Dear newly-interested national media and general NFL fans: the Saints did this on purpose,
Look, I get it, 2017 is weird. The hapless New Orleans Saints have been a shadow of a good team for the better part of five years now. Drew Brees throws a lot of footballs for a lot of yards, the defense is as effective as a sieve, things change, but the Saints remain 7-9.
So I get it. Even Saints fans have had a slow time adjusting to this new reality. Now that the Saints are hulk-smashing teams on the road, it’s so easy to spot the resurgent defense and a good run game and write the obvious story. The anti-Saints narrative is so easy to write that you’ve already written it. But for the love of God, let’s not pretend the Saints did this by accident. That’s just hacky.
This is the week the dam finally broke. The confluence of the seventh straight win and the head-turning running stats have finally got the team some attention, but I’m still frustrated. Here, take this quote from Drew Magary for example:
Skins at Saints: I did not expect Drew Brees and Sean Payton to replicate the twilight Elway years in Denver and I bet they didn’t either. I bet they fully intended on passing for another 5,000 yards this season before realizing they stumbled ass backwards into a killer backfield and a stud rookie defensive class. If they end winning the title they should print shirts that say WE TOTALLY MEANT TO DO IT THIS WAY, with GUMBO GUMBO GUMBO on the back.
Let’s set aside the GUMBO GUMBO GUMBO joke that he crafted back in 2010 and focus on the notion that the Saints did this by accident as if the Saints had spent the last five seasons intending to have a bad defense.
Now, I know we don’t typically turn to Drew Magary for in-depth football analysis, but he’s merely tapping into a larger narrative that’s growing (and is wrong).
As I laid out in painstaking detail earlier in the year, the Saints have been trying everything to fix the defense:
Now, just two years removed from 2015, the Saints have pretty quickly replaced the majority of that defense again, this time with value free agent signings and a renewed focus on drafting defensive talent. And this time, Sean Payton is not fucking around. He’s changed the players, the coaches, the scouts, the DOCTORS, the approach to drafting and acquiring free agents, the scheme, and probably countless other behind-the-scenes things.
So again, if you’re just now paying attention to the Saints, don’t act like them improving is a surprise – the only shock is that it happened overnight. The team has invested heavily and consistently for years, and then it happened upon a transcendent cornerback in Marshon Lattimore (which makes all the difference it turns out. I highly recommend all defenses aim to have the best cornerback in the league). We didn’t suddenly decide that defense was important. It’s just impossible to be horrific on defense into infinity, especially when you’re committed to finding something, anything, that works.
Now, the second half of the lazy media narrative gets me more worked up. I understand that defense and running are like red beans and rice and are the easy way to talk about the right kind of team. Again, this implies that what this team is doing is new. It is not. It is better, but Sean Payton’s been investing in both running backs and offensive linemen his entire time here.
But let’s break it down.
Yes, Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram – #Kingmara, if you will – are great.
No, they do not represent a sudden and shocking departure from Sean Payton and Drew Brees’ approach to offense. The Saints have always relied on more than one running back. I wrote about the evolution of the Joker back a few months back, so go read that if you want an in-depth look at the importance of Bush/Sproles/Kamara to the Saints.
And sure, I know that if you simply check in on the Saints every once in awhile (nice to see you again), seeing them roll up 300 rushing yards on someone is crazy. There have been factions of Saints fans arguing for the entire decade of Sean Payton about the importance of the sacred run/pass balance. This, of course, is a wicked game of chicken and egg. Do you win games because you run the ball, or do you run the ball because you’re winning games? (It’s the latter, typically.)
But the Saints have always tried to have two or (usually) three running backs who have the skill set of #Kingmara. The three-back (hell, technically four) system was best idealized during the 2011 season:
Pierre Thomas, 110 rushes for 562 yards, 50 receptions for 425 yards
Darren Sproles, 87 rushes for 603 yards, 86 receptions for 710 yards
(10 Games) Mark Ingram, 122 rushes for 474 yards, 11 receptions for 46 yards
(6 Games) Chris Ivory, 79 rushes for 374 yards, 0 receptions
In this system, young Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory were sledgehammers in the offense. Sidenote: Mark Ingram’s evolution in the system is shocking but further discussion belongs in another post (Ingram’s receptions in his career by year: 11, 6, 7, 29, 50, 46, and 31 in 9 games so far). Darren Sproles racked up rushing yards, but really only carried the ball five times a game. Sproles stretched defenses and allowed Payton to scheme in devastating ways. Meanwhile, Pierre Thomas could do everything well but his only dominant skill came on those screen plays. Each back had his role, and Payton was able to rotate them out with ease on any drive.
Payton has never deviated from his commitment to a backfield that possesses game-breaking skills: traditional rushes, stretch runs outside the tackles, screen passes, and outside route running, but this is the first time that he’s found all those skills in just two running backs simultaneously.
Sure, Ingram is a stronger bruiser and Kamara is faster and runs perfect routes, but watching them, you get the sense that Payton trusts each of them as much as he has any running back during his tenure in New Orleans. Personnel packages are still shuffled throughout a game as much as any team in the league, but defenses are left at an even greater disadvantage than ever because either guy can effectively run almost any play in Payton’s deep playbook.
Oh, and not-for-nothing the Saints have invested more resources in their offensive line than any team in the league. Sean Payton is an offensive line-whisperer AND has seven talented players to work with. So that allows Alvin Kamara to run through a hole so big this happens:
— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) November 13, 2017
I guess what I’m trying to say, is y’all need to stop shitting on Brees because he suddenly has a run game and defense. He’s set an impossible bar the last five years, set insane records that were ignored because the defense limited him to 7-9 hell, and now he’s penalized for having the same general production level of other quarterbacks.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah.
The defense isn’t an accident. It features four first-round picks (Cam Jordan, Kenny Vaccaro, Marshon Lattimore, Sheldon Rankins), three second-round picks (Vonn Bell, Marcus Williams, Hau’oli Kikaha), two third-round picks (Trey Hendrickson, PJ Williams) and three late round or undrafted impact players: David Oneymata (4th), Tyeler Davison (5th), and Ken Crawley (Undrafted).
The run game isn’t an accident. Our offensive line features two first-round picks (Andrus Peat, Ryan Ramczyk), an all-pro third-round pick (Terron Armstead), and a big free agent signing (Larry Warford). We traded Jimmy Graham for Unger (just Unger). We traded up for BOTH running backs.
This is not an accident. Oh and Brees is still good.
So, if you’re going to write about us, at least acknowledge that the 2017 Saints did this on purpose.
Photo: Craig Melvin