How do you lead the league in TD’s scored and still have a losing record over the last 3 years?  That’s what I’ll be trying to figure out in this episode.  All stats courtesy of my go to site for stats, pfref.com.

All the stats I’ll be quoting in this post will be regular season stats for the 3 most recent seasons, 2014-2016, in which the Saints have gone 7-9 back-to-back-to-back.  As mentioned in the first sentence, the Saints scored the most TD’s of any team in the league (155 — tied with New England for #1).  How can you score that most TD’s and yet still have a losing record?  Answer: you also give up the most TD’s of any team in the league.

The Saints defense allowed 157 TD’s, most of any team in the league.  Next team on the list gave up 15 fewer TD’s (Tennessee with 142).  Cleveland, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, eat your hearts out, you can’t hang with the big dogs.

Another area the Saints were deficient in was field goals.  Saints made the 5th fewest number of field goals (65) and had 6th fewest attempts (82).  What’s more, the 79.27% field goal percentage was 4th worst in the league.  When you’re not attempting very many field goals and your percentage made is among the worst, you’re just not going to end up making all that many of them.  So, those are points left on the field in many cases despite having the top TD ranking.  But the Saints were 3rd overall in points scored, so that really doesn’t explain the issue.  And if you’re making TD’s it stands to reason you’re not going to be going for as many field goals.  It’s really the points allowed by the 32nd ranked scoring defense that has been the Saints undoing.  Despite being #3 in points scored, the Saints were -76 in total point differential, putting them #20 out of 32 teams, right about where you’d expect a 3x defending 7-9 team to be.

Let’s now turn our attention to yards per play.  The Saints were 2nd best on offense with 6.025 yards per play, but dead last on defense giving up 6.20 yards per play.  In addition to being really good in yards per play, the Saints also ran the 2nd most offensive plays and defended against the 10th fewest plays on defense.  (There goes the theory about the defense being on the field too much.)

Turnovers have been a problem for the Saints, but they’re really only slightly below average (tied for 19th fewest turnovers on offense).   Saints had 74 turnovers, 44 of which were INT’s (12th most).  The defense hasn’t done its part in the takeaway department to offset the offense’s giveaways: 60 takeaways in 3 years ties for 5th worst in the last 3 seasons.

So, why so few takeaways?  The conventional answer has become something of a mantra among Saints fans: “It’s the pass rush, stupid.”  (Borrowing presumably from Bill Clinton’s “It’s the economy, stupid,” slogan.)  And if you think the pass rush is the problem, well, the stats back you up.  Saints had only 95 sacks in the last 3 years, tied for 5th fewest.  The 30 INT’s tie them for 2nd fewest with Chicago.  No sacks = no INT’s = not many takeaways = 7-9, 7-9, 7-9 despite racking up the yardage and TD’s on offense.  One more little nugget while on the subject:  the Saints are the only team that has allowed a cumulative 3-season opponent passer rating of 100+ (102.3).  While 102.3 FM might be a good spot to be on some local radio dials, it’s never a good spot to be when that’s your opponents’ combined passer rating.

Now let’s look at yardage margins before looking at a few situational stats.  Turnover margin = -14 = 8th worst.  Passing yardage margin = +1865 = 2nd best.  Rushing yardage margin = -771 = 7th worst.

A lot of fans are pooh poohing on the offensive numbers saying “garbage time”.  They say the Saints are piling up stats while losing games.  They say perception is reality, but sometimes perception is just perception.  Let’s look at a few situational stats to see if there’s any merit to the garbage time talk.

The first thing I want to do is compare the Saints offensive rankings in the 1st quarter versus the 4th quarter.  In drives that began in the 1st quarter the Saints scored 40 TD’s (4th best).  In drives that began in the 4th quarter the Saints scored 38 TD’s (2nd best).  Bear in mind these quarters are when the drives started.   Since a drive that starts in the 1st quarter can continue in the 2nd quarter whereas a drive that starts in the 4th quarter might be subject to having the clock expire, it stands to reason there will be more TD’s for those that start in the 1st quarter.  But if it was true the Saints were racking up stats in garbage time it should also follow that they would have had more 4th quarter TD’s than 1st quarter TD’s.

Now we turn to the scoreboard.  If the game is close I think we can ignore garbage stats as a possibility.  It’s really only when the Saints are down by a couple scores (call it 10+ points) and in the 2nd half that the garbage stat thing can possibly come into play.  So, let’s consider the offensive TD ranking in 1st half versus the offensive TD ranking in the 2nd half when down by 10+ points.  The Saints had 72 1st half TD’s (this is overall, regardless of scoreboard), which was the 3rd most 1st half TD’s (behind NE and GB).  Now we look at 2nd half TD’s scored while down by 10+ points.  Saints had 28 TD’s (2nd most) and a TD percentage of 35.9% (3rd best).  So, they did score some points when behind late, but they scored a lot of points in the first half, too.  The bottom line is they scored a lot of points no matter the situation.  Just for fun, let’s look at 2nd half up by 10+ point scores:  13 TD’s (14th best), but they didn’t get too many of those opportunities being 7-9 x 3.  If we look at TD’s per drive opportunity when up by 10 or more in the 2nd half: 30.2% TD rate was 3rd best in the league.

The bottom line is the garbage stat angle is just not supported by the stats.  Yes, the Saints do score some TD’s when down big on the scoreboard, but they’re scoring TD’s all the time regardless of the scoreboard.  I think the perception is just a perception because we’re accustomed to seeing the Saints behind on the scoreboard and scoring TD’s in games, and since it tends to confirm what we already believe we know (what the psychologists might call confirmation bias) we pay more heed to it than it actually merits.  Show me some stats to back up the garbage stats claim, and then I’ll start taking it seriously.

In conclusion, the problem is the defense, not the offense.  The offense is scoring points right up there with the best in the league.  The problem is the defense getting gashed, primarily because of a lack of a pass rush and/or poor coverage in the secondary.  No sacks = no INT’s, but likewise no coverage on the back end = no sacks on the front end, too.  Can the Saints get better offensively?  Of course they can, anybody can improve, but the biggest room for improvement by far is on the defensive side of the ball.

NFL touchdowns scored 2014-2016

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