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?