Let’s not read too much – or too little – into Saints win
NEW ORLEANS – Two of the more disappointing teams in the NFL this season met in the Caesars Superdome on Sunday afternoon.
The Los Angeles Rams are the reigning Super Bowl champions, and the New Orleans Saints have had a winning record each of the last five seasons.
Both teams understandably had very high expectations entering this season.
But the Rams entered Sunday’s game with a 3-6 record, and the Saints entered with a 3-7 record.
Both teams have been hampered by an inordinate number of injuries to key players, which has contributed to the losing records and hampered efforts to turn things around.
Neither team was going to turn its season around during this one game, but the Saints were the better disappointing team on this day – prevailing 27-20.
It would be foolish to read too much into this one game, and yet it would be foolish to not read enough into it.
Much of the analysis of the Saints’ performance this season has understandably focused on who’s to blame. The injuries are a factor in – but not a satisfactory explanation for —
The prime suspect in any situation like this is naturally the head coach.
In this case the change from Sean Payton to Dennis Allen is the primary difference between last season – and a 9-8 record amid similar injury challenges – and this season.
Additionally the performance of Allen’s first Saints team is consistent with that of each of his three Raiders teams in his only previous tenure as a head coach, which had records of 4-12, 4-12 and 0-4.
It’s reasonable to question whether Allen is the right man for the job. It’s also reasonable to preach patience after just 11 games, the similarity to the Raiders situation not withstanding.
Another popular candidate for blame is offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, given the erratic performance of the offense, which was the lynchpin of Payton’s success, though Payton – until last season – had a Hall of Fame quarterback (Drew Brees) to work with and Carmichael doesn’t.
And speaking of quarterbacks – Andy Dalton has come in for a fair share of blame. On multiple occasions I have been a proponent of replacing Dalton with Jameis Winston now that Winston is healthy enough to play after yielding his starting position to Dalton only because earlier in the season he wasn’t healthy enough to play.
The starting quarterback position has been constantly under Allen’s scrutiny and it appears this past week he was the closest he has been to returning to Winston.
But he stayed with Dalton because he continued to believe that Dalton gave his team the best chance to win.
His faith was rewarded Sunday by Dalton who played his best game of the season. Dalton completed 21 of 25 passes for 260 yards. He threw three touchdown passes, including a 53-yarder to rookie Chris Olave, and didn’t throw an interception.
No one was a bigger factor in this win than Dalton was.
So what does all this mean?
It means the Saints are no longer the last-place team in the NFC South, having broken a tie with Carolina on Sunday.
It means their playoff hopes exist exclusively because they are in a bad division and an ascension to mediocrity is all that is required of whomever claims the automatic playoff berth that goes to the division champion.
But it doesn’t mean that the rest of the season is any more promising for a team that has yet to win consecutive games.
Things get harder from here as the Saints go to San Francisco to play a good 49ers team next week, beginning a stretch in which four of the final six games are on the road.
But it means something else and here is where we would be wise to not dismiss this performance too easily.
On Sunday the Saints did not turn the ball over, were penalized just twice and possessed the ball for more than 31 minutes.
Last week in a loss at Pittsburgh they were minus-2 in turnovers, were penalized 10 times and possessed the ball for barely 21 minutes.
Two weeks ago in a loss to Baltimore they were minus-1 in turnovers and though they were penalized just five times they possessed the ball for barely 22 minutes.
Allen knew they couldn’t continue to be minus in turnovers, to sacrifice significant yardage with penalties, and ask the defense to play nearly two-thirds of the game because the offense wasn’t effective enough to stay on the field for anything approaching half the time.
He and his staff emphasized this to the players. They focused on getting better at it, game planned to improve it, practiced to execute the game plan.
His team responded.
Carmichael chipped in with a game plan that balanced Dalton and Taysom Hill at quarterback, that effectively utilized Hill and Alvin Kamara to cobble together a good enough running game behind the patchwork offensive line.
And Dalton executed that plan to near perfection.
This Saints team isn’t like the last five in terms of wins and losses, but it seems to have one thing in common with its most immediate predecessors.
It seems to resolutely go about its business, working hard each day and focusing on fixing the areas that need fixing while utilizing the available assets – regardless of whether the perceived ceiling is a Super Bowl berth, a potential playoff berth or just pride-salvaging competitiveness on the way to an unavoidable losing record.
No one knows where this team will wind up, but it has six more opportunities to demonstrate what it can still make of 2022.
Fairness dictates that we should wait and see what it comes up with before making any judgments about 2023.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…