There’s an old football adage which says “it’s about the Jimmys and the Joes, not the X’s and the O’s.”
You hear that more as an analysis of college football than the NFL, but it applies across the board. Teams with great talent will usually beat teams with great schemes, discipline and motivation and other intangibles being even. And in Louisiana, it’s practically been what Les Miles has lived on since he arrived at LSU one year before Sean Payton was hired to coach the New Orleans Saints.
The perception in this state has typically held that Payton was the brilliant coach, capable of lighting opponents’ game plans on fire with a dazzling array of perfect play-calls, while Miles dined on take-out fare courtesy of the program Nick Saban built in Baton Rouge – and did more to squander the great talent coming through LSU than win championships with it.
But this week it might be time to rethink that perception. After all, Miles has won the same number of national championships that Payton has won Super Bowls, and he’s won the SEC West three times, the same number of division titles Payton has won in the NFC South. Miles has made it to bowl games every year he’s been LSU’s coach, while Payton has been to the playoffs in five of the previous eight years he’s been the Saints’ coach. He also has Payton beat in conference titles – he’s won two while Payton only has the one in 2009.
It’s perhaps more advantageous to coach at LSU than it is to coach the Saints. After all, there is no salary cap in college football and the most attractive programs always “draft” first with the recruits, unlike in the NFL where you’re better off going 2-14 than 7-9 when it comes to getting next year’s top players. Then again, the NFC South is usually about as weak a division as there is in the NFL, while no division in college football is filled with tougher competition than the SEC West – and a playoff appearance that doesn’t lead to the Super Bowl is usually more than enough to keep Saints’ fans happy, while Miles can go to a New Year’s Day bowl at the end of a 10-3 or 11-2 season and have the fans wonder why he’s not in the playoffs.
So perhaps Miles has it harder than Payton. Nobody has called for Payton’s head until perhaps the end of last year; people want to get rid of Miles every time he doesn’t beat the spread.
Some of this has to do with the fact that if you’re a coach who builds his program around the Jimmys and Joes, and you run fairly conventional offensive and defensive schemes – and particularly build your team on a physical running offense, you’re never going to get the credit a high-flying guru of the passing game will. Everybody thought Hal Mumme was a wizard and the greatest coach in college football until folks noticed his teams weren’t actually all that good.
But this year, we might have to consider that over the long haul it’s the Jimmys and the Joes that make the difference.
Because this year Miles has them. LSU is about as well-built a football team as you can find on any level. Miles has loaded his roster with stars at just about every position on the field, and at some – the offensive line, running back and the secondary, for example – his backups would be candidates for national honors if they had a chance to play every down. He even seems to have managed to elevate the play of the quarterback position to the point where it’s becoming a strength; Brandon Harris hasn’t had a breakout game passing the ball and he’s only thrown for 71 and 74 yards in the first two games, but he’s also completing 67.7 percent of his passes and he’s yet to turn the ball over despite playing a pair of ranked teams to start the season, not to mention the fact Harris has shown himself to be LSU’s most dangerous running quarterback since at least Herb Tyler.
And those facts were on display on Saturday, as Miles’ team annihilated Auburn by a 45-21 score. Those other Tigers came into Baton Rouge having shown themselves to be highly vulnerable, if not dysfunctional, in a pair of unimpressive victories to start the season, but they’d been picked as the preseason favorite to win the SEC. Now it’s LSU, along with Ole Miss, who bears that standard.
Auburn was overrated mostly because of respect for Gus Malzahn, its offensive guru of a head coach. Malzahn is something of a Sean Payton of college football; he’s considered to be one of the greatest playcallers in the game and his schemes have been highly successful when he’s had great players to run them. But this year Auburn’s quarterback is awful, their offensive line isn’t as good as what they’ve had in the past and they lack a star running back to follow in the path of their previous NFL-bound ballcarriers. Put that together with a defense every bit as suspect as the terrible unit they had last year, and it spells a team in for a very disappointing season.
In retrospect, there was zero reason to make Auburn the favorite in the SEC other than the media’s Malzahn hero-worship. They had the same mediocre 8-5 record LSU posted last year, including losses in four of their last five games (the only victory in that span was against rent-a-win Samford) and in the last eight games of the season not counting the win over Samford Auburn’s defensive gave up an average of 39 points per game. On top of that, Auburn lost Nick Marshall, one of the most underrated college quarterbacks in recent college football history, and a wide receiver and two running backs to the NFL. If that had been Les Miles’ team the conventional wisdom would be that the coach was on the hot seat.
The Saints weren’t as overrated this year as Auburn was, but before Sunday’s awful performance in losing to lowly Tampa Bay there wasn’t any particular talk of Payton’s ouster. Now there needs to be, because Payton doesn’t have the Jimmys and Joes – and without them, his X’s and O’s don’t look so hot anymore.
One might ask what Miles’ reputation would be if he’d had quarterbacks on Drew Brees’ level for his whole tenure at LSU. Certainly when Jamarcus Russell and Matt Flynn were behind center LSU’s offense looked innovative enough, and in 2013 when Zack Mettenberger was slinging the ball around to Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry he didn’t look like a Cro-Magnon man trying to coach football (the problem that year was a defense even Malzahn would turn his nose up at). Miles’ reputation came largely from his efforts at trying to win championships with the Jarrett Lees and Jordan Jeffersons and Anthony Jenningses behind center. A Drew Brees will make a coach look really smart.
Except Brees is clearly not Brees anymore. His arm isn’t as strong as it used to be and he’s not as mobile as he used to be. He’s also saddled with a substandard offensive line and the debilitating pass rush which results. Further, the loss of Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills, with no viable replacements having been brought in, means all Brees has to throw to is a double-covered Brandin Cooks and a fast-declining Marques Colston – plus the option to dump the ball off to the running backs.
Which means the Saints’ offense is nothing special anymore. Couple that with a Saints’ defense that can’t even stop Tampa Bay, and you have a team that’s a legitimate contender…for the first pick in next year’s draft.
It’s too bad the Saints couldn’t collapse next year rather than this year, because at least then we could get excited about the opportunity to draft once-in-a-lifetime player Leonard Fournette with the first pick. But on the other hand, two things are true.
First, the collapse of the franchise – which by the way is a top-to-bottom collapse, because it goes all the way to the owner’s inability to preserve peace with his heirs and ending up in court with them over his own competency, and absolutely extends to general manager Mickey Loomis, whose blithering incompetence over the past few years has brought the team to its current state, extends to Payton who looks like he’s clearly lost his energy as a football coach and follows to a declining Brees and a less-than-mediocre roster surrounding him – won’t be fixed in one season, so the Saints could very well be in the Fournette sweepstakes after they get killed in 2016 as well.
And second, you can forget the Saints drafting Fournette with the current set of “adults” in charge, because Loomis and Payton don’t want LSU players around. LSU has 40 of its alumni on NFL rosters at present and not a single one is with the Saints. This might have been explainable as blind chance at some point, but after several years of watching Loomis commit nearly-unforgivable feats of stupidity in passing on players like Eric Reid, La’El Collins, Jarvis Landry, Tyrann Mathieu and Bennie Logan when they were fairly clearly better options than the players he drafted it looks like bigotry more than anything else.
And if you’re an LSU and Saints fan whose heart is broken at the end of the Payton/Brees era, hold on to that recognition. It will make you feel better. There is justice in knowing that stupid decisions like taking Kenny Vaccaro over Reid, or drafting Andrus Peat instead of Collins, and not getting bargains like Landry, Mathieu and Logan in the middle rounds instead of the now-departed busts he’s been taking does have a price.
Hopefully Loomis will meet his end with the Saints after this season, and perhaps Payton will be gone along with him. And hopefully the new regime that follows will include some of Miles’ Jimmys and Joes as part of the Saints’ rebuilding process. But if not, at least we can watch the Tigers work on getting Miles a lead on Payton in division and national titles this year.