Is Sean Payton Holding the Saints Back from Greatness?

Murf Baldwin@@MurfBaldwinContributor INovember 6, 2013

Oct 13, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton during the second half of a game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

The word genius is a term that is thrown around quite a bit in the sports community. It's usually reserved for those who dare challenge the scope and reinvent the wheel.

The late, great Bill Walsh (San Francisco 49ers) comes to mind. His contribution to offensive football changed the way we think of football to this day. To think that you could take smaller backs, with great hands, and use them in the pass game was forward-thinking in itself. Having the screen game be an extension of the run was along those same lines.

Recent names like Jon Gruden and Mike Shanahan have been hit with the genius tag.

Fast forward to present day.

New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton has been the author of the most prolific offense in the NFL dating back to 2006. His mastering of the West Coast offense, merged with his ability to tie in the vertical scheme, warrants his genius title to the utmost.

Nov 3, 2013; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees throws a pass against the New York Jets during the game at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY

With Payton serving a year-long suspension in 2012, due to his role in the infamous bounty scandal, a new brand of football was ushered into the league. A slew of new talented coaches have implemented a new (retro) attack that's centered on stout play in the trenches.

Teams like San Francisco, the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins have set themselves up to go on a Saints-like run seemingly overnight. Furthermore, coaches like Chip Kelly (Philadelphia Eagles), Jim Harbaugh (49ers), Kyle Shanahan (Redskins offensive coordinator) and Darrell Bevell (Seahawks offensive coordinator) all have their respective eyes on Payton's genius title. 

The days of the pass-centric offense are coming to an end. Philadelphia (first), Seattle (second), San Francisco (fourth) and Washington (sixth) are all in the top 10 in rushing. While only San Francisco (20th) sits outside of the top 10 in total offense.

I know what you're thinking, and we've all thought the same thing at one point or another. Why would New Orleans not center its attack on its great QB? 

The answer is simple...because that style is no longer conducive to championship football.

As great as Brees has been during his Saints tenure, is he any better than Tom Brady (New England Patriots) or Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay Packers)?

Brady is currently the signal-caller for the eighth-ranked rushing attack in the league (fifth in attempts), while Rodgers' squad is slotted fifth.

Sep 22, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton against the Arizona Cardinals during the second half of a game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Cardinals 31-7. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY S
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

Now don't get me wrong, the Saints are currently the seventh-ranked offense despite the archaic approach. Being the 27th-ranked rushing outfit is dampened a bit when you're the third-ranked pass attack.

This type of approach will undoubtedly win you a ton of regular-season games—especially if your schedule is laden with a multitude of mediocre teams. But how does it work in the playoffs when you go against teams that are adept at physical play.

New Orleans should look no further than its "little brother" the Atlanta Falcons.

For years the Falcons were one of the most balanced teams. They rode their physical run game, with back Michael Turner, and married it with a turnover-based defense all the way to the first consecutive winning seasons in franchise history.

But not satisfied with building their own identity, the Falcons sought out to be like "big brother" and the Green Bay Packers who both would chew up yards in chunks with splash plays through the air. 

After hiring vertical-pass guru Dirk Koetter, the Falcons successfully made the transformation—in the 2012 season—from a dink-and-dunk offense, to a true vertical approach. Conquering one of the easiest schedules in recent memory, the Falcons were able to pass their way to the No. 1 seed in the NFL (13-3).

With an opening-round bye, only the upstart Seahawks stood in the way of the current regime's first playoff victory. After racing out to a 20-0 halftime lead, the Falcons were punched in the mouth when the Seahawks roared back and took a 28-27 lead with 25 seconds left. 

If not for the Seahawks breaking tendencies and going to a prevent defense, the Falcons may have not had enough time to get in position for the game-winning field goal. 

In that circumstance, the finesse Falcons had a couple of things working in their favor. First of all, they were at home, where they have one of the best records over the past five seasons. Secondly, they were facing a West Coast team with an early kickoff (1 p.m. ET).

Meaning that style of ball is circumstantial. For a finesse team to truly succeed, it needs perfect circumstances to circumvent the negatives involved in that style of play.

The Falcons proved that the very next week when they faced the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. Again racing out to a 17-0 lead, the Falcons were overpowered by a much tougher 49ers squad to the tune of a 28-24 loss. 

The lack of commitment to the run reverberates through the entire team. There's no way around it; teams play as they practice. If your offense finesses its way through practice, your defense has no choice but to follow suit.

How many times have you seen these high-powered passing attacks be anchored by soft defenses? Conversely, how many stout defenses are fronted by balanced or run-based offenses?

New Orleans has a good defense of its own (fifth in total defense), but even it can be considered finesse as witnessed by its 20th rank against the run (giving up 4.9 yards per attempt which is 31st in the NFL). 

Running the ball is attitude-based. Passing the ball is technique-oriented. Some of the worst pass protectors are some of your best run blockers.  

For the Saints it becomes even more puzzling when you take into account the offensive line, collectively, is one of the worst group of pass protectors in the league. Brees has already been sacked 20 times (13th most) and hit numerous others. 

The lack of commitment to the run has been to the detriment of a unit that has all the tools to succeed in that area. And the blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of Coach Payton. 

Fans of the Black and Gold were sold a bill of goods by their leader upon his return. Payton made it clear the Saints needed to run the ball to have a shot at the Lombardi Trophy. In retrospect we should've seen this coming.

Sep 30, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees (9) talk during the second half of their game against the Miami Dolphins at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Geniuses like Payton don't earn that title by following trends. They get it by setting them. Payton's offense worked well early in his tenure because most teams were run-based.

Now that the ebb and flow of offensive football is starting shift back toward the run, why wouldn't Payton want to show he can shatter the mold for a second time? 

To put it simply, it's Payton's ego that is holding the Saints back.

The Week 9 loss to the New York Jets exemplified that theory. Despite being in a close game throughout, the Saints elected to throw the ball 51 times, opposed to only 12 designed runs.

Now take this into account, this was on the road against one of the best defenses in the league. Moreover, it was against a defense that was on fire with its pass rush the majority of the game. Backs Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram actually had success with their 10 shared runs.

But winning that way wouldn't be the type of feather Payton would want in his cap. He wants to do it his way, and his way only.

The Jets, on the other hand, played 49ers-style football. Former Saints back Chris Ivory rung up the Saints defense for 139 yards on 18 attempts. In total, the Jets ran the ball 36 times for 198 yards. When you compare it to the Saints (13 attempts for 41 yards), you can plainly see how the results were derived.

Listen, the Jets have no business beating a team of the Saints ilk. They lack talent, consistency and a winning culture.

But what they do possess is a physical nature that would have any team believing it can compete on any given day. 

As fundamental as it is, the Jets can both run the ball and stop the run—two aspects of football that builds character.  

Looking forward, the Saints don't have the type of character that wins tough football games. They have the personnel to match up with any team put in front of them, no doubt. But the coaching staff, in particular Coach Payton, has emasculated one of the toughest rosters in the NFL.

This is a team that won the Super Bowl on the strength of the sixth-ranked rushing attack. Things have gotten so soft for the Saints that they have been reduced to this...

Via NFL Rewind
Via NFL Rewind

On a key 4th-and-1, with just under eight minutes remaining (trailing 26-17), the Saints lined up in their power package (22 personnel). But instead of attempting to assert their physical dominance, the Saints tried to deceive their way to one measly yard.

How's that for confidence in the physicality of your football squad? Running an end-around, with a backup tight end, on 4th-and-1 is the epitome of finesse football. And finesse football will get you beat. Get it together, Coach Payton!

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