If somebody had told me Saturday night the Saints defense would pull Sean Payton’s acorns out of the fire for an unlikely victory the next day, I would have scoffed. No, I would have done more than scoff. I would have continued dining on the Trout Payton at Impastato’s in Metairie and might even have ordered a side of the Veal Payton.
But after that unlikely scenario occurred on Sunday in Tampa, I am ready to eschew those signature dishes in favor of Rob Ryan’s signature macaroni melt and wash it down with an order of fried cheeseburger curls. The revered head coach, whose return was met with such anxiety and anticipation by Who Dat Nation, nearly blew a big one with one of the most remarkably inept series of play-calling I’ve ever seen. You first must understand that I have always been skeptical of offensive coaches who frequently outsmart themselves.
I am talking about calling a play that does not appear to make sense simply because the coordinator thinks the opposing defensive coaches are expecting them to do something else that might seem more logical. Defensive coaches have their own warts, but in those instances usually prevail. So it was at the end of the first half Sunday when Drew Brees lofted a beautiful strike to Jimmy Graham who was tackled at the Tampa 1-foot line with a little more than a minute to go. Now, if I am calling at first-down-and-1 play at the goal line, I give the ball to a running back between the tackles. My first choice would be Marc Ingram, simply because he’s supposed to be the one-yard back, so give him a chance to do it.
If not Ingram, then give it to the team’s most reliable runner, Pierre Thomas. Not once but two or three times if necessary, because Thomas is rarely stopped once, but never three times in a row. But the offensive mind of Payton figured the Bucs would be expecting that call, so what does he do? He throws the ball. Now, I love a pretty pass, but when you are first and goal at the 1, I subscribe to Woody Hayes’ theory on the pass, that four things can happen and three of them are bad: incompletion, interception or sack. That is compounded when the field is compressed to ten yards.
Not surprisingly, Brees could not find an open receiver, narrowly avoided a sack and threw the ball into the stands. Second down and goal at the one. Here is where I would go back to my first thought: run the ball between the tackles, probably with Ingram or Thomas. Payton half-way listened, but instead of running Ingram up the middle, he ran him outside. Ingram has not shown he has the speed to get outside, especially on a compressed field when eleven defensive players are lurking nearby.
Three-yard loss. Third and four. Okay, now this is more of a passing down because you have a little more room to work with. But Payton is doing his Carnac again and probably figures the defense is expecting a pass. They would never expect Thomas to run the ball, would they? The answer to that was another resounding stuff at the two-yard line. Fourth and two means field goal in logical minds, but Payton hesitated. He relented and sent in Garrett Hartley to kick the field goal; 13-7 Saints lead. But wait a minute! Penalty on Tampa and now the ball goes back to the one-yard line. Deja vu all over again! Payton remarkably takes the points off the board and watches helplessly as the Saints get stuffed at the goal line and their lead stays at 10-7. That incredible series of decisions nearly doomed the team to a greatly deserved 14-13 loss, especially after Brees had a brain fart of his own.
The Saints were driving deep at the Tampa 20-yard line in the fourth quarter. Brees goes back, has Thomas wide open in the middle of the field and a receiver breaking free on a flag pattern, but inexplicably tosses the ball right to Bucs LB Mason Foster, who rumbles 85-yards for what could have been the winning margin. Brees redeemed himself on the final drive that enabled Hartley to kick the winning field goal as time expired. Thankfully, Payton did not get creative this time and settled for the field goal.
His new book, "Where the Water Kept Rising," is available at Amazon.com and at local bookstores. And don't forget his website: www.JWMillerSports.com
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