Considering they play games consisting of four 15-minute quarters, most NFL coaches are fond of saying that it doesn’t matter how you start, it’s how you finish that’s most important.
Maybe. But at the same time, fast starts don’t hurt.
For proof, just look at the New Orleans Saints. Since the arrival of coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees in 2006, the Saints have scored on their first offensive series in 32 of 83 regular-season games.
They’ve scored 22 touchdowns and 10 field goals on the initial series of a game and have a 23-9 record in those games. On the other hand, they’re 28-23 when failing to produce points on their first possession.
When the Saints (2-1) go against the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-2) at noon Sunday in EverBank Field, Brees and his offensive teammates will be looking for their first points on their first possession this season.
It’s the kind of stat that might go unnoticed to some coaches, but not Payton. It’s something he and Brees both feel strongly about: Fast starts mean they have a greater chance of winning.
While it’s nothing to panic over this early in the season, it is a concern.
“It was a big emphasis last week (against the Houston Texans),” said Payton, who scripts the first 15 plays every week and has his offense work on them over and over in practice. “We felt like it was important to get off to a good start, and obviously, that didn’t happen.
“We get back to paying attention to everything we can in regards to our openers (plays) in regards to field position, whether we are receiving or kicking off,” he said. “But it’s something we’ve talked about and it’s something that we need to get better at.”
Against the Texans, as well as the previous week against the Chicago Bears, the Saints’ first possession resulted in punts. But Payton’s team eventually won both of those games.
In a 42-34 season-opening loss to the Green Bay Packers, the Saints’ initial series ended after just two plays when wide receiver Marques Colston fumbled the ball away after a 12-yard catch.
The lack of a productive start has resulted in the Saints starting in a hole. They trailed the Packers (14-0), Bears (7-0) and Texans (10-0) before they managed to scratch out their first points.
But Brees said he believes the Saints, who haven’t been shabby on offense, have been close. They rank second in the league with 437.7 total yards per game and are tied for second in scoring with 34.7 points a game.
“We’ve gotten it going eventually, but we just haven’t gone down and scored on the first drive yet,” said Brees, who’s off to another solid start personally with 1,059 passing yards, nine touchdowns and a 109.7 passer rating. “That’s something we’ve been very, very good at ever since we’ve been here. We have been tops in the league at that.
“We’ve had some third-and-short situations, and for some reason we haven’t converted,” he noted. “I think you just have to keep plugging away. We just need to get a rhythm going. You have to get that first first down and get it rolling.”
Scoring fast is something they’ve become accustomed to over the years.
They were at their best in 2009 and ’10 when they scored on their first possession nine times both of those seasons.
They had six touchdowns and three field goals en route to winning 13 regular-season games in 2009, capping the season with a victory in Super Bowl XLIV, then had seven first-drive TDs and two field goals en route to 11 victories a year ago.
Many Saints are puzzled at not being able to do that so far this season as they’ve been outscored 38-10 in the opening quarter.
“Whatever the case may be, we really don’t know why it’s not happening,” tackle Jermon Bushrod said. “But that’s part of football. That’s something we strive for, and preach about, going into every game.
“The level of preparation is high and the attention to detail is good,” he said. “We just haven’t started the way we wanted to start, but we’re finishing the way we want to finish. Sometimes we need half a quarter to get started.”
“I can’t put a finger on anything,” said All-Pro guard Jahri Evans.
“The encouraging thing is we’re playing good and finishing well.”
The Saints have outscored their opponents, 61-34, in the second half.
“Once we get in an make a few adjustments, we’ve done better,” Evans added. “I think that once we figure out the first-quarter deal, we’ll start scoring more points.”
They might do well to figure it out this week.
A good start against an offensively-challenged Jaguars team that ranks 28th in total yards (261.0) and 31st in scoring (9.7) with two touchdowns in three games could go a long way to helping the Saints win a third straight game.
The Jaguars’ defense, on the other hand, is fourth in total defense (280.0) and is fifth against the run (83.7) and seventh against the pass (196.3).
Brees said the Saints are going to need all their firepower, especially early in the game, against the Jaguars.
“The fact of the matter is that it’s hard to win on the road no matter where you’re going or who you’re playing,” he said. Some teams, when you just look at the statistics, they’re a different team at home than on the road in every statistical category.
“This team, they are better every way when they play at home.”