San Francisco 49ers  v New Orleans Saints

A Statement

 

The 2014 New Orleans Saints team has been a confusing one. With a surplus of talent they entered the season as Super Bowl favorites. They are now entering week 14 at 5-7 which is good enough for second (and first) place in this year’s NFC South.

The Saints have struggled in every facet. Special teams have been abysmal with few exceptions, the defense has struggled in at least one capacity or another in every single game and the offense has been caught sleeping on more than one occasion.

The question has been asked a thousand times this season– What is going on with the Saints? Sean Payton has spurned the question and then relented. The talking heads have themselves all in a frenzy over it and the message boards are beside themselves with wars between petulant malcontents and professional armchairs.

This year really isn’t unlike any other recent year in the world of professional football. 140 characters by a professional athlete will get you at least a good 15 to 20 hours of chatter on the NFL Infomercial Channel. Coaches and athletes alike are unable to avoid the sprawl of the overreaching effort of mass branding and promotion. You are just as likely in this NFL to hear a head coach discuss a “twitter war” between players or a Facebook post by somebody as you are to hear him discuss what just cost his team a game.

And it seems to be working out pretty well for the league. For the teams that really aren’t all that interesting like the 2-10 Jets it’s great to have the distraction because let’s face it– it’s really not all that easy to generate interest in a football team that isn’t; you know, really playing football. After only a few short years of being hailed as the newest Jets legend on the heels of two back to back conference championship appearances a now dejected Rex Ryan was forced to face the media this week. After a season of dealing with tweets and massive locker room distractions perpetuated by the media he is left to explain. . .to the media mind you– why his team sucks. But hey that’s no problem because Rex Ryan’s dejection is just another tasty morsel of the meal served up for our mass consumption.

Not to pile on to Rex Ryan here but for whatever reason his saga seems to garner the most attention among the league’s less appealing franchises. When he has outlasted his marketing impact the machine will eat him too and then move on to the next. The league is ripe with names and faces that serve as the perpetual punching bags, and the narrative stays the same be it from the NFL Infomercial Channel all the way down to the thousands-man-army of paid sports writers across the country that adhere to the steady drumbeat that keeps those clicks on coming. The steady narrative keeps our attention. Our attention feeds the machine.

Which is not to say that all teams fall prey to this. It’s just that many of them have to rail against it, to achieve success in spite of it. Great coaches like Tom Coughlin haven’t watched The Game (TM) move past them as is often suggested. Great coaches like Tom Coughlin have watched The Game (TM) shift its marketing approach to a more fan-inclusive packaging that; as a general rule, makes it much less about what happens between the lines and more about what the gaggle of hens deems worthy of falling within their assorted pecking order of importance. It is a watered down approach that forces yet another obstacle into the lives of professional coaches as well as players. The old school approach of just coaching and playing football no longer fits the accepted packaging standards, and a lot of coaches have been and will be consumed by it. Other coaches like Bill Belichick have toed the company line to the finest possible point giving no more than absolutely necessary and refusing to discuss anything that doesn’t directly relate to what happens on the field–even more importantly he has encouraging his team to do the same and at all costs avoid outside distraction. Belichick has achieved this despite the fact that his team has had more than its fair share of scandals to distract them. The Patriots record this year, like most years, indicates that his message is finding resonance with the team.

Which brings us back around to the New Orleans Saints. Sean Payton was more forthcoming and more aggressive toward the media these past few weeks than in recent memory. He was pointed in his rejection of all the outside rumors and chatter. The results of the game didn’t follow the overall narrative so very little of the game itself was actually mentioned.

The Saints still have to face Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. They’re still staring down the double-barrel of Julio Jones and Roddy White. And they will be doing so with a very suspect secondary. This is not to mention any of the other hosts of problems they’re dealing with–so it goes without saying that there is still an uphill climb for this year’s team but it is worth noting– the win against the Steelers just might have been a very serious statement going forward.

Not a statement necessarily just for this season but for the foreseeable future. Sean Payton coached this team on Brees’ arm to the NFC Championship Game in his first season, producing five playoff births, three division titles and a world championship in his tenure. These accomplishments were all notched by teams that stayed between the lines and gave little to no fodder for the national media consumption. The Saints have achieved a lot of success since their Super Bowl run but the narrative has dramatically changed since the 2009 season. In the wake of a Super Bowl victory the team has faced a Vicodin scandal, rumors of the coaching staff having outside interests, contract disputes and a cleverly branded pay-for-performance saga all of which played out so well on millions of TVs and message boards. The drama of human failings is always best served up hot and spicy and of course it is perfectly okay for us all to crave it because–by-God, we are the consumer after all. . . .right? The level of success the team has achieved since 2009 is staggering considering the ongoing level of constant scrutiny. Which is not to say that the Saints are the only team facing this level of scrutiny because as previously illustrated they most certainly are not. It is just that they have been one of only a handful of teams to manage to some degree to succeed in spite of it. Up until recently anyway.

This past off season saw “The Jimmy Graham Rule” while the Jimmy Graham contract standoff raged on the NFL Infomercial Channel and in social media. And of course the message boards were all aflutter. Graham played into it. Foregoing the standing rule that winning teams (usually) avoid getting snared in these traps or involved in these “stories” Graham took to twitter to complain about teammates being shown the door, bragging that he would lead the league in penalties now and so on. All the way up to his long awaited entrance into training camp with its floral decor covered on the internet and television in all of its glorious irrelevance.

Graham deserved his contract extension. There is very little argument that can be made to suggest otherwise. His play on the field has been outstanding and; scariest still, he has likely not even yet scratched the surface of how good he can be.

With that said it is important to mention that he has failed to this point to let his play alone do all the talking and in so doing has hurt the team. While his overall play has helped to win many football games his superstar profile has been a distraction (whether it be because of his own making or the media’s of which both are certainly culpable.) Whether it’s a display of overzealous exuberance after converting a 2nd and 4–or a week long discussion about some guy groping him during a showboating touchdown celebration that was made during a loss; it bears an important mention that absolutely none of this is Sean Payton style football. Does anyone really believe Payton would have preferred a week long discussion by and about Graham concerning the (all-too-important) “groping incident?”  More to the point does anyone believe that Payton wanted any of his players focused on this sort of ridiculous nonsense after dropping an important game at home?

Even while reeling from mounting losses Saints fans themselves have gotten wrapped up in it. How many Facebook posts, tweets, and comments on articles were there with the phrase tight end-or-receiver during the franchise tag “debate” and how much clamor was there over “The Jimmy Graham Rule” and how it just might be a conspiracy against the Saints (. . .or something)? How many articles were there about Graham’s comments about the “incident” during the 49ers game? How many articles or clips were aired about the confrontation he instigated before the playoff game in Seattle? How many lead offs for Saints stories start now with the phrase “Jimmy Graham and the Saints. . .?” Or the media making one game or another all about what Graham did-or-did not do–this week being a great example. One of the first things you’ll hear about the Saints win over the Steelers out of the national narrative is that Jimmy Graham did not have a reception in the game.

This week Drew Brees became the first quarterback since the 1960s to pass for five touchdowns against a Steelers defense. He did so to five different receivers. This is how Sean Payton’s New Orleans Saints win football games. This is how Sean Payton’s New Orleans Saints have won a world championship. This should be Sean Payton’s New Orleans Saints team going forward.

There was a concerted effort in the game plan to take only what the Steelers gave them and the Saints did just that. All. Day. Long. Brees didn’t post gaudy passing yardage numbers but he didn’t have to. They moved the ball with Ingram and Thomas to the tune of 143 rushing yards and they spread the ball around to nine different receivers. It’s an aspect of the New Orleans offense that has been missing for quite some time now. The idea that you don’t defend against the New Orleans offensive attack, you just try to minimize the damage. It was on full display Sunday against a Steelers’ defense that spent much of the day on its heels.

After the game a sideline reporter joked with Brees that he and Graham must be fighting. Brees played dumb to the fact that Graham wasn’t even targeted during the game and then in the same breath talked about Kenny Stills‘ 160 receiving yards. . . Brees quickly rejected the storyline that ignored the achievement of the team and placed it back into proper perspective. The Saints could be trying to shift the focus of the national chatter. Removing the notion that the Saints are a team built around Graham as the media has structured it. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Make no mistake Jimmy Graham will always be an integral part of the equation. He should be. The Saints will always have a place for great play-makers. Graham has all the talent to be one of the best ever at his position and in all likelihood he will make numerous memorable plays in efforts that win games for the Saints. But the notion that the team centers around him rightfully ended on Heinz Field this past Sunday. It is also important to stress that the point here is not to contend that Jimmy Graham is the source of all the Saints troubles this year. Far from it–in many respects Graham has been one of the few highlights.

Jimmy Graham is not the problem. He is a product of the problem. A bright star with an intriguing (and marketable) back story and they latched on to him from the start. Which is not much of an issue except that he has so vigorously embraced them back. With an immense level of talent and ability he demanded everyone’s attention. But when everything at this point has a reality TV show producer working in the shadows in search of the next ratings bonanza all the talent in the world can easily be convoluted and poisoned. In a short amount of time it can be turned into an unhealthy mix of over-simplified-made-for-TV-soundbites and your talent (and life) has suddenly taken a backstage to the overall marketing strategy of a larger entity. Before you know it you no longer control the narrative of your own life and others are writing it for you. In a day and age of mass media consumption it’s difficult to avoid the entrapment of the establishment. Graham has reached a pinnacle stage in his career where he has to make the choice of being among those who stand out in front of the establishment or being one of those who gets defined by it. The gears of the league’s machinery are going to keep turning regardless.

The New Orleans offense has gotten away from what made it successful. For all of the talk about the league having possibly figured out Payton’s scheme, an argument could be made that the team hasn’t really been running it lately. The offensive strategy had shifted from one that chewed up yardage by the truckload with a dozen different receivers at a time. A pick your poison kind of offense. Death by a thousand cuts. A we’re going to spread it around and make you defend every inch of the field because we’re gonna keep on coming kind of offense. This was New Orleans Saints football. . . If the Saints can get back to their roots in this respect they could be nearly unstoppable.

And Jimmy Graham is responsible for his part of that equation. The realization needs to be made that Sean Payton found him. He is a very talented product of a successful system. He could have just as easily had some sort of weird Brian Manziel hybrid mutation thing throwing footballs at him while the national media worships at his altar and constantly laments the fact that he’ll never achieve to the fullest of his ability in such a lousy program. But this is not what happened.

Graham has everything needed to achieve greatness and it is all right in front of him. He will have to reject the narrative being forced upon him by the marketing behemoth and disavow himself from all of its machinery. He will have to let his play and his play alone do all the talking from this point forward. His maturation as a player has to extend to his maturation as a person. The Saints have proven before and after his tenure with the team began that he needs them a lot more than they need him.

Graham is certainly not the only player on the Saints roster that would be well served by this notion. The mysteries surrounding Khairi Fortt‘s departure, Joe Morgan‘s brief unexplained suspension as well as Graham’s complete lack of targets this past Sunday is all indicative of the fact that Payton has likely taken notice. (Maybe it should be mentioned that Morgan was also a near no show in Sunday’s game. Possible repercussions for taking away a sure touchdown by appearing to start high stepping and dancing his way into the end zone against the Ravens last week instead of just getting the ball across the goal line–maybe it was just a misinterpretation of what was seen but hey unfair or not perception is reality.)

The Saints showed Sunday that they can still function as one cohesive unit with many pieces each playing their own important part. This game showed that there is still a place for Sean Payton’s style of football but it is a style that has to be executed entirely on the field. The game against the Steelers may have well served as a statement. One that says Brees and Payton are taking their team back from the national narrative and back to where they control its destiny. They are not a team built to be a part of the national circus, nor a team designed for the exploitative nature of the Sports Center highlights crowd. There is no room for Manziels or Bryants or Tebows. Sure these types of lightening rods can generate a lot of ad revenue for the websites (and league) that perpetuate that sort of thing but as a general rule they don’t usually win you a whole lot of games. While they may be good business for the league they typically fall short of belonging to winning programs.

The Saints’ mission statement from this point forward is simple; and they may have made it Sunday against the Steelers.

This is Sean Payton’s and Drew Brees’ team.

And they are in the business of winning football.