If there's something I feel like I've learned after years of watching the New Orleans Saints play football, it's that there really is such a thing as scoring their last points too soon.
The classic instance in their modern incarnation is the Saints-49ners NFC Championship game in 2012. In that game, quarterback Drew Brees threw a 66-yard touchdown to tight end Jimmy Graham that put the Saints into the lead with 1:37 left on the clock. The point after put the score at 32-29.
The ensuing 49er drive took 1:28, as Alex Smith moved the team methodically down the field against a porous Saints defense, with the final touchdown just seconds before the end of the game.
It was a painful loss for Saints fans who watched a second Super Bowl berth slip away in a scenario that's happened just a little too often in the Sean Payton era—the Saints scored too soon on their final drive.
I don't think you can fault Payton and his quarterbacks, whether Brees or now Luke McCown, for seeing a potential matchup and going for the jugular late in the game. That's how football is played.
But what I do feel like you can fault Payton for—and I hate to say this—is trusting that his awful defenses will be able to hold off the other team's final drive if you give the opponent any time at all.
This past Sunday, for instance, I submit that a little conservative play-calling might have won the day.
The Saints were poised to beat the Carolina Panthers late in the fourth quarter, after marching down the field in an unhurried three-minute offense led by the surprisingly unflappable McCown.
Faced with dropped passes by the usually reliable veteran receiver Marques Colston and a couple of hot grabs by slot receiver Brandin Cooks, that final 24-yard pass into the end zone to Cooks looked too good to pass up; and it was, for Carolina cornerback Josh Norman, who made a fantastic interception on a pretty good pass by McCown.
It's hindsight, yes. But clearly the pass shouldn't have been thrown.
With over a minute on the clock and with timeouts still available, the Saints had two downs to get 6 yards and at least three backs to think about using to get them. On the play that they ran for the interception, Mark Ingram was wide-open in the flat for at least 5 of those 6 yards—a quick throw to the back would might have netted a first down and, critically, an opportunity to bleed more clock. (Colston, as it turns out, was also wide-open over the middle and might have scored if thrown to.)
Crazy talk? Sure. And, of course, there's no guarantee that you score from the 15 or so yards out.
But I can't avoid asking the question... is it too much to ask an NFL coach to at least temper the desire to toss it into the end zone for the quick score?
After all, if you're honest with yourself as a Saints fan or coach, you know we've all seen one-too-many leads fall apart because the opposing team gets 60 or more seconds on the final possession.
Food for thought!