Cardinals 30, Saints 20

Well, that sucked.

With yesterday’s loss, the Saints fell to 3-2, along with what seems like the rest of the NFC. What’s disheartening is that the Saints have only played one good team (0-1), and are 3-1 against some crappy teams.

For today’s game review, I’ll look at two questions: the narrow question of why the Saints lost this game, and the larger question of what this means for this season.

**Why did the Saints lose this game?

** The first question is, what happened yesterday? Why did we lose? The answer to that is easy: fumble recovery. The Saints and Cardinals fumbled the ball a total of 6 times yesterday, and the Cardinals recovered 5 of those 6. More than anything, that determined the outcome. Recovering fumbles is primarily luck, with a little bit of skill thrown in. If the Saints had recovered 5 of 6, they almost definitely would’ve won the game. If they had split them, then I still believe the Saints would’ve won the game, because I don’t think the Cardinals offense could do anything against our defense (2.82 aYPA).

Not that our offense was any better. In fact, it was worse. If you look at the adjusted yards per attempt (remember, counting sacks as attempts with lost yardage and subtracting 60 yards for each interception), then the Saints’ offense had it’s worst performance of the year yesterday, averaging 2.33 aYPA, compared to 2.82 for the Cardinals. That’s really quite bad. Even if you ignore the last drive, with Brew’s desperation heave that got picked, you’re still looking at an aYPA of less than 3. That’s not going to win many ballgames.

So, the Saints lost this game because of bad fumble luck and a completely inept offense. As such, they were unable to beat a completely punchless Arizona team starting a rookie quarterback. Not so good.

**What does this mean going forward?

** The more important question, in my mind, is this: why Arizona was even in this game? Why didn’t we blow them out of the water? The fact that we didn’t is a bad sign for the rest of the year.

Why is it a bad sign? Because the best teams in the NFL tend to blow out inferior opponents. Football Outsiders did a study a few years back and found that it’s much more important to beat bad teams by big scores (say, 14 points or more) than it is to gut out victories over good or bad teams. Great teams tend to destroy crappy teams, and the Saints haven’t been able to do that. They’ve played 2 crappy teams (Carolina and Arizona), 1 team that’s probably crappy (Minnesota), and 1 team that’s good (Atlanta). The Saints played a nice game against Atlanta, but have played not-so-nice games against the other folks. That’s not a sign of a great team.

Here’s another way to put it: great teams in the NFL don’t tend to rise and lower their level of play to that of their opponents. They tend to play at a consistently high level throughout the year, dominating inferior opponents and having closer games against stronger opponents. This year, the Saints have reverted to their Ditka-Haslett era tendency to play to their opponents’ level. That’s not a good sign.

So, what’s going on? As I see it, there are three primary areas in which the Saints are struggling this year: offense, special teams, injuries, and luck. We’ve covered luck before, and the injury issue is self-evident (and probably underestimated as a contributor to the Saints’ inefficacy). Let’s look at offense and then a brief note on special teams:

Offense

The Saints’ offense has been bad this year, and is getting worse with each game. In my opinion, the primary culprits have been dropped passes (especially on key downs) and lack of big plays. These factors (and others) have led to some really bad aYPA figures for the Saints this year. Remember, aYPA is directly correlated to winning, which is why we look at the stat. This year, the Saints’ average aYPA is 5.11. There’s no nice way to put it: that’s terrible. If you want to get more depressed, look at the trend line in this graph:

Saints' aYPA through Week 5 2010

Remember, the trend line indicates the general pattern or direction of a set of numbers. In the Saints’ case, that direction has been straight down.

For grins, let’s look at the Saints opponent’s numbers:

[Opponents' aYPA through Week 5 2010][3]

They aren’t much better, averaging 4.72 aYPA per game. So, the saving grace for the Saints this year is some combination of good defense and crappy opponents.

_Special Teams

_ While the Saints’ special teams struggles are well-documented, I’d just like to point out how difficult it is to judge kickers. In most years, a kicker will attempt between 20-40 field goals, an extremely small sample. So small, in fact, that it’s impossible to tell in any given year whether a kicker’s success (or lack thereof) is due to skill or luck. Let’s look at a quick example to show what I mean.

Let’s say that we have a robot a kicker that is 80% accurate on field goal attempts (we’ll ignore the effects of field goal distance for this example). That’d be a very good kicker in the league.

If that kicker attempts 30 field goals in a year, then the kicker has about a 51% chance of making 23, 24, or 25 of those field goals and a about a 76% chance of making between 23 and 30 of the field goals. However, the kicker also has about a 24% chance of making 22 or fewer field goals, and about a 6% chance of making 20 or fewer field goals.*

*Statistical note for nerds: I’m considering kicks to be Bernoulli trials here with n= 30 and p=0.8. Disagree? Tell me what I’m doing wrong in the comment thread.

In other words, in any one year, there’s about a 1 out of 4 chance that even a good field goal kicker will miss a whole bunch of field goals. And, even if a kicker is having a good year, he may miss several field goals in a row. That’s just the way that probability goes. While probability works out in the long run, in any given year, you may just have bad luck. That’s why judging a kicker is very tough, and I’m a bit indifferent on the Hartley-Carney debate. I do wonder about kickers’ confidence levels and whether they influence field goal percentage, but, given the small samples, there’s no good way to study it.

So, as one of my dissertation committee members put it: Probability’s a bitch. As a result, it’s really hard to tell if a kicker’s good or bad. The real secret is to score touchdowns and let someone else worry about their kicker.

**Going Forward

** Fortunately, the crappy schedule continues for the Saints. We still have time to become dominant, lucky, or both. We’ll see what happens when we get a few injured players back, the coaches go back to the proverbial drawing board, and so on.

Overall, though, it doesn’t look good. The team isn’t playing well, hasn’t been lucky, and is getting injured at an alarming clip. Maybe it’s the Super Bowl Hangover, maybe something else, but this just isn’t a great team right now. In fact, I’m not even sure it’s a good team. However, as a buddy reminded me last night in a text message, it just makes you realize how special last year was.

[3]: http://www.whodatreport.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/2010_week5_opponents_ypa1.png