It’s a concern statistic if you look at without context.
During the preseason, the New Orleans Saints scored touchdowns on only 40 percent of their trips inside the red zone. That figure placed the Saints 24th in the NFL. After scoring on 53.3 percent of their red-zone trips last season, one might be inclined to look at what’s changed, realize Jimmy Graham is no longer in town and conclude that the season is in peril.
How are the Saints reacting to those numbers? There must be some panic, right?
“I think in the preseason, honestly when the stat packets come out each week, we throw them in the garbage because they don’t apply to any one group,” coach Sean Payton said. “It applies maybe overall to 90 players specifically to one statistic.”
That’s probably the right approach. Start boiling it down, and you’ll see that Drew Brees led the Saints to touchdowns on two of his four trips inside the red zone during the preseason. That number could have been higher if Brandon Coleman had protected the football on a pass that was punched away by Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty.
And what about Graham? Certainly his absence will hurt. He was often Brees’ security blanket in the red zone and the only guy on the roster last season who could go up and get the ball in areas where others could not. His background as a basketball player also often showed up when he would post up defensive backs and make catches on the goal line.
But the impact there might not be as pronounced as initially expected. A recent review of the Saints’ 25 red-zone touchdowns last year show that Graham was only directly involved in 10 and scored 10 touchdowns. Of those, only four appeared to be exclusive to his skill set, meaning that he either went up and caught a high pass or posted a man up. On the 10th touchdown, he drew a double team and allowed Ben Watson to get wide open in the end zone.
The other touchdowns were all made by other players or Graham scored in ways that others can replicate. The percentage of jump balls or fade routes to Graham last season were lower than most would assume. One could even argue that the Saints should have tried a higher percentage of those plays.
“If you have Jimmy, you say that’s a pretty smart place to go with the ball,” tackle Zach Strief said. “That doesn’t mean there’s nothing else available.”
The Saints don’t need to look hard to figure out what else is available. The pieces are there to continue scoring in the red zone. Brandin Cooks will likely figure big into this area of the field. He only had one red-zone touchdown last season, when he scored on an in route against the Atlanta Falcons, but his skill set is screaming for more opportunities.
He can run the aforementioned in route or get open on quick outs. And because of his quickness, he seems like a prime candidate to score often on back-shoulder throws. Brees converted three touchdowns on such throws last season.
Marques Colston should continue to get open in the red zone; Watson will get some opportunities; and Willie Snead’s efficiency on short routes should also create opportunities. But the wild card is Coleman.
If the 6-foot-6 receiver proves he knows how to use his big frame, he’s an obvious candidate to replace Graham in the red zone. The issue is that he hasn’t shown it consistently enough to bank on him filling that role. He had the aforementioned drop earlier in the preseason and was up and down enough in this area of the field throughout the summer to make it difficult to project his future.
Time will tell. For now, the offense isn’t concerned about a couple missed opportunities.
“The two that we did not score on, we (were not) very far away,” Brees said. “Regardless, if we’re sitting here talking about 50 percent efficiency or had we converted those, 100 percent efficiency, bottom line is that it’s the preseason, and you have to be able to go out in the regular season and execute that.”
And that’s the thing. It’s the preseason. Nothing is as it seems, especially when it comes to the first-team offense. The team had four drives with Brees. And within those four drives, there were several instances when the team called plays it likely wouldn’t have if the same situation arose during the regular season.
Sometimes those plays are called to get a better look at a player on a certain route or to see how a certain play is executed. And sometimes the call isn’t the best one for the situation or against a certain defense, but it’s run anyway. The preseason is a testing ground.
“You have so much more flexibility throughout a preseason game to do just what you’re saying,” Payton said. “The first play of the Green Bay game, trying to get bump-and-run coverage and back shoulder throw to Brandon Coleman. It ends up being a go route down the field. There are some things that maybe you’d do differently if it were the regular season.”
So, throw it out. The preseason is over. Those numbers and results — both good and bad — no longer matter.