The Saints players will now enjoy a bye week, which gives head coach Sean Payton a lot of time to mull over a loss that came because he went all conservative on us. Payton has won a bunch of games as head coach of the New Orleans Saints, but you can pin Sunday’s last-second loss to the New England Patriots squarely on his forehead. Don’t get me wrong; I would rather have Payton making the ultimate decisions for as long as he thinks black and gold are trendy. But when he decided yesterday to hand the ball back over to the Saints defense inside the two-minute warning, he committed the same sin that has doomed other coaches before.
If you are an aggressive offense, the last thing you want to do is to give the ball up and rely on your defense to win the game. The Saints defense had performed admirably, but when the guy trying to beat them is Tom Brady, winner of three Super Bowls and Giselle Bundchen, the head coach should think seriously about holding on to the ball. That is exactly what Payton did not do Sunday when he went all conservative on us.
The Saints had the ball with the clock ticking down, and the Patriots out of time outs. He sent in two running plays and then allowed QB Drew Brees to float harmlessly to the left before going down which forced a punt. Where is the aggressiveness that is this team’s hallmark? Payton is probably the most aggressive and daring head coach in the NFL. Nobody else would have called an onside kick to start the second half of a Super Bowl where their team trailed at the half. But some games demand aggressiveness.
The Saints have been at the top of the league stats in time of possession, so why not try and keep the ball another two minutes? If you don’t make it, the Patriots might have more time to work, but with Brees’ offense, the chances are good that they would make it.
Not even trying leaves no doubt that New England will get a final chance, which they turned into a winning TD pass in the final seconds. Payton’s thinking could have been affected by the fact that one of his major offensive weapons was out of the game. The Patriots made a point early to shrink wrap TE Jimmy Graham with suffocating coverage by cornerback Aqib Talib. Despite that, Brees continued to look for his favorite target, often forcing passes into double and triple coverage. Six times he went to Graham, each with frustrating results. One of his last attempts ended in disaster after Brees threw an errant pass Graham's way with two defenders in the area. Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington grabbed the ball instead, giving the New England a short field on the New Orleans 20-yard line.
The Patriots took almost four minutes off the clock and kicked a 23-yard field goal after the turnover. Added to the insult came an undisclosed injury when Graham hobbled off the field and eventually left the game, ending one of the worst nights of his career. You can’t get greedy in this league. You won’t win all of them. But you also can’t give up the games where you have control and, for whatever reason, give it away when you don’t have to. If Payton would have told Brees to attack and get that first down in the final two minutes, then the Saints would have run out the clock and been 6-0 today.
The good news is that the loss does not hurt the Saints’ playoff positioning. If anyone would have given you a 5-1 record on October 12, you probably would have taken it and been happy for it. And the rest of the schedule does not look as intimidating as it did in August. The trip to Seattle won’t be a picnic, but the Saints play the Cowboys and 49ers at home, and Atlanta is struggling.
With two weeks to prepare for the Buffalo Bills, Payton just might want to convince Who Dat Nation that his conservative moment is past. Bills’ defensive coaches just might prepare for vintage Payton. Double reverses, onside kicks, throwbacks to Brees and a couple of hook-and-ladder plays thrown in. None of that would not surprise me after Payton’s dabbling with conservative play calling failed miserably.
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