Suddenly, Prime Time Saints

by Bert Bartlett

Back on October 19th, after a bye week of rest, the Saints were up in Detroit, comfortably ahead by 13 points, having controlled the game all day. The clock ticked with 5:13 left to play. After blowing a flurry of plays, and letting the Lions make all theirs, the Saints trudged off the field with their 4th loss of the young season in 6 tries. Like the tawdry skeletons that fell out of the closet and were dominating headlines about NFL players’ domestic violence sins, and in some of the lamest corporate public moral posturing you’ll ever see, the team was its own worst enemy.

What was supposed to be a year of great promise was suddenly on the brink, and potentially the worst in franchise history, given the lofty expectations. On ESPN’s First Take, the mouthy Stephen A. Smith jumped off ship and put a bag on his head, having previously predicted New Orleans would be playing in the Super Bowl, saying the team’s defense was pathetic.

Who could argue that it wasn’t? It had stunningly reversed from 4th overall in the league in 2013, back to bottom feeder territory. Cam Jordan and Junior Gallette, young stars on the defensive line, were invisible. The team’s prized free agent acquisition, safety Jarius Byrd, was out there, but not relevant. Nobody was putting pressure on the passer, covering anyone, or doing much in the way of tackling, in the event a defender happened to be in the vicinity.

Offensively, the season had gotten off on the wrong foot before it even started. In the worst personnel decision of the Loomis/Payton era, unique scat back and utility specialist Darren Sproles was allowed to leave Airline Drive, creating a vacuum for plays to be made that no one else on the team could (see: Philadelphia Eagle highlight videos). Drew Brees is 35 but was playing like he was 40, leaving us wondering if he’d really be worth the remainder of his fat contract. Annoyingly, veteran producer Marques Colston kept dropping passes and fumbling, costing his team a win in Cleveland. Though he was injured some, even superstar Jimmy Graham got the brunt of some fan scapegoating, having a subpar season, just like the rest of his teammates. Trust us – in any way, shape, or form, Jimmy Graham is not a problem for the New Orleans Saints.

Next on the schedule, hosting, how in the hell were the Saints going to stay on the same field with the hottest quarterback in the league, Aaron Rodgers, and the Packers? Maybe the trainer changed the snacks in the locker room, or the astrology charts aligned favorably, we don’t know – but they certainly did, and won it convincingly. After being out with an injured hand, Mark Ingram running the ball with power and purpose, and the defense holding the Packers to field goals instead of touchdowns were the deciding factors. And Green Bay’s defense remains flimsy, something the late Vince Lombardi would abhor. Sure it helped when Rodgers pulled his hamstring while running out of bounds in the 3rd quarter. But we’ll take it.

With insight, earlier on a set of First Take, for a reason the defense had been playing so poorly, ex-Saint linebacker Jon Vilma remarked that Coach Ryan had been giving the defensive backs lots of latitude in calling last second coverages at the line of scrimmage, and when that doesn’t work, it can get ugly. It had gotten so unattractive that maybe the coach decided his job was becoming at risk, and he best make the calls.

After trouncing the Panthers in Carolina 4 days later, in another sterling prime time effort, the Saints suddenly were in first place in their division. Where had these guys been all year? Though the standings are still close midway through the schedule (heck, the fluttering 2-6 Falcons haven’t been mathematically eliminated from anything), New Orleans is easily the best outfit in the weak NFC South, and the division race is over if the right team shows up just most of the time. Do not assume if they win the league’s worst division that reduces their chances in the post-season. What matters is how well they have come together by late December.

Home Sweet Home is the scene for next 3 tallies, against San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Baltimore, all perceived as more physical outfits than the Saints have been playing, the Ravens in particular having been a thorn in New Orleans’ side for years. So we’ll know lots more about this bunch before they fly to Pittsburgh just after Thanksgiving.

The 49’ers are a curious case study, insofar fleeting headlines go. Despite leading them to 3 conference championships in a row (and a Super Bowl, when the lights went out here in in the Dome), Jim Harbaugh is reportedly under fire. Many feel the team is on the verge of imploding after talk surfaced that the roster has grown tired of his old school, tension filled, combative, militaristic, and pain in the ass head coaching style. But who can argue with the results? The 49’ers had accumulated considerable talent, but it was Harbaugh who cooked the stew.

This is the guy that engineered the most David & Goliath upset in big time football this millennium, when early on in his tenure at Stanford, they upset USC and Pete Carroll, and in the Los Angeles Coliseum to boot. Ironically, current Seahawk Richard Sherman played wide receiver for Harbaugh and the Cardinal.

The last few seasons Colin Kaepernick was playing sublime and looked like he’d turn out to be the best of the league’s Young Gun spread option quarterbacks, that including Cam Newton and Russell Wilson. Not so in 2014, hard to pinpoint why. Likely, defensive coordinators in the league have been sharing some secrets as to how to neutralize him (and the spread), and the kid’s confidence appears to have waned some. He remains dangerous when deciding to take off and run with it, in a flash.

The Niners have struggled unexpectedly to a 4-4 record, much like their opponent on Poydras St. Sunday. But a team like this is, if mostly out of anger and frustration, is capable are of standing up and blowing the doors off anybody at any given time. If the Saints are in any way complacent, they could be toast.

Nevertheless, the Saints have climbed their way back into competitive relevance, something city vendors are certainly grateful for, and for which Sean Payton and his coaching staff have our respect. ‘Dat was quite the slippery slope they were on. Yet is this glass half full, or half empty? At least we can choose to be entertained the rest of the year in finding out. The Derby is still on, and Black & Gold hats are very much in the mix.

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