Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Saints Fire Rob Ryan

            After two and a half seasons as the man in charge of the Saints defense, Rob Ryan is now looking for new employment. He will probably be better remembered by Saints fans for his long flowing hair and headlong embrace of New Orleans culture than for any of his on the field contributions. When he was hired following the disastrous one year tenure of Steve Spagnuolo, Ryan seemed like an improvement. The 2013 Saints finished 10th in Football Outsiders DVOA rankings (a metric that measures every play against league average, negative rankings are better for defense). Since then, however, it’s all been going downhill.

Defense DVOA (rank)
Pass Defense DVOA (rank)
Run Defense DVOA (rank)
-5.8% (10)
-9.2% (6)
-1.5% (20)
13.1% (31)
19.2% (27)
6.3% (32)
19.4% (32)
43.5% (32)
-12.8% (18)

            Some of Ryan’s problems were not of his own making. He can only coach the players that general manager Mickey Loomis provides. Loomis has done a poor job in the past few years of finding quality defensive players, mostly due to his penchant for signing over the hill veterans and poor draft decisions. Loomis’s poor decisions, however, don’t excuse Ryan’s faults. As head coach Sean Payton admitted today, “And we just had to look closely at some point to at least give this an option because the direction we were heading wasn't good. We really struggled with substitutions, getting lined up, getting guys on the field and being able to function.” These are not personnel issues, they’re coaching ones usually resolved in training camp, not in the middle of a game. In the offseason, the Saints asked Ryan to reduce his overly complex and confusing playbook in order to make it easier for the players—Ryan had received similar complaints during his stint as the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator.

            And it’s not like Ryan has been a tremendously successful coordinator elsewhere. He has been a coordinator since 2004 with Oakland, Cleveland, Dallas, and New Orleans. Ryan has never found consistent success. Ryan has finished inside the top ten once in DVOA (Oakland 2006). It’s hard to imagine him getting this many chances if his name had been Ryan Roberts.  Ryan’s brother Rex is currently the head coach of the Buffalo Bills after a six year stint as the head coach of the New York Jets and his father Buddy was known as a defensive savant.

That's the same expression most Saints fans have felt all season watching Rob Ryan's defenses 
             Now that Ryan is gone, what’s next? In the interim, Dennis Allen will take the helm of the defense. Allen was the Saints secondary coach in 2009 when they won the Superbowl. Allen then assumed the job of Broncos defensive coordinator in 2011 before becoming the head coach of the Oakland Raiders from 2012-2014. After being fired as the Raiders coach last offseason, Allen returned to the Saints as defensive assistant. How much Allen can turn around the defense is an open question. On Sunday the Saints allowed Kirk Cousins to throw for 324 yards and four touchdowns for a perfect 158.3 passer rating and a 90.1 (out of 100) QBR. The Saints have allowed 45 points to their opponents twice this season, and four times they have allowed more than 30 points. Will the Saints defense get better? Who knows, but it’s hard to see how they can be any worse. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Dallas Buyers Club

            Dallas Buyers Club tells the story of Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughy), an electrician, bull rider, and hustler who, after being diagnosed with AIDS, violates an FDA ban on importing drugs from Mexico. While Dallas Buyers Club deserves credit for tackling such a recent and deeply troubling subject matter—the1980s AIDS crisis and its corresponding homophobia and bigotry—it fails to rise to the challenge presented by the subject matter. There is a great movie somewhere in Dallas Buyers Club, but ultimately the film relies too much on Hollywood cliché than saying something meaningful.

            The movie’s strength lie in the performances of McConaughy as Woodruff and Jared Leto as Rayon, a transsexual AIDS patient and later Woodruff’s business partner. Both underwent startling physical transformations to play their roles (Step 1 towards winning an Oscar). McConaughy channels all of his charm and confidence into his performance as Woodruff. He ably plays Woodruff’s cockiness and charisma in battling the FDA, the reluctant Dallas gay community, and winning over the affections of a hospital doctor, Eve (Jennifer Garner). His performance, however, troublingly transforms Woodruff’s own homophobia and bigotry into a side note—something that needs overcoming rather a significant obstacle towards sympathizing with his character. In their scenes together, Leto matches McConaughy’s charisma with a startling energy and determination. He refuses to allow McConaughy’s star power to gobble up the entire screen. He offers a sympathetic portrayal of a transsexual woman in an era that discriminated against anyone who challenged prescribed gender and sexual roles.

            While McConaughy and Leto offer compelling performances, the rest of the film fails to meet the challenge of its subject matter. In telling the story of Woodruff, a heterosexual man, who becomes a pioneer in battling the stigma of AIDS, the film relies on Hollywood paternalistic tropes of a “normal” person standing up for the oppressed minority—for examples look at some recent Oscar nominated films: white lady saves black kid (The Blind Side), white man ends slavery (Lincoln), or white lady supports civil rights (The Help). Rather than showing how gay and lesbian activists challenged bigotry and oppression, we have Matthew McConaughy, the embodiment of a rugged and heterosexual masculine identity, leading the charge. At the end of the film, Woodruff’s patients cheer and celebrate him for standing up to the FDA. The majority of AIDS victims in the film spend their time waiting in lines to get drugs from Woodruff—seeking a cure from the straight white man. As Woodruff fights the FDA, the plot of the film descends into a tried and true narrative of man against uncaring and crooked institution.

            Yet within the film lay the potential for a much more meaningful story. The AIDS crisis of the 1980s produced frightening levels of bigotry, homophobia, and blatantly false information about the spread of HIV. President Reagan refused to call the disease by its name. The American government’s lack of response to the crisis remains a stain on the history of America in the 1980s. The gay rights movement, begun in earnest in the 1960s, gained traction by protesting discrimination and homophobia. The film attempts to capture some of this fear and paranoia, but fails to fully grasp it. After learning of his diagnosis, Woodruff’s rodeo buddies recoil in horror at the prospect of even touching him. They pelt him with homophobic slurs. The scenes, however, come across more as acknowledgments of the era’s bigotry than effectively recapturing it. Instead of spending more time on this part of the AIDS crisis, the film has Woodruff woe Eve, the female doctor (whose character remains horribly underdeveloped), fly around the world looking for drugs, and battle the FDA in court. Rayon, meanwhile, sells her life insurance policy in order help Woodruff stay in business—the ultimate selfless act by an oppressed minority to help her paternalist benefactor.

            Dallas Buyers Club warrants praise for addressing a dark and disturbing part of American history. Yet it squanders the opportunity to tell a meaningful or challenging version of that story. It instead settles for a comforting and safe history of an era that was neither.  

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Saints Mid-Season Check-In

            On Sunday, the Saints triumphed in one of the weirdest (and most fun, assuming you like offense) NFL games you will ever see. The Saints and Giants scored 101 points (3rd most in NFL history). Drew Brees and Eli Manning combined for an NFL record 13 touchdown passes. Despite the flurry of TD passes, the game came down to a Kai Forbath (yeah I have no idea who is either) field goal in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter. Brees went 40-50 (that’s an 80% completion percentage for those of you counting at home) for 511(!) yards and 7 touchdown passes. His QBR (ESPN’s inclusive quarterback rating scaled from 0-100) was an astonishing 95.7. And most importantly, it looks like Brees is finally healthy. A large number of his throws on Sunday came out of his hands quickly and were accurately delivered to his wide receivers. The victory extended the Saints winning streak to 3 games and brought their record to 4-4 at the halfway mark in the season. There’s room for optimism for Saints fans, but also some potentially crippling concerns.  

            With the win over the Giants, the Saints playoff chances have risen to 31% according the statistical analysis provided by FiveThirtyEight. With their next three games against Tennessee (1-6), Washington (3-4), and Houston (3-5), the Saints very well could be 7-4 by the end of November. The remainder of the Saints schedule is very favorable with winnable games against Tampa Bay (3-4), Detroit (1-7), and Jacksonville (2-5). The two toughest teams left are at home against the Carolina Panthers in Week 15 and at Atlanta in Week 17. New Orleans has a good chance to finish above .500, which is much better than just three weeks ago when FiveThirtyEight had them targeted for 6 wins and just an 8% of making the playoffs. Take a look at Brees’s numbers over that time frame:

Completion %

Over the past three games, it seems like the Saints offense and Brees have finally gotten on the same page. Heading into this week, Football Outsiders DVOA rankings had the Saints as the 8th best offense in a league. That number will likely rise this week.

The offense can celebrate. 

            While the Saints offense finally seems to be clicking, there are some major red (and yellow) flags, all on defense. Despite the massive turnover in personnel in the offseason, the Saints defense remains atrocious. Near the end of Sunday’s game, TV cameras showed a jubilant Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan on the sidelines. What was he so happy about? For all the celebration that the Saints offense should rightly be doing for scoring fifty-two points, the defense allowed the Giants to score six offensive touchdowns, 416 yards, 28 first downs, and an astounding 6.4 yards per play. Eli Manning produced a QBR of 94.1, just short of Brees’s 95.7. Brandon Browner continues to a penalty machine in the secondary. He was responsible for FOUR penalties including a 15 yard unnecessary roughness penalty that set up a Manning touchdown pass on the next play. Currently the Saints sit 31st in defensive DVOA (14.3% worse than league average) in exactly the same spot where they sat at the end of 2014. If the offense can’t score at 35 points every week, the Saints have little hope of winning.

            Despite the offseason turnover in personnel (Junior Galette, no one misses you), the Saints feature a top flight offense and a near historically bad defense. Jeez that sounds a lot like the Saints of the past few years. The more things change on the Bayou, the more they seem to stay the same.