Before every season, we publish a Saints preview. In 2013, we’re giving you two previews: One from proud homer Ryan Chauvin and the other from depressing realist1 Bradley Warshauer.
The tl;dr of it is Ryan has the Saints winning a lot of games, and Bradley has made another desperate attempt to produce numbers that prove the Saints will win a lot of games too. Just not as many as Ryan.
Ready? Then game on.
My name is Ryan, and I am a homer.
Last season I predicted the Saints would go 12-4 and I felt pretty good about it.2
This year? This year I’m dropping the pretense and embracing my inner optimism. I’m not saying we’re going 16-0, but I’m saying we’re not going to lose any games. I went through the schedule to give you the optimistic take on each contest.
Week 1 September 8 vs Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons may think they have a chance in this game, and that’s cute. There might be shades of the Domecoming in 2006. There might be shades of the 2009 ass kicking of the Lions. Who knows what’ll happen, but I’d wager we’re going to get an onslaught of “The Saints ran up the score on the Falcons, wasn’t that was mean of them?” articles on Monday morning. The Falcons biggest weaknesses are their offensive line and cornerback. Put frankly, that’s not going to match up with the Saints very well. Besides, we may be in 2008 Patriots Eff you mode for all we know. Forty points seems like an inevitably. There’s really no reason to sweat this one.
Week 2 September 15 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Visiting Tampa in September is like playing in a preseason game in a city that gives a shit. Tampa may as well cede home field advantage to Saints fans, because 1 Saints fan = 5 Tampa fans, which means (by my crude estimations) that Saints fans will be the louder bunch in the stands. And again, because it’s Tampa Bay in September, it’ll be balmy outside and the Saints will pretend they’re still in training gcamp. Oh did I mention that half of Tampa’s roster have Staph infections and I’m not scared of Josh Freeman? Doug Martin may run for 200 yards, but we’re going to drop another NFC South bomb. Mark it down, WIN.
Week 3 September 22 vs Arizona Cardinals
Wait, Carson Palmer’s still in the league? I mean. Okay. I’m sure he’s better than the street rats they trotted out last season, but this league is driven by star quarterbacks and Palmer couldn’t carry that torch three teams and two knee surgeries ago. The Cardinals may have a defense that could give the Saints some fits, but as long as we can get 20 points, I’m not sure the Cards could match it. Another win gives the Saints, who now have a 1 ½ game lead in the NFC South.
Week 4 September 30 vs Miami Dolphins
Domefield advantage against the Dolphins? C’mon. This one’s easy. WIN.
Week 5 October 6 @ Chicago Bears
Doesn’t it seem like we only ever play Chicago IN Chicago? The last time Chicago played in the Superdome was 2003.3 The ghosts of the 2006 NFC Championship Game loomed large over Saints fans for many years, but this is a totally different team (the only Saints starters still standing are Jahri Evans, Marques Colston, and Drew Brees) in a different era. At least the scheduling minions were kind enough to keep this game in October, so we shouldn’t have to face the elements. As daunting as their defense is, the Bears have been one of the league’s bigger underachievers. The only reason they don’t get more attention for this is the drama that shows up like clockwork every year in Dallas.4 Saints win a tight one 38-21.
Week 6 October 13 @ New England Patriots
Your humble blogger will be attending this game in his faithful Jimmy(!) Graham jersey. I’m hanging my hat on supreme motivation of the Saints defense to prevent Tom Brady from throwing a touchdown pass and breaking . Rob Ryan is going to pull out a barrage of gambits to confuse, frustrate, and stymie Tom Brady. Not only are we going to win in Foxborough, but we’re going to keep Tom Brady out of the end zone. High fives all around! Oh and Atlanta is in the midst of a three game losing streak and they’re currently tied for last place in the NFC South. This season is THE BEST!
Week 7 Bye Week
I don’t care. We’re winning this week too. A miserable Tampa Bay team surprises Atlanta and Carolina fumbles away a victory against St. Louis. After Week 7’s games, the Saints have a resounding 3 game lead in the NFC South and tied atop the overall NFC Standings.
Week 8 October 27 vs Buffalo Bills
Nothing like getting an extra week to prepare for the easiest game on the schedule. Saints come out looking bored, get in a 14 point hole in the first half only to outscore the Bills 28-0 in the second half. This results in a schizophrenic response in the blogosphere so there’ll be lots of hand wringing and Who Datting (often simultaneously).
Week 9 November 3 @ New York Jets
Bills and Jets back to back? Talk about a gift from the football Gods. There’s a 20% chance Sean decides to sit Drew Brees this game and Luke McCown drops a 120 QB Rating game against a winless Jets team.
Week 10 November 10 vs Dallas Cowboys
There is a 100% chance that Rob Ryan already knows how he’s going to pick on Tony Romo. After practicing against the volatile quarterback for a few years, you know he can absolutely embarrass Romo in the Superdome (and will) .
Week 11 November 17 vs San Francisco 49ers
So here’s the game plan. Kenny Vaccaro gets “sick” on the Friday leading up to the game. Then, Colin Kaepernick gets a phone call saying he won a free sandwich at a local Jimmy Johns, but he can only pick it up alone three hours before the game. At this point, we’re going to stick to vague notions as to not get into trouble with the feds, but suddenly Kaepernick shrinks a few inches and he “loses his voice” before kickoff. Come game time, “Kaepernick” throws 10 first half interceptions, giving the Saints an insurmountable lead. Suddenly, Vaccaro feels better and no one can find Kaepernick until several hours later as he stumbles drunk off of Bourbon Street. VICTORY IS OURS.
Week 12 November 21 @ Atlanta Falcons
How many times do we have to play in Atlanta on a Thursday? It’s bad enough we have to play in that city, but the NFL puts it on the wrong day of the week. Whatever. Atlanta will pretend that it’s a cotillion, or whatever, and then we’ll go in and celebrate on their ugly bird at center field. Hopefully there’s some score-running-upping involved. Hopefully Pete Prisco writes about the arrogance of these 11-0 New Orleans Saints.
Week 13 December 2 @ Seattle Seahawks
It’s entirely possible that the Seattle Seahawks are the most overrated team going into the 2013 season. It’s entirely possible that a quarterback’s “sophomore slump” is still a thing that exists and Russell Wilson is going to have one. It’s possible that the vaunted “12th Man” crowd is more of a myth than we believe. It’s possible that all of these things means that the Saints will win this game in overtime 23-20. You heard it here first.
Week 14 December 8 vs Carolina Panthers
There’s a 67% chance that Ron Rivera is no longer the coach of the Carolina Panthers. It’s always weird to play an opponent two times in three weeks, but the Panthers might be one of the five worst teams in the league this year, so yeah. Easy win in the ‘Dome.
Week 15 December 15 @ St. Louis Rams
This is a big week. A win here would break the 2009 team’s record of opening the season on a 13 game win streak. The Rams have given us some trouble in recent years, but this Saints squad will be focused come December and Sam Bradford isn’t going to be the one to break the spell. Count on a franchise defining 14th straight win here.
Week 16 December 22 @ Carolina Panthers
The Saints might have locked down the NFC South crown a month ago, but they’re still locked in after losing to Carolina twice last season. It’s a frosty day in Charlotte, but Sean Payton convinces our boys that this is a dress rehearsal for the NY Super Bowl. The team responds (obviously). The score? 28-0
Week 17 December 29 v Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The NFC South was won in November. The #1 seed in the NFC was secured in Week 15. Nothing to play for but overwhelming pride and Sean Payton sits his stars. AND THE SAINTS STILL WIN! Luke McCown plays an outstanding game and Khiry Robinson and Andy Tanner combine for five touchdowns against the Bucs in front of a raucous Superdome crowd. The Saints complete only the second 16-0 season in NFL history.
And going 16-0 is just that easy, folks. I think there’s real value in breaking down the schedule (for real), but we really don’t know what we’re going to get out of this squad. We’re hoping the 2012 season was an anomaly, but until we walk all over the Falcons in a week, we can’t be sure.
With a few new faces on this roster, I thought it would be a useful exercise to try and predict how our offensive weapons are going to fare this season. Basing it off of a rough season-to-season average of 6750 total yards, I start with the yardage leaders and work my way down.5
Jimmy Graham 1350
5 Things I More Than Think6
Jimmy Graham is the Best
And any argument that runs counter will suddenly seem dated. Look I’m not saying he’s better than Gronkowski, but Gronk stays more hurt than Chris Ivory. Jimmy(!) will not only have the best season by a tight end this year, I think he could very well end the year with top 5 receiving totals.
I’m still not sure why he got snubbed in the NFL Top 100 list, but really it’s about as useless as the MTV Video Music Awards.7 I just know that Jimmy’s wrist injury last year explained away the drop in performance and I’m back on board the Jimmy(!) bandwagon. 8 Look, he’s still going to finish the year with 7-10 drops, but that’s just going to be a price we pay for having one of the best receiving tight ends in the history of the game.
What’s more, with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez out of play, Jimmy is clearly the best over the middle receiver in football. The rules have opened up the center of the field for receivers for the first time in the game’s history and we have the best tool to take advantage of that. I’m predicting 1,350 yards for Jimmy, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he surpassed 1,500 yards.9
This isn’t so much a prediction as a hope. Ingram is a good back. He’s a solid back. But Pierre and Darren are phenomenal running backs who are closer to the ends of their careers than the beginnings. I don’t want to be sitting here a year from now complaining that Pierre Thomas is still the most underused weapon in professional football.
I think Ingram can be successful this year, but I think he can do that in a reduced role. Coach Payton needs to figure out a way to make his touches as efficient as the other players on this offense. The fact is, we slow down when Ingram gets carries in a way that we don’t with our other backs. Our defense will hopefully be better than last year, but we still need to have a highly efficient offense to be successful. So Mark Ingram: get efficient, or get scarce.
Cam Jordan Makes the Pro Bowl
Cam Jordan is a man. He’s also the best hope this defense has at being successful. It’s Cam’s third year and I think we’re all watching his season with bated breath. He’ll be on the field almost every snap this season and if he can wreak some havoc, he’ll make the jobs of the rest of the defensive line easier.
Victor Butler Makes a Triumphant Return
Wait. No he doesn’t. Why is he on the PUP list? He’s out for the year. History tells us he’s out for the year. He’s gone. Don’t expect him back this year. Don’t. Don’t you do it.
I see that gleam in your eyes. It’s contagious. NO! He’s hurt! He tore his ACL like three months ago. He’s out. He’ll be put on IR. That’s how the universe works.10
Kenny Vaccaro is Kind of Good
Let’s not expect the world of Kenny V. just yet. He’s got a ton of raw talent, but he’s still a rookie. I think he’ll end up with 4-6 interceptions and 2-3 games where he’s pretty effing miserable. But then again, who knows. He’s been knocking some heads around and he seems like the type of efficient badass we need, so maybe he just destroys the league and earns the defensive Rookie of the Year. Yeah I like that one better. Let’s go with that.
My Name is Bradley, and I Have Some Stats For You
Football previews are nonsense. There is no educated guess. You write a bunch of stuff and later on you either look totally stupid or very lucky.
I’m writing one anyway.
Previews are nonsense because they are subjective, and because football is a complex sport with a lot of moving parts. In both 2011 and 2012 I tried–and mostly failed–to eliminate the subjectivity and choose quantifiable things with which to evaluate the Saints’ chances.
In 2011, that thing was passer rating differential: the idea that a bigger difference between your quarterback’s passer rating and the one your defense allows will result in more wins. That year Drew Brees had a really good passer rating, and the Saints’ defense was mediocre, but Drew’s improved passer rating over 2010 resulted in a wider differential. At more than 24 points, it was a substantial margin, and the Saints won 13 games.
The story in 2012 was, well, you know what the story in 2012 was, and so what I tried to do was quantify the impact of losing a head coach. Using the history of coaches like George Seifert and Barry Switzer, I desperately argued that great quarterbacks mean more to NFL teams than head coaches, and I predicted a playoff berth, and I was wrong.
But I believe in the quantifiable things of 2013. They are happy and show that history is very much on the Saints’ side.
The Power of Finishing Last
Prognosticators are telling you that the Saints’ success in 2013 will depend on how much their defense improves. What prognosticators leave out is that teams whose defenses rank last almost always improve their win total the next season
Since 1990, teams with last-place defenses have won an average of about five games. Their average win total the year after their last place finish improved by two, and teams with lots of talent on offense tended to improve more than that. For example, the 2002 Chiefs had the last place defense and finished 8-8, but the 2003 Chiefs finished 13-3. (Most last place defenses are paired with pretty bad offenses, too, but even they tend to improve the next year. The 49ers finished 4-12 with a last place defense in 2005, but finished 7-9 in 2006; the 1998 Panthers were 4-12, the 1999 ones 8-8; and so on.11)
This tells us that horrible defenses tend to find sustaining their level of suckage difficult. The only team since 1990 to finish with the last place defense multiple seasons consecutively was the 2007-2009 Lions, who fell from 7-9 in 2007 to 0-16 in 2008, improving to 2-14 in 2009–if you can call that “improvement.” The Lions managed a special kind of suck that we’ll hope the Saints don’t replicate.
Anyway, a given last-place defense might not improve much, but odds are it will get better–and odds are the Saints’ defense will do likewise, and that their win total will reflect this improvement.
The Power of Scoring Lots of Points
But so here’s the really good part: Teams that score a lot of points and yet don’t experience success tend to improve dramatically the next season.
We’ll get back to what that means for the 2013 Saints. First, an overview of the numbers: Since 1990, teams that have scored 450 points or more have averaged just over 12 wins. Expanded to include top three scoring offenses annually since 1990, the average falls only a few tenths, to just under 12 wins.
Obviously the 2012 Saints, who scored 461 points, finishing third in the league, dramatically underperformed those expectations. They are not the only team since 1990 to do so, though. In fact, it’s happened five other times12:
2001 Colts, 6-10
2002 Chiefs, 8-8
2004 Chiefs, 7-9
2008 Saints, 8-8
2008 Chargers, 8-8
That Colts team improved to 10-6 in 2002. The Chiefs improved from 8-8 to 13-3 in 2003 and from 7-9 to 10-6 in 2004. The Chargers improved from 8-8 to 13-3 in 2009, and the Saints, of course, improved to 13-3 and won the Super Bowl that year. That’s an average improvement of over 4 wins.
Important to note here is that each of these teams had a sustainable offensive system that continued to have success in the years after the middling record. The Colts had Peyton Manning. The Chiefs were in the middle of that Dick Vermeil run, led by Trent Green and Priest Holmes. The Saints had, and have, Payton and Brees, and even the Chargers were in the middle of that short period when Philip Rivers was talked about as a very good quarterback, and Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson were around and among the best players at their positions.
And so what does this mean for the Saints? For one thing, it means the most important thing for winning a lot of games in 2013 isn’t really a drastically-improved defense but is, rather, sustaining the 2012 level of offensive production or, better, improving upon it. No matter what else happens, the 2013 Saints have to score plenty: they can’t afford a season like those they had in 2007 or 2010, the only two years since 2006 they have managed fewer than 400 points. An improved defense without a great offense will make the whole Rob Ryan enterprise pointless. Fortunately, Sean Payton’s return should give the offense the kind of tune-up it periodically seems to need to maximize its production.
The other thing is indeed defense. The Saints defense has to get off the bottom. It doesn’t matter if they finish at 25–they just can’t afford another 2012. Rob Ryan’s mantra for his unit certainly won’t be Don’t be the Lions! but it may end up being mine.
The Bottom Line
Here’s the part where I put predictions down for the record.
Forget the questions at outside linebacker for a while; don’t think about our young receivers or cross your fingers that Junior Galette gets healthy and starts scaring quarterbacks. I’m not going to analyze John Jenkins against the run or talk about Kenny Vaccaro.
I’m taking the four wins that non-winning, high-scoring teams have added to their total the following season, and I’m adding those four wins to the seven the Saints produced last year.
11-5. Excitement. Frustration. Thrills. Playoffs. And who knows what else. if a few things break our way.
My prediction? We’re going to have a lot of fun this year.