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Friday, September 9, 2011

Back to the Old Drawing Board

The NFL kicked off its 2011 regular season with a spectacle of events in Green Bay, Wisconsin last night. The Packers beat the Saints, 42-34 in a dramatic game in which the outcome was not decided until an untimed play after the fourth quarter clock had expired. It was a great start to the NFL season, unless you are a Saints fan.


If you are among the two close friends or the half-dozen other regular readers of the Hat Trick, you know that I bleed two shades of gold: LSU’s purple & gold and black & gold. That said, I make every effort, to the best of my ability, to be as objective as I can when writing about my hometown NFL team or my alma mater.

I have been critical of the Saints defense, particularly its run stopping and tackling, for several years. If you cannot stop the run, you cannot get the ball back and you will have fewer chances for your offense to score points. Giving up 103 yards on the ground to the Packers, while not catastrophic, did nothing to stem, what is becoming, my perpetual concern about the run defense, especially from the outside linebackers.

What killed the Saints, however, was shoddy tackling while defending the pass. It is one thing to give up yards in the air and possibly a first down. It is victory inhibiting when a teams gives up an abundance of yards, not only after the catch but after first contact with a defender.

This game was billed as a matchup of the last two Super Bowl winners. The Saints defense was sub-par in limiting yardage their Super Bowl winning season of 2009, but the team led the league in turnover margin and scoring defense. This Saints team has demonstrated that is it is not going to shut down producers on opposing teams. This means that the Saints must force turnovers or be forced to compete in shootouts, like last night, with the league’s better offensive teams.

Tackling hasn't always been the strong suit of Sean Payton's Saints teams. 1


Head Coach Sean Payton has been the most successful coach in Saints history. He has also made more decisions that have prompted me to scream, “What are you DOING?” than his three predecessors, Jim Haslett, Mike Ditka, and Jim Mora, Sr., combined. In 2009, his gun slinging and risk taking, such as attempting an onside kick in at the beginning of the second half of Super Bowl XLIV, paid off. In my observation, the net result of Payton’s dice-rolling in his other five seasons of tenure, including 2011, has been snake eyes.

Sean Payton attempted two unsuccessful fourth down conversions while well within the field goal range of 21 year veteran kicker John Kasay, one of the 20 most accurate kickers in the history of the National Football League. There are no guarantees in sports, and no situation in a game occurs in a vacuum. However, had Payton elected to attempt two field goals and Kasay was successful, with all other factors being equal, the Saints would have trailed by two points instead of eight near the end of the game and Kasay could have attempted a chip shot to win the game.

Football is a game won with points. A field goal is worth three points. A touchdown is worth twice what a field goal is worth. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Unless the game hangs in the balance, I think Payton has cost his team more than he has helped his team by making risky fourth down conversion attempts while deep in his opponents’ territory.

Sean Payton is known to be friends with country music star Kenny Chesney (left), but his coaching persona more closely resembles that of another country singer named Kenny, Kenny "The Gambler" Rodgers. 2


There were some positives to be taken away from the Saints’ loss. Drew Brees threw for over 400 yards against a top-tier Packers defense. If the Saints can run up 34 points against one of the better defenses, they may have their way with average opponents. In spite of a comedy of defensive and (not so) special teams coverage errors, the Saints were one yard away, at the end of the game, from having a chance to tie the score and send the game into overtime. In short, the offense played very well on the road in spite of having difficult opposition and a defense that failed to rise to any occasion, yet the Packers were very lucky to escape with a win.


The Saints are in an extremely competitive division, the NFC South. The Saints, Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers all have a chance to win that division. The Saints’ performance, last night, was good enough to easily beat half of the league’s 32 teams. The top half, however, may give the Saints difficulty, difficulty that could be the difference between the Saints winning or not winning the division or the difference between reaching or failing to reach the playoffs.

The Saints were the best in 2009. They weren't last night. 3

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