In Which Sean Payton Considers His Mortality
Something is missing.
Ask B&G’s Ryan Chauvin, not because he–he of the unending overconfidence–has been dissatisfied, but because I have made him the conversational focal point of my own sense of unease every week so far.
Ask Reid at Saintswin, who has been tracking a shift in the identity of Sean Payton literally since the first week of the season.
In Reid’s own words:
The key moment came on 4th and two from the Falcons’ four-yard line, with 3:16 remaining, and the Saints holding a three-point lead. Instead of going for the touchdown and effectively icing the game, Payton opted to kick a field goal and play defense…
…What it amounted to was Payton trusting his defense more than he trusted his offense’s ability to execute a two-yard play. It was weird, and seemingly out of character.
The most important observation:
Aside from just being a message of confidence sent to his defense–that he trusts them to close the deal–this might be indicative of a bigger shift within the Saints’ overall philosophy.
For Payton to make a decision like this (in a close game against his division rival) is noteworthy.
Noteworthy, yes, especially because enough has happened since to signal the bigger philosophy shift that we, a month ago, could only speculate about. The Saints have become adept at ball control, have been content to play to the clock, have been happy to hand the football over to the opposing offense, secure in the knowledge that Rob Ryan’s defense will deliver wins–except when it doesn’t.
I had forgotten about the aforementioned fourth down decision, because odd decisions that end in wins always happily disappear. I haven’t, however, forgotten about a similar oddball decision Sean Payton made during the win against Chicago. Like the fourth down call against Atlanta, this choice worked out. It was thus not a bad call, per se. But it wasn’t very Payton-like, and that’s the problem.
That’s the entire problem.
In Chicago, the Saints had a 13 point lead with three minutes left, well within Chicago territory, and faced a fourth down. Sean Payton chose to kick a field goal to expand his lead. A perfectly acceptable choice, and the one almost any NFL coach would have made–but Sean Payton? The man who, as every commentator reminds us every week, tried an onsides kick in the Super Bowl? That guy? The man whose favored fourth down short yardage play used to be a reverse?
This wasn’t a bad call. Given the situation, and the opponent–Jay Cutler is pretty good, but he’s no Drew Brees–going up two full touchdowns was a pretty safe bet. And though a conversion here would have effectively ended the game, this was was no fourth and one. Furthermore, Garrett Hartley was kicking well, providing some level of confidence in his ability to make what might normally be an iffy Soldier Field attempt.
All that said, given the football back, even Cutler produced a touchdown and two point conversion that made the end of the game slightly less than worry-free. A failed onsides kick–a higher-percentage play than most fans realize–is all that separated the Saints from another extremely tense experience. And even after the kick failed, Cutler still got one last desperation chance to tie the game.
You no longer have to imagine what Tom Brady might have done in a similar situation.
In 2007, the Saints lost a game because, while running out the clock, Reggie Bush fumbled a Superdome Special reverse attempt and Tampa Bay quickly scored and Saints fans spent a week raging at Sean Payton’s tactically hyperaggressive hubris.
Sean Payton opened the next game, against Atlanta, with Superdome Special. The Saints won by 20.
Dissatisfaction with a 5-1 football team is near-lunacy. I admit this. So to assuage whatever retorts may be inbound, let me say this: The 2013 Saints are very good. The problem with it–not the X’s and O’s personnel issue that is the offensive line, but something a lot less concrete than that–is this:
— skooks (@skooks) October 14, 2013
The Saints are playing good football in a way that shows they are aware of their own mortality.1 Maybe this is a continuation of a Sean Payton maturity arc that started with him carrying what Bill Parcells called “the virus”–his propensity for tactical hyperaggression–and developed into effective strategic hyperaggression that dictated the terms on which the Saints played their games. Maybe that arc has continued, leading Payton to a new reliance on old football maxims like clock-control. Reid, at Saintswin, has cast this stuff in a positive light: of Payton being, basically, ahead of the evolutionary curve by intentionally looping around behind it.2
Maybe that observation is accurate. Certainly the Saints’ 5-1 start–one of the team’s best-ever opening stretches–is evidence that things are pretty damn good right now. But it’s still alien to see Sean Payton, faced with a third down whose conversion would mean unequivocal victory, call a play whose primary intent is to kill clock. Thus far, much of the discussion around the Brees bootleg has centered on the classic damned if you don’t nature of playcalling: Payton the genius if it works, Payton the fool if it doesn’t. In a vacuum, yes, that’s all the play would be.
We’re six games into 2013, though, so we’re not dealing with a play called in isolation. The bootleg could have won the game, just as any play whose purpose is to gain positive yardage could have won the game.3 But its design was crafted in an atmosphere of avoiding a loss, not actively securing a win: Brees only walks to a first down and a win if the Patriots’ defense screws up; otherwise Brees falls safely down on the field of play to keep the clock moving. This is a sound concept by the standards of NFL convention. You can almost hear Phil Simms lauding it.
But Sean Payton has made a living by defying NFL convention–very occasionally to his detriment, usually to his advantage. Ask yourself: Had the situations been reversed, would you not have felt relief at the sight of Tom Brady running the football in a third and not-insignificant situation, with Junior Galette between him and a Saints loss? Would you, knowing Drew Brees’ capacity for the incredible, have traded a few seconds of clock time for a better chance at getting him one more shot at a final go-ahead score? I would have. The 2013 Saints are really good, and Sean Payton remains one of the NFL’s best coaches, but I didn’t expect him to return from exile constantly considering his team’s weekly mortality.
In the end, here’s the thing: In Saints/Patriots 2013, one coach played safe and kept the ball on the ground so he could kill a little clock. The other coach tried (and failed) to convert a fourth and seven from deep in his own territory.
Photo of Sean Payton via Asim Bharwani