Here Comes The Acid Test

by Bert Bartlett

The Saints couldn’t catch a break as the regular season wore down.

Atlanta needed just a field goal on the last drive in their finale to upset Carolina and put New Orleans in a superior #2 seed for the playoffs. This would have resulted in 2 games to qualify for the Super Bowl instead of 3 for the Saints, including one at home after a week’s rest, versus three straight on the road. Dat’s a difference maker! Matty Ice Ryan was cavorting in the backfield, barking signals for a pass play, but the center didn’t listen and made the snap, the ball sailing past the quarterback for a 15 yard loss. Stinking Falcons. Game over. Division title officially lost.

That night, Cowboy substitute quarterback Kyle Orton also needed just a field goal on the last drive to defeat Philadelphia, which would have had the Saints in Dallas the next weekend, matched up with a team they blew out in early November and have historically fared well, as opposed to facing an ascending Eagles team. Orton threw behind his receiver on a slant route, and a green jersey made the interception. Game over.

Of course, only the Saints are responsible for their slip from a 6-1 record and one of the favorites to win it all this year, to 11-5, and backing into the tournament as a wild card. We’re just sayin…

Yet the Saints have won their opening playoff round. And by discovering a running game! There are now 24 other teams and cities in the NFL that are watching the post season just on television. This we must not forget, or under-appreciate.

But we will say this is a peculiar Saints group. On several occasions, this outfit has appeared to be doing nothing more than going through the motions, looking morose out there, showing even signs of clinical depression. Though it is a business, good teams have fun playing well, and this team hasn’t looked like it has had all that much. It’s ironic that any good team from New Orleans, of all places, can show up and look like party poopers.

Losses to a highly inferior St. Louis team and in Seattle about a month ago made New Orleans look old and slow. But we know they can be the opposite of that, lighting up the scoreboard and putting opponents away early, and playing respectable defense, as they have done numerous times this year. And a wise shift to the running game in Philly this past weekend was the difference in winning it versus losing.

Jekyyl & Hyde is too simplistic, but this is a moody bunch. They have not leaned on 2009’s motto, Finish Strong, not having a little more oomph to put some teams away when they were better most of the day, like in New England, and at Carolina. The asset of lots of proven veterans has been offset by Curb Your Enthusiasm. In summation of this team’s disposition, we regret to report that yes, the 2013 Saints have lacked some soul.

Sean Payton has a mastermind on the psychological side of the game from a coaching perspective, and has used plenty of pricks and needles in his motivational ploys during his tenure here. He prioritizes keeping his hands on the intangible emotional pulses of his teams. We tend to think if, on the sly, we were having a drink with him, he’d admit this season has been something of a head scratcher for him and his staff along these lines. We hope there has been no malingering about somebody or something festering in the locker room, but you never know. If there has been, odds are we won’t find out about it until later.

Payton’s challenges in motivating his team psychology will be great for Saturday night in Seattle, where his team recently just got haplessly drummed, despite it being touted as the regular season game of the year at the time. And it dripped of the miserly playoff elimination loss after the 2010 season up there, when the Saints were far superior. Yet these are the playoffs, and what the coaches can or cannot do – to have the team’s heads screwed on right, is mostly up to the players, and how much they care. There are no excuses for this team being flat on Saturday. If, whomever is, should not be on the roster next season.

The further teams go in the playoffs, the more magnified the weaknesses become. Dark in the bile of the film rooms, the coaches know this, and know what their weak links are. It may be too late to fix them, but the best staffs machinate and cover them up some. For the Saints, it’s obvious the defensive backfield has been vulnerable since cornerback Jabari Greer got hurt around mid-season. Replacement Corey White is ill equipped in man on man coverage. Keenan Lewis can cover though, and is thankfully practicing after a concussion last week. Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins have been veteran presences since the Saints won the Super Bowl. But it seems they have been mostly spectators of late, and it is imperative that these guys get involved and make some plays, and coordinator Rob Ryan needs to put them in more positions to do so.

Seattle’s receivers are hardly all-world, and last time around we feared their tight end being ignored, roaming free and doing damage, which is exactly what happened. The Saints cannot afford a reprise of ‘dat. Cover the dang tight end! From a match-up perspective, their relatively weak wide receiving corps up against our flimsiness in the defensive backfield is a good thing.

And if the protection by the offensive line gets spotty, Drew Brees could be in for a long evening. Number 9 has not been as typically sharp of late, his pocket presence under pressure disappointing, and throwing more interceptions. Some rumors have had him somewhat hurt, like he was in 2010. But we always believe we can win with Drew Brees. Fa-show. Just have optional protection packages ready, and use them as early as necessary.

The local buzz is Brees will be making less audibles at the line of scrimmage than last time, where the noise of Seattle’s Twelth Man crowd hindered the tempo and execution of the visiting offense. And it did appear the Saints came out and had the disposition of just letting the crowd do their thing, weather it, and move on from there. If we see a repeat of this, again, the Saints won’t look like they belong on the same field with the ‘Hawks, and will get blown out of the stadium. Whatever kind of tempo this outfit has better be on display early if the Saints are going to have any chance to win. An early lead of any kind would help! And maybe lots of latte in the locker room.

The last time the Saints were about an 8 point underdog in a post season game was before the Super Bowl, to Peyton Manning and the Colts. That forecast didn’t go so bad. So we’ll take it as a positive omen. Losing in Seattle is getting tiring to hear about, like not being able to win a playoff on the road was, that expunged last week in Philly. For Saints fans, Saturday will definitely gauge one’s capacity to remember what’s possible, and to Keep The Faith.

And win or lose, may everyone have a healthy and prosperous 2014….

The Shrieks

by Bert Bartlett

 

Colin Kaepernick trotted out onto the Superdome carpet with about a minute to play after the Saints took the lead, preparing for a last possession to try and pull the game out for the 49’ers. Fans commenced their collective roars. Sean Payton flailed his arms upward from the sidelines, having no reservation whatsoever in exhorting them to let it all hang out.

Yet all crowd shrieks are not the same. The tenor for the home team can be laced with fear, as in …hold on!  But this barrage had none of that, it having the baritone of a coliseum scene from Russell Crowe’s cinema classic, Gladiator. Kill ‘em! Now! Do It! 

When it comes to defensive stands for the Post Katrina era Saints, the tone of the latter has been far and few between, this reminiscent of the blood thirst emanating from the stands a quarter of a century ago, when the likes of Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling, Vaughn Johnson, Jim Wilks, Frank Warren et al made life miserable for visiting offenses on Poydras Street.  Kaepernick was tossed around like a rag doll in being sacked twice, and had no shot. Game Over. Defensively, on this day at least, the Saints had come Back To The Future.

The Saints will be on the receiving end of plenty of shrieks up in Seattle next Monday night on prime time. Whether those will be fueled by booze or latte is anybody’s guess.

The noise decibels will resemble multiple Boeing 747’s at takeoff. Though it is an outdoor stadium, almost accidentally it seems, it’s the loudest in the league. But the explanation for much of the noise may simply be a release of mass malaise, in a place where it drizzles and rains most calendar days every year.

It will be bedlam. They kick off the proceedings with their 12th Man tradition, and though stolen from Texas A & M University, it upstages that at College Station. A guest of the Seahawks will pull on the rope of a large bell up in the end zone, after which the place will proceed to go bonkers for the next several hours.  

The last time the Saints were in Seattle was bitter, in a playoff opener as defending champs in January of 2011. As double digit favorites over a measly tournament entrant, the team just skidded around up there, made a mess, and though ended up scoring in the thirties, lost. On this page, imagery used afterwards was that of the RMS Titanic, hitting an iceberg in the Great Northwest, leaks sprung everywhere, and everyone having to paddle home.

Head coach Pete Carroll brought the college atmosphere from USC up to Seattle in his first, that season there. Surprisingly, in a pro league that tires of rah rah, largely due to the conundrum of business and marathon seasons, it has worked ever since. His coaching philosophy? It’s simple. Energy, energy, and more energy, and spare me the details. He can be amusing in that respect. Last year, when the replacement refs blew a call on an end zone catch that robbed the Packers of a win, Carroll sprinted to the end zone and lobbied them like a street hustler in New York City, a subtle smile besmirched on his face, knowing full well all along that the call that gave his team the victory was bogus.  

The Seahawks are the fashionable pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl because they a) have a strong team and b) an opponent would have to advance thru the vehement venue of the 12th Man to do so. Seattle hasn’t lost at home in 2 years.

San Francisco’s defense was burly, Seattle’s is faster. Though Darren Sproles is needed back for this game, the Saints aren’t really going to outrun them. Besides some persistence in just running straight at them in the hope they can occasionally crack open a seam, Sean Payton’s offensive game plan hopefully utilizes every inch of ground on their field, and spreads it long and wide. He’s good at that. Some misdirection, in either running or cross field passing, might eventually tire the ‘Hawks, as would monotonous, clock consuming drives. Throw deep a couple of times early, just to get them thinking more and reacting less, which is when they are deadly. Their cornerback in dreadlocks, Richard Sherman (#25), besides being Stanford educated and a cartoonish character, is probably the best at his position in the NFL. Tall, swift, rangy, and physical, Spider Man spins webs around receivers. It will be interesting when he is matched up with Marques Colston. Because of the speed of their linebackers, and that they will likely overload on him, Jimmy Graham is likely in for a tough night.

Russell Wilson has a good arm and can move but is not immensely talented. Where he stands out is with his headiness, efficiency, and composure, in an amount unusual for a young quarterback. He’s not the type to get stupid and get his team beat, a key to the success he has had and brought. Back in that ‘11 nightmare, the Saints missed a jillion tackles on running back Marshawn Lynch, producing a highlight reel touchdown run that, besides inevitably will be replayed countless times in the promos for this game, resurrected a then sagging career. For coordinator Rob Ryan, he will have to pick his poison. If Lynch has another big night, it will be bad news for New Orleans. The gut feeling here is to contain Lynch at all costs and challenge Wilson to beat the Saint defense through the air. Percy Harvin and Golden Tate have ability at wide receiver, but there are no Megatrons on their receiving corps. Whomever is playing tight end may be the key one the Saints can’t afford to forget about.

It’s being billed as the game of the year so far, and though the Pats and Broncos put on quite a show the other night, we can’t disagree. Oddsmakers have Seattle favored by 8 points, a wide spread considering the sterling records of both teams. Big games like this often turn into blowouts; let us hope the Saints don’t end up on the wrong side of that!  

Yet a perusal of their season record reveals that the Seahawks have not faced or defeated a team with as classy an offense this season as the one they will see from Brees & Company on Monday night. They did beat the Panthers in the opener and then the Cardinals, but before both began playing well. And no offense to them, but those offenses were not of this octane. New Orleans’ team knows something about playing while hearing the shrieks. This gives us optimism; indeed, not only that, we’re just nuts enough not only to hope – but to expect – that the Saints will go up there and have enough premium gas to win the damn thing.

 

 Souls Of The Saints Sincerely Wishes Everyone A Happy Thanksgiving

 

Spotlight On Bullies

by Bert Bartlett

 

Even before last Sunday night’s trouncing of the Cowboys, Sean Payton and his staff had a B+ mid-term grade for what they have done in their reclamation of the Saints this season.

 This team has done and shown a little bit of everything. Though they still lack the right balance of run and pass, it remains an elite offense, and defensively the makeover has been pleasantly substantial, exceeding expectations. They have beaten teams they were supposed to, except for not showing up ready to play in New York against the Jets, where the coaches laid some eggs from the sidelines. Won when they were close (Falcons), and when they were lucky to (Bucs). On the road, they never let a decent team get into the game (Bears), and did not close out a good one when they had the opportunity to, because they were better most all day (Patriots). The offensive line can be a liability, particularly with regards to protection, but the Saints have a good team.

 But now we are getting into the grits of the schedule. Two of the next three games, hosting San Francisco this Sunday, and then out in Seattle (after a visit to Atlanta), will tell us lots more about these Saints, and if they are legit conference title contenders, or wild card hopefuls.

 NFL pundits who predicted the 49’ers would win the next Super Bowl, after coming so close to doing so here in January, were ignoring recent history. All millennium, the subsequent season records of Super Bowl losers has been mostly abysmal. Psychologically, it’s understandable as to why. For all it takes in work and sweat and right circumstance to get there, that when they do, and come in second place, the emotional toll takes over. The players are exhausted and bummed out, for what turns into a short off season, hung over, before it’s time to suit up and try it all over again. To assumedly be able to just strike up the band on key because they “have all the tools”, are “eager to get back to and win the big game”, and “look great on paper”, is sports writing drivel and media folly.

 San Francisco is a respectable 6-3, but now trails division rival Seattle by a few games. They were just humbled at home by Carolina, beaten at their own game, which is smash mouth defense and persistence in running the football. Colin Kaepernick was sensational last season, his variety of skills looking like the prototype for the quarterback of the future, more so than young stars Andrew Luck, RG3, and Russell Wilson. But he’s in something of a sophomore slump in his first full season as a starter. It’s good timing for the Saints that they are catching Kaepernick and the 49’ers in a bit of a sag this Sunday. Injuries on defense though, to linebacker Curtis Lofton and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro,  do not help the home team’s cause.

 There are only a handful of teams in the league that play all out bullyball, that’s based on beating you up physically on defense and breaking your will on offense, by running it down your throat with the game on the line. The 49’ers are built that way, as are their rival Seahawks, and now the Panthers are doing it. The Bears and Steelers are living in the past with that imagery. In recent years, the Ravens have only done it in spurts, Ray Lewis or not. In New England, Bill Belichick hasn’t had a formidable defense since being caught illegally stealing opponents’ pre-snap signals in Videogate, the genius” quickly dissipating from his mantle. The surprisingly undefeated Chiefs may be trying to adopt it; we haven’t seen enough of them yet. And ironically trying to be dons of bullyball in the AFC are the erstwhile Jingles of Cincinnati, but they have quite a ways to go.       

 It’s imperative – for themselves – the Saints defeat at least one of these couple of bullies within the next three weeks to put some perceptions at bay, that they are strictly a finesse outfit, and can’t beat an old school stout and surly team, particularly on the road. The 49’ers and Seahawks are also excellent preps for December showdowns with streaking Carolina that will determine the NFC South. Seattle is the hardest place to win in the league, but New Orleans may be the most qualified visitor to do so, knowing something about playing in frantic, deafening crowd noise, even if when to their advantage. 

 They should be able to stretch both defenses and get their share of points. It was good to see embattled running back Mark Ingram finally get loose and gut the interior for lots of yards on Sunday night, even if against the perennially overrated Cowboys. In crucial situations that determine who has the upper hand in momentum and holds onto the ball, particularly late in games when it can mean win or lose, will Sean Payton have enough confidence to lean on it?

 And will the Saints wilt on the other side of the ball, or swap punches? We imagine defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will get fiery and challenge his players aplenty in meeting rooms. Hey, we can be physical too, damnit!  Don’t be shy. Hit those sonsaguns until you hear a whistle, and make ‘em feel it!

 The 2010 and 2011 post seasons ended for the Saints gut wrenchingly in Seattle and San Francisco, with New Orleans committing tons of turnovers but still scoring thirty something points on the road in both games. That should have been enough, and those are pathetic post mortem statistics. These times around, they face the bullies with more soundness on defense. That substantially increases their chances.    

 And Speaking of Bullies………..

 The Richie Incognito player harassment and Jonathan Martin departure story down in Miami has caught lots of people’s attention. It is a tawdry blend of personality types and group dynamics, a call to the carpet on traditional rookie hazing, curtain raising in an NFL locker room, racism, borderline legal issues in the workplace, and damage control public relations. It’s a mess, much of it non-quantifiable without any hard core solutions, but an interesting one in that it’s coerced to be addressed from several such awkward stances.   

 Sociologists could have a field day with this one, though the media has curiously not interviewed in any of the coverage I have seen. I’d guess they’d mention the inherited differences between Type A and Type B personalities, and how any group with those and inherent cultural differences creates a vacuum from which not only “leaders” evolve, but from which problems arise. The Type B’s emerge, often assuming a role based not just on their personality type, or popularity, but insecurity, that being a lack of, or inferior complex of talent, to justify their existence and role on a team. Plenty of the Dolphin players came out in support of Incognito after the story broke, so apparently he was able to walk both sides of the line in just how offensive he was.   

 In this case, the peekaboo, raising curtains in the extra insulated NFL has given it extra media weight, and sizzle. But, like the hot air machismo that got exposed with the Saints last year, that being Bountygate, the fact is this kind of stuff goes in some shape or form at every level of organized football, from pee wee and elementary, to high school and college. And has been, for a long time, since the game was invented. Part of the attitudinal atmosphere of athletics can always stink in general, that just being part of it. The resultant petty, ignorant, and sometimes destructive behavior that can ensue amongst teammates (and having to put up with it), are just dues for being on a primal team sport. Yeah, he’s a real jerk. And he isn’t really that good. A…ole. Next?

 The coaching staff mentality hardly is secure with having a bunch of introverts on a football roster, given the perpetual emotional drive necessary to compete at the game physically. Sean Payton uses various tactics in the locker room to keep his players on edge if he feels they are asleep at the wheel. Coaches can use players, by tongue in cheek support of shaky behavior, to communicate their messages, which are often nebulous and simplistic. Some allege Dolphin coaches told Incognito to “toughen up” Martin by any means necessary, Incognito assuming the role in no small part, for brownie points. Plenty, way too much personality profiling and stereotyping goes on, by coaches and players alike. This is a considerable amount of where dumb jock syndrome comes from.  

 Martin, the “victim”, is responsible for some ramifications of this affair. If affronting his tormentors was not going to solve it, did he talk to level headed teammates to lobby for it,   put a lid on it on his behalf? Did he make an effort to meet one on one with his position, or head coach? Or make an appointment to sit with the general manager? Or even the owner? If so, then Dolphin brass does have some culpability. We’re sure this is much of what the league wants to find out in their investigation. And deductions from Martin’s pay come in the form of dues to the NFL Players Association. Why didn’t he pick up the phone and confidentially reach out to them? Working conditions are their business. But perhaps most tellingly, after he left the team, Martin texted it was “the culture” of football that got to him, to an adverse extent enough to walk away from his job. Well, the game isn’t for everybody, never has been, and never will be. Who – or what – is to blame for that?    

 

  

 

So Far, So Good, & Here Come The Fins

by Bert Bartlett

Last year at this time, the Saints were looking up at the rest of the NFL with a goose egg in the win column. The view is better from here. Sean Payton adroitly pointed out to the media after Sunday’s waltz over the Cardinals that this team was still very much early in the process of finding it’s identity, with lots of young and new players. We couldn’t agree more, and the perch the Saints find themselves in is quite favorable at this stage, particularly with two division wins, one on the road, this having already increased their chances of winding up at the top of the NFC South considerably. And all the paint isn’t even on this renovation, much less begun to dry.

Most obvious is the wind of change on defense. Unlike what seems like what has been forever, so far, this defense contains and stops opponents in a relatively consistent manner, while the injury bug has already bitten it. On instant replays, the Saints actually have defenders on the screen the majority of the time. When the unit takes the field, for Saints fans, it isn’t necessarily time to jump up to get something to eat, or go to the restroom. We don’t mind the sights of a legitimate pass rush without excessive blitzing, or promising rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro crashing around, though much of the time he doesn’t completely know what he is doing. It isn’t necessary to try and define this defense, just seeing it somehow angle towards par is relieving enough.

A third of a century ago, the Dallas Cowboys had a consistently formidable defense, using the late, great, Tom Landry’s scheme known as The Flex. It’s a minor miracle what coordinator Rex Ryan has done with this defense, that last season was as bad as any that ever took the field since pro football officially began to be played, circa 1920. So in New Orleans these days, we’re riding with The Rex until further notice.

What have the first three wins shown us? That Marques Colston’s height (he looks about 6’4″) is a towering asset to his game, shielding himself to ward off smaller defensive backs who simply can’t get around him and up to the football while in flight. Colston had butterfingers more than usual in 2012, and without a reprise of that, he’s on another All Pro campaign. In Tampa, we saw why Drew Brees gets the big bucks. Behind, with 1:11 remaining, deep in their end of the field with negligible timeouts, his consecutive down the greens passes to varying receivers had Crescent City fans holding their collective breaths. Those moments were about the Saints’ brand of faith (and let’s be candid, not many of us thought they were going to pull it off, particularly following the rankness of much of what preceded it, the rain delay, the dirty hits that went uncalled by the refs, etc.). It was a swift, surgical execution by Number 9. If anyone noticed, Garret Hartley’s chip shot field goal to win it was treacherous, he slipping on his lead foot before the swing and follow through. As the ball frittered through the uprights, Hartley was almost on his back. Had he missed it, we doubt Coach Payton would have let him on the plane for the ride home.

Against the Falcons in the opener, the Still The King of tight ends’ wand was officially passed, from the great Tony Gonzalez to our Jimmy Graham. Beast, freak, whatever you wish to call him (what about Jolly Good Cracker ?), he is the best at his position in the game, no disrespect to the injured Gronkowski up in New England. Graham has more range, and is a tad bit more physically foreboding in defensive backfields. We really like his hands. And it’s like he is still learning the game! What happens when he eventually “gets it” ? On Airline Drive, talks have begun on a much deserved new contract for him. After Brees, this will, and should be, Bank Opening II for the front office. Let’s hope it doesn’t drag out and be the subject of needless fodder. And if Jimmy Graham somehow doesn’t get signed and is allowed to leave New Orleans? Souls Of The Saints may shut down, in protest.

Predictably though, leaks have sprung in Drew Brees’ protection. The Saints will not win as often if the quarterback is harried and sacked 4 to 6 times a game. Payton may have to draw up extra block schemes with more double tight end formations to chip defenders on the way off the line of scrimmage, or use the fullback more, to block in the pocket, all of which mean one or two less outlets for Brees, and less pressure on opponents. Not Good. And the Saints’ running game, or lack thereof, remains it’s Lost Soul. Mark Ingram has recently become the media’s and fans’ whipping boy for it, yet some of that is undue. Coaching situational football like Payton does, the running game has not been paramount yet, and some of the calls where it has been tapped on have been less than ideal, Payton coughing up as much with the media afterwards. Notably, a better defense allows the team the luxury of not having to hold onto possession of the ball as critically. Rumors were that the frustration, and his persistent injuries as well, had Ingram demanding a trade. The air is still, similar to that around Reggie Bush near his final days here, before he went to Miami. Speaking of which

Last summer’s HBO reality series, Inside Training Camp, visited the Miami Dolphins, down in Biscayne, Fla. Over the past several years, players and coaches on the featured teams appear more candid and relaxed on the show, and less contrived, while the cameras tail them around and hover sponge microphones in the vicinity. After all, it is the heat and pressure cooker of training camp, incidental criticism and public image be damned, at least for the moment. This has gradually forged it into a good show.

Some poignant scenes were when relatively new head coach Joe Philbin cut veteran receiver Chad Johnson early in the morning, just hours after he been arrested and released from jail for assaulting his wife. Ocho Cinco couldn’t jive his way out of that one with Philbin, whose decision had been made before Johnson even sat down on the sofa. Then some team leaders, including Reggie Bush, visted Philbin and mumbled that they didn’t appreciate that what they thought should have been more of a team decision had been made, without them being consulted. Philbin listened, nodded, and said he’d make more efforts for team leaders to meet with him about such issues going forward. The players acted placated, though left his office disappointed. As did Chad Johnson, earlier in the day. Johnson hasn’t been on a league roster since, and likely never will again. NFL franchises are much more likely to put up with divas when they are young and fast, not when they are in their late 30’s and have just beaten their wives.

Anyway, Philbin, though appearing to be in every comportment the square jawed semi-perfect gentleman, seemed generally as dull as the day after Christmas. While watching the show, the question seemed to be only how many games into the 2012 season he’d last before being let go, with as talent shy and as new and unproven a roster. Fast forward to their current 3-0 start, and Coach Philbin is a contender for coach of the year. Dr. Dull has quietly assembled a young, promising team, including quarterback Ryan Tannehill out of Texas A & M, free agent receiver Mike Wallace from Pittsburgh (after the Steelers didn’t want to pay him, they are regretting it), and plucking linebacker Dannell Ellerbee from the champion Ravens. They did let Bush go, to Detroit. It’s a real credit to Philbin that he has connected to this young and particular generation of NFL player (it can turn on a dime) while having more military image than rock star or celebrity status.

If The Fins keep ascending, tens of thousands of the team’s fans will bring back and wave their traditional white handkerchiefs in their home stands, with partisan enthusiasm. The New England Patriots have owned the AFC East for years, in part to perpetually weak outfits in the division. If anyone is going to knock Tom Brady and Bill Belichick off their coddled favorite status this year, it’s Miami. Their helmet logo has been modernized, with a skinnier Dolphin streamlining a swim through the ring of fire, versus standing up on a hind fin like Twinkle Toes at Ocean World and in a good mood amidst it. We prefer the latter. Other than that, everything looks much better for the Miami Dolphins.

They will come to the Superdome and give the home team plenty to worry about on Monday night, because they have a stingy defense, and are playing with ability, youth, and confidence, the elusive combination of ingredients that all NFL teams always yearn for. But the Saints have more been here and done that, a prime time matchup amongst unbeaten teams, and at home in particular. Who ‘Dat Nation will wear on the opponent’s focus and New Orleans having more weapons on offense over 60 minutes should be enough to prevail.

Frankly, sterner tests await the Saints afterwards, on the road the next few weeks in Chicago and New England. A lasting image with these two teams was in the title run year of 2009, when a certain running back wearing #25 in black and gold, shot out of a cannon from the 5 yard line, up and over and draping the pylon with the ball for 6 points, in a dramatic win down there. In homage, we’ll call this Monday night The Reg-gie Bowl.

What Art Thou Soul Of The Saints?

by Bert Bartlett

 

Everybody has one, animals, even inanimate objects do too, what we refer to as soul. By nature it is in a constant state of flux, affected by fate, choice, and whim, in sundry stages of progression, stagnation, and regression. The subjectivity of it is the recurring appeal.

 

For the past several years, we have had a pretty good pulse on the soul of the Post Katrina Saints, and it won them a championship. Contrary to some popular national perception, the Saints did not sell theirs to win a title by activities elongated in the circus that was Bountygate. Nor did Commissioner Roger Goodell rob them of a shot at another one, with league ground breaking suspensions of staff and personnel. An ill conceived, mediocre, dual interim head coaching arrangement was not the culprit, either.  

 

It took all of about two minutes watching the Ravens and the 49’ers duke it out in the Superdome to realize how far the Saints have drifted in title contention, not as much in talent shortcomings as in – sheer attitude. Last year’s team was let down by anemic, paltry play from its core group of veterans, from B to Z. Whether in coughing up a big lead to the lowly Chiefs at home, or being unable or unwilling to simply tackle the kickoff return man up in New York against the Giants in a game they had to have at the time, on the field, the 2012 Saints were pigs.   

 

Tom Benson has only so many more Super Bowls he hopes to be a part of, and opened up his checkbook to make Sean Payton not only the highest paid coach in the NFL, but in all of pro sports. The irony of a princely sum of a raise off a humbling suspension, triggered by a contract technicality causing it’s renegotiation in the first place, may be the only worthy footnote from Bountygate. Indeed, the onus is on the head coach to bring back some kind of grit to a team last seen all but bereft of it. Payton seemed to sense this in his returning press conference, warning the media not to expect any miracles just because he’s back. Wisely, he realizes the prosperity of soul belongs to a higher power than he. 

 

In search of ‘tude,  Payton immediately let placid defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo go, despite having hired him a year earlier and not even getting to work with him because of the suspension. He brought in the animated Rob Ryan, not as much because a scheme adjustment to the 3 – 4 is the answer to the team’s longtime defensive woes (hardly), but in the belief that a match being lit under the players’ rear ends is a better have than not, for a start. An asset of Payton’s is being able to get in players’ faces without embarrassing them on television. And boy, does this team need that.    

 

The robust Ryan appears that he will enjoy all the fine cuisine that the Crescent City has to offer. His resume has improving defenses to top 10 or 12 or so statistical rankings  wherever he’s been, including Oakland, Cleveland, and lastly in Dallas. Alarmingly though, at the end of more than one game that they lost last season, the Cowboys defense was penalized for coaching’s cardinal sin – not having enough players on the field. So Ryan will have to tighten a few holes in his belt.  

 

 

Let’s face it, it’s the beginning of the end for Drew Brees’ magnificent quarterbacking career in New Orleans. Mitch Landrieu is fortunate #9’s retirement did not preclude a second mayoral term. But the front office has pushed the envelope in his protection, allowing studs Carl Nicks and Jermain Bushrod to leave for Tampa and Chicago in the past two off-seasons. Aaron Kromer was an interim dud but more than able with the offensive line, and he heading north with Bushrod puts pressure on the unit out of the gate, to meet their top tier league play over the past several seasons. Saints fans can only continue to rub their rosaries that Brees will buck the odds and again avoid a season’s loss to injury that befell Tom Brady and Peyton Manning at an advancing age.   

 

It’s hard to predict what will emanate from this team. After eight years, the Katrina factor – win for a cause greater than self – has mostly dissipated. “Revenge” for Bountygate had its term last year and it expired worthless, and even with Payton back, it rings hollow. Young and new blood in player personnel will largely define this team, and we don’t know how these guys will blend together as an outfit, regardless of all the glowing hot air there is to be heard from the local media about them during the yawner that is pre-season. 

 

We won’t have a firm handle on New Orleans’ favorite team until about a month or so after they line up and kick it off for keeps against the Dirty Birds here on September 8. With Payton’s return, the media slant is the Saints getting back to what they were, but the real story is who they will be. Yet we do know that a) football’s back, and b) though it hardly seems like it’s been that long, for the fifth straight season, Souls Of The Saints will offer it’s little share of the spin.

 

 

 

The Wrong Side of History

By Bert Bartlett

It was unprecedented, a team losing its head coach to suspension for conduct detrimental to the pro game, but Saints fans looked forward to that challenge for the team. We bought in that maybe only wily New Orleans could pull this off, with a winning bid for another Super Bowl that just happened to take place here next February. Saints faithful loved the potential awkwardness of those stars aligning while the league hosts its annual convention here, after spanking it with severe penalties in the off-season. Yes, New Orleans can be the most gracious of hosts. But it didn’t take long to see, through a lifeless and winless September, that not only one, but two interim coaching heads was a tour de farce, a much less bad decision than a non-thought out or calculated one, and at its worst, a good old fashioned rip-off.

The Saints would have been far soundly and better served by filling the position on a provisional one year basis to a certain kind of background and profile, such as retired Saints head coach Jim Mora, who travels here from the west coast to cover games for WDSU TV, or the retired Marty Schottenheimer, who coached Drew Brees in San Diego. Bill Parcells, Sean Payton’s mentor, had too much ego to qualify. Eric Mangini, a young, sound football guy who once coached Brett Favre (and chided him for all the interceptions), is a guest analyst on ESPN’s First Take, and likely would have preferred the temporary gig to hashing it out with Skip and Stephen A. in the mornings, suitably using it as a platform to audition for a return to the sidelines with another team going forward.

Aaron Kromer and Joe Vitt should have stood where they belonged, as valued assistants. Vitt is a stand-up, likable guy, whose post game candor with the press was a breath of fresh air, but his weekly spins about the team not being prepared enough or mentally tough enough to go on the road and win a big game sounded like a broken record, a bad 45 RPM from the Sixties that one would just assume throw in the trash. But give him credit for telling it like it is, and for taking responsibility for it, though the problems loomed larger than him.

Bringing in a head coach from the outside did not require changing the playbook, shuffling the staff, or reinventing the Saints’ wheels. There was perception, which now smells like garbage, that the interim position had to be filled from within, or by one of Sean Payton’s “guys”. Which is right where a real GM or owner steps in, to keep things in perspective, and this is precisely where Mickey Loomis and Tom Benson were not to be found. The decision to short change the organization by using fill-ins may have been made by the former but was the responsibility of the latter. There was speculation that Benson did not want to pay somebody else a seven figure salary for a temporary job, but we don’t believe that to be true, particularly since the annual budget was curtailed when Payton got suspended for the year without pay. And Benson is at an age where he can only hope to see the Saints in only so many more Super Bowls.

No, there was something else at work with the interim decision; call it a lack of brains, or courage, or both. But we are absolutely sure of one thing, that the billboard of Sean Payton installed over the summer inside the practice facility on Airline Drive with a photo of him over the caption Do Your Job, should immediately be taken to the parking lot, and burned.

Handicap, or Excuse? Yet the biggest irony about the interim head coaching dilemma is that this team had enough veteran laden talent from one that won 13 games last year, to coach itself to 9 or 10 wins, without anybody else on the sidelines, except the trainers and a few doctors. Didn’t it look like, as the mistakes and losses added up, that this team basically shrugged its shoulders and all but said, oh, what the heck, Sean’s not here. Whatever. You be the judge. The late 60’s and early 70’s expansion Saints, a circus act if there ever was one, comparatively speaking, did not have a speck of the talent that this team has. But for those of us old enough to remember them, we know who played with more heart.

Goats At The Roundtable The 2012 Saints were spectacularly consistent, symphonic really, in every facet of the team taking turns at – screwing up.

Early on, had not defensive coordinator Steve Spagnolo overloaded the defense with too may new schemes, and just focused on fundamentals, like tackling and holding onto turnovers when they presented themselves, the defense may not have been as bad as there was one in the NFL since Dwight D. Eisenhower was President. As the defense eventually improved, it’s no coincidence that players were quoted as saying there were doing less thinking and more reacting. Coaches always walk a fine line around too much or not enough schemes and physical preparation, but Spags stumbled across it like a tourist on Bourbon Street. Had he not backed off and let them just play, there would have had to be a mid-season mercy firing, just for the sanity of all concerned.

Though he is the quintessential Company Man, Drew Brees does not hesitate to speak his mind about issues that may alienate his employers, whether it was the Collective Bargaining Agreement standstill a year ago, or the Bountygate fiasco this year, a likable part of his persona. But unless our eyesight is really failing us, that was not Commissioner Roger Goodell out there pitching about a dozen interceptions against the 49’ers, Falcons, and Giants – with the season on the line. Do the Saints provide him with medical coverage so he can get his eyes checked, or does he have to wait for Obamacare?

And often, when Brees was on target, Marques Colston, Lance Moore, and Jimmy Graham were all coming down with cyclical cases of the drops, like common colds.

You can’t point fingers at the running backs when they aren’t given a chance to do anything, as was the case early in the year. But you can certainly take a hard long look at offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, for developing a case of amnesia that the rules of football, even in this day and age, do not prevent it from being forwardly advanced by handing it off. When the Second Class Citizenship that is the Saints running game finally got involved, only then did they start winning some games.

The injury bugs mostly stayed away, except when the promising Charles Brown went down at right tackle in mid-season. Zach Strief stepped in, only to get injured, and then had to come back a bit prematurely when another sub went down (we can’t even remember his name). When he appeared back in the line-up, Strief obviously did not go hungry over Thanksgiving, as he was wrapped with enough mid-riff blubber for him to audition for a new round of State Farm’s Discount Double Check television commercials. They could shoot and theme it in The Big Greasy. Against Atlanta, ordinary veteran defensive end John Abraham ran right by him again and again, padding his sack stats for the year, while Strief was spinning around in quicksand, and Brees was under relentless pressure. Hey Strief, next time you get hurt but are expected back, try salads.

In New Jersey, when the Saints got slaughtered against the Giants, the kick-off coverage unit could not tackle the return man holding the football; the only visible defender on the TV screen making a valiant effort was the over-matched Saint kicker, the last line of defense. Not once for a touchdown, which happens, or twice occasionally, for long returns, but three or four times? While this went on, New Orleans negated itself any chance to win. Their guy became an instant star. That was the dreariest Sunday evening of the season, putting the final nails in the Saints playoff coffin, as the echoes of the hammer being slammed resonated with those over at the Jersey Shore, on all the houses being repaired following Hurricane Sandy.

Leave it to these Saints that they just smothered Tampa Bay with a dominating shutout, their first since 1995, only for it to transpire when the season is competitively over. They will provide some entertainment value in Dallas this weekend in a spoiler role, but nothing else is at stake. More fodder about Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ friendship with the exiled Sean Payton, and all that infers, a trick bag of possibilities. After that, in the home finale against Carolina, what’s best for this team is for the depth chart to be flipped, like turning the trash bin upside down, so to speak, so that all the young players can be given some experience more meaningful than pre-season.

Chase McDaniel has been here several years as a substitute, but does anyone really know what he can do over 60 minutes in case there comes a time when he is needed to go out there because Brees can’t play? The mop-ups don’t count. Your guess is as good as mine. As for any veteran starter on the team whose feelings might get hurt in being “benched” for the final game? Tough sh…. You had 13 chances and went 5-8 until being eliminated from the post season. Heck, we should have done this a few weeks ago. Next?

On and off the field, from start to finish this year, the roundtable got crowded, and the theatre got bad. Bountygate (and all the recurring he said, she saids, which are still going on). Suspensions. Brees’ new contract (which was foolishly signed on a Friday the 13th). The Vilma lawsuit. Player suspensions vacated. And now the last act: Sean Payton’s contract voided in a technicality before the scandal broke, and now there is some doubt that he may return (though we think he will, the only hold-up being his agent trying to get a better deal to make up for some dual lost income).

Saints fans are to be forgiven if they have simply tired of the sight of all the beady eyes, pointed ears, and whiskers in Black & Gold sitting around the table, making the noises that they did. It was a war of attrition to stay positive about this team – and kind of like the Civil War, we lost. The curtains can’t close on this show soon enough. The Post Katrina, feel good Saints are visible only in the rear view mirror.

This is not to say we have lost our affinity for the home team. The organization could help with reparations if they would spice up the home finale with humor. When fans enter the stadium wooden clothespins should be given out, just in case the Saints stink up the joint. Free fries anytime the Saints tackle an opponent returning a kick-off. Ticket draws for second half free lap dances by the Saintsations, in part to encourage fans to stay. A plethora of Second Line jazz trios, tooting funeral dirges. And an I Can Do It Better participant campaign, where dressed up, chosen fans can stay on the sidelines and maybe get snuck into the game for a few plays in the fourth quarter. The Pope at free safety! Whistle Monsta’ at linebacker! Darth Saint at nose tackle! And throughout, a ticket stub should be good for a complimentary Bloody Mary, because oddly enough, the Dome has some of the best Bloodies in the city.

Souls Of The Saints Sincerely Wishes Everyone A Merry Christmas & A Better 2013…

The Ground Game

by Bert Bartlett

It’s not easy to go from 0-4 to 5-5 in the NFL. The Saints have done this via a long overdue investment in the running game that began 3 weeks ago against Philadelphia, with the same kind of effectiveness in The Ground Game that the Obama campaign mobilized to get voters out to get him re-elected.

New Orleans likes the sight of a posse – if it involves backs competing for yards and snaps, scattering like turkeys. The local media covers this team like white on rice, so it was peculiar that no one got to the bottom of why Chris Ivory had been so absent in the lineup, whether because of injury or being in the coaches’ doghouse, or any combo thereof. The gut says there was something there that some people knew that nobody wanted to talk about. Regardless, there is no more pleasant sight of the Saints than with #29 on the field, because of the physical attitude and capability he contributes to the team. Throughout September, the Saints were an abysmal powder puff bunch, with the media focus defaulting to how many yards Drew Brees threw for.

The Ground Game of Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, and Ivory has turned this team into a legit one. Suddenly, Brees’ play action fakes when fading back to pass actually mean something. The offense holds onto the ball longer, keeping that vulnerable defense on the field less. And the physicality ripples over to the defense itself, which, despite its considerable shortcomings, now has something of an attitude, seems to be marginally improving, and has developed a stay with it mentality that has won games with some unlikely goal line stands.

At this point of the season, the national media loves to carp on about how many yards a quarterback threw for, some receiver or running back got, or what a defense gave up. It’s aggravating noise, and irrelevant. In today’s league, everybody gets and gives up gobs of yards to everybody, and the only team stats that really matter are third down conversions, turnover ratios, and red zone defense. The Saints have come up roses in these categories while turning things around. The Saints had an infrequent blow out the other day in Oakland, while Brees threw for a paltry 200 yards plus. Who Cares?   

Is it too late to slip into the post season? Maybe, or not likely, depending on your appetite for optimism during the holiday season. The bad news is the Saints are staring at a close-up of Jaws down the stretch, into the teeth of a brutal schedule with little margin for error, as a half dozen wild card contenders in the conference clunk it out, likely introducing us to tie breaker rules in the last week of the season that nobody has ever heard of. Joe Vitt’s main challenge as a head coach will be keeping the team as fresh as possible during the weekly grind, as season long turnarounds of this kind more often result in teams simply running out of gas. But we’ll take this scenario over playing for next year, the lamest call to arms in sports.   

San Francisco is coming to town with the best defense in the league and plenty of fireplugs on offense, the best team in the NFL at this juncture. Their back-up quarterback was impressive when they rolled the Bears Monday night. It’s as hard a call for Saints fans as to who they’d prefer to see under center Sunday as it will be for Coach Harbaugh, in deciding who to start. Perhaps the back-up, though having electric ability, would be alien to the hazards of the Dome’s noise that await him, drowning him into some  confusion and bad decisions.  

Regardless who plays QB, the Saints will have their plate full in defending Vernon Davis, Frank Gore, et al. Randy Moss has lost a step but is still capable, but can be negated by bumping around within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Kyle Williams has improved as a receiver. Gore’s back-up Hunter plays with urgency and impact. New Orleans’ defense may often have the look of trying to plug too many holes at the 17th St. Canal in 2005.

When on offense, it’s important the Saints stay grounded, though it’ll be more difficult to do so, compared to the teams they have been doing it against. It’s important the Niners do not know what precisely is coming their way next. Last time these teams played, Brees threw 63 times. NO ! Aldon Smith, #99, is a beast with a motor at defensive end and leads the league in sacks, opposite the now vulnerable right tackle position for New Orleans, after back-up Charles Brown’s injury. We are counting on  coach Aaron Kromer scheming in some help on the right side of the line, perhaps with double tight end formations.  

Last January’s playoff loss to the 49’ers out there was the worst in franchise history, because it boxed the Saints out of hosting the eventual champion Giants the following week, the last step necessary to return to the big dance. The 2011 Saints were good enough to win another Super Bowl. Despite turning the ball over 5 times and falling way behind, the Saints still had the 49’ers beat, except for another late loosey goosey Gregg Willams style defensive breakdown that left Vernon Davis open in soft zone coverage, and had the pedestrian Alex Smith imitating Johnny Football of Texas A&M in running down the sideline for a touchdown. The game legitimized Smith’s relatively disappointing career in the eyes of many.  

And bitterly, plenty of Saints fans returned from the Bay Area with horror stories vowing to never go out there for a game again, having been given ruthlessly low class treatment from their fans, aligning them in the same tawdry reputation of those in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Oakland. For visiting fans, these are the smelly armpits of the NFL. This is a shame because obviously not all the fans in those places stink. There was a recent video on ESPN of 49’er and Raider Nations fighting outside the stadium before a pre-season game that was just pathetic. Macho Men!  It made news video of what is going on in the Mid-East look intelligent. Idiots…

The Saints then have to return to Atlanta the following Thursday for a rematch against the Falcons. Anything goes when these two butt heads, though Falcon receiver Roddy White running his mouth is an asset for the Saints. Prior to losing here, he mumbled the word undefeated about his 8-0 team. That didn’t last long. Then, after losing, he said his team gave it away to New Orleans. Sure, Roddy. Goal line stands to win games are always gifts under any tree.   

To stay in contention for the post season, the Saints have to at least split these next two difficult opponents. They have a shot, which is about all Saints fans can hope for, particularly when it looked like this head coach-less team was dead before October.  

Souls Of The Saints Wishes Everyone A Happy Thanksgiving.