There's no explaining this Saints offense

Of the players limited at practice on Wednesday was tackle Terron Armstead, who missed the team's last game on New Year's Eve.

NEW ORLEANS - I’ve heard most, if not all, of the excuses and reasons for it.

Many interesting suggestions have been made.

None of them have cleared up the issue for me.

Simply put, the 2017 New Orleans Saints offense doesn’t make any sense.

In his 12 seasons of calling plays in New Orleans, Sean Payton has never had a problem creating open receivers, especially on third down.

In 2017, it almost never seems to happen. It’s mind-boggling.

The only crazy explanations that seem to make any sense at all, despite appearing completely far-fetched, are: 1) Payton is mad at Willie Snead and Brandon Coleman, so he doesn’t throw them the ball, or 2) Payton is actually sandbagging and will unveil them as potential receiving options once the postseason arrives.

The most logical reason is the lack of a tight end option, but the tight end play last season was bad as well.

The numbers are alarming.

The Saints finished the regular season 19th in the league in third-down conversions. The lowest showing in Payton’s previous 11 seasons was sixth, landing in the top three in seven seasons.

Without a tight end option, you should have no choice but to throw to your third-down receiver, right?

Not in this offense. (And no, I don't buy that Snead suddenly forgot how to run a route or catch a football during the offseason.)

In 2015, Snead was targeted 102 times with 69 catches for 984 yards and 44 first downs in 15 games. In 2016, Snead had 104 targets with 72 receptions for 895 yards and 51 first downs in 15 games.

In 2017, the 25-year-old Snead was targeted 16 times with eight catches for 92 yards and four first downs. Yes, he was suspended and yes he had hamstring issues for a few games, but he still played 11 games and he isn’t part of the Saints’ passing game.

Some say it’s because the Saints run the ball more and better than they ever have under Payton. Not true.

The 2009 offense ran it 24 more times, and the 2011 offense only 13 fewer times. The 2009 running game averaged 4.5 yards a carry, 2011 even better at 4.9 a carry, and it was 4.7 this year.

Plus, theoretically running the ball better should create more open receivers, not the fewest in the Payton era.

Others say it’s because they’re throwing so much more to the running backs now. Also not true.

In 2011, the backs were targeted 184 times for 147 catches, 2013's backs were targeted 184 times for 149 catches and this year's backs were targeted 174 times for 141 receptions.

For the record, the Saints were No. 6 on third down in 2009, No. 1 in 2011, No. 4 in 2013 and No. 19 this year.

No matter how you slice it, Payton’s passing game has never produced so few open receivers.

Brees critics scream out that’s because Brees is washed up.

Well, Brees just set the all-time NFL record for completion percentage at 72.0 percent, amazingly with the fewest number of open receivers he’s ever thrown to.

"That’s just because all he does is complete short passes," claim the naysayers.

The numbers don’t support that either. Guess who led the NFL in yards per pass attempt this season? That’s right, Brees at 8.1 yards per attempt, which was also the third highest of his 12 years in New Orleans.

Yes, his critics still say, that’s only because he’s not throwing the ball down the field.

Again, not accurate. Brees’ average yards per completion is middle of the pack in his Saints career and better than last year when New Orleans was No. 1 on third down.

Brees was first in the league in pass plays over 20 yards and eighth in the NFL in pass plays over 40 yards.

I’ve even heard New Orleans is so bad on third down efficiency this season because the defense is “finally” good.

Don’t buy that either. The Saints finished No. 17 on defense this year. New Orleans was No. 4 defensively in 2010 and No. 1 on third down; and No. 8 defensively in 2013 and No. 4 on third down.

Throw out any angle you want, and it’s still baffling how little chance this offense has to complete a six-yard pass on third-and-five.

So how important is it to be good on third down anyway?

Of the top 10 in that category this year, eight of them made the playoffs. Of the 13 teams to finish below the Saints on third down this season, only Jacksonville (20th) and Tennessee (25th) qualified for the postseason.

And folks, those are ultra conservative run-oriented offenses with iffy quarterbacks.

While on one hand, so much of this sounds negative, it’s actually incredible that Payton’s offense posted the second most total yards in the league, despite all of those limitations.

Of course, much of that came against defenses no longer playing. It won’t likely be easy from here on out against any of the defense left in the NFC.

With that said, the good news for Sunday is the Saints offense looked as explosive against Carolina’s plus-defense as any team it played all year long, other than Buffalo.

Perhaps the offense can begin making some sense starting Sunday.

After all, doghouses should fade away after the holidays and the opportunities to sandbag ended last Sunday in Tampa.


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