And we're back with another edition of the Canal Street Chronicles Roundtable Series. This week we delve into "The Rivalry:" New Orleans Saints vs Atlanta Falcons. The usual suspects are back: Tee Word, J.R. Ella, and Kevin Skiver. Joining us today, a special guest who is intimately familiar with the often contentious NFC South tussle: Dave Choate, the headman at The Falcoholic, SB Nation's Atlanta Falcons blog. Sit back, enjoy the discussion, then share your opinion with us in the comment section!
Q1. If you're the Falcons, what do you do to break through against this Saints team? The games are always close, but obviously the Saints have dominated the win column in recent years (New Orleans is 13-3 vs Atlanta since 2006).
Tee Word: That's actually a good question. I don't think we've always had a more talented team than the Falcons, but we have had better coaching. That seems to be the difference maker.
J.R. Ella: I really like this question as well. I'm sure that this is something the Falcons front office and coaching staff have privately been asking themselves.
Here's my take: it seems to me that the Falcons went crazy on offensive weapons when they drafted Julio Jones then added Jacquizz Rodgers. Coupled with Roddy White, Harry Douglas and Ryan, they probably thought they'd become this high-flying offense a la New Orleans. It almost felt like Atlanta thought: we need to score with New Orleans to have a shot in games against them.
I would have gone the other way; I know Atlanta has Matt Ryan and he is a very, very good QB. But I'd have invested heavily on defense, the way the Panthers did. I can really see the Panthers becoming even more of a thorn in the Saints side in the next 2-3 seasons, while I think that unless Atlanta really shores up its defense, New Orleans will continue to own them as they've done in the Payton era.
Dave Choate: I think the Falcons are building toward a team that is better equipped to win close football games. They've upgraded their run defense, a pass rusher is definitely on the table in this draft and the offensive line should be upgraded. In tight games, that might be enough.
I just don't think the Falcons have matched up well against the Saints. It's not for lack of trying, but they just don't win close games because short yardage, getting stops on third downs and coming up with big late-game turnovers just haven't been the team's forte in recent years. It's worth remembering that before this point, the Falcons had essentially dominated the series up to that point, so every tide turns eventually. I'm hopeful the Falcons will find better success in a re-tooled 3-4 defense.
Q2. What makes the Saints coaching staff so effective? There's little doubt that coaching and Brees have gone a very, very long way for the Saints.
Kevin Skiver: Our staff's effectiveness really lies in cohesion. They also get a lot of passes, which obviously isn't what we're discussing, but they aren't as perfect as many like to think. With that being said, they get a lot of things right. Williams, for all of his faults, had personality, and we ALL know that Rob does. Payton works really well with coaches that kind of have that bombastic nature. The Spags experiment would never work because he and Payton just don't mesh, even if Payton had coached the 2012 season. Having Brees opens the playbook up for Payton, of course, because he's allowed to take shots you just don't see other coaches and quarterbacks take.
This brings us to Payton. What he has that Smith doesn't is a complete lack of fear. Smith is what I call a "safe" coach. He works very well with the talent that he has, but he doesn't necessarily stretch that talent. You'd never see Smith start a half with an onside kick in the Super Bowl (mainly because that would involve the Falcons making it to the Super Bowl). Smith will take shots, we've seen him do it on 4th & inches a few times, but it's always going to be on 4th & inches and it'll be always be dive up the middle. That's why he can't seem to get that inch: bring the house & plug that hole and that's the answer.
Smith is actually a good coach, but going up against a team like the Saints he's always looked unimaginative. He has all of these weapons and yet he seems confused as to how to use them. Look at the Saints offense compared to the Falcons. We'll nickel and dime you with 9 different guys in a West Coast offense for days. Smith only utilizes Jones and the running game. It's not a bad tactic, by any means, but we tend to key in on it pretty easily.
Dave: You had to take that shot, didn't you?
Kevin: It was right there!
Dave: I just think Payton uses his personnel better and is the better crunch time coach. Mike Smith is a perfectly fine HC at the NFL level, and sometimes a very good one, but in close games he's not at his best. Couple that with an often sieve-like Falcons defense and middling line play and you've got a recipe for a lot of heartbreakers.
Tee: Yes Brees is a key component, but at this stage, even a "game manager" like Alex Smith could work within this system on offense. Brees isn't bombs away down the field, so that isn't a prerequisite; he just needs to make good reads with consistency. Payton is tailoring things to his talent, which is what elevates average coaches into the upper echelon. The coaching aspect is most evident based on the 2011, 2012, and 2013 records. Without a strong leader, the team suffered through a tumultuous 7-9 season and then rebounded to 11-5!
As for coaching, we agree there! I don't think Smith is a bad coach. I just don't see him as a clutch coach. There are 5 guys I would bet on to make the crunch-time decisions for me: Parcells, Walsh, Belichick, Payton, and Dungy. They are all detail guys. Smith is in that next tier, which is solid coaching, but there is that piece that is missing, possibly in preparation for key moments.
J.R.: It may sound cliché, but I think the difference between the Saints and Falcons coaching staffs lies in two words: killer instinct.
Sean Payton, although he has seemingly backed away a little bit from his "high risk-high reward" playcalling style, never seems reluctant to take chances at the most surprising of times. He's also ruthless. He'll run up the score some, let the other team know that this is professional football and that there's no crying in football.
I don't think he minds being labeled "classless" either. Let's face it: Payton can be a bit of a jerk. But I think that's actually one of his best traits as a football coach.
On the other hand, the Falcons coaching staff takes from Mike Smith: he looks like a nice guy; coaches like a nice guy. Sometimes I find myself for a very fleeting second, each time the Saints play the Falcons, looking at Smith and almost feeling bad for him when Atlanta is losing. He always makes this very sad face.
Q3. Do you view Saints-Falcons as the best rivalry in football? If so why? And if not, which one is better?
Dave: I do think it is. These games are consistently close, the players don't like one another, the fans don't like one another and it's a rivalry with a rich, often brutally sad history. Obviously some bias enters into it-I'm embroiled in the rivalry-but short of Bears-Packers, I think this is the one.
J.R.: Love this question. Sorry y'all, but no. Saints-Falcons is a great rivalry, but the best in the NFL right now would have to go, in my book, to the Seahawks and the Niners. They've become the Ravens-Steelers of old.
Peyton-Brady isn't as big as it used to be in the early 2000s, despite the media trying to shove it down everyone's throat every year. It's still good, but just not as good.
Hawks-Niners: two nasty defenses, offense that will smash you in the mouth until you beg for mercy. One can argue that the Super Bowl this past year was played right here in Seattle, between those two teams in the NFC championship.
Tee: In terms of current rivalries J.R., 9ers-Hawks is probably as intense as Saints-Falcons, but our own rivalry has longevity on its side, this hatred has had time to marinate! The only place I really see anything even close to the same intensity with longevity is in the NFC East. Living in Texas, I learned a lot about how the Cowboys, Skins, Giants, and Eagles all hated each other. But the most intense was Cowboys-Eagles at the time that I was living there. Remember they cheered when Irvin got injured? But nah, I don't think 9ers-Hawks has the historical backing that our rivalry does. Not much ebb and flow yet.
Kevin: I think that it is. I've said for a long time that you don't know rivalry until you've fought to be less irrelevant like we did with Atlanta for years back in the tail end of the NFC West days. The fans are just so emotionally invested in it; it's really hard not to acknowledge our past. Bears and Packers is, if nothing else, more rich historically, but we're certainly getting closer. The fans truly hate each other, and it's leaked onto the field with the players. It's not often that a rivalry gets to that stage. I think people also forget about the NFC East because they haven't been quite as good in recent years, but that's because those teams beat the hell out of each other for 6 games a year. You obviously can't measure how much a team hates the other, so it's difficult to answer, but Atlanta and New Orleans has hate that you just can't breed. They're tough to beat in this regard.
Q4. Should the Saints be concerned about the Falcons next year? Should they fear the potential draft of Jadeveon Clowney by Atlanta?
Kevin: I'm concerned about this team every year, just as I'm concerned about the rest of the NFC South. Everyone is always making moves to get better. I'm not horribly concerned about one signing in particular, I just always act surprised when they address needs that everyone & their mother knew that they had. Soliai was a solid signing, and they've taken strides to shore up that offensive line, so they won't lose every battle in the trenches next season. Their rookie sensation corners now have a year under their belts, they'll make things difficult.
They have holes still. Free safety is hurting (and there isn't a Day 1 starter in this draft except for Calvin Pryor and MAYBE Jimmie Ward), they still aren't GREAT on the D-line (although Clowney could change that). Every team gets better on paper in the offseason, and every team has a few holes. So am I concerned about them? Sure, but no more than I usually am. Add all of that in conjunction with the fact that this team is like a crazy ex, that is to say, it knows us and it can hurt us with what it knows, that cuts both ways. Atlanta will obviously compete next year, it won't have another 2013. But they should always be seen as a threat, this shouldn't be news.
Tee: When it comes to division foes, there is always cause for concern because of familiarity. But more in line with the questions, adding Clowney makes life very complicated for Drew Brees (kinda like Robert Quinn does). In the end though, the small coaching details in key moments will probably win out. So the personnel may change, but if they are being led in the same way, the results will tend to remain the same.
J.R.: I have to admit, the potential of Atlanta getting Clowney scares the heck out of me. Just like I mentioned earlier, I think the best way for the Falcons to effectively counter what Payton has been doing with the Saints would be to try and build a killer defense. Adding a guy like Clowney, although he could turn out to be a major bust, would make Atlanta's front seven instantly better. If they can surround him with other playmakers on that defense (should the Falcons actually draft him), Atlanta could quickly even up the odds against New Orleans. One thing we know is, Brees (as most QBs) isn't exactly Breesus with a bunch of defenders in his face or draped all over him.
Dave: (Full disclosure, Dave did not answer this question; but his thoughts were deafening: the Saints should be afraid...very afraid).
Q5. If there was ever a re-alignment in the NFL that removed the Saints and Falcons from being division foes, do you think the rivalry/hatred would die?
Dave: That hatred would never truly die. For those of us who have invested 20+ years in the rivalry, you can't forget it, and every time the two teams met it would still be heated as hell. The younger fans would eventually forget it, I'm sure, but rivalries like this one have a ton of staying power.
JR: If there ever is such realignment, it'll be one of the only times both Saints and Falcons fans are going to go hand in hand and protest to the league offices with banners that read things like: "Let us hate each other in peace and play twice a year!" :-)
Nothing can kill that "hatred" truly. But have you guys considered that, given how hatred and love are so close, maybe both Falcons and Saints fans are just secretly in love with each other? What of all the incestuous relationships carried on by the likes of Joe Horn, Bobby Hebert, Curtis Lofton, Rafael Bush, etc... :-) (Had some fun with this one).
Tee: Damn J.R.!! You really made this one kinda dirtier than it needed to be. Excuse me while I go take a shower!
That'll wrap up this roundtable. Feel free to vote and share your answers to the questions in the comment section. Also, your feedback is appreciated; please let us know what you think of the series as well. Finally, we would like to thank Dave Choate again for his time and contributions to this week's panel.