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Saints Week 12: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Today’s game, if you can even call it that, was one of the weirdest byproducts of 2020 thus far.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Well, that was a game that occurred. The New Orleans Saints transported back to 1960s football and advanced to 9-2 with their Week 12 31-3 win over the quarterback-less Denver Broncos - their first at Mile High Stadium since 1994. It had all the components of a great game for Saints fans: boring, uncompetitive, and over in less than three hours. With their eighth consecutive win, New Orleans sits comfortably atop the NFC playoff seeding; an upset by San Francisco over the Rams and Mahomes out-dueling Brady only served to widen that lead. There’s not much to unpack here. Let’s get to it.


The Good: The Running Game

I would be remiss to gloss over the championship-level play by our defense, but it’s a bit hard to gauge their dominance when the opposing team legitimately does not have a quarterback. Today’s game ball, instead, goes to Latavius Murray.

Saints fans may sorely miss Mark Ingram, but Murray has been a key player on our offense the past several weeks. Payton’s heavy employment of Murray is a marked change from his strategy when Drew Brees went down in 2019 – which was, frankly, too much Alvin Kamara. Kamara was run into the ground as an every-down back with Bridgewater under center, and not only is he relatively ineffective in this role, but it unsurprisingly riddled him with injuries. Fantasy owners may be irked over the loss of production by Kamara these past several games, but this is necessary to his longevity – particularly after that monster contract. Meanwhile, Murray has been quite imposing these past several games.

Murray had a career-high day as a Saint with 124 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the 31-3 victory. Oddly, but effectively, Sean Payton decided to simply match Denver’s run-heavy game plan with one of his own. Kamara ran for 54 yards, while Taysom Hill had 10 carries for 44 yards and two rushing touchdowns. While the aerial game was entirely underwhelming, it’s rare for New Orleans to commit to a game in the trenches – and win handily. It’s not something we’re accustomed to with Drew Brees at the helm.

Frankly, a win this well-rounded puts us in a great spot. It fares well for deep playoff hopes; the passing game, as we saw in 2019 against Minnesota, is often stifled in the the postseason. The ability to win relying on the running game gives this Saints team another area of depth. Another notch in the belt of Payton’s ability to win a football game in every possible facet.


The Bad: The Passing Game (with good reason)

It almost seems like people are looking for any possible reason to rebut the notion that Taysom Hill can be an NFL starting quarterback. Was this a good outing for Taysom Hill as a passer? Not in the slightest. He completed a mere 9 passes for 78 yards, threw no touchdowns, and an interception. There were some concerning habits displayed by Hill today, like his poor reads on several drives, and two delay of game penalties. Sean Payton in his presser, however, took the blame for the penalties, and furthered to assert that Hill’s obsolescence was intentional.

“He played an entirely different type of game, and that had a lot to do with me, relative to how we wanted to play this game,” Payton noted in his post-game conference while adding that Hill played “exactly how [I] wanted him to play.” Payton furthered that he was in Hill’s ear, “24/7, just about being smart with the football.”

Remember the fumbling issue? This was a game where Payton wanted to stay as far away from that as possible. A known proponent of stealing possessions from opponents, Payton is certainly never one to understate the importance of turnovers. He went on to add, “there a few ways to lose a game like that, and we weren’t interested in one of those.” Any guesses on what he’s referring to?

This game was not sexy, nor one that will go in any record books (well, unironically), but for once, it wasn’t cutesy, the Saints shone in their adaptability, and ultimately took care of business. Importantly for Hill, while he was largely ineffective, he never put us in the position to lose the football game today. Moreover, this may explain his “poor” reads; he likely was so petrified of turning the ball over that he just largely hesitated and got in his head. Payton is exactly right. In a game where your quarterback has no opponent, and they’re resultantly forced to get cutesy with their game plan, it’s just not the time to match that and let this game slip away by getting overly complicated.

The offensive line played quite well despite the entire left side missing its starters – Andrus Peat and Terron Armstead – but this likely played into the run-heavy game design as well. Likely, hopefully, we’ll see a complete, unhindered game from Hill against the Falcons next week. He showed much more promise in that initial outing, but his propensity for turnovers was an outright concern. This week, we saw him in protection mode – simply a trade-off.

Either way, we learned absolutely nothing about Hill this game, but there was no reason to. Instead, we controlled the tempo by running the ball effectively, and focused on not committing costly mistakes and turnovers. This is ultimately much more beneficial than toying around with Hill under center for the fun of it.


The Ugly: The Chaotic State of the NFL

It goes without saying that the NFL did not remotely prepare for the possibility of a Covid-19 outbreak; despite adequate time to add leniency to the schedule, implement consistent, league-wide procedures, or anything proactive, here we are in Week 12 with a bit of a disaster.

The Saints massively benefited today from capricious league protocols that have no rhyme or reason. This game may be a punchline for the next several years, but it’s hard to swallow if you’re a Broncos fan. There’s also a huge lack of transparency; fans shouldn’t be this confused why one game was allowed to continue, while the other was deemed unplayable. The reason the Ravens game was postponed, and Denver vs. New Orleans was not, is due to the inability to contain the outbreak in Baltimore. What this really deals with is the safety factor for the opposing team.

Unfortunately, this sends a terrible message: the worse you adhere to protocol, the better your team might fare. The Broncos got screwed because their outbreak was contained to solely the quarterbacks, due to facility-implemented protocols of separating position groups. While it’s hard to be entirely sympathetic due to the quarterbacks all not wearing masks, in that same school of thought, we’ve all but deemed them unnecessary to wear on gamedays. Which makes sense, given the level of testing and safe measures that have been taken to get us through Week 12. It just seems like Denver was unduly punished and made an example needlessly, when Baltimore’s violations certainly seem more egregious on their face.

Where the league has failed entirely is their complete lack of oversight and consistency, essentially “leaving it up to the States.” In doing so, teams have been left confused time and time again, and oftentimes suffer harsh penalties. Other times, they behave like the Ravens, allow a coach to run rampant without completing contact-tracing, don’t wear masks at practice, and resultantly lose 18 players to the Covid-19/reserve list. The Titans – who actually had a legitimate outbreak – were deemed unaware of protocol changes in their unauthorized practice, while the Saints, despite literal video evidence of several other teams having maskless locker room celebrations that same week, were fined $500,000 and lost a 7th round draft pick for their celebration after the Bucs game in Week 9. What is the barometer for “awareness?” Is there a measurable grace period between the date memos are sent out and subsequently implemented by teams?

We suffered on our offensive line today without Terron Armstead in the lineup. He was placed on the Covid-19/reserve list on Saturday; several other notables such as Adam Thielen and Jonathan Taylor were placed on the list this week. Uncoincidentally, this newest outbreak coincides with Thanksgiving weekend. In the case of Taylor, while he hadn’t tested positive, his girlfriend did after an out-of-town trip. At what point does this fall on the shoulders of teams, and at what point does the league take accountability? Why were holiday travel protocols not sent out, nor implemented?

Why this all gets ugly for the Saints: the possibility of the eighth playoff seed. The way the league is headed, we’re looking quickly at a Week 18, an expansion of the playoffs, and a subsequent loss of a first-round bye for that top seed. The NFL may have decided to nix the competitiveness factor in getting through the season, but does that really include the playoffs? What are we playing towards then? Of course, the year New Orleans has a comfortable, multi-game lead on the top seed, there may not even be a bye to play for.


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