I’ll let you choose your analogy here – is it a yo-yo season or a roller coaster season? It doesn’t matter what analogy you choose; the story remains the same – the New Orleans Saints in 2016 have seen more ups and downs than a schoolyard see-saw. Just when you think it’s done, they bounce back. Just when you think they’ve turned the corner and may begin to get something going, they falter, though playing decently. And then, as if shot like an old school human cannonball, they streak across the Rams in a blur – only to crash to the Earth with back to back dismal and dismaying performances against Detroit and Tampa Bay.
Many of my colleagues have taken their turns at analyzing the game and where do we go from here. I was so disappointed in the performance Sunday in Tampa, that it took a while to decipher my emotions…
There is deep disappointment. This team looked early on to be a rebuilding team, but after the win in San Diego, there was a stretch of steady improvement. Even in the losses, there were many signs of a team learning to play better. This wasn’t a Super Bowl ready team, and maybe not even a playoff ready team, but they were well on their way to more solid performances. One could even look at the entire body of work and say save for 2 games this season, this team wasn’t more than a TD away from winning any of their losses, no matter how many mistakes they made.
But (and there’s always a but…) the measure of great teams is winning those close games. The Saints have failed to do so too often. And more recently, the play has become shoddy – there is a marked downturn, particularly on offense, that leaves one grasping at straws as to how to read this team.
There is disgust. The play of this team against Detroit was simply uninspired. It wasn’t that they didn’t try, but their effort was lackluster. Then this past Sunday against Tampa Bay, they seemed to sleepwalk through the first quarter. Offensively, the team has simply not been good these last 2 weeks. And this is supposed to be an offense first team. Speaking of which the offense has averaged 25.4 points per game (ppg) over the last 8 games. That doesn’t seem outlandishly bad, until you remove the Rams game and the San Francisco game, and realize without those two, they’ve scored 18.8 ppg in the other 6… That is not winning football, nor is it Saints football.
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There is resignation. This team is exactly where many people expected them to be. At best, they win out and finish .500, but that’s highly unlikely. At worst, the skid continues and they finish 5-11. That would be horrendous, simply in the manner of reaching that point. More likely they win one or two. Maybe Atlanta clinches the division before the last week and their playoff spot can’t change so they rest Matty Ice and Julio Jones. And maybe the Saints will have figured out what’s going wrong on offense. But we won’t have a winning season again, which brings about more disappointment.
Finally, there is hope and optimism. In 2017, the Saints salary cap/ dead cap situation should be improving so we’ll have more actual dollars to spend. The Black and Gold defense under Dennis Allen has played consistently decent since week 6. Over the last 8 games, the defense has only given up 22.7 ppg. And when you break it down further, it’s even less daunting… They are only giving up 2 TDs and just over 2 FGs a game. A good number of points we’ve given up, particularly FGs, were the direct result of offensive miscues – fumbles and interceptions – giving the opponents short fields.
At the Denver game the defense gave up 23 points, but ten of those were the results of the 2 turnovers in Denver territory. Carolina only worked fully for 2 field goals, as one touchdown was the result of an interception and a short field, and the other TD was a result of a blocked field goal. The refs called back the return for a penalty. But Carolina scored on the ensuing play. Another 3 points came off a fumble deep in our own territory. While you want your defense to hold in every situation, there are many times when the defense does all it can do. And when we turn the ball over, we put our defense on the field entirely too much; fatigue sets in and they invariably wear down.
Also hopeful are many of the pieces we’ve assembled over the last couple of years, as well as the maturation and coming of age of several key veterans. Defensively, we still lack the edge pass rusher. It’s possible that Kikaha could be that guy when he returns next year, or maybe they draft that guy. But looking around the defense, we’re better everywhere. 3 of our front 4 are solid, our linebackers are now much better and quicker, and our DB’s, led by Kenny Vaccaro, have played well through injuries and adversity. Considering we don’t get a consistent pass rush, our DB’s have not played terribly.
Offensively, we have some decisions to make and issues to overcome. The last few games have been challenging for Drew Brees. No one should question his heart or desire, but considering he was held out of practice this week for a couple of days, is there an injury that the Saints brass aren’t speaking of? If so, that would be 3 injuries in 3 years. The oblique was bad in 14, though they made little of it. He hurt his foot last year, and again, they downplayed it.
This year with no injuries, Brees has been fairly solid. Since the Detroit game however, there’s been a downturn. Whether there was an injury in the Rams game or during the Detroit game, or if there is no injury and it’s just fatigue or forcing bad passes, we need more solid play from Brees. Face it – the rest of the Saints offense is good but not great. No one from this offense is going to the Hall of Fame or even more than a couple of Pro Bowls outside of Brees. Brees must perform at a high level for this team to be consistently successful.
Beyond that, we must address the offensive line. We need some depth and another quality starter or two. Our running backs are good, not great. While our two lead runners are solid, no one in the backfield is irreplaceable, though Lasco’s potential is intriguing and Kuhn would be nice to keep around. Receiver depth is good, as Coleman seems to be turning a corner. Many have suggested Cooks as trade bait and that’s not a bad idea. He still has the speed and talent to command decent compensation, but his mouth may have bought him a one-way ticket out of New Orleans.
I believe our special teams strategies need some reworking, but the personnel is sound. With so many injuries on the regular teams, special teams took a hit as many of those players had to replace starters.
Health, of course, is a major factor in everything. And as our health has gone, so has the season. For the short while we had all of our offensive line healthy and all of our non-IR defenders healthy, this team looked as good as any we faced this season. Now with Vaccaro and Armstead out for the remainder of the season, the team will be at a decided disadvantage.
As for coaching, while Sean Payton has been suspect in his play calling recently and he has now had 3 consecutive .500 or worse seasons, several things come into the thought to keep him into next season. First is the potential. This team has drafted and selected in free agency well recently, save for a few players. He’s only now coming out of the failed era and salary cap hell of the last few years. We should afford him at least a small window of opportunity to redeem himself. Second is injuries. Similar to the New Orleans Pelicans of the Monty Williams era, injuries can adversely alter a team’s plans. As well there’s the simple thought that this team hasn’t been talented enough to win. Now that he has the talent, given healthy players, there are no excuses.
There is no telling what to expect for the next few weeks of this season. But the future isn’t as dim as it may have been in years past for the Black and Gold.