I don't know about you, but I had a hard time enjoying this game. I expected Atlanta to score first; but I also expected New Orleans to come roaring back, grab the game by the throat, and drag it away kicking and screaming. Then Drew fumbled, Atlanta recaptured the lead, and it became obvious the Falcons were determined to do the exact same thing.
When the Saints went up by two scores at halftime, it seemed the universe had worked out its cramp, come to its senses, returned to its sense of duty...call it what you will. The Saints would take the second-half kickoff, ram the ball down the Falcons' throats, go up by three scores, and coast. Uh uh. Didn't happen; and even when they finally put the game away with Pierre Thomas' Reggie impression, Payton, Mike Bell, David Thomas, and the refs tried their damnedest to hand it right back to the Falcons. Our only hope, Obi-wan Sharper, saved us again (well, he had help), but it was waaaaaaaayyyy too close at the end.
Since that game, I haven't been able to really savor 7-0 because of worry. I'm not usually a worrywart when it comes to things like this; but first the Dolphins game, and then the Falcons game, exposed some flaws in Fate's plan to put Drew Brees on the podium in Miami come February.
A comment on The Falcoholic by iRonin summed up perfectly what I have been thinking: "Williams and Sharper have turned that leaky D into a leaky D with ballhawking skills."
We make a lot out of the year Sharper is having, as we should: if he continues like this, he'll make not only All-Pro, but likely the Hall of Fame. But Sharper is only one player, representing only one aspect of the defense. The Saints lead the NFL in interceptions, and are tied with the Eagles for the overall lead in takeaways. And it's done us a heap of good. But what if the turnovers stop? Is the Saints' defense good enough to win games when they can't win the turnover battle?
And yes: I realize most of those turnovers were earned. Still, everything has to go right for a turnover to occur, and sometimes things don't work out. We saw Sharper actually drop an interception Monday night, and the entire solar system nearly jumped the tracks (admit it, you felt it). What if things stop working out quite so well? What if the Saints' best ballhawking games are already past? Can they stop other teams without the turnovers?
If you look at how many yards they give up, you might begin to worry, too. The Saints are only the 15th-best defense measured by yards allowed. They're 11th against the run, 17th against the pass, and 17th in total points. That's practically the definition of mediocrity. Once again, the defense is being bailed out by the most prolific offense in the NFL...and by Darren Sharper.
What if something happens to Sharper? What then?
Which brings us to the subject of injuries.
It might seem that the Saints have been lucky with injuries so far this year; and in one sense, we have been. Few starters have been lost. Jammal Brown remains the only true starter to be placed on injured reserve, but he's been joined since opening day by critically important role players like Billy Miller and Heath Evans. Practically the entire 2009 draft class has been lost to us, with Chip Vaughn and Stanley Arnoux on injured reserve and Malcolm Jenkins sidelined by a lingering ankle injury. Scott Fujita has been out for weeks; Jermon Bushrod has missed time; and now Jonathan Goodwin has been hurt. And everyone is waiting for Jeremy Shockey to finally go down (do you really want David Thomas as your starter?).
But the scary thing is this: what if we lose anyone in the secondary? Who can replace Sharper? Porter and Greer have been magnificent as a tandem...would Porter and Gay be as good? Or if Roman Harper went down...who could play strong safety at the same level? The answer is, nobody. We have a deep receiver corps, and a pretty good crop of running backs. We have almost no usable depth in the secondary, in the linebacking corps, in the offensive line. I wrote awhile back that the Saints remind me of a winning lottery check: worth a million bucks, and paper thin.
It's going to take an enormous amount of luck to get through this season healthy enough to withstand the playoffs.
Rarely do you see an injury that can be even indirectly attributed to a game decision, but Goodwin's knee contusion came about because of one of the worst tactical blunders I have ever seen a coach commit. With only 1:42 on the clock, up by 11 points, and with Atlanta down to its last timeout, the Saints opted to run a play instead of simply kneeling. Now, it's nowhere near a certainty that someone will be injured if you do this; but I've never seen anyone injured on a kneeldown. Instead of burning all but about 15 seconds off the clock and handing the ball back to the Falcons in an impossible situation, Payton's strategy of running plays resulted in a knee injury, a lost fumble, and only 19 seconds drained from the clock. The Falcons were able to kick a field goal, recover the subsequent on-side kick, and have a shot at tying the game in the end.
All of that was totally unnecessary; and the worst part is, I can't for the life of me figure out what Payton thought he sensed that made running handoffs the proper thing to do in that situation. As I wrote earlier, kneeling at that point should have been a reflex action, literally a no-brainer. This happened not because Payton didn't think, but because he did...badly. Very, very badly.
We can only hope it was a passing brain fart; but with his history of impulsive challenges and game plan stubbornness, you have to wonder if Payton isn't having a relapse after a pretty good first half of the season.
Of course, it would have been more forgivable if the Saints had been up by 14 instead of 11—and they would have been, if John Carney hadn't missed a 37-yard field goal. To put it in perspective, a 37-yarder means your line of scrimmage is the 19—you're in the red zone. There is no excuse for not scoring if your offense penetrates that far.
John Carney is currently 28th in the league in field goal percentage, making only 73% of his kicks. That's worse than Olindo Mare. Between the 30 and the 39 he's already missed 3 out of 8 attempts. He's even missed a PAT, one of only eight kickers so far to fail to convert.
What's more, it might not even be Carney's fault. We know he doesn't have a strong leg anymore, but he's always been accurate. But it seems to me that Jason Kyle's snaps are consistently low and inside, causing holder Mark Brunell to bobble the ball and disrupt the timing. Replacing Carney with Hartley won't solve this problem; nor will it produce better protection. The Saints have already had two kicks blocked this season.
Nor will it do anything to improve the blocking in the return game, which may be an even bigger problem. The Saints are wasting the talents of Reggie Bush because they can't open up running lanes on punts (if it weren't for the Oakland Raiders, we'd be dead last in the league in punt returns). To some extent this isn't too terribly bothersome, since the offense is perfectly capable of long drives; but it will take a toll on the defense if we get into a field-position battle.
As for our kick and punt coverage, I can't assess that because I can find nowhere on NFL.com where special teams coverage stats are compiled. Which segues neatly into my last thought...
THIS IS IT
The Saints must win the Super Bowl this year, because I don't know if I can stand this much longer. I still love football and always will; but the league itself has become a haven for incompetents, clowns, and fascists*. No matter how badly the officials blow their game calls, they're always upstaged by the stupid greed of the owners and the pompous authoritarianism of Roger Goodell. They've all but ruined the sport already; and another year or two will finish the job. I just can't watch. Please guys: seal the deal this season.
*I use the term in its broadest, most deliberately insulting sense. No, I'm not suggesting Roger Goodell wears a black shirt...although maybe he does. A lot of people wear them nowadays.