The longest winning streak to follow an 0-2 start since 1947 has ended, one week short of surpassing the eight wins piled up by the Chicago Bears of that year. Alvin Kamara is blameless.
Sometimes, one character in the football story becomes the protagonist. Sometimes, one guy takes over the football game. In Los Angeles, Alvin Kamara should have been that character. It’s more than his numbers, which were incredible: 188 yards, a pair of touchdowns, an absurd 17 yards per touch; it’s also the sense, during the game, that Kamara was bending the physics of football around him in exactly the way of a great Sean Payton team.
In this game, Drew Brees was off. Mark Ingram was more The Amazing Average-Man than #AngryIngram. Michael Thomas wasn’t winning any one-on-one matchups outside. On defense, De’Vante Harris was existing.1 But Kamara was special. More than that. Kamara was a delight. Has any other player made you literally giggle the way Kamara does when, having already made a bunch of guys miss, he manipulates time and space at the sideline and manufactures even more yards?
Did even Darren Sproles at his 2011 best elicit the kind of pure glee you feel when Alvin Kamara jumps over a guy, performing the action with a grace, a sense of effortlessness, that even Reggie Bush, who also could jump over guys, didn’t have?
Sean Payton said something recently about Kamara’s limitations. In so many words, he said the only limit on Kamara is Payton himself. That idea became literally true in Los Angeles. As the flow of the game broke around the guy wearing 41, Payton backed off, favoring a conventional Ingram-and-Brees approach that the Rams were prepared for and which took the ball out of Kamara’s hands.
Finally, late, Payton went back to his emerging superstar, who, of course, delivered — 79 yards and a touchdown on five touches in the fourth quarter. He should have have ten.
Imagine a version of yesterday’s game in which Payton never got away from Kamara, with the rookie getting the football 20 times instead of 11. Do you have any doubt that his 188 total yards would have become 220, or 250, or 280? Payton may have had a plan, but so did Rams wunderkind coach Sean McVay, a sort of millennial Payton who outcoached the elder Sean in what I hope becomes the first matchup of several between the two men. The one thing McVay had no answer for was Kamara.
Payton’ll do well to keep that in mind. Next time Alvin Kamara turns into postmodern Gale Sayers, give him the damn ball.
So maybe it’s not 2009. But can you blame me for making the connection? Football is storytelling, and the biggest chunks of story come in chapters, and some of this season’s chapters have been a lot like ones from ’09. (Hell, the Washington game was a rerun!) But these Saints went to Los Angeles and lost to the Rams, so even if this is an ’09 remake then that’s an unwelcome twist to the script.
When the Saints survived against Detroit and broke the .500 ceiling, what they were doing, I wrote, was “resetting their story.” In L.A., the Saints reminded us that — yes, in fact — it’s a reset, not a repeat. That’s fine. It’s better than fine. It’s exciting. One risk of the ’09 remake approach is burdening this team, more accurately my experience of this team, with the weight of that one. Deviate from the expected plot and be disappointed. Don’t do that. Instead, revel in the unexpected and treasure the new and enjoy these Saints for what they are and could become.
And what is that?
So far, they’re a team with a sterling record against the 2017 NFL’s big middle class, but a 1-3 record against its top tier. These Saints have a lot of pretty okay wins over teams hovering around .500, but only one (their first win, over Carolina) against a fellow current member of its ruling elite.
Only — well — there’s an asterisk here. The asterisk is the most frustrating mystery of a year that has been relatively free of frustration over the past two months: What the hell is with this De’Vante Harris bullshit? The guy has had significant action on defense in four games this year: Minnesota, New England, Washington, and Los Angeles. He was bad in all of them, the bad sort of bad, the kind reserved for a 2014-2016 kind of Saints defense.
He takes the field and open wounds appear in the secondary. “Bad communication” suddenly happens. He stands out in much the same way Jason David or Brandon Browner did, if not more — at least those guys were sometimes shielded by other guys also busy being the bad kind of bad. When Harris is bad, often he’s alone.
Worse, Harris has worked to make himself maybe the only unlikable member of the most likable cast of Saints characters in years, falling prey to a stupid, eye-rollingly cliche thing some pro athletes do: In a now-deleted tweet, he ripped fans for referring to their team in the first person plural. We. Our. Us. If there’s a more efficient way into the fans’ doghouse than being a terrible cornerback, it’s being a terrible cornerback who thinks 18 months of paychecks entitles him to a Saints identity more than decades of emotional investment.
But whatever. Becoming the target of fans’ ire can’t be fun, and in the end the guy’s doing the best he can. In the matter of De’Vante Harris, the Saints’ coaches have been the real issue. That they put him on the field for almost 70 percent of their defensive snaps during the opener in Minnesota, leaving Ken Crawley on the bench, is inexplicable. That they left Crawley on the bench again the next week is negligent, even if Harris played only a quarter of the defensive snaps in that one.
Going back to the Harris well, against Washington and especially against Los Angeles? That’s flabbergasting. These Saints are led by men who might have found the honest-to-God actual next Marshall Faulk, wasted at Tennessee, in the third round of the draft. They ended the failed Adrian Peterson experiment in mere weeks. Why did it take until the third quarter of the Rams game to end the Harris one?
“We just made a change there,” coach Sean Payton said. “(Harris had) a couple missed assignments.”
I’ll say. One issue with the development of so-called football film study into an internet time-waster is the resulting tendency to focus so intently on what you think is happening in a play that you miss what actually happened in the game. For example, some internet film guys used to argue for the value of Travaris Cadet, who was not a good football player for the Saints and who has been cut by four teams in two years. GTFO.
I’d imagine something similar happens to actual football coaches, which is how you end up watching De’Vante Harris not cover a guy during one play and then miss a tackle during the next, over and over again, a clear and present tragedy, before the coaches finally come to the same conclusion as the people who just watch the games and pull the plug.
But they did finally pull the plug, and that’s what matters now. In their four games against teams that are currently more than one game over .500, the Saints have had Ken Crawley in just one. They won that game by 21 points.
Crawley’s presence alone doesn’t guarantee anything against the playoff-bound competition the Saints will have to face between now and the start of 2018. Maybe these Saints aren’t quite good enough. But I don’t believe that; they feel worthy of our confidence. They have an answer for everything, even if the coaches are occasionally slow to realize this, as they were in L.A., to fatal effect.
The home stretch is here. The Saints need Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley. They need Drew Brees to be Drew Brees, and could use #AngryIngram. The return of Good Kenny Vaccaro would also be nice. But they already have Alvin Kamara, a mutation in the code under football’s surface, the Platonic ideal of Sean Payton’s joker.
To borrow the words of coaching great Paul Brown: “When you have a big gun, you shoot it.”