26 January 2014

The Second Coming (featuring Rob Ryan and KDFV)

This actually happened:
During Monday's "NFL Insiders," [Chris] Mortensen revealed executives told him, "If [Rob Ryan] wants to be a head coach, he has to cut his hair. It is about image for these guys. They want a CEO-type. That's what they want."
In a league that's grown increasingly absurd, hypocritical, and even hateable, "hair length" is now too a thing.

It saddles up next to: consistently god-awful officiating, annoying Thursday Night Football, a vile commissioner, endless TV commercial breaks, an inevitable transition to an 18-game season, a multi-day Pro Bowl draft (really!), personal seat licenses, etc., etc., etc.

Rob Ryan, a guy who orchestrated one of the most singularly impressive coordinating jobs in recent NFL history, can't even get a head coaching interview--an interview!--because of his hair.

Yet another round of breathtaking idiocy from the Goodell-era NFL.

But anyway, Rob, please, don't cut your hair.

New Orleans is your destiny. With the Saints, you are in your element: larger-than-life, successful, loved, and on the brink of a Super Bowl ring.

You are not some retread in an ugly suit (hi, Mike Nolan!).

Don't let the sociopaths break you. If the majority of these owners value conformity over talent, "image" over substance, then let them forever wallow in their fetid stew of mediocrity.

Am I right, Jerry Jones?

Rob, your fate is to build a defense that will ultimately be compared to your dad's '85 Bears' unit, the benchmark for defensive greatness. This is your legend waiting to be written, your pedigree waiting to be fully realized. Embrace it.

New Orleans is the place to do it. In a city historically filled with cult heroes and outlandish personalities, you are a prodigy. Fulfill your destiny. You're not that far off, anyway. If the transition in year one was from "worst ever" to "top five," then what's the ceiling here?

You have the full support of everyone involved: the owner, the coach, the players, and the community. Your defense is young, hungry, and talented. They are on the precipice of ushering the Saints into a new, post-Bountygate era of success.


Kenny Vaccaro, 22
Glenn Foster, 23
Corey White, 23
Tyrunn Walker, 23
Akiem Hicks, 24
John Jenkins, 24
Cam Jordan, 24
Junior Galette, 25
Rafael Bush, 26
Victor Butler, 26
Malcolm Jenkins, 26
Patrick Robinson, 26
Keenan Lewis, 27
Curtis Lofton, 27

Are you shitting me? Look at that!

There you have a deep core of talent and youth, already burnished by regular season experience and two playoff games in 2013.

Cam Jordan and Junior Galette finished 5th and 6th in sacks this season, one of the very best passing rushing duos in the league, one that appears to have its best days ahead. In Akiem Hicks, the Saints may just have the second coming of Haloti Ngata. Whether that comes to fruition or not, Hicks is perhaps the greatest "talent" on the Saints' defense and seems to be just scratching the surface of his immense skills.

I mean, look at this monster ... I BELIEVE I CAN FLY

Additionally, as we saw several times during the season and the playoffs, Keenan Lewis gives the Saints "shutdown corner" capabilities. Curtis Lofton is the among the most reliable, durable, and smart of middle linebackers.

Then you have the duo of Kenny Vaccaro and Rafael Bush at safety--the modern, reformulated answer to Brett Maxie and Gene Atkins.

In Bush, the Saints have a player who's gotten better the more he's played. He can play a few positions; he's been an excellent special teams player; he always seems to be in the right spots; and, Kenny Vaccaro notwithstanding, Bush is probably the team's best tackler.

Rafael Bush takes the best traits of Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins, and blends them into one coherent whole. It's taken some time, but with Bush, the Saints finally have their answer at free safety after years of searching.

In late December, Rob Ryan called Bush "an ascending football player." In consecutive playoff games at Philadelphia and at Seattle, Bush played as well as anyone on the Saints' defense.

And then there's Kenny Vaccaro.

KDFV. Kenny Dwayne Fuckin' Vaccaro.

The face of a resurgent, multi-faceted defense and the face of the Saints' youth movement.

With Vaccaro, the Saints' defense possesses an adaptability, toughness, and unpredictability that it hasn't had in quite some time. As has been noted countless times, Vaccaro lined up during the season as a strong safety; free safety; cornerback; nickel corner; and linebacker.

Adapting Vaccaro's varied skill set to each opponent has allowed Rob Ryan to:

1.) Create unpredictability, thus limiting exploitable tendencies opponents will inevitably identify

Where's there no consistent pattern to the usage of Vaccaro--the centerpiece of the Saints' defense--there are fewer available formulas for disassembling the Saints' defensive strategies.

Simply put, with Vaccaro, the Saints can more capably alter the way they play defense each week. As a result, this makes the Saints' defense a more complex puzzle to solve.

2.) Erase an opposing strength

This is sort of a corollary to the point above.

As we saw during the season, Rob Ryan often used Vaccaro to neutralize an opponent's key area of strength: tracking tight ends like Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten; lurking near the line of scrimmage against run-heavy teams; playing the slot corner and deep safety against pass-centric opponents; and also blitzing on a randomized schedule.

Since his days at Texas Kenny Vaccaro has been deployed as an "eraser of individual facets of an offense," and Rob Ryan has used Vaccaro in much the same way with the Saints.

What's more is that opposing offenses are accountable to Vaccaro's roles, not just his "position" as listed on a roster sheet. In other words, opposing offenses are most likely planning for the Saints' defense plus Kenny Vaccaro. This, of course, makes gameplanning against the Saints' defense a bit more difficult.

Vaccaro is to the Saints' defense what players like Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles, Percy Harvin, Danny Woodhead, etc. are to their team's offenses: a player with a wide variety of skills used in varying ways, whose weekly role is tailored to the team he's playing.

As far as defenses go, there aren't many players like this around. The Saints certainly haven't had a player like this on defense in recent memory, and they are fortunate to have landed Vaccaro. He's been the perfect representation of the Rob Ryan defense: aggressive, adaptive, and smart.

Kenny Vaccaro's most ready comparison, and this has been examined elsewhere, is to Troy Polamalu--a player who single-handedly changes the way opposing offenses scheme and execute against his team.

With Vaccaro's arrival representing the transformation of the Saints' defense, the Saints are positioned to remain competitive into the latter stages of Drew Brees's career. Like with Kenny Vaccaro, the future holds much promise for the Saints' defense.

The timing couldn't be any more perfect.

An older Brees shouldn't be burdened, disproportionately, with the Saints' fate on a weekly basis.

Instead, complementary forces are the formula for the Saints' continued success in this post-Bountygate era. That's started with defense in 2013, and may too be in the cards for a "different" offense in 2014.

Here's Wang surmising on a changing offense, in an effort to both better support Brees and mirror the defensive transformation from 2013:
A confluence of circumstances has presented the perfect opportunity for Sean Payton to take a cue from the wildly successful defensive rebuilding effort and make a bold decision to change the approach on the offensive side of the ball. An opportunity to be "multiple" in ways that for the most part simply haven't been possible until now.
126 rushing yards at a rate of 4.2 yards per on the road in a monsoon against the #2 rushing defense in the league, 185 rushing yards at a rate of 5.14 per on the road in the cold against the #10 rushing defense, and 108 rushing yards at a rate of 4.15 per on the road against the #7 rushing defense in 3 of the last 4 games should serve as the writing on the wall. The big neon sign that reads "Hey Coach! HELLO!"
So the stage is set. The writing is on the wall. This is your best chance at winning on the road, outdoors, in inclement weather, in December and January. And if it works on the road in inclement weather in December and January, it damn sure isn't gonna be any less effective indoors in September.
The point is that opportunity is there for the Saints' o-line to undergo a quick and thorough transformation mirroring the wildly successful 2013 d-line transition. To get younger, meaner, more athletic, more physical, and more versatile/well-rounded. Which will in turn allow the late-season rushing success to become a permanent fixture in the offense, thereby creating a different kind of "multiple" for Sean Payton and Drew Brees to work with. The kind of "multiple" opposing defenses aren't used to having to deal with when playing the Saints.
Along with the continued growth of the Saints' defense, one of the most compelling elements of 2014 will be how the Saints' offense evolves after an uneven 2013 season.

Whereas in early 2013 fixing the defense was the key to the Saints' competitive hopes, in 2014 adjusting the offense is the key issue for a Super Bowl run.

With that, things are looking up for the Saints in this new year.

Let's just hope that Rob Ryan doesn't cut his hair any time soon.

10 January 2014

Alligator Blood

A week ago, Wang called it "surviving."

Over the past six weeks, that's exactly what's happened.

The Saints haven't dominated, or even reassured. They've lost as many games as they've won. They've dicked around and looked completely lost at times.

Yet with some seemingly reptilian blood, their heart beats on this season. And now, in the most unwelcome of environments, the Saints are lurking on the outskirts, angling for one more skirmish.

In Seattle, they've certainly found the trouble they're looking for.

"We got our wish" said Marques Colston about the rematch with the Seahawks.

Careful what you wish for and all that, but nah.

This season just wouldn't be complete without another game versus Seattle. For a significant portion of the regular season, the Saints and Seahawks were on a crash course for a huge postseason clash.

Now, it's finally here.

For better or for worse, this game will define the Saints' 2013 campaign. Will the Saints shock the world? Will they live on to see another fight after this weekend? 

If the past two years have revealed anything, it's (ahem) the abundant evidence of the Saints' strong survival instinct.

Here's Mike Florio reflecting on that sentiment in the current moment:
The NFL wanted to make an example out of the Saints.  The Saints have instead become an example for how an organization can overcome adversity, regardless of its source or legitimacy.
The first road playoff win in Saints franchise history would have been significant regardless of when it happened.  That it happened one year after the league office delivered a potentially crippling blow to the team makes it even more impressive.
Of course, all signs now point towards the Seahawks walking over the Saints on Saturday.

But remember: Pete Carroll winning three straight games against Sean Payton isn't some inescapable certainty, especially not against a Saints' team that's proved deft at upending convention.

The Saints might be left for dead at the moment, but they haven't been killed off completely.

And for that, there is always hope.  

"hanging around, hanging around ... kid's got ... alligator blood ... can't get rid of him"

Now, a comparison.

During the 2011 season the Saints played a monumental divisional playoff game against an NFC West opponent, one which surely altered the course of the Saints' franchise history.

At that time the Saints were the NFL's hottest team, doing much more than just surviving, having won nine straight games by an average margin of 17 points. They had accomplished that on the strength of a devastating offense, and heading into that playoff game against the 49ers, the Saints' (and their fans') confidence was at a stratospheric level. The idea that the Saints might lose that game, even to a 13-3 Niners' team with the league's best defense, seemed remote.

To many of us at that time, the Saints' second Super Bowl win was nearing formality. It wasn't "if," only "how."

But then Pierre Thomas got wrecked a yard from the 49ers' end zone on the game's opening drive. From that point forward, the Saints descended into a bizarre freefall that didn't reach its rock-bottom until early in the 2013 calendar year.

Only when Sean Payton took the sidelines this season did that freefall ultimately end.

A short eighteen weeks later and we've reached today, back in motherfucking Seattle for a second time this season, back with one more chance to fell the big, juiced Russian. What more could you ask for?

Like two years ago, the Saints now face another immense divisional playoff game against an NFC West opponent. Only this time, nobody gives the Saints a shot to win -- not after "BeastQuake" and the "Monday Night Massacre" or whatever unfortunate names they're calling those games now.

For the Saints, though, this game stands to be the impetus for a narrative-dismantling win and a franchise-altering year.

Where the loss two years ago in San Francsico (one in which the Saints seemed destined for victory) marked the beginning of a dispiriting, scarring year, a win in Seattle on Saturday (a game nobody expects the Saints to win) might provide a diametrically-opposite, elevating effect.  

The game, in short, is a rare opportunity to bring it all full circle: a win that catapults, erasing the despair of a loss that buried.

As the storylines and expectations are vastly different this time around, so too might the outcomes in these oddly similar circumstances.

It might be a longshot,  but then again that's the best part of this whole damn thing.

On that, here's the Yellow Blog:
What I'll add to that is there's a goddamn narrative at work in all of this.
What the Universe is proposing to do is take this "team who can't win on the road" or in the cold and send them on a 4 week odyssey where they begin by facing [a deep freeze in Philadelphia], then back to Seattle, the scene of History's Greatest Disaster. Then, if they overcome that, they're likely off to San Francisco where there is all manner of unfinished business to deal with.
Finish that up with a win in The Coldest Super Bowl Ever and there's that epic 2013 Sean Payton Revenge Tour we all bought in on at the beginning of this season.
How do they accomplish that?

With respect to the elements, probably with the old-school sensibility of a running game and defense. Quaint, I know.

Perhaps fortuitously, current circumstances are conspiring to force the Saints' hand in that direction, one which might represent their optimal victory formula anyhow.

Against the Eagles last weekend, the Saints surrendered to what they've often flirted with this year: the realization that their best chance of winning, especially away from the Superdome, is a measured, run-conscious offense complementing the newfound strength of their defense.

Who says the Saints can't grind out a 17-13 victory in the rain and 20 MPH winds?

Anyway, how many countless times have the iterations of your life proved your preconceptions and expectations completely wrong?

Certainty is the domain of fools.    

Am I right, ESPN?

Lastly, make of this what you will.

An aging Michael Jordan, instead of relentlessly attacking the rim, instead of taking it all upon himself, now at the Point distributing the ball, now in the low post relying on a fadeaway jumper, shifting his game away from an eroding skill, smart enough to realize what gives him the best chance of subjugating his opponent, an older, wiser, alternately-equipped champion with the requisite cunning to understand the end game:

Last man standing.

Alligator blood.