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4th and Geaux: Hangover Edition

The Saints season came crashing down abruptly, quite a bit sooner than most thought it would. The offense held up just fine against Seattle, but the defense was…not so good. The result: the Saints struggled against an allegedly inferior team for the 8th time this year, and this time it cost them the season. Another year passes by, but the Saints are still the reigning Super Bowl champs for another few weeks, so I have trouble being too upset. I have a few thoughts on the season, the future, and a bit on one of the remaining playoff games: click through the jump to see them.

It’s time for 4th and Geaux.

The difference between last season and this season can be summed up in two onside kicks: the famous "Ambush" kick that started the second half of the Super Bowl, and the onside kick against Seattle that essentially ended the Saints’ season this year. While neither of those plays was the single most important in their respective games*, they were each symbolic of the Saints’ season.

*Though Ambush was close

The funny thing about the Ambush kick is that it really shouldn’t have worked. Thomas Morstead’s kick wasn’t a bad onside kick, but it wasn’t grew, either. The ball took a couple of bounces directly toward Indianapolis’ Hank Baskett, who was in the right place to make a relatively easy recover and give the Colts great field position.

Inexplicably, Baskett dropped the ball. The Saints recovered it in the ensuing scrum, and were on their way to a Super Bowl victory. Ambush, like the Saints’ 2009 season, was part guile, part poor execution by opponents, part serendipity, and all sweet.

The kick against Seattle was not as good: Morstead (UPDATE: Garret Hartley kicked this one, not Morstead. My bad.) kicked it too far, too high, and it landed directly in Seahawks tight end John Carlson’s hands. Unlike Baskett, Carlson didn’t drop the ball. Game over.

That onside kick was like the 2010 season: execution that was a little off, opponents that played a little too well, and insufficient luck to make up the difference. Superficially, it was very similar to 2009, but the details were very different.

When a team significantly underperforms after a championship season, people like to talk of a hangover effect. Think about this phrase: it’s almost moralistic, as if the excesses of the post-championship celebration carry over into the following season. As if the players and coaches become too self-satisfied, as if they "eat the cheese" (as Sean Payton likes to put it), and come into the next season overconfident and underprepared.

To say that a team is suffering from a Super Bowl hangover is essentially to call the team unprofessional, to say that the players let the satisfaction of a job well-done get in the way of doing that job again. It’s also to call the players human: who wouldn’t celebrate achieving a goal that they’d been pursuing (to the exclusion of almost all else!) for decades?

While the so-called Super Bowl hangover might have been, uh, hanging over the Saints this year, I think there was something else at work that probably was a bigger source of the Saints’ struggles*, something that isn’t moralistic at all, and something that is inevitable: regression toward the mean.

*Before we get too far, let’s remember that "struggles" is a relative term. The Saints won 11 games this year and made the playoffs. This was only the 5th Saints team to win 11 or more games, and only the 8th Saints team to make the playoffs. So, when I say struggles, I mean the fact that they didn’t perform nearly as well as last year’s team and, in many people’s opinions, weren’t as good as their record might indicate

Regression toward the mean is a statistical concept that roughly means this: when an extreme measurement or event occurs, the second time that measurement is taken or that event occurs is more likely to be closer to the average than the first was.

Forget the mathematical gobbledy-gook. In this context, regression to the mean, uh, means this: the Saints had a lot of extremely good performances last year, and had a bit of extremely good luck, as well. It’s completely unsurprising that a lot of those good performances and good luck wouldn’t repeat themselves, and therefore, it’s not surprising that the Saints weren’t as good of a team this year. Their struggles weren’t necessarily the result of any sort of hangover, but instead were largely due to random chance and flukey things that didn’t break the Saints’ way this year.

Let’s start with Drew Brees, who was maligned this year for throwing so many interceptions. In 2010, Brees threw an interception every 31 dropbacks (pass attempts + sacks). That’s a lot worse than Drew’s average with the Saints, which is one interception every 39 dropbacks or so.

In 2009, Drew threw an interception ever 48.5 dropbacks, which is a lot better than his average as a Saint. So, was last year’s Brees the "true" Brees, was this year’s Brees the "true" Brees, or was the answer somewhere in between?

I would argue that we should be equally surprised by Brees’ interceptions this year as we should have been by his lack of interceptions last year. After all, they are both roughly the same distance from the "average" Brees year, it’s just that last year’s performance was positive variation, and this year’s was negative.

So, while I’m disappointed by the season that Brees had, I can’t say I’m stunned by it. That sort of variation is just the nature of the NFL, and it doesn’t mean that Brees was necessarily a worse quarterback this year, or that his receivers were worse, either. It just means that things that broke Brees’ way last year just didn’t this year. There may not be an explanation for the struggles*, it might just be a bunch of inexplicable, random factors.

*Although, we really need to talk about the offensive line.

Now, think about all of the other "extreme" performances that went the Saints’ way last year: the 45 turnovers created, the 7 defensive touchdowns, the botched opponent field goals, the fact that Jabari Greer played better than anyone thought he could, the turnovers, the turnovers, the turnovers. It’s not fair to assume that last year’s excellent performance was "the norm" and that this year represents some sort of falling back from "the norm". Instead, this year is probably closer to average, and last year was probably extremely good.

What does that mean? Does this idea of random variation mean that the Saints really weren’t good last year, that the Super Bowl season was all smoke, mirrors, and luck? Of course not. However, it does mean that the Saints had a lot go right last year, and did a great job taking advantage of everything going right. It’s not surprising at all that 2010 didn’t go quite as well.

Regardless, the Saints are still a good team, and still have a window of opportunity. As fans, what else can we ask for?

But, really, did it have to end on a loss to the 7-9 Seahawks? That’s a bit deflating, no?

A playoff matchup

Let’s look at two teams that are playing each other:

Points scored Points allowed Point differential aYPA QB Comp. % Off. Yds/play Def. yds/play Sched. strength
Team A 388 240 148 6.4 65.7 5.7 5.1 16th hardest
Team B 414 288 126 5.3 62.5 5 5.6 22nd hardest

In case you haven’t figured it out, Team A is the Green Bay Packers, and Team B is the Atlanta Falcons. Sure, the game is in Atlanta, where the Falcons are allegedly unbeatable, but the Packers have put up better stats against a harder slate of opponents. I think that our friends over at The Falcoholic will be crying little birdie tears into their little birdie beers next week.

Offseason plans

While I’m not going away in the offseason, I am going to dial back a bit on my writing. After all, my wife reminds me that I do have that pesky dissertation to finish. However, I’m going to put out the occasional article (CSC forum member coldpizza alone has given me months of work!) and will release the occasional podcast. So, you can look for me here, over at The Who Dat Report, and of course on Twitter. Hopefully the impending labor troubles won’t eat into too much of the season, and hopefully the players and owners will arrive at a mutually agreeable compromise without destroying the game that we all love.

Until then, it’s been a pleasure. Let’s celebrate the wonderful season for a couple of weeks, and then get ready for next year.