Backstage at the Intermission
7 Posted on October 14th, 2013 by Himself
It was a heartbreaking loss, but the Saints are still very much in charge of their own destinies. And as we go into the bye week, let all Saints fans join Sean Payton in wishing everyone a happy Fuck You.
I‘ll take it. Not that I have any choice in the matter: the game’s in the books and the Saints lost. A game they should have won, a game they had won until they didn’t. In all fairness, you could label it a choke job, were you so inclined. (And were you so inclined, and a Falcons or Bucs or Panthers fan to boot, you can also choke on your own pin-sized manhoods, because the Saints are still three games up in the division, fools.)
And I won’t pretend not to be angry and upset right now. I’m sure it will even out over the next couple weeks, as I take stock of where the Saints actually stand coming into their next game against Buffalo. Right now, it looks pretty good. Not as good as 6-0, and especially not considering that they were 6-0 up until the 0:05 mark. But still, better than any of the alternatives currently being explored by our divisional brethren.
And certainly far better than the scenario the major media had picked out for us before the season. The Saints were going to be extremely lucky to keep pace (a few games back) with the awesome Atlanta Falcons. Their defense might be a bit better, but it wouldn’t be enough to make a difference.
And Sean Payton? Well, welcome back, coach. Welcome to 8-8. Can’t have everything, can we?
Well. What we can’t have anymore is a zero to the right side of the hyphen. We might have, if the team had played up to their potential. Instead, the Saints played a sloppy game, battling against both the Patriots and the fearsome Tony Corrente, and came within an ace of winning anyway. I think this is what Jerruh Jones actually had in mind when he spoke about “moral victories”: not when you play out of your minds and still find a way to lose; but when you play poorly, and damn near find a way to win.
So. I have a few things to say, and some of it may sound like whining and excuse-making to non-Saints fans. It’s not; if you want to take it that way, liberally apply the standard rhetorical remedy.
Tony Corrente is an incompetent dick. That much is already well-established, so I won’t attempt to make the point all over again. But it seems to me that in the past few years, we’ve come to expect bad officiating. I don’t mean “against the Saints”; I mean period. The state of officiating in the NFL is absolutely pathetic, and it needs to be fixed ASAP. Which means the NFL will, right on cue, deny that there’s any problem, and praise the striped fuckups for the wonderful job they do for us and all the children.
This game was decided by three points, and the cushion was the field goal the Patriots kicked after picking off Drew on a hopelessly busted play that began with a time-out. I saw the signal; not on replay, but as it occurred. Why, then, did NOBODY in a striped shirt notice when the most important player on the field—the man who puts the play in motion every single goddamned down—made that funny little T signal with his hands? “Whoops! That’s one on us.”
And the problem is: that was just one. There were more. Like a bogus false start on Jahri Evans when half the Patriots’ defense was offside. The correct call would have given us a first down at the Patriots’ 33, most likely setting up a score before the first half ended (and again: there goes that three-point cushion). Or like the holding non-call on the Patriots’ winning touchdown. Nate Solder had Junior Galette hooked around the neck; if Solder hadn’t done that, Galette would have sacked Brady and the game would have been over. If Corrente’s crew had done their jobs and noticed, the touchdown would have been nullified and the Patriots would have had the ball on the 27 with five seconds left. But it wasn’t seen, and so the Saints lost. Granted, they still may have, in an even more appalling fashion. But if I had to bet the house, I’d still have bet on the Saints in that position. (Don’t tell my wife.)
I know that officiating tends to even out, and both sides have to play through the officials just like they play through the elements. But lately, it just seems like the elements have consisted of earthquakes and firestorms, and I’m getting tired of it. Evenly-applied ineptitude isn’t the same as competent officiating, Roger.
Everyone will want to talk about the total absence of Jimmy Graham, but frankly it came as little surprise to me. When Bill Belichick wants to take someone out of the game, that someone is taken out. Graham is good, but he’s not Superman.
But Belichick’s tactics necessarily leave holes elsewhere. In this case, it was the running game. Once Payton realized that, things started hopping in the second half, and we had what was beyond all doubt our best game on the ground so far. So it’s ironic that this should be the only game we’ve lost so far.
Sunday actually demonstrated how the running game is supposed to work for the Saints: the success of the passing game opening up opportunities on the ground. Up to now, teams have been able to stop our rushing attack but have been virtually powerless to defend against the pass. They can’t do both, and they choose according to their own capabilities. Belichick, a much better defensive coach than anyone the Saints had faced up to that point, knew how to stop the aerial attack; but like anyone else, he couldn’t do both. He chose to force the Saints to beat him on the ground, and they very nearly did.
The problem was: when the game was on the line and we needed to be able to run to bleed the clock, we couldn’t. As soon as the Saints became one-dimensional, they became vulnerable. I know the received wisdom of the NFL is that you run the ball at the end of the game; but the entire point is to gain first downs, to hold onto the ball, to not give it up. If you need to pass in order to do that, you pass. If the defense is expecting the run, the pass tends to work.
Payton chose not to, and I think I know why. I think what we saw was a rare instance of Sean Payton having no confidence in Drew Brees. It was apparent from the very beginning of this game that Brees was going to have one of his off days: throwing high, making bad decisions, littering the field with plays that left you going “huh?” And that’s just what happened: a completion percentage of .47, a passer rating of 75.7, a goofy interception trying to force the ball to 9’6″ Jimmy Graham. And one-dimensional, ineffective play calling when the Saints desperately needed to hold onto the ball. When you have less than a 50-50 chance of even completing the pass, you take your chances with the run.
And yet, as in the infamous San Francisco playoff loss, Brees still managed to put the team up at the end. In fact, this game felt more like that loss to the 49ers than any other game I can recall. So the real story of the game wasn’t even Brees; it was…
Spin it any way you want: this game was won, and the defense lost it. They played pretty close to magnificent for much of the way; but with a lead and 1:13 left, they found a way to let it slip away. Yeah, the offense had not one but two chances to close out the game, and couldn’t do it. Doesn’t matter: the final responsibility was on the defense, and they failed.
But there may be a silver lining to this. Every child eventually learns not to touch a hot stove; they do it by touching a hot stove. Rob Ryan made the fatal mistake of playing a prevent defense against a team that had to pass. The result was predictable: a three-man rush that failed to provide pressure, and Brady carving up the zone coverage to put his team in position for two short strikes into the end zone to close out the game. In the event, they only needed to use one of them.
Here’s the silver lining: Rob Ryan has just been burned. The prevent defense is a hot stove, and if Ryan has learned not to touch it, but to continue the schemes that had been successful up to that point, the Saints will be able to bring something good out of this debacle.
(But wasn’t that exactly the approach taken by Gregg Williams in San Francisco? Shut up.)
For debacle it was—don’t kid yourselves. It was the sort of debacle that happens to the Saints at least once every season. If they’ve gotten that out of the way, we’re still sitting pretty. 5-1 is not a disastrous start: it’s the Patriots, and the Seahawks, and the Saints. Three teams that nobody wants to face right now. There are only two teams in the league that wouldn’t trade for our record. And if 5-1 doesn’t guarantee anything more than 5-11, it also holds out the possibility of 15-1. What the Saints make of the opportunity is up to them.
Could we please just lose those fuckers?
One of the frequently-asked questions at the beginning of the year was: what effect would Payton’s return have on the Saints? It should have been: what effect would Payton’s return have on the league. Because the answer wasn’t, “He’ll get the Saints back in contention for a division title,” but “He’ll carve the NFL a new asshole.”
Well. The asshole-carving got put on temporary hold by his elder sibling Bill; but if what we think we know about Payton is true, that only means the Saints are going to demolish their next opponent (the Bills) and rampage through the rest of the schedule. Oh, they might have one more debacle in them; that means we wind up 14-2.
In truth, as Wang pointed out near the beginning of this season (with the absolute best Yes reference ever), 2013 is Sean Payton’s Revenge Tour. There’s only one song on this tour, repeated nineteen times, and the lyrics go something like this: “Fuck you. Fuck you very much.” You thought he was going to take Bountygate lying down? Come back all humbled and domesticated? Concede the advantage to Atlanta and embark on a rebuilding year? Accept incremental improvement in his inept defense? “Fuck you very much.” That’s the standard rhetorical remedy to any confusion when it comes to the Saints’ capabilities or intentions. Memo to the rest of the NFL: you brought this on yourselves.
Okay, so he broke a string on the sixth song. Big deal. We still go to intermission with a record two or three wins better than most of the pundits thought possible. I had hoped for 6-0, a hearty and emphatic “may you carnally know yourself” to the entire sporting world. But actually, this may be better. Payton is stewing right now. He stewed for an entire year in 2012, and look what’s happened because of it. Let him stew for another two weeks. After that, all we have to do is direct the explosion.