Following the dismal 27-16 loss his team suffered against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome this past Sunday, New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton uttered four crucial words: "it is on me."
I couldn't agree more with you, coach Payton: it is on you.
But let me back up for a second: I hate stereotypes. Sure, every label is born of some truth, some observed trend. Where typecasting fails miserably however, is in the lazy way we too often use a few isolated instances to make all-encompassing statements. So I have somewhat dedicated a large part of my life to fighting stereotypes and telling everyone who would listen how wrong they are to repeat them without thinking twice.
The big pigeonhole football statement this year is: "the Saints are a different team on the road." In my stats-inclined mind, I've tried to look at numbers to find a way to dismiss it as just another cheap, partial labelling of the team I root for. To my dismay, I'm afraid to say that I'm starting to buy into the negative hype.
Don't get me wrong, New Orleans can win on the road. In 2013, the Saints have exactly three victories away from home. The problem is they have played seven games away from home and the biggest of them all is yet to come.
New Orleans (10-4) is 7-0 in the very friendly confines of the Mercedes Benz Superdome this year. On the road, they're a lackluster 3-4. As we all know, winning in any opposing stadium is undeniably hard in the National Football League. These Saints are making it look nearly impossible.
Just how impossible? In seven home games, the Saints have scored 230 points, while giving up only 108 (a point differential of +122). On the other hand, in seven road games, they've scored a hundred and one less points (129) while allowing 162 (a -33 point differential).
After 14 games, Drew Brees has 10 interceptions on the season; seven of them have come - you guessed it - on the road. I could go on, but I said something above about this being on Sean Payton, so allow me to get back to that.
I believe that the Saints road miseries lie in great part on the shoulders of their head coach for a multitude of reasons, but I'll try to limit myself to those I believe to be the most glaring.
As a head coach, Sean Payton's role isn't simply to draw Xs and Os and prepare a game plan, but also to instill a sense of confidence and calmness into his team. In three of their four road losses (at the Jets, Seahawks and Rams), once the Saints got down on the scoreboard, they never seemed to have the ability to compose themselves, respond or stop the bleeding until it was too late.
We've seen New Orleans get down at home too. However, with the crowd behind them, in their comfort zone, it has always seemed to be a matter of time until they stemmed the tide and started blowing out their opponent. On the road it has been the complete opposite.
This Saints team simply does not look like one that consistently believes it can win on the road when the going gets tough. Confidence comes from the top on down and this season Payton hasn't found a way to inspire his team when it has been in dire need of it away from home.
There is a common saying in sports that "a team is a reflection of its head coach." Disciplinarians usually run a tight ship and have very well-organized squads (think Bill Belichick). On the other hand, "players coaches" generally run heavily-penalized clubs, with a bunch of trash-talking, touchdown-dancing loose cannons (think Pete Carroll).
Where does Sean Payton fit between Carroll and Belichick? New Orleans has a total of 82 penalties this season for 683 yards (5.9 penalties per game). That ranks 23rd in the NFL, which is actually quite decent (the lower, the better). For perspective, the 32nd ranked team in number of penalties (team with the least amount of infractions) is Miami, with only 58 so far this year.
However, The Saints came into the St. Louis game ranked second in the entire NFL with 19 offensive holding penalties (also known as drive killers). They promptly added a couple more and left Missouri having committed a total of eight penalties for 77 yards.
New Orleans has committed less than five penalties in only two of fourteen games this year (4 vs. Arizona, 2 at Chicago). But there's a reason to rejoice, friends: the Saints are equal opportunity offenders when it comes to NFL penalties, with 42 on the road and 40 at home. That's cause for celebration, right? Right?
Can Saints fans find a way to blame Roger Goodell for this? You know they would if they could. But Sean Payton and Drew Brees aren't on the same page the way they used to be prior to 2012 and the yearlong suspension of the Saints head coach. Is it taking them longer than they would admit to get back to having perfect football chemistry?
In 2013, it's been increasingly frustrating to see Drew Brees or Payton burn timeouts unnecessarily because the play clock was running out. Is Payton second-guessing himself and communicating the plays too late to his quarterback? Is Brees using audibles more often at the line of scrimmage because he doesn't always like the plays that are called?
Another cringe-worthy note in the time management department has been the Saints situational offensive tempo. For instance, down 24-3 against the Rams on Sunday, New Orleans, for a good chunk of the second half, kept running a lackadaisical huddle-offense. The lack of sense of urgency was appalling. Later in the game, the Saints finally got into a no-huddle rhythm and slightly closed the gap with the Rams. Why they started running an up-tempo offense so late is anyone's guess.
One thing is certain: the usually reliable, well-oiled Saints offensive machine hasn't been running very smoothly this year and ultimately this falls on the head of the man that at times is being labelled as the best offensive play-caller in the NFL.
Dude, give us a glimmer of hope
Ok, I'll try: what is the solution? How does one change the evidently fragile road psyche of this Saints team? How does one make them believe they can win on the road against a good team when they couldn't even overcome the lowly Jets and Rams away from New Orleans?
I don't have a clue. And you know why? Because I'm not the highest-paid coach in the NFL, Payton is. Next Sunday, he'll need to figure something out as New Orleans goes on the road in a pivotal game against the Carolina Panthers.
Next Sunday's matchup at Carolina is essentially a winner-take-all contest. One that will likely decide who wins the NFC South and gets the number two playoff seed in the NFC. That game should tell us whether Payton still has the ability to get the best out of his team, in a crucial game and in a hostile environment. Something we have rarely seen in 2013.
Oops, I had said I'd try to give you that glimmer of hope. My bad.