Now that we've gotten most of the dark gloomy commentary about symbolism and hopelessness out of the way.. I think now we're ready to look back at what actually happened yesterday.
First, SI's Peter King this morning offers the following image:
Drew Brees is not only a good player. He is a good doggy citizen.
One afternoon last week, I walked with Brees through Audubon Park in New Orleans, near his home. We were miked up for an HBO interview, walking with perky, go-getter-Steelers-fan producer Bentley Weiner as two cameras recorded our walk-and-talk. Brees had his 11-year-old Chow mix Alexis on a leash. After a few minutes, Alexis put her nose in the air, went to work, and defecated on the grass.
The big test of a man followed. Would he pick it up, or would he big-dog it, claiming he just didn't have a bag and tough luck, I'm just going to have to let that one go?
Brees: "Uh-oh. Now I have to be a good citizen here, y'all.''
King: "Do you have one?'' [A bag, I meant.]
Brees: "Yep. I have to pick this up. Lexis, get out of there! [She is rooting around the pile.] You're not gonna get this on camera, are you?''
King: "Looks like they are. Yeah.''
Brees: "Let me pick this up before they do. [He bends down with a blue newspaper bag and picks it up. Then he addresses a man off-camera] What's that?''
New Orleans stranger: "Can we take a picture with you?''
King: "Give me the bag.''
Brees: "No, no! I'm not gonna give you the bag! I'll set it down. You don't have to hold that.''
Weiner: "Here, let me take that.''
Brees: "No, no, no. That's my job. Come on, there's a trash can right there. I got it. I got it! I'm not gonna make y'all do my dirty work for me!''
King: "It's just a bag!''
Brees: "Yeah, but it's ... she's, uh ... it's my job. It's part of my job. It's daddy duty. It's daddy doggie duty.'' [He deposits the blue newspaper bag with the droppings in a park trash can.]
Second in the MVP voting, first in the all-pro voting at quarterback, and he picks up dog doo. That's what I call a heck of an American.
So I think that's where we'll start. Drew Brees and big bag of dogshit. I drunkenly blurted yesterday that Brees bears much of the blame for this one. There were other problems.. and we'll get to them.. but Brees saved his worst game of the season for the NFC Championship. My biggest complaint about the first half... apart from the no-Deuce factor.. was Brees' consistently off the mark passing. Saints receivers were repeatedly forced to stop, twist, dive and otherwise contort themselves to reach balls thrown behind them and at their feet. It might have been the conditions.. it might also have been the shoddy pass protection which was also the worst of the season.
Look Out! Familiar sight Sunday
But it wasn't the erratic passing that killed the Saints so much as the turnovers. Brees fumbled twice (lost one) and tossed one unfortunate interception. I would also count as a turnover the intentional grounding penalty in the endzone which was itself a game-changing blunder of the sort not committed by a Saints QB since....
One wonders, as well, why the 2006 NFL Coach of the Year felt it necessary to put his quarterback in a position to fail so badly. During the week prior to this game, the conventional wisdom among professional football analysts favored a Saints victory. Much of this professional analysis was predicated on the assumption that Deuce McAllister would figure prominently in the Saints' game plan. Here are Deuce's actual numbers after four quarters of football on Sunday: 6 carries 18 yards, 3 receptions 27 yards. How is this possible? Here's what the saps had to say for themselves Monday.
"We understand the importance of getting the ball to Deuce," Saints Coach Sean Payton said. "But we didn't want to keep running our heads against the wall against some of the looks we were getting."
Not that the Saints didn't think about it a lot.
Brees said several called runs had to be checked into passes because of the fronts the Bears presented.
Even when it was obvious the Saints were committed to the passing game, the Bears stayed with their plan, leaving cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher to cover the Saints receivers, which they were able to do in large part because of the pressure the Bears were able to apply to Brees.
"That was our No. 1 goal," Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said of containing McAllister. "And I think we did a pretty good job of it."
This is a classic case of a coach overthinking the game plan and, in the process, outsmarting himself. There comes a point in this game when you have to get the ball in the hands of your best player. A championship game would be such a point. In a championship game, you know what you do best. Your opponent also knows what you do best. It's no longer about schemes, it's about will. Soupy didn't have enough confidence in Deuce's ability to will the Saints past the Bears the way he willed them past the Eagles. If your opponent takes your best weapon out of the game, they have beaten you fair and square. If your own game plan takes your best player out of the game.. well that's just stupid and timid.
Hey remember this play.. when Brees turned around and handed the ball to the best player on the team? Yeah me neither.
Yes there were other blunders. Marques Colston and Michael Lewis had crucial fumbles. Billy Cundiff missed a 47 yard field goal that would have given the Saints the lead. Cundiff also sailed a kickoff out of bounds.. one of football's unforgivable errors. Billy Cundiff had a spot on this roster because Soupy decided to place Fred McAfee on injured reserve. Nice move, Soupy.
Soupy's counterpart on the Bears' sideline, Lovie Smith, wins the genius of the year award for.. astoundingly.. being the first opposing coach this season to take advantage of the obvious-to-all-sighted-individuals fact that the Saints defense is poor against the run. The Bears put the game away in the second half by pounding the ball right at the Saints where most previous opponents got unnecessarily cute. The question the Saints should be asking today is not "What happened to our defense?" but "Why did it take so long for someone to figure this out?"
Here Chicago's Cedric Benson demonstrates that most of the Saints's opposing coaches this season have been remarkably stupid
Reggie Bush set an NFC Championship game record with his spectacular-but-ultimately-pointless 88 yard touchdown reception in the third quarter. I'm starting to get the feeling that Bush will demand the ball more next season. Will the Saints manage to fit Bush and Deuce into the same backfield as smoothly next season? Don't bet on it.
I've got a sinking feeling this hot dog may wear out his welcome in 2007
Speaking of next season, there is lots of work to be done. The defense has three players who can be considered solid NFL starters. They are Charles Grant, Will Smith, and Mike McKenzie. McKenzie is a marginal starter at that. Everyone else is supect. Yes, that means Fujita too. The overachiever would only be a spot fourth linebacker on most decent teams. On the 2006 Saints, he was the best linebacker. The secondary desperately needs a playmaker who can create turnovers. Fred Thomas looks finished and will have to be replaced. On offense, in addition to the coming problems between Reggie and Deuce have Saints fans seen the last of Joe Horn? Yeah.. looks like it.
Finally, much has been said and written today about how this loss does not diminish the inspirational memories of the 2006 Saints. I don't know about that right now. I suspect that years from now the sting of this loss.. one game shy of the Super Bowl.. will affect fans' feelings about the season more than a loss to the Eagles would have. An emotional price was extracted from the psyches of Saints fans on Sunday. The true extent of that price may not be truly measurable until the end of the next football season.
Edit: I almost forgot. Compiled for your enjoyment: The 2006 Saints in yellow blogging.
Sept 10: A narrow escape in Cleveland
Sept 17: Another lead almost stupidly squandered in Green Bay
Sept 25: The Greatest Football Game Ever No.. really I mean ever!
Oct 1: Run over in Carolina
Oct 8: Saints 24 Bucs 21 Plus: Is Soupy a jerk? also.. why do Saints fans stand for such jerkery?
Oct 15: Hollywood!
Oct 29: Narc! plus.. The Curse of the Purple Sweater
Nov 5: Brees for MVP talk begins.. along with the Bush for WTF talk.
Nov 12: Dammit, Copper! Vol. 1
Who Dat vs Who Dey
Nov 19 and Nov 26: The Curse of the Orange Hat and Vick's flip
Dec 3: Those awful pants!
Hollis Thomas and his "asthma medication"
Let's Go Crazy
Dec 10: Karney's Midriff
Dec 17: Dammit, Copper! Vol. 2
Dec 24: Was this game faked?
Dec 31: I attended but offered no commentary on the New Year's Eve game vs Carolina for the following reason: The game was meaningless and the starters played one series.
Jan 13: All liquored up for the playoffs