As the calendar turns to October, in our football world, we've had better falls.
After a promising off season of signings, draft picks and country club training, five games in, the Saints have the look of a team teetering on decline. The Payton/Brees mystique is all but gone. A once feared road team, today they are greeted with open arms by their host cities. Now, something more disconcerting than the road woes and perhaps the signal of decline, the most dominant home team since 2011 is struggling to win against even the NFL's weaker opponents. At home!
A respected coach lauded as cutting edge in talent evaluation, motivation, play design and a master play caller, Sean Payton has seemed to have lost his magic touch. Sure, statistically, they the Saints remain near the top of the NFL in most offensive categories but in reality, this is hardly the pinball machine offense we've grown accustomed to. Every yard seems to be a struggle. Every score a minor victory.
It doesn't help that his defense has once again abandoned him. Actually, it's always been a drag on his team in one form or another. It's not like he hasn't tried to improve it. High draft picks, free agent signings and multiple defensive defensive coordinators all produced pretty much the same results. Though the statistics have been all over the board since Payton arrived, the one constant(except 2009) and the most important factor has been the lack of creating turnovers. Forcing even the most prolific offenses to continuously drive the length of the field to score causes more and more stress increasing the risk of turnovers and injury.
But the biggest sign that this is the beginning of the end to the Payton/Brees era is Drew Brees. Brees will always be the greatest player to ever wear the black and gold. He is permanent royalty. It's been the most fun I've ever had watching the Saints. Ever. But like that teeny tiny little snowball that slowly begins its slide down the mountain, Brees has begun his descent.
It starts with poor road showings against elite teams then average teams then hapless teams. Those road woes start to purge into home games. The deep ball first discreetly falls short then eventually floats and flutters. The interceptions first credited to great plays by opposing defenders become the unforgivable type thrown in the waning seconds of the first half of Sunday's game. Usually thrown by an unseasoned rookie or an aging QB feeling pressure and fearing injury. Even worse to come right back and commit the same sin the very next possession is stunning.
What's happening to Brees is not unusual. In fact, it's expected. A 36 year old with a family and multiple business and civic interest is nearly impossible to commit the type of focus of a 26-30 year old just hitting his prime. Even if it's a minute, almost undetectable loss of focus. Once it goes, its tough to get it back. Couple the lost focus with the natural deterioration of an athletes ability and you get those poor road performances then eventually those poor home performances.
I understand he just shot a Pepsi commercial this week on his day off. That's where his focus is. I once did a commercial shoot for a one minute spot for a Magazine Street merchant. It took about four hours. A national commercial with a huge budget is taking all day. A man with less distractions and more focus(and who doesn't need the money) would be in the film room on his day off trying to figure out a way to compensate for his new physical limitations. One would think.
At LSU the decline is more obvious. As people point to the defections of juniors and loss of seniors the last two seasons as the main culprit, I take a different angle. Sure, there has been an inordinate amount of attrition but at the same time the SEC West has gotten stronger. Les Miles can no longer count on easy victories against weak sister SEC opponents such as Ole Miss and Miss St. Auburn, up and down during the Miles era has ended Miles three game winning streak against them as they have become a perennial power.
People who state Miles overall record as an indication of his superior coaching ability fail to mention this. Where was Ole Miss, Auburn, Florida and Kentucky in 2011? Miles greatest season. A combined 11-29 in SEC play. Also with an incredible amount of NFL talent on that defense, the offense could be hyper-conservative with below average QB play and still succeed. Not anymore.
Not only the defections but Miles' indecisiveness to pick a starting QB and his unwillingness to use that QB to best suit his athletic ability have lead to agonizing predictable play calling. His overprotectiveness of either starting QB is destroying both of their confidence and crippling the talents of highly recruited and potentially explosive players at WR and RB. Now that the league is much stronger, the offensive deficiencies are heightened.
On defense, his affection for players on defense who are clearly overmatched by SEC talent has been disastrous. The lack of developing highly touted defensive linemen results in undersized and slow-footed D-tackles being manhandled. LSU has given up 645 yards rushing in two SEC games. When a team is leaking yards at that rate, nothing else needs to be stated.
Can these teams turn their seasons around?
Sure. But it will be tough.
The Saints seem to have less daunting road as seven of the remaining twelve games on the schedule are in the dome. However their opponents are much tougher. At Detroit, Chicago, Carolina. Home against Green Bay, San Francisco and Carolina.
Guess who has the nations #1 toughest remaining college football schedule?