The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
In response to the question posed here on Monday, yes, last Sunday’s 44-23 win over Green Bay might have represented RB Mark Ingram’s breakout. The fourth-year running back was less flashy and far more methodical Thursday night, but the result was just as comforting. The Saints ended a seven-game regular season road losing streak with a surprisingly easy 28-10 win at Carolina. Ingram’s 30 grinding carries for 100 yards allowed the team to control the game while Rob Ryan’s rejuvenated defense kept QB Cam Newton bottled up for most of the night.
Sean Payton’s sudden discovery of a running game does not suggest the coach is going all William F. Buckley on us, however. He ordered a fourth-and-one dive over the pile for QB Drew Brees that was more a brushing-than-breaking of the goal line plane and an 80-yard scoring drive that took up the final 1:40 of the first half for a 14-0 lead.
And, suddenly, things don’t look so bad halfway through the season. The last two games have taken Who Dat Nation out of its doldrums just in time for Halloween, which promises to be another great excuse to party hardy. Looking ahead, the second half of the season looks even more encouraging. The Saints are on top of what, from a record standpoint, is the easiest division in the league, and three of their four losses came by a total of six points (no matter how badly they looked at times). Their upcoming opponents have a cumulative 27-33 record before this weekend’s games, which ranks as the fifth easiest schedule in the league. If Payton continues his equal opportunity offense, setting up Brees’ play-action and quick strikes with a solid running game, then 10 or 11 wins and the playoffs are realistic.
But before we talk about playoffs – “PLAYOFFS? PLAYOFFS?” – let’s look a bit further into what Ingram's sudden success might mean. In a decision that was eminently understandable at the time, the Saints declined Ingram’s fifth-year option when they could have tied him up one more year. Ingram clearly had underperformed his first-round draft position and before last week, he had rushed for more than 100 yards only once in his first 40 games.
But what the Saints did was inadvertently invoke one of the maxims of NFL Moneyball: “A player’s performance will increase during a contract year in direct proportion to a corresponding decline in the first year after he signs a free agent contract.” In other words, chasing big money is a great motivator, a fact that Ingram's camp has figured out. NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported Thursday that Ingram will likely test the free-agent market in March. A scout who has studied Ingram believes the former Alabama star is finally realizing his substantial talent due to increased confidence and the late 2013 shift to an inside/outside blocking scheme that emphasizes his strengths.
Hey, timing is everything! If Ingram continues to channel Deuce McAllister, it could put the team into a bit of a pickle. Already up against the salary cap, GM Mickey Loomis might have to consider the franchise or transition tag if Ingram continues to flirt with 100 yards per game. But watching the current administration operate over the years, I’m suspecting Loomis is hoping for such a dilemma. If the offense brings out the best in Ingram the rest of the season, then good things have happened for the team. The postseason looks more likely, and the Saints might not be so eager to see him test the open market. But let's get there first!
Well, my weekend was 1-1, but I’m not complaining. The Saints finally looked like the team we expected, and Kentucky played tough against No. 1 Mississippi State. I’ll write more on my Wildcats another day because the Saints’ 44-23 blowout of Green Bay deserves some pats and a little head-scratching.
Rob Ryan’s defense continues to improve and made some big plays, but the Saints’ offense took center stage Sunday night. Drew Brees made the Green Bay defensive backs look like a practice squad as he picked them apart with bombs to Kenny Stills and Brandin Cooks and darts to Jimmy Graham. And the reason he could do that with such success was a little equal opportunity execution. The Saints displayed a suddenly potent running game that seemed to show the Packers a bit of their own history. Teams playing Vince Lombardi’s Packers knew Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor were going to run the ball, but with a rock solid offensive line led by guards Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston, they could not do much about it.
Sunday night, Mark Ingram did a pretty good 1965 impersonation as he set a career high with 172 rushing yards on 24 carries behind some consistently good blocking. I’ve been on a long rant about the Saints’ inability, or refusal, to run the ball and their preference to throw when common sense suggests they should run. I said then, and I repeat now, if they had given the ball to Ingram three times last week to protect a lead instead of throwing the ball in the final minutes, they would have beaten Detroit. Ingram’s performance against the Pack tells me that their lack of a running game has been more a choice than inability. But is Ingram the guy to do it?
It is interesting that Ingram’s only other 100-yard game was also on Sunday night TV. Remember last season’s blowout of Dallas when Ingram rushed for 145 yards in only 14 carries? I remember writing that it could be Ingram’s “breakout” game when Who Dat Nation would finally see the player the Saints traded up into the first round to obtain. But it never happened. Over the next seven regular season games, Ingram faded back into the pass-first offense, only once gaining over 32 yards. In three of those games, he carried the ball three times or less. He flashes, then disappears, whether it’s due to nagging injuries or Sean Payton’s pass-happy schemes.
So that raises the question: Is Ingram a prime-time phenom or has he finally moved up to the next level? We’ll find out soon enough, but let's go to the blackboard for a moment. When the Saints won the Super Bowl after the 2009 season, their pass-run mix was 53.8 pass against 46.2 percent run. A fairly balanced scheme makes it more difficult for the defense to concentrate on stopping on phase. Accordingly, the play mix against the Packers was 32 passes and 31 runs, a 50.8 percent vs. 49.2 percent, darned near even.
However, in the Saints’ first six games, in which their record was a disturbing 2-4, they threw 295 passes and ran the ball 181 times, a disparity of 63.4 percent vs. 36.3%. I rest my case. Run the damned ball more and see if Ingram deserves the carries!
Coaches receive more credit than they deserve when things go well and probably more blame than they deserve when things go badly. However, when the Saints let a sure victory get away from them Sunday at Detroit, blame should lay squarely on the shoulders of Head Coach Sean Payton.
In case you missed the game, the Saints had a commanding 23-10 lead with under four minutes remaining and the Lions facing third down. Detroit QB Matthew Stafford hit WR Golden Tate on a short sideline throw, which turned into a 73-yard touchdown. But Who Dat Nation did not panic. The Saints defense had been playing well, so the offense just needed to keep the clock moving and the game is over.
Now, my idea of keeping the clock moving is to run the ball. Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas both had made key runs earlier in the period, and with three running downs, why couldn’t they do it again? If the Saints don’t get a first down, which ices the game, then they punt and let the Lions try to come back with no time outs. But nooooooo, Payton has to get cute and throw the ball, which invokes the old Woody Hayes theory that when you throw the ball, three things happen and two of them are bad. Drew Brees had been rattled by the Lions’ pass rush in the second half to the point where at the end of the game he didn't complete a pass in 10 straight attempts.
So of course, Payton dials up a pass on third down, Brees telegraphs the throw, which lands right into the welcoming arms of Lions DB Glover Quin. Lions ball on the Saints’ 14-yard line. On a day in which Detroit's offense struggled to move the ball, it was an unforgivable mental mistake, but Brees never should have been put in that position. Hope springs eternal, however, and the Saints almost pulled it out, taking the Lions to fourth down. But mistakes are fatal, and a questionable pass interference call on the Saints allowed Bradford to hit Corey Fuller in the back of the end zone for the go-ahead score.
The Saints had one last chance to go down and hit a field goal, but by that time Brees was shell-shocked. He went out in four downs and the game was over. Payton can be forgiven because he has seen his quarterback pull these kinds of games out before, but those days might be long gone. At least by the performance we’ve seen this year.
Improbable come-from-behind wins are great, but only if you are the one coming from behind. The game and its disappointing finish reminded me of another game the Saints had in the bag against an NFC North team and lost it. It was October 3, 1999, when the Saints led the Chicago Bears in Soldier Field 10-0 with two minutes remaining. It was a game of journeymen quarterbacks when the Saints split the day up between a pair of Billy Joe’s – Hobert and Tolliver – while the Bears went with Shane Matthews.
But the former Florida Gator got hot late, and with 1:57 hit Curtis Conway in the end zone for the Bears touchdown. Once again, the Saints could not hold onto the ball inside the two-minute warning. The Bears got the ball back and Matthews and Conway took them down the field, capped off by Conway’s sliding catch in the corner of the end zone as time expired. The Bears’ offensive coordinator received some pats on the back after that game, although he had been shut out for the previous 58 minutes. You might have heard of him. A guy by the name of Gary Crowton, whom LSU fans later hung in effigy after a few losses. As I said, he probably got more credit than he deserved for the victory, but a win is a win.
The reason I remember that game so vividly was that I had just joined the Chicago Bears front office, and I was on the right end of a memorable comeback. At least, that time.
It is not easy living behind enemy lines. Oh, you can find an adequate hiding place to hunker down so long as there is no conflict, but once the shooting starts, you’ve got to find cover. So it is this week with the only Kentucky fan on Vicksburg street. I have lived in New Orleans for the most part since 1986, and I been able to handle the UK-LSU rivalry pretty well. It might be because anytime my Wildcats play the Tigers at anything, one team or the other is usually heavily favored. Butt-kickings do not breed intense rivalries. That’s why I never have feared gunfire when I fly my 4’ x 6’ UK banner outside my house during basketball season because the Wildcats usually win. It has been just the opposite in football season when the Tigers usually prevail. I pull the drapes, stock up on adequate beverages and endure the inevitable.
But we UK fans are seeing a little glimmer that this year might be different. The Wildcats are 5-1 and riding a mini-wave of SEC victories over Vanderbilt and South Carolina. Coach Mark Stoops has brought a new attitude to Lexington along with two straight top-25 recruiting classes. Kentucky’s performance, compared to their recent years, has been absolutely incredible. On the other hand, LSU appears on the upswing after the 5-2 Tigers won last week at Florida in the same swamp where Kentucky suffered its only loss.
The Tigers have struggled this year, at least as far as their fans are concerned, primarily because they have lost more underclassmen to the NFL over the past three years than any other school. At Florida, their freshmen started to show some maturity. The oddsmakers seem to think a top program, even with its perceived troubles, is a better bet than a rising team that hasn’t done it yet. That is why LSU is a 9½ point favorite, and it is difficult to argue with logic. Kentucky doesn't have a true quality win. The victory over South Carolina is the best of the lot, but the remaining schedule is by far the tougher side, starting this week.
LSU saved its season by pulling out a win at Florida last week, avoiding its first 0-3 start in the conference in 15 years. It wasn't a pretty game, with the passing game still a mess, but it showed a lot of promise for a turnaround thanks to the effort of freshman running back Leonard Fournette (career-high 140 yards, two touchdowns) and a defense that came up big in the end. History is also on the Tigers' side. Kentucky last won in Baton Rouge in 1998 when a last-second field goal gave the visitors a 39-36 victory. QB Tim Couch led the Kentucky upset by completing 37 of 50 passes for 390 yards and three touchdowns.
But crazy things seem to happen when Kentucky travels to Baton Rouge. The first in my memory was a football game in 1968 when I was sports editor of the Kentucky Kernel, the campus newspaper. The Wildcats were big underdogs but fought hard in a 13-3 Tigers victory. The crazy things occurred after the game when two black Kentucky players tried to get a bite to eat after the game and were refused service at a Baton Rouge eatery. Race was a volatile topic in those early years of SEC integration, and since I was the only reporter on the team plane, I heard about it on the flight home. My scoop in the Kernel drew national attention.
I could also throw out some UK basketball wins in Baton Rouge such as the 1994 game when Kentucky overcame a 31-point deficit to win or even the 1996 game when the Wildcats led 86-42. At halftime! But for every Wildcat moment, some LSU football snob will remind me of the so-called “Bluegrass Miracle” of November 9, 2002 at Commonwealth Stadium. Devery Henderson caught a tipped pass from Marcus Randall for a 74-yard game-winning touchdown with no time on the clock and UK Coach Guy Morriss still dripping from a premature Gatorade bath from his players.
Mark Stoops may not have a chance to enjoy a Gatorade bath on Saturday, but at least one Kentucky fan will fly the flag proudly. I just hope my LSU friends hold their fire!
I hope you card-carrying members of Who Dat Nation used your bye week wisely. Did you go to the job jar, full of tasks that have been ignored for months since the Saints reported to the Greenbrier Ritz-Carlton for tea and training camp? Did you tackle that first purging of your closets since Katrina did it for you last, or did you devote your day to property improvement and mowed the lawn or finally hammered that loose fence board back into place? I'll bet some of you reluctant souls ignored the job jar altogether and joined the bustle of carefree innocents along Bayou St. John cutting their own grass (usually with parsley), while some of you golfed or goofed off, went fishing or went drinking at the normal late-summer plethora of festivals. People making merry and Mary making Mojitos by the pool. Ah, yes, a bye week Sunday afternoon in New Orleans is many things to many people, but nary a foul word heard nor a single TV remote sailing through a window.
But as Mick Jagger so poetically informed us in a less complicated time: “It’s all over now!” The Saints are back in action Sunday, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth begin anew amid reasons aplenty for bayou angst. The local heroes travel to Detroit, whose own season has been fairly positive through Lion eyes. They are tied for first place with Green Bay in the old Black and Blue division, and their 4-2 record is evenly split, 2-1 at home and 2-1 on the road.The latter included a 17-3 trouncing of Minnesota on Sunday. The Lions also are an early two and a half point favorite. All that doesn't matter much to Saints fans who never agonize over their upcoming opponent when they’ve got agony enough at home to keep them sweating.
Sure, the overtime win over Tampa Bay was welcomed, but it wasn’t convincing enough to take the Who Dats out of therapy this week. It might have been easier if the Bucs had taken that narrow loss back home and beaten Baltimore, but they didn’t and they didn’t. Ravens win in a walkover, 48-17! The Bucs are a bad team that could have easily beaten the Saints, which has the Who Dats rolling the bones over whether their team is also bad or just momentarily bewildered.
They played well in spurts against the Bucs, especially late in the game and overtime. That should lift the spirits, but Who Dats have seen this team confuse them all season long. The defense played well when it counted against Tampa, so have they finally figured out how to play angry or will they return to meek and polite? No takeaways, no sacks, no quarterback pressures? No encouragement for Who Dat Nation! But the latest concern for wizened Who Dats is how much will the loss of Jimmy Graham hurt Drew Brees’ passing attack? They know the Pro Bowl tight end has been Brees’ only option this season, and they rub their worry beads, hoping Brees can effectively compensate with Brandin Cooks, Marques Colston and Kenny Stills.
Yes, like Christmas or a child’s birthday, the bye week comes but once a year, so I hope you enjoyed yours. This coming Sunday, your favorite team returns you to the pain and frustration of a very confusing season.