Ralph Malbrough / Contributing Writer
Ever heard the saying that a man's true character is revealed in crisis? If you are paying close attention Sean Payton is staying true to his coaching philosophy as the Saints face maybe the biggest late season crisis of Payton's career in trying to cure the Saints' road woes.
Sean Payton isn't playing it safe or doing the conventional thinking. He is being hyper aggressive in trying to get the Saints a division title and a playoff bye. The conservative play is not to sign a brand new kicker who has yet to make a field goal in 2013 on December 17. The safe play is not to give a rookie left tackle his first start on the road in the biggest game of the year. Yet, Sean Payton just did both of them when the Saints signed Shayne Graham and announced Terron Armstead would start in Carolina instead of Charles Brown.
As the kids like to say, 'This is how Sean Payton rolls.'
He goes for it on fourth down in critical spots with a call for a reverse by his third string tight end or he calls for an onside kick to open the second half of a Super Bowl. In almost every big moment since Sean Payton has been the Saints coach his solution is like he said during the Super Bowl against the Indianapolis Colts, 'I want the gas pedal down.'
If the Saints are going to crash and burn in Carolina they are going to do so at 100 miles an hour. Payton is a Bill Parcells disciple and while Parcells wasn't known as a very aggressive coach, in practice he was. Parcells also believed a team should always feel uncomfortable and worried. Never satisfied. Cutting the kicker who helped get you to the Super Bowl and giving a rookie left tackle his first start on the road in Week 16 I've got to think made everyone on Airline Drive just a bit nervous.
After they got pounded on the road again in St. Louis the normal defiance from Payton and Brees was gone. Brees talked this week of maybe simplifying the game plan while Sean Payton in his post game press conference spoke of the road woes as, 'That's where we are at right now.'
The Saints had the look of a team in St. Louis that when things went bad they thought, 'Here we go again.' That's what teams like the Oakland Raiders and Houston Texans do every week. At this point when the Saints are away from home they aren't much harder to beat then an NFL bottom feeder.
The Saints strength since 2006, besides having Drew Brees at quarterback, has been a fearless disregard for convention and a belief they can score their way out of almost any bad situation.
Two score deficits until now didn't faze the Saints away from home. Now because of the Saints offensive line play a two-score deficit has proven fatal every time. In fact only in New England did the Saints fall behind by more than a touchdown and still manage to remain competitive.
Sean Payton knows this and it's why in my opinion he benched Charles Brown and shuffled the tackle position in the third quarter against the Rams. He knows his offensive line when forced to pass block 70 percent of the time will crumble. If he believed in this group of lineman to protect Drew Brees when the Saints were behind he doesn't shuffle the deck so dramatically during the game.
I'm not a coach, I don't breakdown tape, and I won't pretend to have suggestions. All I know the Saints lack energy, discipline, and their normal arrogance on the road.
Their arrogance annoys some in the national media and probably some other fan bases but that's not our problem. Sean Payton needs to rediscover it or a late season collapse is not out of the question. The Saints are just 5-4 since beginning 2013 with five straight wins.
Sean Payton is trying to get the arrogance back and he's doing it the way he's always done it, with ruthless, naked aggression.
Sean Payton has usually solved problems and righted the ship. He did it after the Saints lost their final three games in 2009, he did it in 2010 after a humiliating home loss to Cleveland, and he did it in 2011 after an almost similar beating in St. Louis. So the waters the Saints are in aren't uncharted.
Either Payton fixes the Saints travel troubles or 2013 becomes the season the road killed. Whatever happens Sean Payton stayed true to himself whether you like it or not.
Rob Ryan's Big Chart of Fun: All year long I'll be charting how the Saints defense does under Rob Ryan in certain situations. For a full explanation of how it works read this. Special thanks to the guys at Black and Gold Review who took the chart and made it interactive.
The Saints now rank 27th in turnovers created. In a year where the defense has surpassed our wildest dreams it's tough to criticize but if the Saints don't create turnovers they won't win playoff games. In one stretch in the last 20 years 60 of 61 playoff games the team with fewest turnovers won. If the Saints defense doesn't create them it means the Saints offense must be flawless and in 2013 that's too big a hurdle.
Last Week: 2-3
Carolina (-3) vs. New Orleans: Garrett Hartley finally got shown the door because of his miss late against St. Louis. Using any statistical measure you want Hartley was awful this year except for his two critical kicks against San Francisco. My sense is Sean Payton gave Hartley plenty of chances because of what he did in the 2009 playoffs. Will Shane Graham be better? I have no idea. Even if Hartley was still the kicker, every field goal was going to be a level 10 panic attack. Not the problem to have with two weeks left in the season.
A word on Hartley before we move on, his 2009 playoffs is the greatest post season by a kicker. You can argue Adam Vinatieri in 2001 with the kick in the snow against the Raiders and the game winner in the Super Bowl but Hartley hit the kick to send the Saints to the Super Bowl and hit three kicks of over 40 yards against the Colts in the Super Bowl. Every single one of those kicks against Indianapolis felt huge and even though he's no longer a Saint his performance is one of the great ones in team history.
Part of me really wants to pick the Saints here because despite all the Saints road issues I still don't think the Carolina secondary can cover New Orleans receivers and running backs. Panthers coach Ron Rivera knows this too. I believe his solution will be to blitz Drew Brees early and often. I joked last week about the 'Full Gregg Williams' i.e. blitzing every player you have plus fans, children, and mascots.
Brees is going to get it early. Either the Saints protect him and he burns the Panthers defense to the ground for his biggest road victory as Saints quarterback. Or he's hit a dozen times, sacked, and has four turnovers. There is no middle ground.
I'm hoping for the former but the Saints have shown no ability to protect Brees against even competent defenses much less a front seven like the Panthers. It gets ugly early and suddenly the season rides on being perfect at home.
Miami (-3) at Buffalo: The only thing my wife loves more than watching the Dolphins win is watching Tom Brady lose. The fact she got to win money in Las Vegas because both things happened last week really was her utopia. I bet Miami to win the AFC at 25/1 because I'm irresponsible with money.
Dallas (-3) at Washington: Watching the Cowboys implode against the Packers in the grandest way possible in a Las Vegas sports book was truly delightful. A woman in a Troy Aikman jersey almost punched a woman in a Tony Romo jersey in the face. They were turning on each other and arguing about whose fault the Cowboys collapse was. Funny, Monte Kiffin's defense getting turned to dust by Matt Flynn never came up.
Chicago (+3) at Philadelphia: In America we have December traditions like Christmas, New Year's Eve and watching Tony Romo get blamed for the Cowboys losing the season finale and missing the playoffs. Sorry Eagles, you have to wait until next week to win the NFC East.
New England (+2.5) at Baltimore: My wife's joy at watching the Dolphins win was tempered by seeing the Lions being the Lions and letting the Ravens beat them. If the Ravens lose here the Dolphins control their playoff fate. That would make my wife happy and I'd like my wife happy for Christmas.
Ralph Malbrough is a Saints fan living in Houston. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, find him on facebook, follow him on twitter at https://twitter.com/SaintsForecast or download his podcast at Itunes.