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.


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