The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
When you write things, like the piece that occupies your attention at the moment, you try to give your readers additional insight on things they already know something about. In order to do that, you have to plan your column, like the itinerary on a two-week road trip, so you don’t miss out on any unique attractions along the way. And that’s not always easy because you can’t plan what you don’t expect. But you plow along anyway, hoping to find a theme, a pithy opening to grab the reader’s attention and an ending that ties up the above thoughts in a red ribbon. (Parents, feel free to use that last sentence as a guide for your students facing terms papers or book reports!)
But this morning as I sat down at my laptop, the theme of today’s lesson came out loud and clear: the Saints stink. Who Dats already are thinking the same thing, that their local heroes were never in it Sunday in descending to 0-2 in this early NFL season. So it is my task to bore in beneath the final score to illuminate the “why” or the “how” they can turn it around. So let me borrow an ancient response that the ancient wizard Karnak – aka Johnny Carson - once presented to his flock when asked the meaning of life:
That, by the way, is translatable into most modern languages. The Saints’ descent is really unexpected, because, like you, I bought the line that the offense was going to maintain its high level of competence, as measured by 29.3 points per game in 2016, which would stand up nicely to an improved defense that surely would cut a touchdown or two from last season’s generosity of 28.4 points per game. Maintain one, improve the other sounded like a surefire return to the playoffs in 2017. But it hasn’t yet worked out that way and even more disappointing is that both units seem to have gotten worse!
The defensive problems are legion and all combine to make pass patterns look like flight patterns for opposing receivers. The 65 total points given up in two games are understandable when opposing quarterbacks complete 57 passes in 71 attempts for a resounding 11.2 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 141.4. You can halfway expect those kind of stats from a future Hall of Famer like Tom Brady, but when Sam Bradford looks even better, that means you have absolutely no pass rush. No pressure on the passer leaves your young secondary chasing their tails and your linebackers on an island when trying to cover the likes of Rob Gronkowski or various running backs sliding out of the backfield. It might be time for Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen to play six defensive backs more because his linebackers can’t cover a couch with a coverlet.
On offense, injuries, particularly to starting tackles Terron Armstead and Zach Strief, have not helped the effort, but I’m going to raise a heretical point. Who Dats choose to ignore it, and it might seem like heresy, but Drew Brees’ decline is inevitable, and it might have started. Brees missed too many passes Sunday that either sailed over or beyond open receivers. I know the Saints have young receivers, and you can expect some route-running mistakes, but I am not sure things will improve even when Willie Snead returns in another week. I’m not saying Brees is done by any means, but it just doesn’t look like he is as sharp as he has been.
I'd like to tie up this analysis with a red ribbon, but all I know for certain is I am not expecting much different next week when the Saints visit 2-0 Carolina. The Panthers have outscored their first two opponents by 32-6 and look like they are returning to their 2015 form. So is the game a "must win" for the Saints? When legendary coach Marv Levy of the Bills was asked if his next game was a "must win," Levy shook his head adamantly. "World War II was a 'must' win," Levy responded. "This is a game."
After watching the Saints fall helplessly to the Vikings on Monday night, I can’t help but think that the new edition of the Black and Gold is a lot like the new edition of the IPhone that will debut any day now. Think about it. Fans/customers have a team/product that they love but that could use some improvements. The new phone is supposed to be so much better than the ones we now carry in our pockets, and although it might cost upwards of $1,000 each, it’s supposed to do everything but toast your morning bagel. When you take it out of the box, it looks shiny and new and improved, but when it slips out of your pocket and falls into the toilet, it still stops working just like the old phone.
That’s kind of what happened to the Saints last night. An offseason of improvements through free agent signings and a draft that produced several immediate starters, all wrapped around a reliable operating system, in this case the Brees.9, but it fell into a Minnesota toilet. So the question that members of Who Dat Nation are asking themselves this morning is: “Does one long night of misery mean a longer season of misery ahead?” There’s no answer to that right now outside of upsetting an angry 0-1 Patriots team next Sunday at the Superdome. That certainly would relieve our “morning after” hangover, but in order for that to happen, some problems that rose against the Vikings need to be addressed and fixed. Quickly!
The most immediate area of attention is what to do about the offensive line. When Drew Brees gets time to operate, he can put 30 points on the board. Roughly broken down, that’s four touchdowns and a field goal, or five scoring opportunities. The Saints had five scoring opportunities against the Vikings, but the mix of four field goals and a late touchdown came up short on the scoreboard. Lay that one on the offensive line.
Brees was pressured all night by the relentless Minny pass rush, and the running game went absolutely nowhere. We’ll probably learn what free agent pickup Adrian Peterson said to head coach Sean Payton that was captured on national TV, but if the offensive line is opening holes, Peterson, incumbent Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara would all have gotten more carries and likely been more content. A 9-yard gain by Peterson on the first play of the game was encouraging, but it turned out to be the longest gain of the night after running-game snowplow Zach Strief left the game with a knee injury.
Who Dats had better say their prayers that Strief is not sidelined for the rest of the season or that aspect of the game could get worse. Brees needs an adequate running game to be effective. Last night, it appeared Brees didn’t have time to wait for his young receivers to get open. When your best receiver is TE Coby Fleener, it is apparent they need Willie Snead back in uniform to take some pressure off second-year WR Mike Thomas, who was blanketed all night. Tommylee Lewis made one great catch on a 52-yard gain, but that was the extent of the Saints’ longball game, and Ted Ginn Jr. was not a factor in the offense. And after three years of watching him, my take on Brandon Coleman is that he looks good coming off the bus.
Believe it or not, I am not as concerned about the defense. Young defensive backs such as Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams too often looked like rookies but showed ability and will get better with experience. Delvin Breaux needs to heal up quickly to provide some stability at corner, although the secondary received little help from the pass rush. The Viking receivers had too much time to run free for all-world QB Sam Bradford to find them. Cam Jordan had the Saints’ only sack, and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen needs to create more schemes to help free agent Alex Okafor and DT Sheldon Rankins apply more pressure. The new linebackers were decent, including rookie LB Alex Anzalone and free agent A.J. Klein, and I believe that unit will get better playing together.
So as I said earlier, does one long night mean another long season ahead? Look at it this way: The Patriots also are 0-1 and are asking themselves the same questions. Both teams will find answers on Sunday.
Okay, Who Dats, it’s showtime! Bring’em on! The Saints open their season Monday night at Minnesota, and hopes are high. So turn off the Weather Channel and tune in to Fourth Down on Four or one of the other local programs – all with closed captioning - that chronicle the meanderings of your favorite team. We are all fed up with unlimited models that predict hurricane paths so let’s put aside the British model or the National Oceanography and Atmospheric Administration model, or the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory model, the various spaghetti models and even the Bad Hair Day model (I am not making this up!), and let us shift our attention to the annual Who Dat Hope model.
New Orleans is a town of hope and faith, and much of it involves the local football enterprise. Where else but New Orleans does a prayer written by a past Archbishop get reprinted every year in the local paper before the Saints season begins? That prayer and others will be dutifully repeated in pulpits around town on Saturday night and Sunday. And you likely will hear a prayer for the Saints’ success come in the same breath as the prayer to Our Lady of Prompt Succor to spare us from hurricanes! For you other Presbyterians, that is a Roman Catholic title for the Blessed Virgin Mary associated with a wooden devotional image enshrined in New Orleans since the late 1700s. Miracles have been attached to the image, including the one pulled off in 1815 by Andrew Jackson and his Kentucky sharpshooters that became known as the Battle of New Orleans.
The past week, you can be forgiven for monitoring threats in the West Indies, but around here it’s time that Saints fans believe they are as deserving of miracles as the local region is deserving of being saved from hurricanes. And there is some reason for optimism this year. QB Drew Brees is still performing at a high level, the team added future Hall-of-Famer Adrian Peterson, strengthened the offensive line with the signing of free agent Larry Warford and have three new starters at linebacker through free agency and the draft.
The geniuses who predict the final standings before the first game is played are not as enamored of the Saints’ chances this year. It seems those guys hold a grudge against the 2015-16 Saints’ defenses that might have been the worst in the league. Sports Illustrated, the sporting press' answer to the Bhagavad Gita, says the team’s Achilles’ heel is still the front seven, despite the team’s offseason efforts to improve the units. Defensive linemen and linebackers have the double duty of stopping the run and rushing the passer, neither of which they did especially the past couple years. That’s why the magazine predicts a 6-10 record and another year of sitting at home during the playoffs. ESPN’s spaghetti model says the Saints will do better than that, but at 8-8, still will finish last in the NFC South behind the 11-5 Falcons and the Panthers and Bucs, both at 9-7.
Other prognosticators have issued similar models, which is bad news for the faithful Who Dats. Saints fans are understandably tired of the recent less-than-mediocre 7-9 finishes the past three years. Their discontent is perfectly explainable when you look at the remnants of their drafts since their Super Bowl championship after the 2009 season. How many players are still on the team from the five drafts between 2010 and 2014? You don’t have to look it up, let me help you, although I warn you that those years look like they were orchestrated by Hurricane Irma:
2010: Nobody (although C Max Unger came in the Jimmy Graham trade). 2011 - Cameron Jordan (1a) and Mark Ingram (1b). 2012 - Nobody. 2013 - Kenny Vaccaro (1) and Terron Armstead (3) 2014: Nobody (although Ryan Ramczyk was the result of the Brandin Cooks trade). When you acquire only six solid starters and no depth out of five drafts, you’re in trouble.
But this is a city of hope, and to Who Dats, Hope-capital-H wears No. 9. At 38, Brees does not have many more quality seasons left, so maybe this year a little extra faith would help. Our Lady of Prompt Succor can have the credit for keeping major hurricanes away from New Orleans since Katrina. Maybe she could also throw in a few extra wins along the way.
When I heard that Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Saturday at the Texas resort town of Rockport, it brought back a jumble of memories. Saints owner Tom Benson had a vacation home in Rockport, where he once hosted his executive team for a Texas weekend. It was around 1990 when I was an officer of the team and enjoyed such perks that included a couple of days at the boss’ beach house and his ranch in the hill country near San Antonio.
That was the first time I met his daughter Renee, with whom he would later have a well-publicized falling out, but she was pleasant and her husband at the time operated a sport hunting operation. We were offered our choice of weapon with which we could hunt deer, turkeys or wild hogs, if we chose to do so. I had never been much of a hunter, but I took a .20-gauge shotgun and eventually bagged an armadillo, which was more like smashing a mosquito than killing anything of beauty. Others in our party avidly partook, although I only recall one kill, that of a deer by an anonymous colleague who instantly regretted it. He became “the man who killed Bambi” for the rest of the week.
Before the hunt, we enjoyed a barbeque at Benson’s Rockport house, which was on the water, and, if it was still standing on Friday, put it right in the path of Harvey on Saturday. The memory of Rockport was significant for another reason. Thursday marks the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. As I wrote in my book, Where the Water Kept Rising, that was when my job as University of New Orleans athletic director went from a wonderful experience to a task that no manager of a sports operation, or anything else, should ever have to endure. I wrestle with that experience even today, about how Katrina probably shortened my stay at UNO by at least three years, and how it turned our personal lives upside down.
This is not intended as a “woe is me” piece, because what we went through is nothing different than what thousands of other New Orleans residents went through and what the Harvey survivors will certainly experience. Survivors of one tragedy go through it all over again when a disaster such as Harvey inflicts major disruption upon thousands of innocent residents along the Texas coast.
Those poor people. Even if they are out of harm’s way, they don’t know what they are facing in the aftermath of disaster. I can only recall the fears and reality of what our family endured and I pray that their paths will be easier. Families who have lost their homes don’t know today where they are going to live. If they are fortunate, they have relatives or friends who will house them for a period of time. But right now they don’t know whether they will lose their jobs or be forced to move and find a new school for their kids or have enough insurance or be eligible for enough assistance to get their lives back to where it was before. I know from my own experience that Harvey will be a seminal moment in their lives. And I pray for them. I really do.
But something good happened last week, when the Eclipse seemed to bring the country together. People of all genders, races, socio-economic standing and political persuasions were genuinely awed by a natural event. All over the country, people gathered in groups and looked at the sky together, and if one or two had special glasses, they'd pass them around to others. When one person would put them on, they'd likely look up and say "Wow!" or "Incredible!" and then laugh and hand the glasses on. Peggy Noonan, my favorite columnist, captured the significance of that in her Saturday column in the Wall Street Journal, and I thought it, too, was worth passing around:
“There was something about it that left me by the end quite moved. Witnessing spontaneous human graciousness and joy is stirring. And we were seeing something majestic, an assertion of nature and nature’s God, together. It was tenderly communal. And it was this: Everyone was normal. These were regular Americans being nice to one another and to whoever walked by. They were all ages, conditions, races, sizes. They were generous and kindly. No one kept their pleasure to themselves. They were not fighting in the streets with scarfs covering their faces. They were not marching and chanting anti-Semitic or racist slogans. They were not shutting down speakers on campus. They were not ranting at a rally. They were not even deciding that a man named Robert Lee shouldn’t call a game down South on ESPN because Americans are so stupid they’ll think he’s Robert E. Lee and cover him with a tarp and knock him down. They were normal, regular people. They were who we are.”
Since training camp opened, I’ve not heard anyone mention what a momentous anniversary the Saints organization is celebrating this season. For those who need a primer in Who Dat History, thirty years ago the Saints went from laughingstock to NFL respect. In 1987, the Saints posted their first winning season in team history. Optimists, who hold the majority of Who Dat Nation membership, might look at the 2016 season and be downright bullish about the Saints ability to turn around their current malaise on the 30th anniversary of their first taste of success. Could the 2017 Saints channel the 1987 team and bounce back from a frustrating three years to restore prosperity?
The parallels between the 1986 and 2016 teams are downright eerie. In 1986, the team lost five “winnable” games (that is, by less than a touchdown), but last year the team lost a remarkable seven games by six points or less. We knew in 1986, my first season with the team, that we were better than our record indicated. Our bright spot was a defense that ranked No. 7 in the league, so the task then was to improve the other side of the ball, which ranked a mediocre No. 19. In the groundbreaking 1987 season, the Saints improved the defense two slots, to No. 5 in the league, while the offense, thoroughly clicking behind QB Bobby Hebert and weapons such as Reuben Mayes, Dalton Hilliard and a sturdy offensive line, shot all the way up to No. 2 and achieved a major culture change.
The '87 Season of Respect began with a home opening victory over Cleveland, but after a road loss to Philadelphia the NFL Players Association went on strike, prompting the fabled replacement games. The Saints won two of three before the regulars reported back to work to host the dominant 49ers. In a raucous Superdome, the local heroes fell behind early, rallied to take an early fourth-quarter lead but let it slip away, 24-22. That game prompted Jim Mora’s famous “We ain’t good enough” rant in which he added the quasi-optimistic note: “We’re close, but that don’t mean diddly poo!” The team went on to prove that being close to the 49ers still was better than the field as they ran off nine victories in a row and their first playoff appearance.
In the seasons since, the team has rewarded its fans with the ultimate prize – a Super Bowl championship – although they have never ventured too far away from the first 19 years of futility. Overall, since 1988, the team has had only 11 winning seasons while finishing 8-8 or worse 19 times, and three seasons bottomed out at 3-13. So wouldn’t this be a fitting time to replicate 1987 when things changed forever? I’m very sensitive to the team’s three most recent seasons of 7-9, because owner Tom Benson tied the tin can to my tail after three years, 1993-95, that weren’t quite as bad – 8-8, 7-9, 7-9 – as the past three.
Sour grapes aside, the question on the table is whether the 2017 Saints can mirror their 1987 predecessors? It could happen, but in a different way. Whereas the ’87 offense was working to catch up to the defense, it’s the opposite this year. As long as QB Drew Brees stays healthy, the offense should stay close to its No. 2 ranking in scoring from last year. But how much of a leap can a defense that ranked No. 31 make? Can the 2017 defense improve enough that it doesn't negate the efforts of a solid offense that occurred time after time last year?
That much improvement would exceed the most conservative expectations, although Sunday’s victory over the Chargers was encouraging. The team flashed indications of a pass rush and solid play from a rebuilt linebacker corps. If they can remain relatively injury-free, 2017 could be an appropriate celebration of the franchise’s 30th anniversary of respect.