Sometimes, Sean Payton gets bored. He wants to score a lot of points quickly, build a lead, and punch the clock early. Sometimes, this happens against an opponent (take the 2016 Detroit Lions, for example) whose entire plan is to slow the game, avoid mistakes, and wait for the other guys to screw up.
You can see how that combination is bad for Sean Payton. The Lions this year have allowed only 6.8 yards per pass attempt, and that number, despite their generally poor rankings in a slew of other categories, tells their story. So does the Lions’ lack of giveaways — they’ve turned the ball over just eight times in 12 games.
On third and short, on his team’s opening drive, Sean Payton emptied his backfield. Out of context, and despite the noise of run truthers, like many Saints fans and Chuck Pagano, there was nothing wrong with that call. In context, it meant Payton was bored. It meant he was going to pummel Detroit fast and go back to Airline and go work on a plan for an opponent that interested him.
To really get Sean Payton, you have to understand: “The virus” is not about being too aggressive or too cute; it’s about boredom. Understand that, and you could easily have predicted the Saints’ struggles in the Superdome yesterday. The Lions did what they do. They force turnovers on ten percent of their opponents’ drives.
Bored Payton played their game, and so he lost.
Bored Sean Payton did seem engaged in at least one facet of the game: giving the football to Brandin Cooks as much as he could. Maybe the goal was to produce an #AngryCooks hashtag, after Cooks’s whining last week, or maybe it was all part of a Twitter slapfight with reporter Ian Rapoport. Regardless of the why, Payton’s plan for Detroit included one of those pointless Brandin Cooks end arounds (In three seasons, Cooks has averaged just five yards on these futile big play attempts; yesterday’s went for four) and produced nine Cooks air targets, resulting in seven forgettable catches for 73 dull yards.
Here’s the thing about Cooks: He’s pretty good at playing receiver, but he has failed in almost every additional role the Saints envisioned for him when they traded up to select him during the 2014 draft. Cooks is the worst punt returner the Saints have had under Sean Payton, which is saying a lot for a punt returner under Sean Payton. He brings nothing to special teams, unlike a Reggie Bush or Darren Sproles. He’s terrible in the open field — when was the last time you saw him beat a tackler in space? — so he doesn’t threaten defenses in the way Bush or Sproles could, or current wunderkind Michael Thomas does. He never produces more than the defense, or his team, gives him.
Cooks has two skills: He catches the ball well, and he runs very fast. Cooks rolled up 84 receptions and 1138 yards last year, and should be close to those numbers again when 2016 finally ends. Watching Cooks get behind a defense and outrun the world is a joy. When he does that, half a dozen or so times a year, it’s great. When he doesn’t, he catches five or six or seven routine passes and forces defenses to account for his speed. He’s fine, but he prioritizes his numbers over his role.
That’s a mistake. So long as Sean Payton and Drew Brees are Saints together, wide receivers in New Orleans will be pieces, not focal points, so despite Payton’s protests, Cooks seems destined for a trade. Or maybe Payton’s being honest, and Cooks will remain a Saint.
In that case, the Saints will have to overpay him. Like Cooks, the rest of the NFL doesn’t understand that Saints receivers are only about 75 percent as good as they seem. Expect an eventual bidding war, one the Saints may win as they seek to ease the 2018 or 2019 or 2020 transition to The Successor. So it could be a long time before the truth is revealed: Brandin Cooks may think he’s a temporarily embarrassed all-pro, but really he’s just gentrified Devery Henderson.
Games like this one happen every year. Recall the sleepy loss to Washington in 2006. Remember the sludgy ones to Tampa and Dallas in 2009, the ones to the Rams and Bucs in 2011, or the one to the Jets in 2013. This stuff happens in football, and it seems to happen especially to Sean Payton, when he’s bored. The difference is the 2006 Saints opened 3-0 and were 9-4 when it happened then; they were 13-0 when it happened in ’09; they were 4-1, and then 5-2, when it happened in ’11; and they were 6-1 when it happened in 2013.
That’s why you know how a Sean Payton season will go after just three weeks. If the Saints break par three games in, they have given themselves enough space to absorb the inevitable sleepwalking that always hits later. If they don’t, if they are 4-4 or 5-6 when it happens, then they will finish the year 7-9 — the seeming floor for a coach/quarterback combination as brilliant as this one.
And so 2016 seems over, even though it isn’t. Whatever the combination — a win this Sunday over Tampa; a loss to Tampa and Arizona followed by two straight wins; a sweep over Tampa but losses to Arizona and Atlanta; whatever — we know the result to which it’ll all add up. Still, this season seems especially full of might-have-beens; these Saints are three blocked kicks returned for scores from an 8-4 record and a December division lead. The line they have to cross to get from bad to good hasn’t seemed this thin since 2008.
Brees remains incredible. Somehow, finally, for real this time, the defense has a young, talented core group of players, requiring only a few additional pieces and a lot of new depth to claim a place among respectable company. The dead money anchor finally drops away in 2017 — relatively speaking, anyway. In 2017, the Saints have as good a chance as they’ve had in years to claim the early wins they need to overcome later losses.
This is how you become your dad. Just wait.
Wait ’til next year.