Welp. Welcome to another offseason, bitches. Might wanna grab yourself a drink and settle in for a while, because we're about to go all TL;DR on your asses. Even moreso than usual, that is.

WARNING: There will be math. Lots and lots of math. Lies, damn lies, advanced lies and statistics (both advanced and remedial.) We will also be pulling some things straight out of our asses and asking you to accept it as credible analysis. So while we eagerly await what are sure to be incredibly entertaining 2013 post-mortem pieces from our friends over at SaintsWin, AngryWhoDat and the Yellow Blog, let's try to get our money's worth out of that PFF subscription and see if we can't figure out just what the hell happened in 2013 and the manner in which we should carry on from here. Hope you brought your commemorative plain white towels, because we're also gonna go for a new record for longest moosedenied post ever. We're about to go Full Grantland up in this bitch! High five?

 

Looking back at 2013: The Big Awesome Picture
Now that the season is over, it's finally time to gaze off into the distance with a big stupid grin on our faces and properly appreciate all the kickass things about the 2013 Saints, like Real Fans™ are supposed to. And despite the way the season ended, make no mistake, there are an awful lot of kickass things to properly appreciate.

We'll try to keep this part relatively short, if only because you already know all this stuff. It's important stuff though. Going forward, it's important to keep in mind that the 2013 season was in fact an unqualified success.

It wasn't perfect, obviously, and in the end they fell short of the Ultimate Goal™. Still, it was unquestionably a Top 5™ season in franchise history.

It shouldn't have been. But it was.

It's still frustrating in a way, because the Saints truly were soooooo very close. A play here and a play there. But that in itself was one hell of an accomplishment, because they were never supposed to be as close as they ended up being in the first place. Not by a long shot.

Not coming off a 7-9 season in which they fielded "the worst defense in NFL history." Not with a new defensive coordinator, a new defensive backs coach, a new offensive line coach, a new running backs coach, and a head coach coming back from a season in which the extent of his insight into the current state of his own team was whatever he could glean from watching them on tee vee. Not with half the roster having turned over since 2011. Not with ten rookies on the roster, including six of the undrafted variety. Not with ten (potential) "starters" ending up on injured reserve by the end of the season. Not given the toughest strength of schedule (according to Pro Football Reference) the Saints have faced in 15 years.

11-5 wasn't supposed to happen. Not in 2013. A top 5 offense and a top 5 defense wasn't supposed to happen. The first road playoff win in franchise history damn sure wasn't supposed to happen. Not this year. A big fat goofball transforming "the worst defense in NFL history" into #4 in total defense and #4 in scoring defense in less than a calendar year wasn't supposed to happen. And on and on like that.

It happened anyway. All of it.

A year ago today, the whole damn franchise was still in utter turmoil. It was getting better, at least theoretically, but it was still pretty fucked up. An unnamed player was trashing the defensive coordinator in the media, for crying out loud. And for all the talk of an impending "return to normalcy" at the time, the truth is that the 2013 Saints were still navigating uncharted waters, because no other team had ever had to attempt to come back from the kind of unprecedented situation the Saints faced in 2012. Forget re-establishing themselves as legitimate contenders, the first order of business was stepping back from the brink of what might have been a full-blown death spiral.

And for the second time in eight* years, Sean Payton and crew did just that. They not only pulled themselves out from neck-deep in quicksand, they went far beyond that. Far beyond what could reasonably have been expected. Against all odds. They once again accomplished the unprecedented, and in a number of ways. You know, just for lagniappe.

All indications back in August were that 2013 was shaping up to be a transition/reloading year. (At best.) The start of a whole new project, laying the foundation for the Sean Payton/Drew Brees Era Mark 2. And in retrospect, that's precisely what it ended up being. But it was a hell of a lot less painful, and a hell of a lot more fun, than it really had any right to be. In that context, it was nothing less than wildly successful. By any measure. Transition/reloading years simply don't get any better than that. Not in this league, anyway.

Uptown Ladies and perpetually-miserable assholes will try to tell you that this season was "a waste" because the Saints first pissed away the opportunity to get home field advantage, and then pissed away a winnable game in the Divisional Round at Seattle, and thus (at least) twice pissed away yet another opportunity to collect another (high five!) Lombardi. And they're not entirely wrong, because that's kinda what happened. But, this just in: It's pretty fuckin' hard to win the Super Bowl. Just ask San Francisco and New England.

So rejoice, bitches! Consider the fact that in eight years, the Payton/Brees Saints have not only made the playoffs five times, but they have at least one playoff win in four of those five years. Overall, they've won six playoff games in the last eight years. Just pause for a second and let that really sink in. Not only is getting to the playoffs pretty much a matter of course at this point, but getting there and winning has also gotten to be routine. How far we've come.

This is our New Normal. And it's nothing short of fucking glorious.

 

Still looking back at 2013: 1000 words or so on what went so horribly wrong
Not really a whole lot, if we're being honest. Unless you consider just not quite being the best team in the NFL this season some kind of disaster. Because I think that's pretty much what it ultimately came down to. And hey, no shame in that. Again, just ask San Francisco and New England.

Here's the part where we act all classy and shit, and tip our cap to the opponents. (It might also be a good time to note that our friends at Black & Gold Review already covered thistwice — back in December, lest they take to Twitter and accuse us of plagiarism or something. Heh.)

Anyway, we've already mentioned that the 2013 Saints faced the toughest strength of schedule (according to Pro Football Reference) in the Payton/Brees Era, by a lot. It was in fact the toughest strength of schedule the Saints have faced since 1998, for crying out loud. It was the toughest strength of schedule of any playoff team this year.

The 2013 Saints lost six games — all on the road — to teams who were a combined 65-31(!!!) in the regular season. Twice to the 13-3 NFC Champions. Once to the 12-4 AFC runners-up and once to the 12-4 NFC South Champions (by a combined 7 points.) Hell, even the Jets and the Rams ended up 8-8 and 7-9 respectively. Did I mention that all six losses were on the road?

Like mama used to say, it beez dat way sometimes. Have mercy!

Furthermore, the 2013 Saints played 11 games against teams who were above league average in total defense, including 5 games against teams in the top 5, and 7 against teams in the top 10. They also played 5 games against the #1, 2 and 3 teams in scoring defense, and 8 games against teams in the top 10. They played 6 games against teams in the top 7 in passing defense, and 9 games against top 10 rushing defenses including 5 games against the #1, 2, 3 and 4 teams.

If you've been trying to figure out why the 2013 Saints' offense looked pedestrian at times, that might be a good place to start. It's not the whole story, of course, but I'd assert that it's a significant part of it. The scheduling gods really boned the Saints in 2013, by a pretty large margin over any previous year of the Payton/Brees Era. That's not an excuse, it's a reason.

Still, statistically, the offense was just fine in 2013. It did regress slightly from its own lofty standards. But 4th in total offense, 5th in yards per play, tied for 4th in fewest turnovers, 4th in first downs, and 10th in scoring offense doesn't exactly suck.

One of these things is not like the others though, right? That 10th in scoring… it bugs. It seems disproportionately low, given the offensive yardage. What's up with that?

Well, part of it can be blamed on Hartley. The Saints were an abysmal 30th in the league in field goal percentage, at 75.0%. Hartley missed 8 field goal attempts, including four inside 40 yards. Add 12 points to the Saints' scoring total and they move from 10th to 8th (it would also put them at about league average in FG%.) Hit one of the four misses from 40-49 yards on top of that, and they're at 6th in scoring. Which would almost completely account for the disparity in scoring offense vs. total offense. Not quite, but almost.

But probably a whole lot more important than that is that the offense simply had to work a lot harder to score than in the past. They were 29th in the league in number of offensive possessions, and 19th in the league in starting field position. In other words, the lack of extra possessions created by defensive takeaways, combined with the lack of any kind of kick/punt return game (17th in yards per kick return, 30th in yards per punt return) meant disproportionately few short fields for the offense to feast upon.

The offense actually did a hell of a job in spite of (and perhaps in another way, because of) that, because they were 2nd in the league in plays per drive, 3rd in yards per drive, 3rd in time of possession per drive, and 3rd in points per drive. There just weren't enough of 'em, and the ones they did have started too close to their own goal line. Which probably had a lot to do with the Saints having attempted the 3rd most field goal attempts from 40-49 yards out, on which Hartley was 10 of 14 (71.4%)

I know that reads like I'm "making excuses" for the offense. I'm not. Hey, I watched the games too, and we all know that the 2013 offense was at (a lot of) times a shell of its former self. I'm not denying that, and we'll get to that. All I'm saying is that, statistically, a significant part of it really didn't have anything to do with the offense itself. The stunning lack of that "hidden yardage" from special teams was a significant factor, as well as Hartley's relative incompetence, combined with a certain amount of bad luck in the relative lack of defensive takeaways and where on the field the takeaways they did get happened.

Side note: I agree with Malcolm Jenkins on takeaways. Always have. Sure, there are things you can do to increase the overall frequency of takeaways. And obviously you want as many of 'em as you can create. But they happen when they happen. You can't really control when, or where on the field they happen. That's 99% luck. Sometimes they change the outcome of the game, sometimes they're pretty much completely irrelevant. The 2013 Saints were pretty unlucky in that way.

Anyway, it all added up to particularly tough sledding for the offense. Which doesn't absolve them from their own failures, I'm just pointing out other contributing factors which when taken into account do in my opinion at least somewhat mitigate the perceived offensive regression, which in reality wasn't nearly as bad as popular opinion suggests it was anyway.

 

Looking ahead: Fixing what ain't really all that broke
By just about any statistical measure, this offense overall is still very much "elite." That much is inarguable. But it's also inarguable that they're backsliding. They're just not what they once were, that much is obvious from watching them play.

They're older, they're slower, they're not as explosive, they're not as powerful up front, their weaknesses are becoming easier for opponents to exploit, and Sean Payton's schemes have gotten a bit stale. After all, they've been doing pretty much the same things, with pretty much the same guys, for eight years now. That's a long time.

It's actually one hell of a testament to how good Sean Payton and his players are at football that it's lasted this long, and even now is still effective at a top-5ish level. (Statistically, anyway.)

Still, in this league you either evolve or die. And if we're being honest, this offense hasn't really evolved a whole hell of a lot over the last eight years.

Which isn't necessarily an indictment of Payton. Because as long as it ain't broke, there's no reason to fix it. And it's never really been broke. It hasn't evolved much because, to date, it hasn't really had to. Keep doing it until they're able to stop ya.

Sure, every now and then you've got to patch it up a little bit with some duct tape. Stinchcomb to Strief. Faine to Goodwin to de la Puente. Nicks to Grubbs. Bush to Sproles. That kind of thing. Individual players inevitably come and go every year, and you're constantly tweaking. From year to year, even week to week.

But eventually, patching it up with duct tape to restore it to 90% of its previous functionality for the umpteenth time is no longer gonna be sufficient. Because it's still degrading, slowly but surely. Better to "fix" it for real at the first sign of a significant leak — when it's not really "broken" per se, just aging and weakening — than after your basement is already flooded.

I think that's where the offense is at this point. It's still "elite" but not nearly as elite as it once was, and it won't be "elite" for much longer without something a little more aggressive than just another couple layers of duct tape.

And it's not just the pipes. It's the plumbing.

Or, to put it another way, it's not just the hardware, it's the software. Both are still functional, but both are overdue for an update or three.

Payton took a lot of shit this year for being perceived as too "predictable" with his playcalling. I think there's something to that, but I think the "problem" (such as it is) isn't "stubbornness" or anything like that. It's just Sean Payton doing what he always does — the smart thing — and playing to the strengths of his players. To me, the issue is that many of his players are simply too specialized. Individually, their strengths are too specific. If you prefer to be a little more negative about it, you could say that there are too many "one trick ponies" on offense. And those same guys have been doing the same things for so long now, everybody knows precisely what those tricks are.

And hey, it's worked damn well for longer than most head coaches even last in one place. So it would be ridiculous to complain about the results to date. But, eight years in, it's pretty much inevitable that a kind of predictability will set in. The offense remains for the most part effective and successful because it's so "multiple" in that they have so many weapons on the field, and most teams still don't have the defensive weapons to counter them all. But how each of those weapons work individually, and how Sean Payton wields them, is so well-known at this point, it's easy to anticipate what each of them individually is probably gonna do on a given down, which makes them easier to defend against.

But what's the alternative? It would be stupid for Payton to start calling plays that require his players to do things they're not good at, just for the sake of attempting to fool the opposing defense. That's what we observers like to call "being cute" or "overthinking" and we hate that because it's a terrible strategy that's doomed to failure.

So he's kind of boxed in at this point. And in order to break out of that box and restore that element of unpredictability, they're gonna have to be a different kind of "multiple." Which is gonna require refreshing the personnel with guys who are less specialized and more versatile individually. Easier said than done, of course, and there's a certain element of "fixing what ain't broke" to it. Because it ain't "broke" really. It just needs to be freshened up a bit. It needs to be updated. It needs an injection of new tricks.

 

The Dude Abides -or- A Case of the S'posedas
And the roadmap is already right there on the other side of the ball. The situation of course was radically different, because the defense most certainly was "broke" and it was obvious that drastic measures were in order. And to Sean Payton's credit, drastic measures were taken immediately, and they were successful to an extent that exceeded even the most wildly optimistic of projections.

The situation on offense isn't even on the same planet as the defensive situation was last year in terms of requiring massive changes. And as we pointed out back in the fall, the defensive transformation was about half deliberate, and half fallen ass-backwards into as a result of circumstances that at the time were thought to have been unfortunate. Still, there are all kinds of lessons to be learned there. Things that should be emulated on the offensive side of the ball.

The first, and boldest, thing Sean Payton did — before he even knew who he was bringing in to implement the plan — was to commit to a change in approach. But as bold as that commitment was, the changes were never supposed to be as extensive and as radical as they ended up being. Junior Galette was gonna play, but he was supposed to be a situational pass-rushing sub for Will Smith. Akiem Hicks was gonna play, but Kenyon Coleman was supposed to be the starter at RDE. David Hawthorne was gonna play, but Jon Vilma was supposed to be starting at ILB. Rafael Bush was gonna play, but not nearly as much as he ended up playing. Ditto for Kaare White™, who was supposed to be a seldom-used dime corner at best.

Hicks, Galette, Bush and White ended up being four of the Saints' top-7 defensive players, according to PFF's overall rating.

(And here's the part where we state for the record for the millionth time that PFF's ratings are not gospel. I get it. I'm gonna argue against a few of them here shortly, because sometimes it's hard to figure how they even arrived at a particular conclusion/rating… David Hawthorne being a good example. But overall, I consider PFF's work sound enough to use as "support" for assertions, in most cases. Disagree? Sue me. Better yet, sue them and leave me the hell alone.)

Anyway, the point is that as bold as the deliberate part of the defensive transformation was, circumstances forced them to go farther with it than they ever intended to go so quickly. "Safer" options they otherwise probably would have gone with were taken away from them. They were forced to go all-in and get on with it already, to a far greater degree than they were probably comfortable with. And thank goodness.

The common threads there? Youth, athleticism, versatility. The defense got one hell of a huge injection of that in 2013, and it worked wonders. Galette and Jordan switching sides. Hicks and Jordan playing inside or outside. Kenny Dwayne Fuckin' Vaccaro being all over the damn field and doing all kinds of crazy shit on a snap-by-snap basis.

That's precisely the kind of thing the offense could use right about now. And just splitting Jimmy Graham out wide half the time isn't nearly enough. (More on that later.)

 

It's not about "getting out of your comfort zone." It's about establishing a new comfort zone. But to do the latter, you've first gotta do the former.
For the better part of eight years now, Message Board Guy has been shouting from the rooftops "RUN THE BALL, PAYTON!" for some reason. Probably because grampa was a big fan of Larry Czonka, and all this fancy newfangled "forward pass" bullshit is for sissies. Or something. And as loath as we here at moosedenied usually are to agree with MBG, because he's almost invariably full of shit, we're gonna have to go ahead and jump on board with the notion that now might be the perfect time for Sean Payton to finally go ahead and commit to that. For real this time.

A confluence of circumstances has presented the perfect opportunity for Sean Payton to take a cue from the wildly successful defensive rebuilding effort and make a bold decision to change the approach on the offensive side of the ball. An opportunity to be "multiple" in ways that for the most part simply haven't been possible until now.

126 rushing yards at a rate of 4.2 yards per on the road in a monsoon against the #2 rushing defense in the league, 185 rushing yards at a rate of 5.14 per on the road in the cold against the #10 rushing defense, and 108 rushing yards at a rate of 4.15 per on the road against the #7 rushing defense in 3 of the last 4 games should serve as the writing on the wall. The big neon sign that reads "Hey Coach! HELLO!"

Sure, they lost two of those three games, but the rushing game (along with the defense, of course) was the reason they won the one, and the reason they had a puncher's chance to win the other two as opposed to being blown out.

So the stage is set. The writing is on the wall. This is your best chance at winning on the road, outdoors, in inclement weather, in December and January. And if it works on the road in inclement weather in December and January, it damn sure isn't gonna be any less effective indoors in September.

But I can hear MBG screaming "Well then why the fuck didn't they do it indoors in September?"

Because it wasn't working in September. Because Mark Ingram sucked in September. Because it's a process. Because it takes time for a coach to go from not even knowing an undrafted rookie's name to realizing that he's got The Next Curtis Martin™ on his hands. (Or something.) Because Jahri Evans was playing through injuries. Because Charles Brown. Because they were 4-0 in September and what had always worked was still working. Because the whole "can't win on the road, outside, in inclement weather" thing wasn't really a thing yet. Because Sean Payton's 2013 season was largely spent feeling out and getting a handle on new realities.

And then there's the matter of Sean Payton's offensive lines having always been built primarily for pass blocking anyway, with run blocking being regarded as little more than lagniappe. Or at least that's been the general consensus for most of the last eight years. So while the prevailing opinion is that the rushing game got an awful lot better late in the season thanks in large part to improvement on the line, and that's great, you've gotta wonder whether it's sustainable or whether it was just a short-term mirage.

It just so happens that the Saints' two worst run blocking o-linemen*, Zach Strief and Brian de la Puente, are about to be free agents. Crisis? Or opportunity? Did you know that the Chinese use the same word for both? Yep. Crisitunity.

(*PFF actually graded Jahri Evans as the Saints' worst run blocking o-lineman in 2013, but of course he gets a pass because he played injured and we all know that when he's healthy he's awesome.)

In my opinion, this situation is just screaming for a d-line style bold and sudden transformation. A shift in focus. An injection of youth, athleticism, versatility, and good old fashioned brute force. The process is already underway with the late-season insertion of Terron Armstead at left tackle (who, in an admittedly small sample, was graded by PFF as the Saints' best run blocking o-lineman.) Do that again. Twice. Right now.

"Wang, are you fucking insane? You want to replace both tackles and the center in one offseason + one month? What about continuity? What if they get Drew killed? Strief is the Saints' best pass blocker! [etc.]"

Oh I'm not saying it doesn't carry risk, because of course it does. And risk is uncomfortable. Obviously, keeping Drew clean and upright is Job One. Always will be, I don't have a problem with that. 

And maybe Strief was the Saints' best pass blocker, although this is one of those PFF ratings I don't quite "get." Strief was "credited" with 3 sacks, 4 hits and a whopping 26(!!!) hurries, second most behind Charles Brown's 33. So I'm not really sure where the lofty pass blocking grade comes from. But whatever, we'll take their word for it. Doesn't change my argument any.

But it does bring up a larger point about the o-line… forget the run blocking for a second. Even the pass blocking began to deteriorate in 2013. And while I'm sure some of that can be blamed on Charles Brown, and Jahri Evans being less than 100% for most of the season, and theoretically both of those issues have been solved at this point, we're trying to be proactive here. We're trying to get out in front of this thing.

And I've got an under-the-radar name I wanna throw out there for starters. MARCEL JONES, BITCHES!

We here at moosedenied have decided that this is gonna be our guy who we'll be hyping all offseason and into the fall, until it makes you physically ill. And we'll be going all hipster with it when others start hyping this guy at some point in the future. But until then, a hearty "Remember where you heard it first!" will just have to suffice. Might wanna start practicing the "Wang called that shit way back in January!" tweets and whatnot. Because if you don't, I will. And nobody wants that.

6 foot 6, 320 pounds of brick house. He was a 7th round pick, just like Strief was. He's every bit as big as Strief, and every bit as athletic as Armstead. 2012 scouting reports hyped him as equally good at run and pass blocking. At Nebraska. And I'm pretty sure he'd straight murder a chump for a biscuit.

He's also already on the roster, so no further investment required in terms of a draft pick, having to pay him free-agent market value, etc. He's been in the strength and conditioning program for the better part of two years, theoretically knows the playbook, all that good shit. This guy… this is my kind of guy. Another Terron Armstead for the other side of the line.

And at center? Why not a rookie? Gonna have to use that late first rounder on somebody. Why not Travis Swanson, the consensus best center in the draft, a four year starter in the SEC, a bona fide road grader who's apparently no slouch in "pass pro" (as the kids are saying these days) either? Don't want to invest a first? No problem. Bryan Stork in the 2nd or 3rd. Or insert your favorite mid-round center here. There will be a shitload of 'em to pick from in May. Tyler Larsen, Weston Richburg, take your pick.

The point is that opportunity is there for the Saints' o-line to undergo a quick and thorough transformation mirroring the wildly successful 2013 d-line transition. To get younger, meaner, more athletic, more physical, and more versatile/well-rounded. Which will in turn allow the late-season rushing success to become a permanent fixture in the offense, thereby creating a different kind of "multiple" for Sean Payton and Drew Brees to work with. The kind of "multiple" opposing defenses aren't used to having to deal with when playing the Saints.

It would be bold, it would be risky, it would be uncomfortable. But it needs to happen. "It all starts up front" right? So start it up front. Do it. Now. Because to hell with another year of a 25th-ranked rushing game and 37 sacks. That shit ain't cutting it.

 

 

Alright, fine. I've got another 10,000 words or so in me right about now. But at some point I'm gonna need to go ahead and click Publish, and I'm already way past TL;DR anyway. I just wasn't gonna shut up until I got the Marcel Jones thing out there. That was the most important thing, because "FIRST!" and all. But now that that's happened (and I'm pretty sure this is also the longest post in moosedenied history, so high five!) I guess I'll go ahead and do the rest of this post some time over the next week or so. I've got a whole bunch of things to say about Malcolm Jenkins, for example. So STAY TUNED or whatever. Because we ain't nearly done yet. And I'm pretty confident that we've got this whole thing all figured out. Next week… ANSWERS! Promise!

*bong*

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