The two highest profile and most notable first-year head football coaches in Louisiana have their teams going in opposite directions. My GPS must have been wacky back in August, because I thought Brian Kelly and Dennis Allen would be on totally different paths right about now.
Kelly, the man many complained was not a good cultural fit for the Bayou State and LSU, has his Tigers tied atop the SEC West with an overall 6-2 record, 4-1 in league play. Now that may not last through the open date and the Alabama game coming up Nov. 5 in Baton Rouge. But for right now, Kelly has LSU trending, ranked again, and the hard sell Tiger fans believing and trusting a Yankee from Massachusetts.
An hour and change down I-10 south, Allen’s New Orleans Saints have lost five of six following the dismal display in Arizona and are in last place in the NFC South Division and entrenched in the bottom third of the NFL as a whole.
I didn’t think it was foolheartedly of me to think the Saints, with that defense, offensive line and the returning talent, would be in a much better position than LSU — a team in need of a new quarterback, new secondary and a rebuilt offensive line.
What was I thinking?
Sorry LSU fans, this is not a column on the Tigers. I promise that will come in a few weeks after Nick Saban’s visit to Death Valley.
Right now I’m trying to figure out where my fool head and heart went awry on the Saints and what their prospects are for being a playoff contender.
Let me remind you the NFL can turn on a dime, and also it doesn’t appear that Tom Brady and his band of Buccaneers nor the Dirty Birds in Atlanta want to take control of this now subpar division.
The 2-5 Saints (as of the week of Oct. 26 and Lagniappe’s print deadline) were a mere one game behind the Bucs and Falcons, both at 3-4.
I don’t think Atlanta will hold it together and make a serious run. But I ask you, who do you trust more to shed the muck they are currently in — the Goat or the duo of Winston and Dalton?
The Saints have 10 games to turn the early disaster around. But they are clearly on the edge of letting the season slip and slide into a hole of mediocrity.
The Saints have gone on winning streaks in the past to save a season and put themselves into the playoffs. But that was with Sean Payton as head coach. Allen has yet to prove he can right a sinking ship, or at least one that is taking on a dangerous amount of water.
During his last press conference right after the loss to the Cardinals, which included three interceptions — two going for Arizona quick scores — and more missed tackles that I could count, Allen lamented our “microwave society” that wants quick fixes. He added there’s “no magic pill or formula” to correct or change all the Saints problems, which include penalties, dropped passes, allowing explosive plays both through the air and ground — and did I mention some of the worse tackling on the planet?
OK, if we have to remain patient and can’t expect next day solutions or even incremental progress by the time they host the Raiders on Oct. 30, then expect more losses and the Saints to become road kill.
Before the season, I thought this crew could win the division and earn a first round playoff bye.
Lofty hopes with no Payton and a first-year head coach … maybe. But Allen isn’t your ordinary first-year guy. He had been a stalwart as the team’s defensive coordinator for six years and a former head coach with the Raiders. Allen knows the roster, culture and systems. He has strong bonds to GM Mickey Loomis and owner Gayle Benson.
I expected more — especially from a defense that was rated in the upper half in the NFL last year. Add All Pro free agents Tyrann Mathieu and Jarvis Landry and the return of another All Pro in Michael Thomas. Surely this level of talent could tilt some games.
Instead Mathieu has been the leader of the whiff gang on defense, missing tackles with horrible angles, arm swings and an odd penchant for avoiding physical contact.
Landry was doing fairly well as a slot receiver until an ankle injury put him on the sideline.
And then there is the curious case of Thomas. After missing nearly two years with various ankle surgeries, Thomas returned and nearly single-handedly beat the Falcons.
And then came yet another injury: this time a toe that has held him out of four games and counting. (Thomas is still questionable for the Raiders games Oct. 30).
I came across this comparison on Twitter recently. Fair or not it got me thinking.
— Brian Robinson, Washington Redskins running back: out for four games after being shot twice.
— Michael Thomas, Saints receiver: out for four games and counting with a hurt toe.
I’ll admit the Saints have been hammered with an inordinate number of injuries to starters and critical reserve players. Upwards of nine first-stringers have been out for multiple games. That includes their entire starting receiver lineup, after rookie Chris Olave missed two games with a concussion.
Starting cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Paulsen Adebo are out. And top reserve Brandon Roby was carted off the field in Arizona.
Star back Alvin Kamara and top tight end Adam Trautman have missed games, along with starting guard Andrus Peat, who you can always count on to come up ailing at some point.
And then there is quarterback Jameis Winston.
He was coming off the ACL surgery. And then we discovered he was suffering from four broken vertebrae in his back. How in the world that came to be is still a mystery. He toughed it out for a few games before Allen finally turned to backup Andy Dalton.
To their credit, Allen and the healthy starting players have not used the injuries as an excuse other than the head coach admitting “my biggest concern is the health of our players.”
I have to wonder if there is something in that Metairie water that keeps these guys from staying healthy.
Injuries are a part of the NFL. Every team deals with them. But the extent of the injuries, and so many this early in the year, leads me to suspect there is some voodoo mojo going on.
The next-man-up mentality isn’t working so well either.
Allen has finally stopped saying we have things to clean up, probably because things have gotten so bad Mr. Clean couldn’t help the cause. The coach is putting on a brave face, saying it’s his responsibility to get the problems fixed, but he hasn’t been able to do that just yet.
Earlier in the season Allen pinpointed the shoddy tackling (his word, not mine) and turnovers and said they would, in essence, pull players guilty of those mistakes and put someone else on the field.
He hasn’t done that either because of the rash of injuries or because he can’t seem to pull that big a trigger. He is still starting or playing safeties Mathieu, Justin Evans, Marcus Maye and Cliff Harris — the one most guilty of shoddy tackling — because Allen really has no one else.
Receivers Marquez Callaway and Kevin White are still lining up despite the dropped passes and bouncing balls that result in picks, because there is no one else besides Rashid Shaheed off the practice squad. And you can’t find fault in his production.
The defense is 31st in points allowed, and the offense has the worst touchdown percentage in the red zone through seven games.
Probably the biggest drag on the Saints besides all those injuries has been the turnover margin. The Saints are minus 9 in turnovers, which is last in the NFL. That means they are giving up the ball way more than taking it from opponents.
This team will never remind you of the 2009 Super Bowl defense, which feasted on turnovers.
I wasn’t thrilled when Allen announced he gave the team the long weekend off to regroup and rest after the Thursday night Arizona game.
I get it. Two games in a five day span is a lot to ask.
Two things I wanted to hear from Allen but didn’t.
He should have them back on the practice field ASAP tackling and working on those fundamentals that every player is giving lip service to.
Second, that Allen was turning over the defensive play calling to co-defensive coordinator Ryan Neilsen so the head coach can focus more on game tactics, situational calls, personnel and in-game adjustments.
That’s not too big of an ask for a team that is a long shot to make the playoffs right now with those five losses and staring down the toughest part of the schedule. The Saints still have top tier games against Baltimore, the L.A. Rams, San Francisco, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia on the schedule.
Their only realistic shot at the playoffs is going 7-3 over the remaining 10 games with the hope Brady and Tampa Bay continue to struggle as well.
With the way they are playing and the injury situation, that kind of finish would be a miracle run for a Saints team that has probably allowed another playoff potential season slip away.
Catch Rick Sarro’s commentary and latest opinions on Soundoff on CBS Lake Charles Tuesday and Thursday nights at 10:05 pm and again Saturday at 11 pm and Sunday at 10 pm. Follow Rick on Twitter @ricksarro.