Evolution and Extinction in New Orleans

In half-loving memory of the New Orleans Saints' defense, the NFL's fattest remora.
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Smashy smashy...38-35.

Illustration by Jason Torchinsky.

To say that it has been hard to be a New Orleans Saints fan in recent years would be unfair. It would be churlish. Grotesque. It would also be hugely out of context: it has been easier to be a Saints fan lately than at any other time in history. So, yes: all of that. But, though we didn’t necessarily know it at the time, the NFL lost one of its most compulsively watchable pieces of weirdness when the 49ers knocked the Saints out of the playoffs. Not the Drew Brees-powered offense, although that carnival left town, too, when Alex Smith decided not to be Alex Smith for a still-implausible 5 minutes. No, the weirdness was on the other side of the ball, where defensive coordinator Gregg Williams continued to define defense down in ever stranger and less effective ways.

With the departure of Williams to St. Louis, the violent, anarchic free-for-all that New Orleans was forced to call “a defense” will not be seen again anytime soon, at least unless the Rams visit the Superdome. This is fine, of course, if also a little sad. Usually, the sui generis label is applied to something unique and extraordinary. Pathbreaking and riveting. The Saints defense during the Williams years was none of these things, but it was also sui generis. How does a defense like this develop? The answer won’t be found by analyzing game tape; to understand the Gregg Williams Ineffective Mayhem Experiment, we must turn to evolutionary biology.

But first, for those who never had the dubious pleasure of regularly watching the GWIME, a pop culture analogy is probably in order. The 2009 Saints defense was what early Friday Night Lights would have been if Saracen were a Zach Thomas-ian linebacker, Smash a cornerback in the Deion Sanders mold and Riggins was smoldering and sulky but played defense. That is, they blundered with what was either self-defeating generosity or abject indifference into desperate and melodramatic straits, then triumphed telegenically at the last possible moment. More often than not, this happened when opponents returned the here-have-all-this-yardage favor by throwing the ball into the arms of an end-stage Darren Sharper, who by that point could no longer cover anyone, but was cagey enough to put himself in the path of bad passes. The 2010 defense, in contrast, looked good to the computers, although the humiliation they suffered at the stiff arms and churning feet of Seattle's Marshawn Lynch in the Beast Mode wild card game was what the defense looked like all season to my eyes. This year, both computers and my eyes agreed that the Saints defense was a catastrophe. Infuriating as the unit was to watch, it was at least refreshing to have my paranoia justified.

In all those seasons, the Saints defense was grounded in a simple philosophy: blitz a lot, from all angles; pressure the quarterback constantly; and just let the rest happen. It is, as described, a compelling idea. It was, as executed, terrible. Nothing stands out statistically about these defenses—although, after the unit’s aberrant billion-pick season in 2009, the Saints more or less stopped intercepting passes—but they were distinguished, in my memory and on game tape, as a truly terrible tackling team. (The sole exception is safety Roman Harper, who can’t cover a statue, but at least hits hard enough to knock one over.) Still, the team won much more than it lost, and there was never so much as a whisper that Williams’ job was in trouble.

On reflection, Williams was never in jeopardy because to see the Saints defense as simply “bad” is to fail to put it in its context. The GWIME developed in tandem with the Drew Brees High Octane Touchdown Fantasia, and came to fill a weird evolutionary niche alongside that offense. It was, in retrospect, a very comfortable niche. The Saints defense didn’t have to make the play on every down, or most downs. It didn’t have to stop the opposing offense from scoring on every drive, or most drives. If Williams threw the kitchen sink at the quarterback often enough, eventually the quarterback would respond with two incomplete passes in a row. The GWIME needed only to succeed more than the opposing team's defense did against DBHOTF, and even great defenses don’t stop the DBHOTF much.

Whether or not this worked, it did at least seem like everyone was having fun. The defense is happy because they get to throw their bodies around with abandon, hitting everyone and everything as hard as they can, picking up the odd personal foul (one per game, at least), stopping the opposing team from scoring on occasion and generally enjoying the pleasantness of a pressure-free job. Brett Favre is probably still icing down his sore legs from the 2009 NFC Championship game; he also threw for 300 yards. Even the Saints offense is happy, in this situation, because after scoring a touchdown they can relax and really enjoy their Gatorade—savor the electrolytes without rushing or gulping—while the defense gives up a long drive and a field goal.

Even the season-ending divisional round loss to the 49ers doesn’t confound the theory. Sure, it was awful that the defense gave up two late touchdowns, but that’s how the defense works. It looked buggy to the uninitiated because it was Alex Smith tear-assing downfield instead of a better-branded chucker, but this was the GWIME that almost let Jake Locker two-minute drill them. Ultimately, breakdowns on offense lost the Saints this game. Of the five Saints turnovers, four forced a bad defense to defend a short field. The defense, unsurprisingly, yielded 13 points on those drives. But, more importantly, those turnovers killed four drives for the DBHOTF, a sacrifice of roughly 17 points (this is an estimate that certainly feels accurate). The fifth turnover, a concussion-induced Pierre Thomas fumble on the three-yard line, cost New Orleans three more, and the game.

Essentially, the Saints defense rides, remora-like, on the shark that is the offense. It hangs around and provides some ambiguous benefit—Gatorade savoring, breath-catching, so on—to the shark while doing no real harm, and living large on the excreta of the killing machine to which it is attached. This defense, more than most, simply can’t survive 33-point negative delta from the offense. A remora can only eat so much shark shit.

Evolutionary biologists say that the eye evolved separately dozens of times; we may be seeing a similar process in action in the NFL. Between Green Bay, New England and New Orleans, there were at least three very successful, very unbalanced teams this year. All three defenses were terrible in distinct and intermittently dazzling ways, but all three teams achieved the same result: looking terrible for much of the game, and winning anyway. Recent history shows that an inept offense can evolve to live off a superlative defense as well; Trent Dilfer would be the guy to talk to about this.

But in a more localized, black-and-gold context, the Vernon Davis slant that ended the Saints’ season, may also have ended an era. Instead of being run out of town, remora-pilot Gregg Williams left to run the St. Louis defense. In his place, Steve Spagnuolo, who actually was run out of St. Louis, will be taking over the Saints defense, and bringing his DC along to coach the Saints defensive backs. Pretty much everyone involved got a demotion.

After years of profanity-laced study, I don’t see how the defense that the Saints ran during the DBHOTF years could exist anywhere else; if there is a fish that exists off of remoras, it isn’t the kind of fish that one analogizes to winners. Regardless, the brand of Saints football that I’ve had so much fun watching for the last six years necessarily included a defense, and the GWIME was the defense that it had. It was flawed, silly, prone to failure but capable of occasional majesty and, for all its faults, perfectly suited to thrive in its unique niche.

Whatever the Saints do next year, it won’t be the same. The offense as it exists may be unaffordable—Brees, disgruntled All-Pro guard Carl Nicks and top wideout Marques Colston are all free agents. If the changed environment leads to fewer points, the GWIME will have to evolve or die. By the same token, if the offense and defense both regress towards the NFL mean, it doesn’t mean that the team will lose. But it does mean that the gonzo, high-variance, definitely-bet-the-over Saints games of recent years will be replaced by the same boring crap that, say, Falcons fans have been watching. If the Saints start winning that way, I guess I’ll enjoy the wins. But I think I’ll miss the screaming.

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It also raises a question regarding the mercantilism of evolution. To truly evolve one extraordinary function, you lose function somewhere else. You watch a specialty defense like the GWIME excel on the fringes, but then falter at the basic-- creating a sort of blitz package autism. It's like watching a Mike Leach offense trying to play on the goal or a bat trying to find his way home in the daylight.

But the interesting question comes in the trade-off. With the personnel in the Saints D, you can play a structurally sound defense and still not ever get past mediocre. Or, you can go GWIME and crank up the kamikaze blitz package of natural selection. On the whole, the broad view quality will probably come out the same.

Would you rather be Rain Main taking the house for millions or the guy barely breaking even at the $5 table, but who can drive himself home when the night's over?