

The 2012 Ravens lost four of their last five games before getting their shit together in the playoffs and winning it all.

On any individual week, it's a fool's errand to judge an NFL team. Having some perspective after an ugly loss seems pretty important right about now. Otherwise, I might start believing in a bogeyman that's more illusion than reality. 

After eight weeks, the Saints have put themselves in position to make a run at it. Are they good enough? That we don't know yet. But at least they're well-positioned halfway into this thing.

Even in the face of a familiar loss that stirs up bad memories of past failures, it's still way too early to kick dirt on the Saints' Super Bowl hopes this year.

If the Saints are going to win the NFC, though, it's going to take an improved second-half performance from Sean Payton.

Payton has been, perhaps understandably, hot and cold through eight games. There have been a few, notable moments where Payton seems to lack conviction in what he wants to do.

It's important not to make too big an issue of a handful of plays. At the same time, it's also important to evaluate those plays in the larger context of what's happening. They may be a window into understanding bigger trends and decision-making processes.

Let me explain.

Twice in the last three weeks, in critical, game-defining spots, Payton has opted for sleight-of-hand instead of relying on one of the team's core strengths.

In New England, of course, Payton called an awkward Brees' bootleg that failed to produce a game-clinching first down.

On Sunday against Jets, on 3rd/4th and 1, Payton called on Jed Collins and Josh Hill in the biggest of spots. It's not so much that Payton chose, on 4th and 1 in a game-altering moment, to call an end-around to his third-string tight end.

It's moreso that Payton has failed to run behind Jahri Evans, or get the ball in the hands of Pierre Thomas, or have Brees throw it to Jimmy Graham. Instead of playing to the strengths of his best, most trustworthy
players, Payton has engaged in a puzzling exercise in fancy play syndrome.


Though this is just amateurish speculation, it might reveal that Payton is struggling to recapture the finer points in his playcalling at-large; and it also might reveal that Payton is pressing a bit--trying too hard and thus out-thinking himself.

Regardless, what was equally revealing during that key sequence on Sunday was Payton's lack of faith in Mark Ingram.

Three times Payton avoided giving Ingram a chance to convert the first down. On the first, Jed Collins took an inside handoff before the play was whistled dead due to a Jets' timeout. On the second, Brees threw a short pass in the flat that Collins scissor-handed and dropped. Then on fourth down, Payton again refused to hand it to Ingram, and opted for the Josh Hill end-around.

Which leads to the question: why is Ingram even out there?

Though I know the statheads will wag their fingers at me, the Saints have averaged 19.7 points with Ingram and 31.4 without him this year.

Of course, there are many more factors at play and it would be the height of idiocy to solely attribute this disparity in points to Ingram's presence on the field. Solely laying blame is not what I'm doing.

The point is that the Saints' offense seems to operate differently (read: worse) when Ingram is in there. The anecdotal evidence in points might partly be a reflection of this.

It's not just that Khiry Robinson has outperformed Ingram so far this season--like Chris Ivory did last year--but it now appears that Payton doesn't trust Ingram with even the most narrow of duties. If he doesn't, then the Saints are effectively playing a man down when Ingram is on the field.

It's tough to blame Payton for that lack of trust, but it's even more difficult to understand what Ingram contributes to the Saints' offense at this point.

Overall, the two factors in play here--Payton's reliance on trickery in big spots, and Ingram's role in the offense--are both areas that have limited the Saints this season. Whether we'll see that change over the next month is anyone's guess, but it's worth monitoring how Payton handles future, similar scenarios.

As is obvious, the upcoming four-game stretch will go a long way in 1.) revealing how good the Saints truly are and 2.) influencing how the remainder of 2013 unfolds.

First comes Dallas in the Dome on Sunday night. The memories of the 2009 Dallas game linger, and I'm sure that's not lost on either team.

Then comes San Francisco, a monkey the Saints badly need to wrest from their backs. After that is a trip to Atlanta on a Thursday night, a game the Falcons will desperately want to win in order to salvage their disaster of a season.

And finally comes the next big road test: at Seattle on a Monday night.

If you're looking for referendums on the Saints' season, then this four-game stretch will present all the data you'll likely need.

In the meantime, remember that the Saints are 6-2 and in prime position to take control of the NFC.


28 October 2013

Ascending The Peak (an alternate route)

Has a dominant Saints' team ever felt more unconvincing?

courtesy of ajc.com
Through seven games the Saints are 6-1 (very nearly 7-0) and winning their games by an average of eleven points.

They might be the best team in the NFC, and are certainly (thus far) one of the best five or so teams in the NFL this season.

Still, it's often felt like there's something missing this year. But that missing element is churning out, as I see it, angst in disproportionate quantities.

The Saints, for the most part, are in excellent shape.

But what's missing?

Partly, it's an offense with a leaky line that's been more scattered than lethal this year.

After seven weeks, this isn't an altogether new phenomenon.

The 2013 Saints have steadily, consistently revealed themselves to be a team distinct from the mold of their 2009-2011 predecessors.

This is a team that is less offensively dominant, but more defensively sound. In the end, they appear to be equally capable of making a run at the Super Bowl this year. It's just unfolding in a different way.

Whereas in the recent past the offense has carried the team in spite of an uneven defense, this year's team is more dependent on the contributions of its defense while the offense has (modestly) leveled off after years of blistering opponents with ease.

While this shift feels odd, and might be mistaken for feeling "worse" than prior iterations of great Payton teams, what we're seeing is just as effective and might even present a more sustainable model.

With seven games in the books, the Saints' defense has surrendered a Payton-era best 17.1 points per game and held three of its seven opponents under 300 yards of offense this season.

The Saints' offense has chipped in with a worthy 28.4 points per game (good for third-best after seven games under Payton, well behind both the '09 and '11 teams).

Though the 2013 Saints' offense hasn't always artfully and effortlessly produced yards and points, they've nevertheless been pretty damn good. In four of their last five games, after a sluggish start, they've scored 30+ points.

Through their first seven games, here's how the offense and defense have fared during the Payton era. This year's team, overall, looks as capable as ever:

Simply, this team is no longer top-heavy on offense. They've distributed the workload to their defense, and it's produced great results through seven games.

Their average +11 point differential puts them solidly aside the great '09 and '11 teams.

More specifically, 2009 produced six defensive touchdowns through the team's first seven games; the 2011 team's point differential over its first seven games was skewed by a 62-7 facekicking of a freefalling, hapless Colts' team.

In short, the point differential (seven games in) in '09 and '11 was weighted by a few unsustainable extremes.

In 2013, the significant point differential thus far has been the result of bland, balanced efficiency on both sides of the ball. This is a good thing.

Of course, the 2013 Saints are far from perfect and have plenty of areas in which to improve if they want to be more than one-and-done in the postseason. And again, it doesn't appear they've yet peaked as a team.

But the foundation of a championship team is in place, even if it frequently feels like the Saints are tripping over themselves.

On Sunday Drew Brees played a near-perfect game, completing 76.5% of his passes to ten players for five touchdowns.

At this point, Brees's rote greatness is barely even noticeable.

With a wide receiving corps that's been less-than-stellar this year, it was reassuring to see Lance Moore return yesterday. But more than that, Kenny Stills appears to be breaking out in a big way.

While Marques Colston has quizzically vanished from the offense (six catches for 44 yards in his last three games), Kenny Stills has emerged as a true weapon for the Saints.

Though Stills might not fit the prototype definition of a "number one" wide receiver, he's far more than a one-dimensional deep threat.

Prior to the season, the GSEZ blog said Stills was "already the best WR on the team." Halfway through the season, that contention may be proving itself true.

On Sunday, Stills' three catches illustrated the range of his nascent talent. On one, he beat the Bills' defense down the left sideline with ease for 69 yards and a touchdown. On his second catch, Stills smuggled himself into the Bills' deep interior and found a crease for an eighteen-yard catch on a first down.

Then, on the game's signature play, Stills improvised in concert with Brees for a backbreaking 42-yard touchdown.

On that play, Stills smartly boxed away his defender and won the jump ball, something he did with equal aplomb two weeks prior (in double coverage) against the Patriots, a skill that belies his size, and a trait reminiscent of the viciously-good Steve Smith.

The timing of Stills's emergence could not be better when you consider the tenuous health of Jimmy Graham, and a wide receiving unit struggling to make an impact.

The offense, and more specifically the team as a whole--regardless of Brees's presence or Stills's emergence or the thunderous big-little duo of Graham and Sproles--will go as far as the offensive line takes them.

If there's one factor (aside from injuries) that will make or break the Saints' 2013 season, it's the offensive line. Without question.

Far too often this year, Brees has been sacked and hit, forced to leave the pocket or unload the ball too quickly. If that continues to happen, I'm afraid we're in for another dose of postseason misery.

With upcoming games against the Jets, 49ers, Seahawks, and Panthers (twice), the Saints will face excellent, physical defensive front-sevens. How the offensive line handles those teams will significantly affect the Saints' big picture in 2013.

Homefield advantage, as always, is a key component for the Saints' postseason hopes. The difference between playing two playoff games in the Dome, or going on the road to Seattle or San Francisco is significant.

So buckle up.

The defining stretch of the Saints' 2013 season will very likely unfold over the next month.

I couldn't be more excited.