Sean Payton with Lombardi Trophy

Did the Saints Punter Die, Or What? – Making Sense of a Wild Panthers-Saints Finish

Save me the speech claiming Drew Brees can’t be beaten at home in the playoffs…

…Marshawn could’ve gone 2010 Beastmode anywhere! The Super Dome crowd wasn’t tackling him on that run, and I don’t imagine their cheering would have helped Tracy Porter (or any one of the other Saints defenders involved) bring down a raging bull. Home-field is a thing, but just not on certain plays.

That NFC Wild-Card game was played in Seattle, and that run would send the defending Super Bowl champion Saints crashing out of the playoffs.

New Orleans finished the 2010 season with an 11-5 record (2nd in the NFC South). The opposing Seahawks stumbled to a 7-9 record, yet wound up winning what was a historically bad NFC West. Seattle became the first team to win a division with a losing record, taking the tie-breaker with the also 7-9 St. Louis Rams.

Should the game have been played in New Orleans? Perhaps yes, but changing a rule after a first seems rather knee-jerky, no? – Division winners should be rewarded with a home playoff game. This was an unprecedented situation. And that run was a fitting ending. But no need to re-write the rulebook as a result.

Following the shocking loss, Saints head coach Sean Payton was not shy in his assessment of his team’s performance.

“You know, you get to this juncture of the season and you anticipate trying to play your best football…and so more than anything else, it’s that disappointment.”

If you read more of his post-game comments following that devastating loss, you’ll notice his attempts to spread the blame equally across all phases of his football team. But that was hardly the case.

His kicker was perfect on the day – the punter averaged nearly 50 yards per attempt too. Drew Brees threw for over 400 yards, and the offense finished with 474 total yards, scoring 36 points.

If that’s not approaching one’s definition of best football, what could players possibly do to appease their head coach? Expecting more would almost require added-incentive…meaningful enticement for players to ‘go the extra mile’ – turns out, they were the shady version of that!

2011 would end in a similar fashion, albeit one round later…

Following a second consecutive defensive heartbreak, the findings of an ongoing NFL investigation would uncover a bounty scandal in New Orleans.

A defensive unit so inept that they, led by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, established a program meant to incentivize players for knocking opposing players out of games.

For his involvement, head coach Sean Payton would be suspended for the 2012 season. Gregg Williams would receive an indefinite suspension, and the Saints were suddenly in a dark dark place, less than five years removed from Super Bowl ecstasy. They would miss the playoffs in 2012, the first time in four seasons.

Payton would return in 2013, guiding them back to the Divisional Round…against a much-improved Seahawks team (13-3 in the regular-season). This time, no argument could be made about the legitimacy of the host venue.

…and once again, they would succumb to a familiar foe.

Noticing a trend, yet? Post-season heartbreak, conceived by perpetual defensive ineptitude.

You don’t think all those playoff failures were running through the mind of Sean Payton yesterday, coming out of the two-minute warning up five points with the ball?

Heading into 2017, the Saints defensive performance the past five seasons had been, for the most part, laughably bad:

2012 – 31st in Opp PPG, 32nd in Opp Yds

2013 – 4th in Opp PPG, 4th in Opp Yds

2014 – 28th in Opp PPG, 31st in Opp Yds

2015 – 32nd in Opp PPG, 31st in Opp Yds

2016 – 31st in Opp PPG, 27th in Opp Yds

A lack of trust had developed over the years, between Payton and his defensive units. Whether a short field or backed up to the shadow of their own goal-line, opposing offenses picked apart Saints defenders with ease, routinely resulting in unfavourable outcomes for Payton & Co. That reality is also reflected in the Saints ranking near the bottom of the league in net yards per opposing drive over roughly the same time frame highlighted above. Apart from 2013, the Saints defense yielded an average of 36 yards per drive.

It was precisely these stats and past experiences that led Sean Payton to green light what was easily the most perplexing decision of this past weekend. And while it may have worked out in the end, somebody ought to remind him of his once again capable defense.

Though, perhaps the decision to go for it was, in a way, an endorsement of an evolving defense? Facing a 4th & 2 on the Panthers’ 47-yard line, Payton ignored traditional practice and sent his offense out to try and convert.

Success would stamp their ticket to the next round. Failure would leave Cam Newton a short field and plenty of time to orchestrate a game-winning drive. A post-season game-winning drive, and not to mention a job-threatening one if you’re Sean Payton.

High stakes and conventional wisdom aside, he had been let down far too many times by defenses to play it safe, so opting to try and ice the game with his best player on the field seemed like a worthwhile risk.

Finally blessed with the opportunity to win on offense, Brees jogged back onto the field after a brief discussion with his head coach. The snap of the ball would send Brees into his dropback – pressure up the middle forcing him to roll to his right. Soon he would be staring at a wall of Panthers defenders heading straight for him. Out of time and void of any other option, Brees would uncork a throw into double coverage…

…Interception…and a 16-yard net gain. Essentially a whiffed punt. But imagine the differing responses for a punting gaff vs. a Brees pick?

Now, all the Saints players, fans, and coaches could do was watch and hope they weren’t subjected to an all too familiar fate.

I would’ve punted it, and forced the Panthers to drive the length of the field with no timeouts  – and not to mention a woozy quarterback, if I dare say so. But it’s not lost on me, all the valid arguments that can be made for the chosen alternative. Actually, it’s the very existence and recognition of these crazy alternatives that make today’s brand of football more exciting than ever. Often times, it’s still a very programmed and predictable league but other times, it’s everything but.

The decision to go for it was both a slap in the face and a vote of confidence for the Saints defensive unit. Finishing the season 10th in OPPG and 17th in terms of total yards, they were much improved from prior seasons…albeit a low bar set. They had spent most of the game making Cam Newton’s life miserable, especially when he got onto their side of the field. Newton’s numbers were impressive, but he paid a hefty price all game, at one point even leaving the game to be evaluated for a concussion – hence the woozy comment above.

(He would, however, return after a brief visit under the ominous blue tent on the sideline. As for my feelings on the blue tent charade, this about sums it up…)

 

All things considered, the likelihood of the Panthers driving 90+ yards in the given scenario were slim to none.

Newton, starting from his own 31-yard line following Brees’ interception would come close, but in the end, fall short. Much like how he had done most of the game, Newton would drive the Panthers into Saints territory with relative ease, getting as close as the 21-yard line. However, missed opportunities, a crucial grounding call, and eventually, a swarming Saints sack would seal his team’s fate, and send New Orleans moving along to the next round.

Rather than risk being on the wrong end of playoff heroics, Sean Payton wanted to make sure Super-Man didn’t get that opportunity. In doing so, he made a decision that highlighted his unwavering trust and belief in a quarterback, somebody I (and many others) deem to be amongst the greatest to ever play.

It also revealed a sneaky yet unmistakable confidence in his defense.

A risky gamble, double-edged in both appearance and intent, paid off for one of the league’s most polarizing coaches. For Saints fans, it assuredly produced some highly divisive conversation. For everyone else, it was simply exciting football. But make no mistake, Sean Payton now has confidence in both his offense and defense.

He just has a funny way of showing it.

The Saints travel to Minnesota to play the Vikings on January 14th, at 4:40pm EST

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