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)