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.

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