The Saints' defense last year was atrocious, this much we know. It's largely to blame for the team missing the playoffs last year. But the offense felt off too. Just how much is the question, really. If the defense had been passable, was this offense good enough to be a playoff team? How did it compare to the previous year's offenses? For the sake of this exercise, I am writing off defense temporarily. That's not to suggest Sean Payton doesn't have an impact on defense, but I think we can all agree it's pretty limited compared to his impact on offense. There is no question Payton excels as a mid game adjuster and a motivator and those are things the Saints missed greatly on both sides of the ball in 2012. It's hard to quantify numerically exactly what that means to the Saints, or how it would have changed the defense if at all in 2012. On offense I can point to the lack of a commitment to the running game early in the season, which got corrected, and poor game plans with an inability to adjust against the 49ers and second Falcons games specifically. Those two games were tough opponents, but clear exhibits of the coaching staff and players looking lost and unable to make changes in game when they starting to struggle. That said, more generically, I wanted to take a look at the statistical difference between 2012 offensively and 2006 through 2011, to get a feel for if this really was the worst year offensively in the Sean Payton era, which was the first without him present.
In 2012 the Saints had 352 first downs. This was good for the 3rd most in the Sean Payton era (7 seasons). Going into 2012 the Saints averaged 357.5 first downs per season, but that number is grossly skewed by 416 first downs in the historical 2011 season. From a moving the chains perspective, the 2012 version of the Saints is right in line with all the other Sean Payton offenses.
THIRD DOWN CONVERSION PERCENTAGE:
In 2012, the Saints converted for first downs on 44% of their third down plays. This was the worst conversion rate in the Sean Payton era. The closest seasons were 2006 (45%) and 2009 (44.7%) surprisingly, both great offensive seasons overall. The record 2011 year saw a massive jump to 56.7%. The Saints have averaged about 48% on 3rd down conversions prior to 2012. That is a significant measure that the team was the worst in this department in a seven year span.
FOURTH DOWN CONVERSION PERCENTAGE:
The sample size is of course much smaller here, but the Saints were converting 4th downs at 57% in 2012. That is actually the second best in the Sean Payton era over a seven year period. The Saints have averaged converting these at 45.8% prior to 2012. Interestingly, the two worst seasons for converting fourth downs were 2009 (the Super Bowl title year) and 2011 (the best offense in NFL history) – so attributing too much significance here is probably a waste of time.
YARDS PER PLAY:
The Saints averaged 6.2 yards per play in 2012. The Saints in six seasons prior averaged 6.0 yards per play, so we should consider this season slightly above average. Gaining yards didn't seem like a major problem and on pace with previous years.
YARDS PER RUSH:
The Saints averaged 4.3 yards per rush in 2012. In six seasons prior they averaged 4.13 yards per rush. This was the third best average in seven seasons and above average. Gaining yards running didn't seem to be as big of a problem as committing to running the ball.
YARDS PER PASS:
The Saints averaged 7.7 yards per pass in 2012. In six seasons prior they averaged 7.7 yards per pass as well, so this was exactly average. Mind, you, that is not a bad thing. Still, in seven seasons, 7.7 yards per pass was third worse. This didn't seem like a glaring issue.
The Saints yielded 26 sacks in 2012. That is the most they've yielded in the Sean Payton era, tied with 2010 when they also yielded 26 sacks. The Saints average giving up 20.3 sacks per season, so this was much higher. A sign they were maybe too predictable in their pass patterns, that the offensive line didn't block as well, and that maybe the receivers weren't getting as open. It's interesting that the team's yards per pass remained average despite a much higher than average sack total – which subtracts from pass yardage. This suggests they maybe had slightly more explosive plays to make up for it.
The Saints completed just 63% of their passes in 2012 which was the worst in the Sean Payton era. You'll remember just one year prior the NFL record breaking 71.3% completions, and the Saints have averaged around 67.5% prior to 2012. Another category that was glaringly low compared to the average.
The Saints averaged 2.8% interceptions per pass in 2012. That is slightly more than average, as the Saints averaged approximately 2.5% in the Sean Payton era prior to last year. Still, they averaged 2.8% in both 2007 and 2008 and 3.3% in 2010. So this wasn't that horrible. The most successful seasons, though, the Saints averaged 2.0% in 2006, 2.2% in 2009 and 2.1% in 2011 – so clearly keeping that number low helps the team have success.
This is the only statistic I pulled up that involves both offense and defense, but one that points to team discipline and something Sean Payton is reputed for enhancing, so I figured it was a worthwhile thing to look at. The Saints were penalized 104 times in 2012, most in the Sean Payton era by far. The Saints averaged less than 84 penalties per year in the past six years going into 2012. Clearly that was a major problem, but it's hard to say if stricter NFL rules combined with the Saints living under the post "Bounty Gate" microscope contributed to such a hike. Still, the Saints have always been in the top 15 least penalized teams in the NFL in the Sean Payton era, and last year they were 23rd. There was clearly a drop off in that department.
The Saints 2012 offense overall was decent, and even above average compared to their own standard in certain areas. It was not a complete flop as I would have maybe suspected prior to this exercise. Still, there were some glaring areas of drop off in 2012 and it's safe to say Sean Payton missing was a major contributing factor. Those were 3rd down conversions, completion percentage, sacks given up and team penalties. Those four categories were the worst in seven years of offense in the Sean Payton era. Sacks obviously points to poor offensive line play and perhaps poor receiver play (getting open). We knew that. I think it also points to predictable play calling. The low completion percentage likely also means the passing patterns were too predictable, which I attribute to poor play calling, and again maybe poor pass blocking and receivers getting open. 3rd down conversion being down will be a function of the two things I just mentioned, so these are obviously interconnected. Lastly, high volume of penalties I attribute to poor discipline, something Sean Payton preaches ad nauseam. That's a category that would have helped the team significantly on both sides of the ball. Record high penalties would also contribute to a lower completion percentage, more sacks, and a lower 3rd down coversion rate. That makes me wonder if all this offense needs is a little more discipline and Sean Payton to kick them in the pants? It's probably not that simple, but based on these four categories being all time lows in seven years, I think it's safe to assume this team missed their head coach and offensive genius.
This defense obviously needs to get fixed, that is first and foremost. Let's not lose sight of that issue as it's clearly most important this offseason. Still, the offense had issues last year as well and based on these stats it's same to assume Sean Payton returning alone will be enough to repair some of the Saints' 2012 issues.