09 March 2014

Sea Change

The second installment of the Sean Payton era is in full bloom.

Earlier this year, the Saints jump-started their offseason by releasing Will Smith, Roman Harper, and Jabari Greer: all valued, productive, respected players who helped the Saints win their first Super Bowl.

With those cuts made, the Saints took another step forward on Friday and released Lance Moore and Darren Sproles. Pierre Thomas's future in New Orleans, meanwhile, hangs in the balance.

The carnage will probably continue in the coming weeks.

While it stings to watch these players depart, their bonds to the team and fanbase remain indissoluble even if their playing careers don't. Their departures, and career resumptions elsewhere, are the natural end-result of the NFL's salary cap infrastructure.

Equally relevant, these moves--especially on offense--are a reflection of the Saints' desire to comprehensively revamp its roster and reinvent itself.

This process started last year with Rob Ryan and the defense. It transitions now to the Saints' offense.

The release of Darren Sproles, particularly, is the clearest indication that the Saints' offense is indeed undergoing a shift in focus. Without Sproles (who occupied the same role previously held by Reggie Bush), the Saints appear to be transitioning to a new foundation on offense for 2014.

courtesy of The Advocate

Were the Saints intent on retaining the nearly-identical offensive philosophy employed for years, it seems unlikely they'd have released Sproles (who probably has a few good years remaining). Of course, the Saints might seek a replacement for him via the draft or free agency to maintain the status quo.

Considering Sproles' efficacy as a pass-catcher, between-the-tackles runner, blocker, and return man, simply "replacing" him won't be such an easy task.

But, there might be something else at the heart of this. Maybe replacing Sproles isn't part of the plan. Perhaps the Saints are phasing that traditionally-central role out of their offense, or at least relegating its importance.

Here's Mike Detillier, two months ago:

The first hints of Sean Payton tinkering with a shift in offensive philosophy came last season.

Specifically, Payton placed a strong emphasis on time of possession; displayed an eagerness to rely on his defense; and revealed himself a bit less aggressive than he'd been in the past.

There are some examples here, but this is the key part from the Black and Gold Review (October 2013):
The Saints are playing good football in a way that shows they are aware of their own mortality. 
Maybe this is a continuation of a Sean Payton maturity arc that started with him carrying what Bill Parcells called “the virus”–his propensity for tactical hyperaggression–and developed into effective strategic hyperaggression that dictated the terms on which the Saints played their games. 
Maybe that arc has continued, leading Payton to a new reliance on old football maxims like clock-control.

When you examine how, as the 2013 season wore on, Payton relied increasingly on his running game to notable success (comprehensively analyzed here at moosedenied), it appears that the moves of this 2014 offseason are the logical extension of the shift Payton committed to as 2013 wore on.

Let Ralph Malbrough, our illegitimate heir apparent to Buddy D, explain:

With respect to the fact that Mark Ingram seemed to break through in the second half of 2013, and that Khiry Robinson flashed such impressive skills that Bill Parcells compared him to Hall-of-Famer Curtis Martin, Sean Payton probably sees these players' skills as 1.) too significant to marginalize in favor of a lopsided, pass-centric attack with years of mileage on its once-innovative frame; 2.) part of the formula for competing with the NFC's defensive-minded, physical teams in Seattle, San Francisco, Carolina, Arizona, and even St. Louis (who embarrassed the Saints in 2013).

Instead of blindly adhering to a style that sparked the ascension of the Saints' franchise and, partly, defined an era of passing supremacy in the NFL, Payton appears to be adapting his approach to fit within both the components of his team and the competitive framework of his conference.

Woe is the man complacent to change.

I am not suggesting that the Saints will suddenly morph into a "three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust" offense.

Not at all.

I'm proposing that the style we've witnessed for nearly a decade (pass-heavy, up-tempo, quick-strike, highly-specialized, multiply-packaged) will recede in favor of a style better suited to today's competitive landscape. Specifically, that style might look like (GASP!) a more balanced attack that is less reliant on the pristine conditions of a dome.

Perhaps most meaningful, the realities of an aging roster and a bloated salary cap have also induced the sea-change we're witnessing.

As mentioned ad naseum, the Saints had the NFL's oldest offense in 2013. Just as the Saints saw great success with a rebuilt defense and new scheme in 2013, they are working to replicate that (to a degree) on offense in 2014: younger, faster, cheaper, different, better.

Even if that's a stretch, playing Russian roulette with the salary cap every year has finally forced the Saints to unload the proverbial bullets from the gun and adopt a saner, more sustainable process. Complicating matters is that the Saints have three all-pro players on their offense (Brees, Jahri, Graham).

Complain all you want about how a handful of players' salaries warp the cap, but that is an inescapable reality when a team has several great players. Equally important, that is a reality Saints' fans should be overjoyed to embrace, not bemoan like spoiled, no-good pissants.

You either 1.) have great players, or 2.) have a ton of cap room with which to retain valuable, though not essential, players in perpetuity. You can't have it both ways, though.

The great players are going to get paid. Call me crazy, but I prefer to root for a team that's willing to pay the great players instead of jettisoning them the moment they are due what they've earned.

Go check out the rosters of Oakland, Jacksonville, and Cleveland. Plenty of cap room there. No need for them to release reliable veterans. Their Super Bowl odds, though? Not so great.

With top-level players and a consistently competitive team, roster sacrifices are as unavoidable as they are unpalatable.

On all of this, here's more from the Angry Who Dat blog:
The cap hell the Saints are currently in is the culmination of at least half a decade of kicking the can, pushing salary cap problems down the road via restructuring and cuts and bonuses and oddly-structured contracts, in an effort to keep The Window open. It was going to catch up sooner or later, and this happens to be the year. 
Don’t subscribe to melodramatic bullshit that puts the onus on one player to take less than he deserves so you can keep your tiny running back with the bad knees for one more year. 
This is what happens to successful football teams in the salary cap era. They lose favored players. I know, it’s a new experience for me too.

The gutting of the Saints' roster isn't over yet, either.

We still await the fates for Pierre Thomas, Zach Strief, Brian de la Puente, and Malcolm Jenkins. Rafael Bush, through the mechanics of his contract tender, might move on as well. And of course, a resolution to Jimmy Graham's contract situation is still to come. Who knows how that might play out?

Fortunately for the Saints, Rob Ryan and a young, worthy defense arrived in 2013. Their ascent should continue in 2014, this just in time to compensate for salary cap limitations and transition on the offensive side of the team.

As of today, only five teams have better Super Bowl odds than the Saints do for this upcoming season.

Fret not.

Hope is aplenty.

02 March 2014

The Jimmy Situation

Here we go again.

The Saints placed the non-exclusive franchise tag on Jimmy Graham, setting in motion the crucial stage of Graham's contract negotiations.

Under the specifications of the non-exclusive tag, Graham is now free to negotiate with any team in the league. Should he sign a contract with a new team, the Saints, if they choose not to match the offer, would receive two first-round draft picks as compensation for losing Graham.

Likely before any (meaningful) negotiations take place, however, there is the issue of whether Graham will be designated as a tight end or a wide receiver. That decision will come at the hands of an NFL arbitrator who will, for all practical purposes, define the salary demands Graham will eventually make.

Either way, Graham is going to command a large contract. Testing the market will clarify Graham's true value, and it remains to be seen who will pursue (negotiate with) Graham.

For whatever reason, the conventional wisdom right now seems to be this: no team will pursue Jimmy Graham because the combination of signing him to a big contract and giving up two first-round picks is unreasonable.

(If it matters, this has been prevalent on message boards, twitter, and in the media.)

Not gonna happen, they all say. Dismissed as even possible. Completely implausible that some team will make a play for Graham.

The faulty assumption is two-fold here: 1.) that it would be a "mistake" for another team to sign Graham and surrender two picks to do so (would it be?); 2.) that no owner/GM would be "dumb enough" to surrender two picks and give Graham a big contract (would that be "dumb"?).

Yet year after year we see NFL teams make risky, and many times crazy, decisions. Somehow though, when it comes to Jimmy Graham--because he's overrated or something--no team would even consider the idea. Preposterous, they say!

But then ...

* The Seahawks traded three picks for Percy Harvin: a first, a third, and a seventh.

* The Colts gave up a first-round pick for Trent Richardson, a player far less valuable and accomplished than Graham.

* The Raiders traded first- and second-round picks for a then 32-year old Carson Palmer.

* The Jaguars drafted a fucking punter in the third round of the 2012 draft.

* The Falcons traded five--FIVE!--picks for Julio Jones: a swapped first, a future first, a second, a third, and a fourth.

So there's no way any team will pursue Graham because the compensation will be too steep? Is that the logic?

Sorry, but that logic isn't exactly airtight.

Jimmy Graham is 27 years old, with a lot less football mileage on him than most of his peers. He's one of the league's very best offensive weapons. He's scored the most receiving touchdowns in the NFL over the past three years. During the same timeframe, he's fourth in receptions and eighth in yards. He's #1 in all of the aforementioned categories for tight ends during those seasons. His prime years are likely ahead of him.

Ridiculous is the notion that not one team will make a serious run at signing Graham. Is it likely to happen? Maybe not. But it's certainly a possibility given Graham's production, age, unparalleled athleticism, work ethic, and the existing precedents as mentioned above.

You think, say, the Packers and their $35 million in available cap space won't wrack their brains to find a way to land Graham?

Granted, some team will have to pony up a significant amount of money to sign him (in addition to giving up two first rounders).

But the salary cap just went up by $10 million this season, mitigating the impact of Graham's contract on the 2014 cap. Additionally, the salary cap is expected to rise again in 2015. Considering teams that are already under the cap--a few of them far beneath--and with respect to the cap increase, some teams out there will have a lot of money to spend.

Some of those teams include Oakland, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Miami, Green Bay, Minnesota, Cincinnati, Washington, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Buffalo, Carolina, and the Jets. All of these teams have between $20 and $60+ million in available cap space.

Yet none of them will go after Graham?


This assumption (that no one will pursue Graham) might also be tied to a growing, yet moronic, notion that Jimmy Graham is somehow overrated. Or soft. Or a product of the system. Or easy to TAKE OUT OF THE GAME! Or some other bullshit nonsense like that.

In real life, Jimmy Graham has been one the NFL's very best pass-catchers for three straight seasons. He's played through injuries. He's been a model teammate. Yet now that Graham is in line for a contract commensurate with his value, he's suddenly an unnecessary luxury.


This paranoid line of thinking has led the most querulous of Saints' fans to prefer Graham be signed away in exchange for two first-round draft picks. And that, of course, is related to this weird fetishization of the draft as an all-encompassing panacea for the Saints' needs.

Sure, two first-round picks might be preferable if every little thing goes right. But it doesn't usually work out that way.

I'll take the proven commodity (you know, the guy who's an all-pro, the guy who's caught more touchdowns than anyone else over the last 48 games) instead of unknown, future potential.

This especially rings true considering Drew Brees's age, and the shrinking opportunities to win another Super Bowl in the next few seasons. Removing Graham--a young player on the Saints' league-oldest offense--robs the teams of its best weapon at the worst possible time.

With the Saints' wide receivers aging and under-producing in 2013, losing Graham would further hamper a Saints' offense already in need of another high-quality receiving option.

If some other team extends to Graham an offer that the Saints can't (or won't) match, then so be it. The worthy compensation will assuage the loss.

That, in my opinion, is not the preferable outcome though.

The preferable outcome is retaining Graham, one of the NFL's best players.

More importantly, if the Saints' goal is to win the Super Bowl in 2014, then signing Jimmy Graham would be a good place to start.