This is not a post about politics.
Regardless of who you or I voted for, we now have a new president-elect that excites half the country and terrifies the other.
When you see the world crumble around you — whether you just moved to a new city alone, 1 or suffered a great personal tragedy, or are at the other end of a presidential choice that rocks you to the core, the triviality of football never seems so transparent — or so important.
I spent the day doing the best I could to avoid politics and news because all news is politics. It has infested every corner of our culture and now that we’re on the other side of the election, I realize how unhealthy 2016 has been for me. Podcasts, daily poll aggregation, hate and fear mongering; and even if my preferred candidate had won, I’m not sure the emotional weight I invested into the campaign would have been even remotely worth it.
Now, as I reach for distractions, in my post-election stupor, I realize how boxed in I am. Facebook and Twitter are emotional minefields that are simply not worth navigating. Bookmarks of daily news and opinion sites leave a cold, sinking feeling my stomach.
Then there’s football.
Is it a total waste of time? Is writing this post worth my energy? As sordid as it may seem, this moment has had a similar (or maybe inverse) effect of the 2012 Bountygate scandal. As a Saints fan, that fake controversy (and real penalties) was an isolating experience. The Wizard of Oz pulled back the curtain, allowing us a glimpse at how utterly arbitrary football fandom was at its core, and for me, my co-blogger Bradley, and many Saints fans, this altered our fandom and love of sports in an irrevocable way. For the next few years (and even still today), a veil of cynicism has kept me from truly enjoying football.2
Sure, I still love the Saints, but beyond my emotional connection with Sean, Drew, Jimmy(!), the city, and my family, the NFL leaves me cold.
In a way, I suppose politics, especially national politics, should leave you rather cold, but here I am, today with the same feeling 3 as when Goodell handed down Sean Payton’s year-long suspension.
So what to do? For now, I’m leaning in to the nonsensical nature of fandom. The Saints want so-very-much to be good this year, to rise above yet another 0-3 start, and dammit all, I do too.
1. Yo, the Saints are real good at third down.
The announcers last week pulled out a stat that was particularly striking last week, and I managed to track down the details for myself.
On third and three or less this season, the Saints are converting at 89%. Eighty. Nine. I’d look that up to see if we lead the league, but c’mon, there’s no way another team converts third and short nine times out of ten.
Equally split between rushing and passing, the Saints are nearly impossible to stop in short yardage situation. Again, as the nameless, soulless announcers noted on Sunday, this is why Tim Hightower has been so helpful the last three weeks. Hightower may be a limited 31 year-old back who fought through 542 knee surgeries, but it’s a safe bet that he’s going to keep down and distance on track and get the Saints into position to embarrass defenses.
Because this stat isn’t mind-boggling enough, the Saints have also gone for it on fourth and short four more times, converting all four, bringing the grand total up to 37 first downs in 41 attempts, or 90.2%.
But I’m not done. For even more context, let’s compare this to the almighty 2011 Saints offense, the greatest offense in the history of football. Yeah, I said it, 2007 Patriots, go suck an egg and cry about your Super Bowl loss. Let’s compare how that team fared on third and short.
The 2011 team couldn’t even convert 70% of third and shorts. What a bunch of losers. The 2016 Saints convert 7.75 third downs a game, just slightly more than the 2011 team, and at 53% conversion rate overall.
I know we’re all a little jaded over just how good this Saints offense has been in the Brees-Payton era, but let’s not gloss over a 53% third down conversion rate.
Over the 10½ seasons with Brees, the Saints have led the league on third down conversions five times. Since 2010, the Saints have led five out of seven years. And even among that consistent excellence, 53% is noteworthy. In the last decade, it’s second highest rate behind only the 2011 Saints (who, by the way, set the NFL record, so). That’s not second best to a Saints team, by the way, that’s the league overall. Only the 2006 and 2008 Colts have also topped 50% in the Brees-Payton era.
2016 – 53.0% Saints
2015 – 47.7% Saints
2014 – 48.3% Saints
2013 – 49.0% Chargers
2012 – 48.7% Patriots
2011 – 56.3% Saints
2010 – 48.8% Saints
2009 – 49.2% Colts
2008 – 50.2% Colts
2007 – 49.3% Colts
2006 – 56.2% Colts
Okay, I think that’s enough about third down conversion rates, don’t you think? Just next time we line up for a pivotal third and short, breathe easy, Saints fans, it’ll most likely be okay.
2. Why this year is a new narrative.
Look, if you just made it through 400 words about the Saints third down conversion dominance, I don’t need to go into detail about how this is the fifth time the Saints have started 0-3 with Sean Payton and how every time we climb our way back up to .500, we realize that the climb itself drained our remaining energy.
I don’t need to tell you that each time, the team ended with a 7-9 record. I mean, I just did, but I could have gone into much more detail.
Even last year, the 2015 Saints started 0-3 and then climbed right back to where we are now, 4-4, and in response I wrote a blog post entitled Remind Me Not To Get Excited which prompted this very concise line
As great as this win (and the last two) have been, they mean nothing without focus on the games ahead. Luckily, this is the Saints easiest schedule in a decade. Unluckily, it’s also probably the worst team.
There were so many players on that 2015 team that I hated watching, and the team felt incomplete. Winning that fourth game required a series of events so unlikely that you need to be reminded of the most insane play-by-play of any punt in the history of football.4
(0:20 – 4th) B.Wing punts 46 yards to NO 29, Center-Z.DeOssie. M.Murphy to NYG 47 for 24 yards (C.Dahl). FUMBLES (C.Dahl), recovered by NO-W.Snead at NYG 47. W.Snead to NYG 47 for no gain (B.Wing). PENALTY on NYG-B.Wing, Face Mask (15 Yards), 15 yards, enforced at NYG 47. The ball was fumbled FORWARD, and ruled down at the 47 yardline. The penalty for a face mask moved it to the 32.
That was the play it took to get to an unlikely game winning field goal by Kai. Fucking. Forbath. All that to say, this is a very different Saints team. The 2015 Saints team benefited from a very easy schedule and still couldn’t get to eight wins.
But this team feels different.
The 2016 schedule was always stacked against the Saints, when it was scheduled to play the NFC and AFC West, and that was before we knew the AFC West was the best division in football by a comfortable margin. But despite having faced the second hardest schedule, according to DVOA, here we sit at 4-4.
Denver looms large, to be sure, but after an unexpected (though favored) win, and the Saints will have an opportunity to finally, finally, FINALLY break the mold they insist on setting for themselves.
3. Addressing the run-pass truther cult.
I hate the incessant idea that if only Sean Payton would rush the ball more, we’d win more games, this idea that an offensive genius coach hasn’t cracked the magic formula that has half of Twitter tilting at windmills. Honestly, the idea that we have a better handle on play calling than Sean Payton seemed to me to be the height of hubris.
But every year, the run-pass truthers come out in force, either because we won a game in which we ran the ball a lot, or lost a game in which Drew Brees threw 45 times. This year, this argument has bubbled up after back-to-back games won through dominance in running the ball.
Never mind that the game plan against the Seahawks matched what the Saints wanted to do in the 2013 playoff game. Sean Payton wanted to be physical, wanted to possess the ball long enough for the Seattle defense to get tired (and wanted to not challenge their DBs too often). The way to do that was to run the ball straight at Seattle.
Never mind that San Francisco has a historically bad run defense, which we’d have been stupid not to exploit.
The Saints are winning while also game planning around the run game; that does not mean Sean Payton has finally seen the light. That does not mean that Drew Brees throwing the ball doesn’t give us the best chance to win every game. It simply means sometimes the game plan features more run plays than normal…and I think we’ll see it again this week.
Through nine weeks, Denver still has the second best defense in the NFL, but have looked vulnerable to the run the last few weeks. If you worship at the feet of the DVOA gods, you’ll see that Denver has the second best pass defense in the league through nine weeks, and the 20th best run defense. If you choose more traditional stats, you’ll see that in their last three match-ups they’ve given up 218 yards (5.1 per attempt), 123 yards (4.7), and 140 yards (5.6) to the Raiders, Chargers, and Texans respectively.
So, for this one week only, I’ll join the chorus of the run-pass truthers and cheer every time we hand the ball off to Ingram or Hightower (but not Cadet, never Cadet).
But for the love of all that is holy, let’s not make a big deal about it.