Think to the last romantic relationship you had that ended. Maybe last week or last year or even back in high school. At some point, you began to detach yourself emotionally from that relationship even if you didn’t necessarily end it then and there. It’s a defense mechanism that everyone engages in. You’re all of a sudden not as interested in going out or you surprisingly have other plans. You’re not as attentive when they’re talking with you about their day. All of a sudden, that video game or that episode of Black Dynamite is far more exciting. And so it goes. Because you know this is going nowhere and you want to avoid getting hurt.
I think I reached that point today with this Saints 2014 season.
As Carolina drove to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, I wasn’t angry. I was angry when Marques Colston fumbled the ball in OT against Atlanta in Week 1. I was angry when Perrish Cox flopped like he was Sergio Busquetts to nullify the last play Hail Mary TD against San Francisco. I wasn’t even disappointed as the halftime finished 24-3 in a listless performance by all aspects of the team. I was disappointed when the Lions found a way to make back a two-touchdown deficit in less than four minutes to win their game. I was disappointed in the tame efforts against Cincinnati and Baltimore at home.
Today I was simply resigned. Resigned to a bad season getting worse. Resigned to all those preseason hopes and dreams finally getting the plug pulled out from them. Resigned to beginning to read through 2015 mock drafts before the year even ends. I’ve detached myself emotionally from this season because this season is over – even if it technically isn’t.
How did this happen? Back in late August, I felt as confident as any Saints fan in predicting a winning season. 12-4 is what I was thinking was a possibility – 11-5 at worse if you took into account the Saints’ yearly tradition of dropping a game against a bad team. And if you’d scoured the internet, I’m sure you could have found 13-3 and 14-2 predictions from some. The question wasn’t if this team was going to be good, but how good. And obviously, a Super Bowl challenge was a certainty. No doubts about it.
How did we get to this point then?
It’s not like the offseason moves were that poor. Mickey Loomis did a solid job of adding talent. Moving Malcolm Jenkins for Jairus Byrd was an upgrade. Bringing back Zach Strief and Parys Haralson were important and well done. Keeping Rafael Bush from bolting to Atlanta was a solid move. Signing Junior Galette and Jimmy Graham to big money deals to keep them around was a sound strategy. Drafting Brandin Cooks, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Vinnie Sunseri looked a good bunch of additions. Even undrafted free agents like Brian Dixon, Pierre Warren and Brandon Coleman have followed in the footsteps of guys like Lance Moore and Pierre Thomas to find their way to a roster spot for Sunday. They even finally settled the kicker spot on Shayne Graham, who has been solid this season.
In truth, the only offseason move that felt like a negative was the trading of Darren Sproles to Philly for a 5th-round pick. Sproles has lost none of his explosiveness and ability to turn a small play into a big play. That said, even that move had reasons behind it. There’s no way the Saints’ salary cap was going to be able to absorb Sproles’ salary as well as the additions of Byrd’s and the new paydays for Galette and Graham with Cam Jordan’s new deal coming up soon. Even the choice to let Mark Ingram’s option lapse which, given his season, looks dumb now had its birth there. There’s only so much salary cap pie to slice and not everyone can have a piece. The hope was that Cooks could be that sparkplug Sproles had been and he did show some flashes of explosivity before going down for the season.
The sad fact is that many of those moves didn’t turn out as we hoped. Byrd was slow to adapt to the defense before injury ended his season. Cooks provided a much more immediate impact before injury took him out as well. Bush and Sunseri are also out for the season. So many of the moves aimed at improving the defensive backfield fell by the wayside and we found ourselves desperately hoping that players like Corey White and Patrick Robinson would improve dramatically.
We shouldn’t just pick on poor Corey or P-Rob either. They’re not the only ones who’ve had and up-and-down season. The aforementioned Galette and Jordan along with Akiem Hicks, John Jenkins and the rest of the front seven have managed a 24th-ranked sacks total. It’s the same story with our DBs: only 8 INTs (24th ranked in the league). Last season’s defensive dynamo, Kenny Vaccaro, has not looked like his rookie self. If it weren’t for Keenan Lewis being everything short of a miracle worker, I’d hate to see where we’d be. As it is, the 2014 Saints currently have the 2nd-worst defense in the entire league – ahead of Atlanta for the bottom spot – with nearly 399 yards per game and 28 points per game surrendered.
Nor should we make this a defense-only issue. The next time we run a kickoff or a punt back for a touchdown, rewind it on your DVR, hit record and treasure it. The Saints have been awful for years in the return part of special teams. Never mind just TDs. We’re talking good field position and shifts in momentum. I’ll grant you that some of it is due to kicks being moved to the 35 and how kicks in the Superdome sail. Even so, it’s appalling how bad our return game has been and for how long it has been.
The natural inclination is then to trust in our high-powered offense. Even when the Saints have had a poor defense, the offense has had enough potency to win games on its own. Statistically, this is what you’d expect. The Saints rank 3rd overall in offense (421.0 ypg) behind the Colts and Steelers and tied for 7th with 40 TDs so far this season. Again, all seems to appear normal. Drew Brees is completing 69% of his passes and is on pace for another 4000+ yard season with over 30 TDs. Barring injury, Jimmy Graham will have another 10+ TD season. Even Mark Ingram took his chance when injuries felled Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson and he’s on pace for his first 1,000 yards rushing season.
But if you dig deeper, you find problems. The Saints are converting on 3rd downs at a rate of 48%. That means drives stall and/or end without points. (Flashbacks to the Saints at the 1 against Cincinnati and Baltimore just flew past my head). The Saints have a –9 turnover ratio; meaning the Saints give up the ball more than they take it away. Now, we know the defense isn’t generating as many turnovers as we’d want. It only highlights when the offense turns it over even more. (Flashbacks to the Saints having 2 turnovers in 3 plays to start the last Carolina game just flew by).
And it’s not just turning the ball over, but when and how. Colston’s fumble in overtime against Atlanta. Brees’ INT against Detroit with minutes to go. Brees’ fumble following Aldon Smith’s sack against the Niners in overtime. The pick sixes against Cleveland and Baltimore in games the Saints lost by 7 points or less. This team isn’t good enough to get out of their own way and not make the mistakes that turn wins into losses.
So here we are. Three games to go and, were this not the 2014 NFC South, we’d all have buried this season in the deepest part of the Gulf. Alas, barring some sort of miracle run, we’re still going to have to contend with the idea of the Saints having a chance to win the NFC South and host a playoff game. And if you wish to hang your hat on those crazy dreams, then, by all means. I will never tell any fan that they should abandon hope when there’s even a remote chance.
As for me, I’m going to take these last three games as fun outings. The Monday Night game against Chicago will be a great time to have a nighttime gathering. Then enjoy Falcons Hate Week before the Atlanta game before finally hugging the heck out of the last week of the regular season before the game versus Tampa Bay. If at the end of all that, the Saints find themselves in the playoffs, I’ll be ecstatic.
I’m just not going to allow this season to break my heart anymore.