Ralph Malbrough / Contributing Writer
Once the Seahawks Russell Wilson threw an overtime touchdown in Chicago, the New Orleans Saints 2012 playoff dreams for all practical purposes died, so what besides Roger Goodell killed them?
It's not as a simple as blaming the defense or Drew Brees' annual interception bender. The defense was a burning car in the middle of the interstate but schedule, personal decisions, coaching, and players under achievement all led to the disappointment of 2012.
Here are the reasons I think the 2012 Saints crashed and burned.
In the summer I thought the Saints soft early schedule (Redskins, Panthers, Chiefs) was a huge break because with Aaron Kromer filling in for Joe Vitt who was filling in for Sean Payton the Saints needed easy games early with all the chaos of different coaches.
Looking back I can't believe I couldn't see the absolute disaster the entire interim-interim coaching experience would be. I think who ever the Saints chose the interim coach was doomed the first month. Aaron Kromer had never been a head coach at any level and wasn't head coach in the preseason. The Saints didn't look anything near their usual selves until Week 6 in Tampa. In effect the Saints squandered the easy part of their schedule while they got used to having different coaches.
Imagine if the Saints first four games were at Atlanta, San Francisco, at Green Bay, and at Denver? Maybe they go 0-4 same as they did anyway but I don't think the way the Saints are playing now they lose to Kansas City or Carolina. When they played awful teams was the difference between 5-7 and 7-5. Sometimes teams get a break with their schedule but like everything else in 2012 it gave the Saints no favors.
2. Defensive Line Fail
Cam Jordan leads the team with 7 sacks but no other player has more than 5. Jordan has made incredible strides from his rookie year but he's not an elite pass rusher. Martez Wilson had a nice game against the Chargers but besides that I only notice him when he jumps off sides on punts.
Steve Spagnuolo's defensive scheme is based on getting pressure the majority of time by only rushing four and it doesn't happen consistently with this team so it took him awhile to adjust.
There wasn't much out there in free agency for Saints to get so they had to go with what they had but if they don't figure out a way to upgrade at defensive end we'll be having this same discussion in 2013.
3. Safety Dance
If you love 1980's music you get the reference but even if you don't you know Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper have for the majority of the season been awful.
Jenkins had the great hustle play in Tampa and the pick six in Oakland but he also has missed a ton of tackles and taken more bad angles chasing receivers than a failing geometry student. In fact according to Pro Football Focus Jenkins has already missed 20 tackles this year and might break the record of 24 for a safety.
Roman Harper has been so bad tackling when the Saints announced this week he was missing practices because of a rib injury I thought that was a way better reason than Roman Harper forgot how to tackle. They have been better the last three weeks but it's December and 2012 is already lost.
Deciding what to do at safety might be the hardest call this offseason because the Saints won't have any salary cap room to make upgrades so the question is can you win with Jenkins/Harper? I say maybe if the pass rush gets better. Let's just move along before another running back runs through either of them.
4. Running on Empty
In 2011 the Saints ranked 6th in rushing yards per game but in 2012 they rank 27th. We can argue over if it's because they aren't committed to it, or maybe Chris Ivory should've played more, or maybe the offensive line just isn't as good as 2011. I tend to believe in the last one.
Ben Grubbs has been a very good replacement for Carl Nicks but Jermon Bushrod and center Brian De La Puente to me are having down years and the run game has suffered. Since the running game is struggling Drew Brees is forced to shoulder more of the burden and isn't as good.
When the Saints run the football well like they did in 2006, 2009, and 2011 the offense is a killing machine and when they don't it isn't. So while everyone will be screaming for a defensive player every selection on draft day I'm hoping they grab Alabama center Barrett Jones. Jones can play multiple positions on the offensive line and as long as Drew Brees has a chance to be elite the Saints #1 priority should be getting players to make him great.
5. Details Matter
The last two weeks have really shown how much Sean Payton matters. The 2012 Saints are starting to remind me of the Jim Haslett Saints. They lack focus at times, don't do the little things well, and you aren't really sure what you'll get week to week.
If I were Sean Payton, during contract negotiation I would just play the final minute of the first half against Atlanta where Drew Brees screwed up clock management and scream, 'PAY. ME. NOW.'
Payton knows what buttons to push to get the best out of the Saints, especially with young players. It's probably no coincidence Jimmy Graham has regressed from his breakout sophomore season without Payton on the sideline. The 2012 Saints are a playoff team but Joe Vitt and Aaron Kromer just aren't capable of bringing it out of them.
Sean Payton sabbatical spot of the week: England
Sean could pay a visit to the pregnant Kate Middleton. She's been in the hospital with acute morning sickness, which basically means she's throwing up 24/7. In other words she is doing what Raider fans have been doing for the past decade while watching their team.
I wonder if Sean flipped out as much as fans did watching the end of the first half against the Falcons? Did he throw something at his TV when Drew had a brain cramp and the clock expired before the Saints could clock the ball? Or did he just sigh, pour himself a strong drink, look to the ceiling, shake his fist, and scream, 'GOOOOOODELLLLL!'
I did both.
Last Week: 2-3
New Orleans (+5) at New York Giants: I'll be in Las Vegas watching this game and I have no idea how it will go. After losing Monday night to Washington New York needs a win to stay in 1st place and because the last few years they always come through when their backs are against the wall every talking head will be picking them. I know the Giants have pulled of a Houdini act and won two Super Bowls but eventually their high wire late season show is going to end poorly and Tom Coughlin will berate some referee to death.
Drew Brees will bounce back because he's too good and cares too much to stink three straight weeks. The way 2012 has gone I expect Brees to have his best game of the year and defense to go back to being awful. The Saints will probably lose in some soul crushing fashion and cashing my winning ticket at a casino in Vegas won't make the pain go away.
Minnesota (+3) vs. Chicago: There are some great young quarterbacks in the NFL (Andrew Luck, RGIII, Russell Wilson) but there are some awful ones too. Christian Ponder is getting worse by the week but I'm taking Minnesota because I think the Bears are about to collapse.
Seattle (-10.5) vs. Arizona: The Cardinals quarterbacks are so bad I've never seen a Saints quarterback as bad as Arizona's Ryan Lindley. Any quarterback Mike Ditka ever made us suffer through is a huge upgrade over what the Cardinals have.
He completed 10 of 31 passes for 72 yards. I watched Daniel Carl Wuerffel get sacked a dozen times and he didn't even look as bad. I'm in a pick pool and you have to rate your picks on a confidence scale. This is my lock of the century, no the lock of the millennium.
Philadelphia (+7) at Tampa Bay: I'm not going to tell you the Eagles are any good or that Andy Reid will be the coach next year. All I'm saying is Philly was 3-1 and is now 3-9 and they can't possibly lose their final 12 games. That's my theory and I'm sticking with it.
St. Louis (+3) at Buffalo: Don't look now but the 5-6-1 Rams finish with games against Vikings, Bucs, and Seahawks. They might ruin my dream of a five-team tie for the final NFC playoff spot at 9-7 because they'll be 9-6-1. I hate you Jeff Fisher.
Ralph Malbrough is a Saints fan living in Houston. He'll be in Vegas this weekend so no recap column Monday and that means the beginning of your week just got a little brighter. Email him at email@example.com, find him on facebook, follow him on twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/MilneMalbrough or download his podcast at Itunes.