Drew Brees finds his old magic just when the Saints need it most

Never leave early. My dad once told me a story from the early days of my parents’ marriage, while they were still living in New Orleans, of attending a Saints game at Tulane Stadium in 1970. The Detroit Lions scored to go up 17-16 with under a minute left, and with a long way for the Saints to go and not much time (and for the fact that they were 1-5-1 going into the game), they decided it was unlikely the Saints would find a comeback, and they left early to beat the traffic. Once they got into their car and hit the road, they put on the radio, just in time to hear:
DEMPSEY KICKED A FIELD GOAL! Dempsey kicked a field goal! The Saints win!
It was the game where Tom Dempsey, the Saints kicker born without any toes on his right (kicking) foot, hit a 63-yard field goal through the uprights as time expired, giving the Saints a 19-17 win and smashing the previous NFL record for field goal length by seven full yards. (He also gave the team arguably its only highlight of the year; they wouldn’t win again and finished 2-11-1.) He didn’t say it in so many words, but I took the right lesson. Never leave early. What’s a little extra time in traffic compared to being present for a historical moment? If you watched the Saints game on Sunday, you probably know where this is going already. I watched the game from section 605 of the Superdome, with an old friend who drove with me from Houston to the game. When Washington scored with 5:58 left in the game to take a 31-16 lead on the Saints (on New Orleans’ third blown coverage leaving a receiver wide open in or on the way to the end zone), a lot of people in our section left. (Though not, it should be noted, a young man in a Kirk Cousins jersey who became increasingly cocky over the course of the fourth quarter to this point.) We talked about what to do. “You wanna leave?” “Eh, not just yet. Let’s see if the offense can make something happen.” What happened next is that, with nothing but their last sliver of hope to cling on to, Brees finally delivered in the way we’d been waiting for him to all game, going 7-for-7 on passes, including a couple of nice downfield shots to Coby Fleener (whom I’d recently written off altogether after seeing where he ended up in the snap counts). That drive was capped with a touchdown and extra point to make the score 31-23. (I thought they should have gone for two here, to find out if they’d need a touchdown or two scores. More on that later.) I decided to go to the restroom at the break. I told my friend, “Tell me if they recover the onside.” When I came out, he was standing nearby watching on a TV at one of the food stands. “They didn’t even onside! They went deep!” With only two timeouts and the two-minute warning ahead, the Saints couldn’t give up a single first down, or the game would be over. A precarious situation for a defense that, missing three starters, had not played today nearly up to its typical level during the seven-game winning streak. We were both pretty disgusted with the decision to kick deep, but we decided “Eh, well, if Washington gets one first down the game is over. Let’s just watch from here to see if they do.” When it came up to third-and-inches, I mentally got myself ready to leave. They’d been getting run over all day; were they going to really get a stop here? But the Saints stuffed Samaje Perine in the backfield, and the two-minute warning came, with Washington preparing to punt. We decided to go back to our seats. Never leave early. *** On the first play, Drew Brees winds up to go deep, and delivers the ball directly to Kendall Fuller, covering Ted Ginn. So much for that comeback– but look. There’s a flag on the field. Fuller is called for an Illegal Use of Hands penalty, giving the Saints five yards, a first down, and another chance. 1:40 on the clock. You know what happens from there. On the next four plays, Brees moves the ball effortlessly. Washington’s defense suddenly seems gassed and out of sorts. Brees throws to four different receivers; none gain less than 17 yards. Alvin Kamara takes a route out of the backfield, and juggles the ball while nearly being hit by two defenders, but somehow slips through them and secures it, evading even more tackles on his way to the end zone. It’s 31-29, and the Saints of course have to go for two. On a misdirection play, the Saints fake a run up the middle and pitch to Kamara left. Even though he’s deep behind the line of scrimmage, he gets the blocks and has the speed to make it all the way to the edge and take the ball in. The game is tied, and only 35 seconds have passed. 31-31, clock reading 1:05. Our section is going absolutely nuts. (The young man in the Kirk Cousins jersey, who’d been celebrating quite a bit not long ago, has had the wind knocked out of his sails.) I worry that they’ve left Washington too much time, given how the defense is playing. And I might be right. Washington doesn’t take much time to march to the Saints’ 34 yard line, with about 30 seconds left. This would be a long, but not impossible, field goal for the win. But on first down, Kirk Cousins has a miscommunication and throws a ball to nobody at all. He’s whistled for intentional grounding– 10 yards and 10 seconds off the clock. The team is now out of field goal range, and will have to get back to it– and then either get out of bounds or get a spike in to stop the clock before it runs out; they have only 18 seconds left. None of that happens. The Saints send Vonn Bell on a blind-side blitz after Cousins, who never sees it coming. He fumbles on the sack. Washington offensive tackle Morgan Moses recovers the fumble, but it will be impossible for the team to run another play. We’re going to overtime. Debates about whether momentum is real aside, the Saints certainly seemed to have all of it going into the extra frame. Washington won the coin toss, but Cameron Jordan sacked Cousins on second down– his eighth sack of the year in a season that deserves All-Pro consideration– and Washington had to punt. (Curiously, for a team that had been running the ball with some success, they seemed to panic, calling for three passes in a row.) Washington’s defense had nothing left. It only took two plays to set up a chip-shot field goal, as Mark Ingram ran the ball first for 20 and then for 31 yards. Wil Lutz was good from 28, and the comeback was complete. Now the Superdome was rocking. We were high-fiving strangers, taking videos of a thunderous crowd that reached over 100 dB noise level. In a season that seems more serendipitous than ever– remember the last time the Saints completed a comeback against Washington that they shouldn’t have been able to?— the decision to see this particular game in person, of the eight Saints’ home games, certainly seems like one touched by fate. The last bit of fortune? Spotting fans wearing player jerseys outside of the stadium, always a favorite activity of mine to see both which old players are popular enough to have warranted jersey purchases, and seeing how odd or obscure the choices might be. After seeing Washington fans sporting such classics as LaRon Landry, Sean Taylor, and Art Monk, I told my friend, “It would really make my day if I saw someone in a John Riggins jersey.” About ten seconds later, he pointed out a guy probably in his sixties in a white RIGGINS 44 jersey. I then said “It would really make my day if I found five hundred dollars on the sidewalk,” but I guess you can only push the power of divine intervention so far. Here’s what we learned from the game Sunday: Marshon Lattimore is really important to this defense (and A.J. Klein might be, too). Lattimore hurt his ankle breaking up a pass in the end zone on the first Washington drive. He missed the rest of the first half; he came out for one play in the second half, but had to leave again and would not return. Perhaps the best sign of Lattimore’s importance to this defense wasn’t measured in his own statistics, or evaluations from sites like Pro Football Focus, but in how the defense looked this game with him absent. With increased snap counts for P.J. Williams and De’Vante Harris– and compounded by the fact that Kenny Vaccaro was already inactive for the game– Washington passed the ball seemingly at will. The Saints gave up three touchdowns on entirely blown coverages, plays where no one was even close to the receiver in question. Kirk Cousins was 1-for-3 on the first drive, the only one Lattimore played, where his only completion came on a Josh Doctson catch-and-run where Lattimore was picked in coverage and nobody else could get to Doctson until he’d made his way downfield for 21 yards. Absent that drive, Cousins was 21/29 for 301 yards and three touchdowns, the best performance by any opposing quarterback against the Saints since Sam Bradford and Tom Brady lit them up in consecutive weeks during that 0-2 start. (Matthew Stafford is the only QB in between this stretch to even surpass 200 yards passing against the Saints, let alone 300, and that was in a bizarre game where Stafford piled up yards in what was (apparently at the time) garbage time and the Saints defense scored three touchdowns.) With Delvin Breaux and Vaccaro injured, the secondary doesn’t have enough depth. If Lattimore, its best player, misses any significant time, this team might quickly turn back into the 2014-16 Saints for stretches. Klein had been the Saints’ leader in total tackles going into the game (he’s now tied for fourth), and while he hadn’t graded as well for the season on sites like PFF, his tackling was good enough that he could get consistent stops before players broke past him into the third level. Without him around, the frequency of missed tackles became much more apparent. Hopefully Klein returns soon; with Alex Anzalone already injured, the Saints can’t afford to be missing both of their projected every-down linebackers. And on top of that, Alex Okafor tore his Achilles late in the game. He’d been a surprising bright spot as a starting defensive end, not a top-tier pass rusher like Jordan but a consistent force as a secondary rusher and a frequent run-stopper and playmaker behind the line of scrimmage. He’ll be missed. Presumably, Trey Hendrickson will take his spot in the starting lineup; he has the athletic talent to be a player in the league for years to come, but we’ll see if his development is where it needs to be. The Saints have built a great defense this season, but they can’t afford to lose too many players to keep performing at that level– and they absolutely cannot afford to lose Cameron Jordan or Marshon Lattimore. The whispers of Drew Brees’ decline were highly exaggerated. Though the offense has become much more running back-heavy this season, and Brees is on pace for his lowest statistical output since arriving in New Orleans, he proved he can still deliver the goods when it matters. On the final two drives of regulation, Brees was an astounding 11-for-11 for 164 yards, throwing both of his touchdown passes on the day. Even if Washington was playing soft coverage for that first touchdown drive, there’s no reason they should have been carved up so easily and quickly on the second. Everything was clicking: The playcalling, the receivers getting open, and Brees delivering passes that allowed them to gain significant yards after the catch. The offense didn’t switch to a focus on running backs because of any decline in Brees, as has been reported lately. It’s because the best Brees/Payton-era Saints teams always funneled a high percentage of their offense through running backs, whether it was Reggie Bush catching passes while Deuce McAllister and then Pierre Thomas ran the ball; Darren Sproles catching out of the backfield while Mark Ingram ran; or now, with Ingram and Alvin Kamara splitting duties. The Saints can win despite a number of boneheaded conservative decisions. I was appalled when Sean Payton punted on 4th and 3 from their own 43 while down 24-13 in the fourth quarter. I mentioned my disgust at not attempting an onside kick above. With the way the defense had been performing after Lattimore exited the game, I thought “trusting the defense” to get the stop the team needed was a mistake. Mathematically, I’m sure it was; I haven’t run any of these decisions by a fourth-down or win probability calculator, but years of studying the topic have, I think, given me the right instincts on when to go for it and when to kick the ball away. But it all worked out in the end. The Saints got every stop they needed, playing the last three drives of regulation, and all of overtime, to perfection. I just wish Payton had made some decisions so that they didn’t have to be perfect to win. GOING FORWARD The Saints have a serious test next week; even though the Rams lost to Minnesota, they’re still 7-3 and playing excellent all-around football. Sean McVay has completely turned the team around (and exposed what a joke NFL hiring practices are, given that Jeff Fisher was an NFL head coach for twenty years) and the early line has the Rams as 2.5 point favorites. If Lattimore is back, though, and Trey Hendrickson can provide a reasonable replacement for Alex Okafor’s production, the Saints could win this, which would be huge for their future playoff seeding. Philadelphia isn’t showing any signs of slowing down, but Minnesota’s upcoming schedule is tough, and the Vikings already have the tiebreaker on the Saints. A Saints win Sunday would not only give them a tiebreaker over the Rams, but would also prevent them from losing any ground to the Eagles and Vikings. The Bayou Brief is a non-profit news publication that relies 100% on donations from our readers. Help support independent journalism about the stories of Louisiana through a monthly or one-time donation by clicking here.