Black & Gold Wednesday: Can the Saints beat the elements?




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Common argument: The Saints aren't a great road team; they aren't a good cold weather team; they certainly can't win on the road in the playoffs because, after all, they never have.

You can slice the evidence any number of ways. The Saints' average margin of victory falls significantly on the road compared to their margin in the Dome, and yet the Saints have, at 24-13, the NFL's best road record since 2009.

Mike Triplett, blogging over at ESPN, noticed the Saints have a 5-7 record under Sean Payton in games played outdoors in December and January. Given the upcoming contest in Seattle, which you may have heard of — a game that may well determine the NFC's top seed, putting the winner of it on the fast track to the Super Bowl — that stat isn't comforting.

But let's take a look at those games in context, because the numbers alone don't tell us a whole lot.

The Saints In the Elements

First things first: At B&G, we tend to sub-divide the Payton-era Saints into three phases. The first phase began in 2006 and lasted until 2008. You might call this the construction phase of the era; the Saints never won more than 10 regular season games, and they missed the playoffs in two of the three years. Yes, 2006 was the teams' best season up to that point, but the offense wasn't quite what it would become, and Gary Gibbs' defense never quite got the job done.

The second phase began in 2009, when Gregg Williams and Darren Sharper arrived and spun a mediocre defense into a playmaking unit at precisely the same time that Drew Brees and Sean Payton had their offense begin to reach its peak efficiency levels. Between 2009 and 2011, the Saints won at least 11 games every regular season, kicked off the first Lombardi Gras, and made the playoffs each year.

2012 was a roadblock — since Payton wasn't even coaching, you can't really include it as part of the era — and so 2013 was the beginning of the next phase.

I bring this up because, for our purposes, the Saints' outdoor record during the first phase isn't really relevant. They weren't the same team; they weren't fully-constructed.

It's phase two and onward that are most relevant. Let's take it by season.

The only game the Saints lost on the road, outdoors, in December or January in 2009 was their final one, vs Carolina. The starters rested in that game, so it doesn't count. They won an outdoor game in December over Washington. You remember that one. Robert Meachem did this:

In 2010, during the regular season, the Saints won a cold weather game outdoors against Cincinnati, and the Saints lost a cold weather game outdoors against Baltimore. They, of course, lost that playoff game to Seattle.

In 2011, the Saints beat Tennessee outdoors in December and, of course, lost to San Francisco outdoors in the playoffs.

That brings us to a 3-3 record, including both regular season and playoff games. (In 2012, the Saints were blown away by the Giants on the road in December, but again, that's not really a relevant game given the wildly variant circumstances under which it was played.)

Let's take a closer look at these games to see what we can learn.

First of all, it's absolutely critical to note that the cliche of the finesse, offensive-minded indoor team whose offense shuts down completely on the road simply does not apply to the Saints. The numbers absolutely do not back up that contention. This is really an inarguable point.

Since 2009, the Saints have averaged 30 points per game in games played outdoors in December and January. They scored 36 points in the infamous Seattle game. They scored 32 in the infamous San Francisco game. The only time they've scored fewer than 24 points in an outdoor late-season road game was in 2011, against Tennessee, when they scored 22 points and won by holding the Titans to 17.

Talk about run/pass ratios, injured running backs, over-reliance on the passing game — whatever. The reality is the Saints average more points when they play in the so-called elements than they do overall.

If there's an issue in these critical season-deciders, it's been defense. Matt Hasselbeck's four touchdown passes were more of a problem than anything else — those touchdowns and the 415 yards the Seahawks compiled.

Ditto San Francisco, which rolled up over 400 yards too, slicing up Gregg Williams' defense as effectively through the air as on the ground. It was much the same story in Baltimore back in 2010. The Ravens produced 30 points even though the Saints turned the ball over only once. If anything, that game was a preview of the horrors to come in Seattle; it was a precursor to the fact that Williams' defense was built on a foundation of big talk and cardboard.

So what's the point?

The point is this: The Saints have indeed struggled outdoors during critical contests late in the season, but their struggles have been caused by their lack of defense, which has been unable to hold opponents under 30 points consistently even when the Saints have won these games (in fact, twice the Saints have allowed 30 to teams they've beaten outdoors in December).

That means it's up to Rob Ryan, Cam Jordan, and the rest of the defense that has turned the Saints' fortunes so suddenly and so impressively.

We won't know if the Saints will beat Seattle next Monday until they do it. They very well may lose.

But look: By some of the most important measures, the Saints, right now, have the best defense they've fielded not since 2009, or since 2000, but since 1992.

If that's the case — if the defense holds — then the Saints' late-season, outdoor game struggles may be over.

For more on the Saints, New Orleans, and everything in the margins, check out the Black & Gold Review.

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