The CJ Spiller signing didn't work out. Let's not make that sort of mistake again.
Last night, the New Orleans Saints' offense started poorly but rallied and produced 27 points — but because it is paired with the Saints' defense, the result was only a quarter's worth of something resembling fun. Nothing new happened, in other words. In the end, the Saints were imperfect but good enough to win on offense and spectacularly bad on defense, so they lost.
Change the point total and you can use that summary for a lot of games this year, so let's move on.
NFL teams skew towards .500 in close games
— games decided by a touchdown or less. Often, teams that fall below that mark one year improve dramatically the next. For example, the 2008 Saints went 3-6 in one-score games, but the 2009 ones went 5-2 in them, including the playoffs.
The 2014 Saints went 3-5 in one-score games — 2-5 if you don't include the season finale win over Tampa Bay that looked suspiciously like a Bucs draft positioning conspiracy. So what happened this year? Why haven't the Saints improved?
The Saints haven't improved because, to point out the obvious, they made themselves a worse football team between 2014 and 2015. They probably overreacted to the bad result in 2014. I certainly did. Rarely have the Saints entered a season with as much hype and with expectations as high as they were last year. When the heartbreaking losses began to pile up — some of the worst ones caused by a Marques Colston fumble in the opener, a spectacular coverage breakdown against the Cleveland Browns, and a Corey White, uh, Corey White against the Detroit Lions — so did frustrations both inside the locker room.
The 2014 Saints were six points away from a 5-1 start, but who cares about close? By the end of the year, Saints fans, including me, wanted blood. Sean Payton delivered.
Here's the thing: We wanted that blood not just because of what was happening on the field, but because of what was happening off it, too. Personified by pass rusher Junior Galette, the most hated Saint of the social media era, the team was as unlikable as any the franchise has produced. Galette certainly had to go. But the Saints' other changes seem now to be almost a panic reaction that dropped the team's overall talent level and sacrificed the entire 2015 season.
Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton have a history of such reactions. When running backs Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, and Reggie Bush all got hurt at critical points during the 2010 season, the Saints responded by trading up in the draft for Mark Ingram, trading Bush, and signing Darren Sproles. No one would argue that the Bush trade and Sproles signing didn't work out, but the Ingram move, sacrificing big draft resources for what then amounted to a luxury, had more mixed results.
Ingram has developed into a very good player, but it took years for him to do so. In the meantime, the likes of Ivory, Thomas, and undrafted free agent Khiry Robinson generally outplayed him and made him all but unnecessary. Poor guy is only now overcoming the resulting bad rep.
The tendency of Payton and Loomis to panic-react and mash every button on their controller in recent offseasons seems to arise from the same supposedly aggressive personae they sport during the season, but that tendency is a lot less smart in March than it is in October.
The point isn't to pick on Ingram but rather to argue that a series of freak events — namely, terrible injury luck at the running back position in 2010 — prompted Payton and Loomis to overreact. After 2014, they did it again.
Sean Payton made a name for himself with his perceived aggressiveness. Rare is the announcer during a primetime contest featuring the Saints who doesn't mention his onsides kick call in the Super Bowl. Such calls only seem aggressive relative to the stale, inbred state of coaching in the NFL. Payton's "Ambush" was a fine call, but it was less aggressive than just logical. Surprise onsides kicks are successful almost two-thirds of the time
. Payton wasn't risking that
More often than not in the NFL, what we refer to as being aggressive is really just being smart. A coach who does something like kick a field goal on fourth and goal from the one yard line when he's down four points isn't being "safe" or "conservative"; he's just being stupid, as Falcons coach Dan Quinn discovered this year.
What does that have to do with the coming offseason? Everything. The tendency of Payton and Loomis to panic-react and mash every button on their controller in recent offseasons seems to arise from the same supposedly aggressive personae they sport during the season, but that tendency is a lot less smart in March than it is in October.
For every Darren Sproles the Saints find, there's a CJ Spiller. There's plenty of potential in linebacker Stephone Anthony, but there's also the performance art of Brandon Browner. And so on.
That's not to say the Saints should sit tight and do nothing
this offseason, but their moves should be careful and precise. They should only trade Sean Payton if Payton himself wants out. They should reserve huge changes for their defensive staff, and continue to lean on the draft to restock that side of the ball. They should accept the dead money penalty they'll absorb by cutting failures Browner and Spiller, and chalk up the million or so dollars in net cap space they'll save as a silver lining.
The Saints' panic response to 2014 established a new baseline for the franchise, and it's not good. But the only smart move now is to build from here.