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New Orleans & Sports & Americana

In This Era, the Saints Don’t Make the Rules

In This Era, the Saints Don’t Make the Rules

The best summation of the Saints’ zeitgeist between 2009 and 2011 was the classic Moosedenied post “We make the rules, pal.” The line was an expression of confidence: 2009 quickly became about watching a great team win a championship, not about wondering if that team was great or could win a championship, and that feeling bled into the next two seasons, buoyed by the Saints’ all-the-records offense in 2011. Here’s how we felt, said Grandmaster Wang:

We’re in this thing for us. Nobody else. Definitely not you. And if our achieving those goals leaves you humiliated and outraged, that’s your problem. Deal with it. Clutch your pearls if you must, but you’d be better served to grow a pair instead.

All true, and not even the Saints’ playoff losses in Seattle and San Francisco after the 2010 and 2011 regular seasons could put a stop to it. We’d reload and, like a hurricane that seems to ignore the atmospheric conditions and steering currents around it, do whatever the hell we wanted. Nothing, not even the antics of Marshawn Lynch or Vernon Davis, that happened on the field changed our mind. But our mindset doesn’t affect the win column.

So the NFL’s commissioner changed the mindset of the guy who does.

Sean Payton grayscale

We saw the Saints without Sean Payton in 2012. Now we’re seeing the Saints with a different Sean Payton.

This whole thing started last year, when a 6-1 Saints team whose only loss was a last-second one on the road to New England, which is as near-impossible to beat in their stadium as the Saints have been in the Superdome, prompted questions like “Has a dominant Saints’ team ever felt more unconvincing?” from even Reid of Saintswin, who (convincingly, I thought at the time) worked to rid us of those fears.

We didn’t have a term for what we were seeing then, but we do now:

The Grandpa Sean effect is both fan shorthand and, as the losses mount, quantifiable. Whether Payton himself is aware of his right turn into convention is an interesting question that none of New Orleans’ sports media is likely to ask, and which Payton wouldn’t answer if they did, but it’s an obvious shift; its sudden emergence in 2013, after 2011 put on display classic Payton in a way that was almost as scary as it was exhilarating, means Saints fans can only assume the sabbatical in between is to blame.

No one would deny the Saints’ confidence was, for about three years, overbearing for anyone who came into contact with it. But it was confidence, not arrogance, because you can’t back up arrogance. Ambush, the famous Super Bowl onsides kick, worked. Trying to set records in a blowout win over Atlanta, during the final home game of 2011, wasn’t arrogant because the Saints actually did set the records, and because doing so displayed Payton’s greatest gift as a coach: not his extraordinary perception of his team’s temperament, but of the city’s.

You wouldn’t get it from his coach-speak and from his secrecy and from his contentious relationship with the media, but look: Sean Payton’s a showman, not in the way he presents himself but in the way he presents his team. He’s theatrical, an able director who, in 2011, saw a chance to give the fans a good time, and took it.

The awful fake punt Payton tried against Dallas wasn’t bad because of its design, which wasn’t great, but because of how out-of-touch the call was, both tactically, given how obvious it was in that game situation, and because of how sad and desperate it felt as a plot point in a narrative. It was like watching Don Draper listen to “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

And that’s the tragedy. Sean Payton changed for no real reason, given what we know about the incompetence and dishonesty of the NFL’s commissioner; he grew up because that’s what a nasty smarmy world demanded — or else.

Payton 2 grayscale

The Saints are not dead yet.

I’ll spare you the darkest before the dawn crap. The Saints are a bad football team right now; they are good at very few football things. Their receivers can’t catch, their defenders can’t tackle, and no member of their secondary has yet even gotten close enough to a ball to screw up a chance at an interception.

The Saints’ defense is on a streak of 15 quarters without a takeaway, but more incredible is that the Saints have only forced five turnovers since their November 3, 2013 game against the New York Jets. Including last year’s playoff, that’s 15 games, nearly a full season. The NFL record for fewest turnovers forced in a season is 11, by the 1982 Cincinnati Bengals. The 1982 season was shortened by a strike to nine games.1

A year ago, Jairus Byrd was in Buffalo and on his way to a, for him, routine Pro Bowl berth; Cam Jordan, Junior Galette, and Akiem Hicks had combined to create a devastating Saints defensive front; Kenny Vaccaro was a real playerKeenan Lewis was on everyone’s list of best cornerbacks who aren’t good and loud or good and alliterative; etc. This year, all of those guys suck.

But so do you see the implied corollary/silver lining to all that? The Saints’ takeaway drought is so extreme that just to force the second-fewest turnovers in the history of the NFL over a full season they have to average one takeaway a game for the rest of the season. It’s possible or probable, even, for one or more than one Saints’ defender to have had a career peak last year, followed by a full year of terrible reversion to bad, but is it likely that every good player on the unit succeeded last year with magic and duct tape? Not even the 2010 Saints did that; Will Smith went back to middling after his 13 sacks, but Jonathan Vilma didn’t get that much worse, and Malcolm Jenkins probably had his best year as a Saint.

The Saints’ problems have so deviated from whatever the mean is that some kind of swing back the other direction is possible, maybe even likely. At the same time, the Saints’ offense, even under the direction of Grandpa Sean, is still capable of producing yards and points at a rate better than normal. It can even run the ball; in a nod to all you out there who feel this is important, the Saints have so far maintained a pass/run balance closer to 50/50 than in any season other than 2009 or 2006.

And there’s Sean Payton. Yes, he’s Grandpa Sean now. Yes, that means he’s become more conventional and less perceptive than he’s ever been. His schemes are a little stale, and probably one thing he’s carried over from the pre-2012 world is his stubbornness, which in this case means more Grandpa Sean.

But conventional doesn’t mean certain disaster. The Saints would not be the only team to suffer a primetime beatdown only to rebound; the Saints have, in fact, been on the other side of that situation several times, inflicting wounds on a team that ultimately finished the season with a division championship or Super Bowl title the Saints themselves didn’t manage. Truth is, teams that don’t make the rules succeed every year.

Bigger truth is, nobody is exempt from the rules. Pretending like we made them was fun for a while, but hurricanes don’t have minds of their own and they don’t bend the atmosphere to a will they don’t have. Sean Payton’s acceptance of this reality doesn’t have to signal his ultimate decline, or the failure of his football program after the best decade or so in New Orleans sports history.

The Saints are in a mess right now. But if anybody’s going to get them out of it, it’s Sean Payton. The 2014 season has been a spectacular disappointment, and the Saints are probably at their nadir. They could stay here for a while. But they might not. This is a new era, with new rules, and nobody has any damn clue what happens next.

Author

Bradley Warshauer

As a kid: Once read a newspaper so intently over a candle that I did not notice its ignition.