Is There Any Reason to Worry About the New Orleans Saints Offense?
Four weeks ago, before the NFL season began, you would have never been able to convince me that through three games, the Saints would have only one win, and that it would have been an 11-point victory in a low-scoring game at home over Minnesota. New Orleans is simply too good of a team to start off that poorly.
Last year, the Saints finished second to only the Broncos in numberFire's offensive metrics, and they had a very strong defensive season as well. They seemed to have the total package on both sides of the ball entering 2014, and added talent over the offseason. So what has happened over the last month?
Many will point to the performance of the offense, which has failed to break 30 points in consecutive games against the Browns and Vikings, as a point of failure for New Orleans this season. But that's simply not the case.
Nothing Offensive About the Offense
Through three weeks, the Saints have the best offense in the NFL according to our data.
Read that again. A team that failed to beat the Browns and then limped to a victory over the significantly less talented Vikings have the best offense in the league, using our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric.
NEP measures productivity and efficiency by assigning an expected point value for every game situation, and measuring how player and team actions impact the expected points on a play-by-play basis. So let's take a look at the Saints game against Minnesota for a more specific look at what I'm talking about.
The Saints earned 21.61 Net Expected Points on offense in Week 3 against the Vikings, meaning their overall performance increased their expected output on offense by over 21 points as compared to algorithmic expectations. They obviously failed to capitalize on all of those opportunities, as they failed to score more than 20 points in the game, but raw NEP data isn't intended to predict scores. It's intended to measure production and efficiency.
And the Saints performed well in both of those areas on Sunday, as that 21.61 NEP on offense would rank 12th in the NFL this season on its own. Over a full season, an average NEP per game of 21.61 would shatter the mark for the best offense of all time, according to our data.
Third Time's a Charm
So what did the Saints do that inspired such a positive performance according to our numbers against Minnesota? Clearly it wasn't scoring touchdowns, as the Saints found only 20 points on the afternoon.
Instead, it was their performance on third downs that prompted such a ridiculous NEP total. The Saints faced 13 third downs that were not deemed "no play" due to a penalty. On those third downs, they had an average of 8.31 yards to go for a first down (the league average this year is 7.16), with nine of the 13 third downs longer than seven yards to go, and five with a distance of 10 or more to achieve a first down.
New Orleans converted nine of those 13 third downs, earning a 15.56 NEP on those plays combined. Converting on third down, especially third-and-long, is one of the most crucial aspects of offensive football. The Saints have done that at an otherworldly pace so far this year.
Since 2004, only four teams have finished a season with a third-down conversion rate higher than 50%: The 2011 Saints, the 2006 and 2008 Colts, and the 2004 Vikings. The highest conversion rate among them came from the Saints, who got a first down on 56.7% of their third downs that season. So far in 2014, this year's edition of the Saints have picked up a first on 61.5% of their third-down tries.
That's absurdly efficient third-down play for Drew Brees and company. Maybe too absurd. But there's still no cause for concern.
The Saints will almost assuredly not finish the season with a third-down conversion rate higher than 60%. NFL teams simply are not able to sustain that kind of production in clutch situations all year long.
But they also won't continue to struggle on first and second down all season, as they have in 2014. The Saints had a negative NEP on second down against the Vikings, setting themselves up for these third-and-long scenarios. So as their third-down success regresses to the mean, so too will their second-down performance.
The overall production is there for the Saints at the moment, it's simply not showing up consistently enough yet. As the season wears on, the numbers will balance out, as the Saints won't continue to be below average on second down, and well above average on third down over 16 games.
Again, the Saints have the best offense in the NFL. Their rushing attack is second best in the league, and their passing game ranks fifth, according to our data. The talent is there, the coaching is there, and the production is there.
The only remaining step in the effort to resume normal operations for the New Orleans offense is to find consistency on every down and in every situation, and convert all of these expected points into real points.