Is it Time to Pronounce the Saints Dead?

Three losses.

The impact of a team’s third loss in an NFL season is directly tied to its timing. Lose three games in an entire season and you’re looking at a first round bye. Lose three games to start a year and you’re likely looking for college talent entering the next year’s draft.

Despite the numbers — three losses in four games — and the odds — 85 percent likely to miss the playoffs — some teams continue to get the benefit of the doubt despite tallying only one win by the quarter-point of the season.

This year, it is the New Orleans Saints.

Despite facing early season deficits of an 0-2 and 1-3 record, the Saints continue to be considered that team that can overcome such hurdles. Certainly, if any franchise is capable of turning on the engines and bursting through the season, it’s the one with Drew Brees under center and Sean Payton at the helm. But, if they are truly able to make a move, why haven’t they?

One quick glance at the numbers yields a result common to the Saints of recent memory: an offense ranked near the top of the list (third in yards) and a defense near the bottom (29th in yards allowed). Brees is performing no worse than his typical season — averaging a hair over 300 yards per game and throwing interceptions at a rate lower than most years — and the Saints’ running game ranks in the top ten for both yards and touchdowns.

The defense, often the sole source of blame for any of New Orleans’ shortcomings, certainly has been disappointing, but they are only one year removed from a top five performance in both yards and points allowed. Unfortunately, whatever worked for the 11-5 Saints in 2013 is not translating to ’14.

In their four games played, the Saints have moved the ball on offense as well as could be expected, yet the scoreboard has failed to properly reflect this ‘success.’ Instead, the team ranks 11th in points scored, tied at 95 with the Washington Redskins.

Most incriminating in these numbers is that the New Orleans Saints have been gifted the league’s best average starting field position. Even with the added benefit of requiring less yards to reach the endzone and performing at a rate better than all but two teams in moving the football, they have not translated to the high scoring output normally associated with the team.

They have not been able to score enough to counter their struggling defense.

It happens every season, yet we still find ourselves in disbelief. We refuse to accept that powerhouses of one year don’t carry into the next. We find it impossible to believe that the 3-1 Houston Texans have already exceeded their win total from one year prior. More shocking is that we refuse to accept when former winners hit an ‘off-year’ without warning.

Every one of the factors that has led to the Saints’ 1-3 start – poor defense, failing to capitalize on favorable starting field position, turning yards into points, and playing three road games to start the year – has the ability to be reversed at any time. Under the same defensive coordinator (Rob Ryan) and head coach (Sean Payton), the Saints were able to play at an equally high level on offense and defense last season. They may have been shredded, but they are capable.

The schedule has not been kind to the Saints, who have earned the reputation as a poor road team – now 4-9 away from home since the start of 2013. All three of the team’s losses have come outside of New Orleans, yet they will play host in seven of their remaining twelve games. If any team is likely to run the table at home, the Superdome Saints are on the list.

If recent history has proven that the Saints have the talent and ability to turn their negatives into positives, why, then, should we worry?

As it often does, the future outlook of a team comes down to the numbers.

Since 2008, no team has won the NFC South with less than twelve wins. Assuming the Saints won’t reach this total, the most likely route to the playoffs will have to come from a Wild Card berth. From the NFC South, since ’08, only once has ten wins been enough. Typically, eleven wins (three times) in this division is required.

However, throughout the entire NFC, in those same six seasons, five teams have grabbed a Wild Card spot with fewer than eleven wins (including the 2008 Eagles with a record of 9-6-1). Setting ten wins at the minimum benchmark to be considered a playoff team, that leaves New Orleans with a maximum amount of losses allowed at six.

They have already used three.

Already with one division loss under their belt, the Saints have five more games remaining within the NFC South. On any given year, even the league’s best teams struggle to sweep their division, but those who dominate typically win it outright. In 2013, division winners lost an average of one game to their division foes.

Again, removing the 1-3 Saints from the conversation of ‘league’s best teams,’ they more accurately fall into the category of ‘Wild Card hopefuls.’ For 2013’s four Wild Card teams, they lost an average of exactly two games within their division.

Despite an overall record of 63-33 since the start of 2008, the Saints have averaged 2.17 division losses each season. Combine this with the likelihood that the average Wild Card team will drop two division games, and New Orleans can only afford to lose one game out of the remaining five (one against Atlanta, and two each versus Carolina and Tampa Bay).

Adding a fourth loss, at best, to the Saints’ record, they have seven remaining games and only two more losses allowed. If a team is hoping for a playoff run, a 5-2 stretch is not impossible, but consider the opponents: Detroit (away), Green Bay, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Pittsburgh (away) and Chicago (away). Out of the seven remaining non-division games, not a single team has a losing record. Detroit, Cincinnati, and Baltimore have a combined record of 9-2.

When looking at the team on paper, the Saints appear to have everything necessary to win games – stability and excellence at the quarterback position, a solid head coach, a dangerous home field advantage, and a defense who was recently playing at an extremely high level. After a while, however, there are only so many excuses to be made. The Saints have under-performed and dug themselves a hole from which they cannot escape.

If we consider an 0-3 start to be catastrophic, beginning a season 1-3 is barely removed from that indictment. The Saints have simply failed to win the games they needed, and must now play to a record of 9-3 to even consider talking about a playoff berth.

Maybe the Saints of 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2013 could pull off a run of dominance, but there’s something to be said when a team starts their season 1-3.

They just aren’t very good.

For 2014, the New Orleans Saints are dead.

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