Saints already at crossroads after another 0-2 start
Eric Clapton has enjoyed a great career as a Hall of Fame recording artist and legendary guitarist.
In 1968, Clapton penned the song Crossroad as a member of the super group Cream. The lyrics are applicable to the state of desperate, disappointed New Orleans Saints fans who are feeling desolate just two weeks into the 2017 season.
“I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees. I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees. Asked the Lord above for mercy, same me if you please.”
Perhaps the Saints, themselves, not the Heavenly variety, need to heed the call to plead to a higher power as well.
Is there a fix to the team that has gone 0-2, allowed 1,025 yards and 65 points in two games while scoring a modest 39 points?
The statistics are overwhelmingly bad.
New Orleans is one of just three teams to allow over 1,000 yards in its first two regular season games since 1980. The Saints are 1-11 in September over the last four years. Quarterbacks on passes of 16 yards or more have completed 15-of-16 passes for 430 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. The Saints are a clear last in the league in total defense and rank 28th in rushing the football. New Orleans allowed 560 yards to New England.
It was the ninth time since the 2012 season that the Saints have allowed 500 yards or more to an opponent. The 30 points allowed to the Patriots in the first half marked the first time since Dec. 7, 1986 that the Saints allowed 30 points in the first half when the Dolphins scored 31 in the half and held on for a 31-27 win at New Orleans.
When is it going to end?
It is not as though the Saints have failed to address their defense. It is all about player evaluation.
In free agency, I am sure you remember Jairus Byrd, Dannell Ellerbe and Brandon Browner. In the draft, there are first-round picks Sedrick Ellis, Patrick Robinson, Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Akiem Hicks and Stephone Anthony. Remember second-round pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste?
You may add Kenny Vaccaro to that list as well, an average player who is in a contract year. While Vaccaro has been solid against the run when he plays down in the box, he is not a good cover safety in the passing game.
Most recently, New Orleans has invested top picks in Sheldon Rankins and Marshon Lattimore while spending second-round picks on Hau’oli Kikaha, Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams. They signed A.J. Klein, Alex Okafor and Manti Te’o, along with Rafael Bush.
Malcolm Jenkins and Cameron Jordan were other first-round investments. Jenkins was a solid player but never a playmaker, at least in New Orleans. Jordan has proven to be a very good selection, the best defensive player on an otherwise forgettable unit.
When it comes to evaluating the Saints’ defensive woes of the last six years, you can clearly place your finger on the button of poor talent evaluation, not addressing needs.
On the surface, it appears that Lattimore is a good player. He is likely already the best corner the team has, particularly with the prolonged absence of Delvin Breaux again. Williams shows promise and has ability but it too early to know on him. The jury is out on Bell. Time will tell.
Klein is a step up but he was a reserve for division rival Carolina. Te’o had injury issues in San Diego and the Chargers chose not to keep him. Okafor is a serviceable player. Not having Nick Fairley or Breaux has definitely hurt this defense. Last year, they added Craig Robertson and Nate Stupar.
It is incumbent upon Dennis Allen to take a vast array of new players, including rookies Trey Hendrickson and Al-Quadin Muhammad, and to mold them into an effective unit.
Notice the choice of the word effective.
The Saints defense has never had to be dominating or excellent. It just needs to be effective, efficient, able to escape drives without yielding touchdowns while forcing a few turnovers. It helps to have 11 men on the field. Having 10 on the field to open the season was embarrassing. Having 12 men on the field when the defense finally made a play against New England was ridiculous.
This cannot be blamed on Gary Gibbs, Gregg Williams, Steve Spagnuolo or Rob Ryan.
Speaking of turnovers, the Saints were 33-2 under Sean Payton when not committing a turnover entering the 2017 season. Make that 33-4 now. The offense has not committed a turnover in two games but the defense has not forced any.
That switches our “fix” focus to the offense.
The offense has moved the football but has not gotten points. Some of the yards (and scores) have come with the outcome already decided. That is where statistics can be deceiving. The term garbage time is applied for a reason.
Drew Brees is still a very good quarterback. He simply does not have all of the needed pieces in place.
Not having Willie Snead has really hurt.
We know Michael Thomas is a very good player. It is nice to see Coby Fleener put the ball in the end zone in consecutive games. Alvin Kamara made a nice play downfield against the Patriots. Ted Ginn has been okay but cannot drop balls. Maybe a return to Charlotte to face his former team will stoke his competitive juices.
While Brandon Coleman had a nice game against New England and while Tommylee Lewis made a play against Minnesota, it is Snead whom Brees trusts most on third down, where the Saints have come up short thus far this year.
Additionally, the patchwork offensive line is an issue.
Andrus Peat is obviously best suited to play guard, not tackle. He moved to the island position against New England and predictably, had issues. Peat is on the verge of breaking through to become a good to very good guard in the NFL. Max Unger and Larry Warford are proven players in the league.
Unfortunately, a lack of depth up front forced the hand of Sean Payton.
He moved Peat to left tackle, moved rookie Ryan Ramczyk to right tackle and inserted Senio Kelemete at left guard after he had to play tackle against the Vikings following an injury to Zach Strief. While the unit was not terrible against the Patriots, it was not good enough, not as good as it could be with Strief at right tackle, Peat at guard and Terron Armstead at left tackle.
The running game has not been there, partially due to blocking, partially due to game situations as the team has had to abandon the run to play catch-up and partially because of the rotation.
Bringing in Adrian Peterson was always going to be a lightning rod issue for the team. Here is one of the best running backs in the modern era being asked to be a bit player. Clearly, he is unhappy with the role and understandably so. Clearly, it is the only role he should have, based on Mark Ingram coming off of his best season and the addition of Kamara. Both should get the lion’s share of snaps. They have earned it.
If Peterson becomes more of a distraction, the organization will have to make a decision about whether to keep him or not. I admire his accomplishments and his desire to contribute more but if anyone has gotten the short end of the stick thus far, it is Ingram, who made himself a good runner, good pass receiver and good pass protector through hard work.
A trip to Carolina beckons. The Panthers lost Saints killer Greg Olsen to a broken foot in their win over Buffalo. That will certainly enhance the Saints chances of containing the Carolina offense. Cam Newton already got banged up in the same game but is okay and will play.
To say that is a must-win game is an understatement. New Orleans is 0-2 for the fourth straight year, for the fifth time in six years. In the previous four seasons in which the Saints were 0-2, they finished 7-9. Going 0-3 will virtually ensure that the Saints are home at playoff time again this season and that could necessitate change, perhaps wholesale change from the players to the coaching staff.
The Saints can win at Carolina. How quickly their defense matures remains a big question mark. How quickly their offense returns to being elite is perhaps more important. That is the one aspect you could always count on, regardless of 7-9 records, That has not been the case this year.
New Orleans has lost its last nine regular season games in September.
We are reminded each year that teams starting 0-2 have only made the playoffs about 10 percent of the time since 1990. I stated before the season that if the Saints went 2-2, they would have a winning season, as I picked them to go 9-7. Of course, I added that they really had to be 2-2. It is still possible with the Panthers next, followed by the mindless trip to London, something the league continues to perpetuate for whatever reasons. It is unfair to both teams who play there. Leagues in Europe have failed. There is little interest there, only curiosity.
One other major obstacle is that the NFC South is an improved, good division.
The Falcons remain elite offensively and have shown no ill effects from their Super Bowl collapse, opening 2-0. The Panthers are 2-0, allowing just six points in two games. Tampa Bay had a smashing debut in a 29-7 win over the Bears and look poised to become a winner in 2016.
In 1968, the Saints started 1-1 as a second-year expansion team, at a time when fans were deliriously excited about having an NFL team as opposed to being obsessed with winning. That team finished 4-9-1, an improvement over year one and widely accepted by fans and the youthful organization.
Things are quite different now. Payton raised the bar, brought championship football to New Orleans, featuring an exciting, elite offense. The slide to mediocrity has been hard to watch and hard to accept for all involved with the organization and for fans.
You know what starting 0-3 would mean, borrowing Clapton’s closing lyric to the song.
“And I’m standing at the crossroads, believe I’m sinking down.”
Based on what we have seen thus far, it is hard to escape that sinking feeling. That comes from a realistic perspective, rather than a negative perspective. It is easy to understand why skepticism rules the day, based on recent annual and current season results. The fix is possible but it will not come easily.
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Sports Media Association, National Football…