Monday, March 16, 2015

Life in "Cap Hell"

Cap Hell doesn't really exist.
What’s certain is that a shot had to be taken. This is not is a fire sale. Those two words have been tossed around quite frequently during the past week, and it’s easy to see why. Three key players have been traded, and another two have been released. Jimmy Graham is gone. Kenny Stills. Ben Grubbs. Curtis Lofton. More could come.

When things like this happen, it’s easy to see why people wonder whether Drew Brees will be under center next season or if this is the end. But even though conspiracy theorists have suggested this is a stripping down to tank or some wacky ploy to damage the franchise because of the Benson family feud, it’s not. You don’t spend $18 million on C.J. Spiller, another $16 million on Mark Ingram and sign Brandon Browner to solidify the secondary if you’re trying to lose games or hosting a fire sale

That is to say it doesn't exist in the sense that the salary cap prevents your team from fielding a winning roster.  There is a kind of "Cap Hell" from the players' point of view insofar as the salary cap exists at all.

The cap is a perpetual fake emergency engineered by ownership for bargaining leverage.  It sets an artificial limit on player contract negotiations.  It also puts constant pressure on players to let teams renege on deals as a matter of course. Every year most teams are faced with some sort of cap-driven imperative to approach players under contract about renegotiating.  To the casual fan, this might look like a series of individually managed crises but it's actually designed to work like this.  It's sort of like the way congressional Republicans use the imperative to raise the debt ceiling as a hostage in exchange for unrelated budgetary concessions.  The cap exists in order to allow teams to manage by manufactured crisis. It doesn't actually have anything to do with "competitive balance."  This Saints offseason should demonstrate that pretty clearly.

According to the conventional definition, the 2015 Saints are in "Cap Hell." They've had to cut ties with favorite veterans. They've traded away a potential Hall of Famer. The 2015 team will look significantly different from the 2014 team.  Black and Gold Review's Ryan Chauvin put together these neat charts one of which demonstrates a marked spike in average snaps played per player lost.  In other words, this year's roster turnover represents a much greater contribution in terms of playing time than in previous offseasons. 

And yet, apart from the Kenny Stills trade, which is a bit of a head scratcher, all of the Saints' moves this offseason immediately make the team better. They've added a big physical corner and a speedy back who doubles as a receiving threat.   Most observers agree that improving the interior offensive line was an essential priority.  The Saints have added a Pro-Bowl center and dumped an underachieving guard so that's being worked on as well.

As for the Jimmy Graham trade, I'm aware that it's largely characterized as a deliberate effort to focus on improving the defense.  You can read that here.  But I would argue that the goal is to make the Saints better on offense as well.  For one obvious thing, they did get a center in the deal.

Beyond that, though, it's worth considering that NFL offenses... particularly offenses that have featured the same quarterback and (basically) the same coach designing and calling the plays for several years... need to change in order to remain effective.  A static personnel group running the same scheme over the course of a few seasons piles up enough film to go a little stale.  People start to figure out how to defend you.

Of course, none of Sean Payton's offenses have been bad.  In fact, just last year the Saints finished first in overall yardage. But it's clear to everyone watching that the 2013 and 2014 Saints lacked the explosive suddenness (to borrow a favorite Payton term) that characterized previous editions.  These teams could move the ball. But they were more sluggish and plodding, far less reliable in critical situations, and less the constant threat to score immediately that we'd become accustomed to seeing.

Fans have had difficulty pinpointing the problem but they're aware something isn't right. Hence the frequent discussion of Brees's arm strength or the somewhat related conversation about "Grandpa Sean" and his presumably more risk averse approach.  It could be, though, that teams had figured out how to contain the Saints.

Without trying to getting too far over my own head with regard to Xs and Os, I'd venture that strategy involved pressuring Brees up the middle and then understanding that he's probably looking for Jimmy Graham.  Here's an interesting comparison of the Saints' passing efficiency in 2009 vs 2014.
Completion percentage to TEs was less than expected from a Drew Brees lead team.  Completion percentage to WRs was far worse.  WR play has dropped off big-time since 2009.  As far as TEs go, the Saints still had more TE receiving yards last year compared to 2009 even though Graham had a down year, but the efficiency was much worse.
Jimmy Graham is a monster. But it's possible that his presence made the offense less effective as it came to rely more on him and him alone to make the passing game work.  The Saints won't have that problem this year.  They are gonna have to throw the ball to somebody, though, which is what makes the Stills trade all the more curious. It's also why we can't be surprised if one or more of these stockpiled draft choices goes toward picking a receiver rather than fixing the defense.

But whatever the Saints are up to with all these moves, one thing they aren't doing is trying to claw their way out of "Cap Hell."  From the looks of things, they seem pretty comfortable operating there.

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