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Nath Debriefs the Saints: Week Two

The Saints find themselves in a familiar hole with familiar problems

As I said last week, I wasn’t going to be surprised when the Saints, seven-point underdogs at home against New England, would lose and start this season 0-2, as they did for the last three seasons. And I wasn’t surprised as to how it happened, with the Patriots’ offense essentially having its way with the defense, and the offense missing too many important parts to keep pace, leading to a 36-20 defeat.

The defense didn’t even have the promising opening drives of week 1, as Tom Brady tore them up to the tune of over 300 yards passing in a 30-point first half and 447 total for the game. The offense had the same problems– a lack of reliable targets, a misfit Adrian Peterson (who legitimately looked washed up on some of his plays, including a fourth down toss where he almost didn’t make it to the edge– and who is calling outside toss plays to a 32-year-old power running back, anyway?), and two missing starting tackles. The defense had the same problems– some good performances (Marshon Lattimore had quite the game, mostly covering Brandin Cooks and shutting him down) eclipsed by the way the opposing offense was able to continually exploit the bad performances.

For the fourth straight year, the story is the same: An offense not firing at full capacity is paired with a defense that’s league-worst or nearly so, and the team starts 0-2; these last three seasons, that start has ended in 7-9. The better questions after week 2, then, might not be specific to this game, but broader questions about the direction of the franchise. Such as: How did we get here? How do we fix it? What is the long-term direction of this franchise? But the first question, the one you have to answer before you can answer the rest, is: Where are we now?

State of the Franchise

One of the most astounding facts of the Saints franchise in the Drew Brees era is that, despite having a quarterback who has consistently played at an elite level for eleven (soon to be twelve, assuming he doesn’t suffer a downturn) years in a row, they’ve only made the playoffs for five of those years. The Colts didn’t miss the playoffs with Peyton Manning. (They made the playoffs 11 of the 13 years he was the starter, including the last nine in a row.) The Patriots don’t miss the playoffs with Tom Brady. (14 of the 16 years he entered the year as starter; they missed in 2002, Brady’s second year as starter, and even then still went 9-7, and 2008, when Brady went down with a knee injury halfway through the first quarter and the team finished 11-5 behind Matt Cassel.) The Packers don’t miss the playoffs with Aaron Rodgers. (Eight of his nine years as starter, all except the first.) Even if you don’t think Brees is quite on their level, he’s close; even Ben Roethlisberger has made the playoffs ten of thirteen years as a starter. So why have the Saints done that much worse? Why have they made the playoffs fewer than half the time with Brees as starter? Why has the team finished 7-9 in five seasons with a quarterback as good as Drew Brees at the helm?

Addressing and answering these questions is a major and necessary part of the franchise moving forward.

Poor and panicked roster decisions

Let’s look at how the roster got into a state of consistent 7-9 play despite being led by a historically great quarterback. At my old website, Zone Reads, I undertook a study of the Saints’ drafting from 2006 (the year Sean Payton arrived) through 2014 (the disastrous draft that led to the firing of Director of College Scouting Rick Reiprish). I came to two major conclusions:

1)The Saints traded up far too often and left themselves short on draft capital;

2)The Saints weren’t any better at landing good players when they traded up (and weren’t that great even when they didn’t).

The 2006 draft was the rare anomaly; the team didn’t trade up and had an excess of picks beyond the seven allotted, and it’s probably not entirely coincidental that this draft ended up becoming foundational to the long-term success of the team. (Fun trivia note: Marques Colston was the last player the Saints have selected with a compensatory pick! Their failure to acquire compensatory picks is related to their free-agency approach, which we’ll discuss in a bit.) But even including the 2006 draft, the Saints averaged 5.8 picks per draft from 2006-14. (They averaged five picks per draft from 2007-14.) The 2006 draft accounted for 43% of the Approximate Value generated from those nine drafts– making it six times as valuable as an average draft in those years. That’s both a sign of how great the 2006 draft was and how poorly the Saints have drafted since then. Typical return on a Saints draft in this time was “an average starter, an above-average player usually taken in the later rounds, and no other value.” They’ve been consistently good at identifying offensive linemen in later rounds (Jahri Evans, Zach Strief, Jermon Bushrod, Carl Nicks, Terron Armstead), but that’s about it.

All the research suggests that the best approach to the NFL Draft is to try to make as many picks as possible, rather than trading up to target specific players, as the Saints often do. And even when the Saints do trade up, they didn’t get particularly good players or value. Antonio Pittman was most noted for being cut before the preseason after Pierre Thomas passed him on the depth chart. Sedrick Ellis wasn’t committed to football and left after his rookie contract expired. Brandin Cooks worked out so well they traded him three years later for a lower pick. And Mark Ingram ended up costing the team many future picks for what was essentially a luxury; we’ll get to that later.

This approach carries to free agency. Much like in the draft, the Saints have far too often fallen for one player they’re convinced could fix everything and spent a truckload of money on him, usually on defense. (Jason David and Jairus Byrd are both nodding right now.) Oddly enough, just like with the draft, they did succeed with this approach in 2006: Brees is inarguably the best free-agent signing in NFL history; only Reggie White comes close. But every time they’ve tried to make the one big move since, it hasn’t worked out.

It’s a mistake to consistently over-value your ability to evaluate players to the point where you zero in on one or two as possible franchise saviors. Yet the Saints’ approach under Payton and Loomis has seemingly been to try to find the one player who would fix their defense, and pin all their hopes on their evaluation of that player being correct.

Indeed, when they target undervalued assets in free agency, they seem to work out. (I mentioned some of them last week, players like Jabari Greer and Keenan Lewis.) But the splashy decisions often don’t. How much dead cap have the Saints carried over from handing out big contracts and getting rid of the players a year or two later? They do it so often you might have thought of Jimmy Graham while forgetting Junior Galette. These splashy signings are also the reason the team doesn’t receive compensatory picks, which are calculated based on free agency losses. The Saints are always signing more players than they lose. (Players who are cut or traded don’t count toward the formula.)

The Saints’ personnel cycle seems thus: The team finds hidden gems who become key parts of their offense, then trades those players away to draft defenders, and then goes through a mediocre year while waiting for those defenders to develop– if they develop. It’s a reactionary cycle predicated on taking apart the team’s strengths for a quick fix to address its weaknesses– and that fix most often not working out as hoped.

They did this in 2015, trading Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills in the offseason, using the draft picks they received in return on Stephone Anthony and P.J. Williams (as well as a second-round pick on Hau’oli Kikaha). None of the three defenders the Saints selected on the first two days of that draft have panned out as expected; indeed, the team giving up on Anthony by trading him to the Miami Dolphins on Tuesday was the major inspiration for this article at this time. (Even though I’ve generally liked the drafting more since Jeff Ireland took over as college scouting director, the record shows that the Saints had five picks in the first 78 selections, and what they have to show for it is a left guard, a rotational defensive end with three ACL tears, a cornerback who went into his third year having played two games in his first two seasons, and a 2018 fifth-round pick.)

They tried this approach again this offseason, sending Brandin Cooks packing (the Saints now have no one left from their 2014 draft class) and focusing their draft on defense. (Though the pick the Saints received from New England was used on Ryan Ramczyk, the team used four of their six day-one and day-two picks on defenders, three of whom have started for the team the first two games.) With Cooks gone and Willie Snead suspended, as I mentioned last week, the offense is back to its troublesome 2015 level in terms of lacking reliable targets for Brees, while the defense still hasn’t been fixed, because rookies take some time to develop, and at most positions it’s pretty rare to get someone ready to contribute positively from day one.

What’s particularly strange about this “gut the offense to build a defense” approach is that, even if the team had been better at choosing and developing defensive players, there’s no real evidence to suggest it’s the best way to win. In fact, the team’s best season since the Super Bowl season was 2011, the one where Brees set the league yardage record (broken by Peyton Manning, by one yard, two years later), the one where Darren Sproles was the leading rusher and caught 80 passes; the one where Brees had a breakout Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston in his prime to throw to; the one where steady Lance Moore was the fourth option in the passing game. The team went 13-3 not by having a well-balanced attack but by giving Brees the weapons he needed to just plain outscore everyone else. Including the playoffs, the team broke 30 points in 12 out of 18 games and 40 points in 7 of 18 games, the high point being the 62-7 Sunday Night Football blowout of Indianapolis, and never scored less than 20 in a game.

But that was also the year the Saints gave away enormous future resources for the right to draft Mark Ingram, a running back who played college ball at a football factory known for wearing down its running backs, and a running back who didn’t measure impressively at the Combine or show any special traits or skills. (The Saints traded their second-round pick in 2011 and first-round pick in 2012 for the right to select Ingram; with that second-round pick alone, they could have drafted DeMarco Murray, who has been far more productive as a featured back than Ingram.) This was the result of Payton’s desire to be able to run a power-rushing offense, despite the fact that the offense was at its most productive when it did the exact opposite, and despite the fact that the team was already loaded at running back, with Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory having been uncovered as undrafted free agents, and Darren Sproles coming over in free agency from the Chargers. The team gave up an extremely valuable pick for a player who didn’t suit the offense very well. (We’re seeing echoes of that decision this year with Adrian Peterson.)

Bountygate compounded this problem; without a 2012 first-round pick to forfeit, the Saints lost two second-round picks, leaving them shorthanded in both the 2012 and 2013 drafts. This was a major reason for the team’s downfall since then, as such a loss of draft capital meant they were unable to replenish the roster in the normal way– a problem they compounded with frequent trading up, misevaluation of players, and poor cap management that necessitated the selling of valuable players for cap reasons. (In 2014, the team traded Darren Sproles for a fifth-round pick, used on LB Ronald Powell, who played one year with the team.)

Where is the team going?

While I do think the defense has potential, it’s going to be a year or two down the road before we really see if it can come together like a top unit. Brees can opt out of his contract after this season, leaving him free to sign a new one and the Saints with $18 million of dead cap from his old contract. Even if the interest in retaining Brees is mutual, it’s not clear if the math can work in a way that allows the team to remain competitive otherwise.

What is clear is that the team needs to find a consistent vision and stick to it, and that vision needs to be rooted in rebuilding in the draft. The Saints need to build a foundation for the next generation through drafting, and stop falling in love with individual players and overpaying for them. (They’re already short a second-round pick next year because Sean Payton had to have Alvin Kamara.) They also need to find a quarterback of the future– even if they manage to re-sign Brees, he’ll be 39 next year and at some point the end will arrive; even the rosiest scenarios put it at no more than a few years away.

This need to shift the roster-building approach may mean that the people who have been charge of the personnel decisions will have to move on. The reactionary mode of overreaching for specific players and overreacting to individual weaknesses has been a pattern for the last decade; it’s not something that came out of nowhere, and it’s something that’s carried with Loomis and Payton.

What’s less clear is how the responsibility for the roster is divided. Loomis has the title of General Manager, but he holds the same responsibility for the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans, also owned by Tom Benson. Ryan Pace was director of player personnel in 2013 and 2014 before leaving to take the Chicago Bears GM job; no one was given that title upon his departure, but Jeff Ireland was named Assistant General Manager when he was hired (as well as Director of College Scouting).

I talked a bit to John Sigler, who covers the Saints for SBNation. He believes that Loomis essentially serves as a go-between for Benson and his sports teams, and that Sean Payton really has all the final say on personnel decisions, regardless of other titles people hold. And it’s for that reason that he believes Payton needs to go if the team is ever going to undergo a serious rebuild. (He also seems to believe the biggest problem with the defense is that Payton insists on being involved.) If this is true, then it seems like it could be time to let Payton go and perhaps even replace the entire operation under him; it may be impossible to achieve a new approach to roster-building with anyone leftover from the Payton regime. After all, for everything he offers as a coach, the approach to roster-building has often been panicked and poor, focused on flashy moves at the expense of depth and long-term stability; whoever’s responsible can’t be around for the next rebuild.

It’s not a pleasant thought, and it would mean the end of the franchise’s most glorious era, but given the current state of the roster and cap, Brees’ age, and the mistakes that have been made over the years in trying to field a contending team around him, it’s time for the Saints to start seriously thinking about what life after Drew Brees and Sean Payton will look like, and if the time is coming to make that transition.

The team is coming up on a road match with the Carolina Panthers, a team that has given up three points in each of its two games so far. On the road against a difficult defense, the seeming downturn of the offense may be exposed for real. If the Saints come out of this game 0-3 (they’re 6-point underdogs) with a bad offensive performance, it might be time to face a harsh truth: If they can’t put together a good offense even with Brees, and they’re as strapped for cap room and draft picks as they are now, then a serious rebuild is really the only path forward.

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