Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Saints 2016 Draft Preview

            In case you hadn’t heard, the NFL draft begins this Thursday and it seems like you can’t go on the internet without seeing stories about it. Who won this trade? Who needs a quarterback? Who was the best/worst draft pick of all time? The draft has high stakes for NFL franchises who must figure out who will (or won’t) became their next superstar. And this space is no exception to draft speculation. Between today and next week, we’ll preview and then review the Saints draft.

Last year, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis reversed his years long policy of trading away his draft picks at every available opportunity. Instead, Loomis shipped offensive starters Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills out of the Big Easy to acquire more selections in order to bolster the Saints atrocious defense. While this was an encouraging trend for the overaggressive GM, it was only a one year blip. Loomis failed to parlay any of his nine picks into extra assets for this year. In fact, the Saints traded away their 2016 6th rounder in order to trade up last year, leaving New Orleans with just six draft selections. The picks are listed below with their value according to Chase Stuart’s empirically derived draft value chart (notated by round and pick number)

Approximate Value per Pick

According to ESPN.com’s Bill Barnwell, the Saints rank 17th in draft capital using Stuart’s chart.  The only way the Saints can garner more picks is by moving down—something Loomis is not inclined to do. According to Football Outsiders Andrew Healy, from 1997-2014, Loomis was the second worst GM in the NFL in terms of giving away draft assets.

Now that we know what the Saints have and how they typically behave, let’s take a look at their biggest draft needs and hope that Loomis doesn’t go back to his old trading ways.

1. Defense tackle- According to Football Outsiders DVOA rankings, the Saints had the worst defense in the NFL. They were especially ineffective at stopping opposing teams from picking up 1st downs on 3rd or 4th and short situations, ranking 30th in the NFL. A physically imposing defensive tackle who can clog up running lanes in the middle of the defensive line would go a long way in improving this woeful unit.

Saints fans won't have to see this any more. 
2. Secondary- While getting rid of penalty machine Brandon Browner is an upgrade in and of itself, the Saints badly need secondary help. While New Orleans signed cornerback Keenan Lewis and safety Jarius Byrd to big free agent contracts and drafted safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round, they have not been effective at stopping opposing offenses. Last year, on a per game basis, rival quarterbacks averaged 284 yards, nearly 3 TDs, and completed 68.4% of their passes. For the Saints offense, that’s the equivalent of playing against Tom Brady every week. Any improvement in the Saints pass defense would go a long way in helping New Orleans win games without needing 30+ points from the offense.  
3. Linebacker: The Saints linebacking corps was no exception to the rest of the team’s defensive struggles.  The Saints ranked 32th in second level rushing yards and 31st in open field yards, metrics created by Football Outsiders designed to measure yards gained by opposing running backs 5-10 and 10+ yards beyond the line of scrimmage. This offseason, the Saints signed James Laurinaitis to take over as defensive signal caller and shifted 2nd year linebacker Stephone Anthony from inside to outside linebacker. They need to hope that Anthony can improve on his rookie campaign and that Laurinaitis has something left in the tank. Otherwise opposing running backs may be breaking big runs for another season.  

In Loomis they trust. That hasn't paid off so great for the Saints recently. 

4. Offense: The Saints have fewer needs on the offensive side of the ball. Even after the departure of Jimmy Graham last season, the Saints still finished 7th in Football Outsiders offensive DVOA rankings. And as long as Sean Payton continues calling plays and Drew Brees lines up under center, the Saints have a chance to score 25 points every week. New Orleans has some need for a guard now that they’ve released Jahri Evans. Although between Zack Strief, Andrus Peat, Tim Lelito, Max Unger, and Terron Armstead, the Saints should be able to field a more than capable offensive line next season. The Saints are seemingly set with their offensive skill position players as well. Loomis signed tight end Cody Fleener to a 5 year, $35 million dollar contract in the offseason to go along with running backs Mark Ingram and C.J. Spiller and young wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Brandon Coleman.

By the end of the day on Saturday, the Saints will have completed their 2016 draft. Do they invest heavily in the defense? Trade up? Trade down and acquire assets for the future? Regardless of what they do, the draft will shape this coming season and ones far into the future. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Louisiana Culinary Dictionary: Part 1

            Louisiana has a rich and diverse culinary tradition, drawing upon influences from West Africa, the Caribbean, France, Germany, Italy, and a host of other places. Over the centuries, these cultures have fused to create a food landscape that can seem confusing to outsiders. Just what is in gumbo? What’s the difference between Cajun and Creole? What exactly is a praline? In an effort to help make things a little easier to understand, we’ve created a quick and easy reference guide to some Louisiana’s most popular dishes, foods, and cuisines. This week will cover everything from andouille to Creole and then next time we’ll tackle doberge cake to red beans and rice.  

Andouille— Andouille is a sausage made from pork, garlic, pepper, onions, wine, and other seasonings that was imported to Louisiana by the Acadians (French settlers deported from Canada as a result of the Seven Years War in the 18th century). Andouille is a staple of Creole cuisine and is known for being spicy. The town of LaPlace has two famous andouille makers—Jacob’s and Bailey’s and both are famous for their sausage.

Bananas Foster— Created by Paul Blange at Brennan’s Restaurant in New Orleans, this dessert is made from bananas and vanilla cream. It is covered in a sauce made from butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, dark rum, and banana liqueur. The dish is a popular table side presentation at Louisiana restaurants since the butter, sugar, and bananas are cooked down and then the alcohol is added to the pan and ignited. The dish reflects Louisiana’s history as a major importer of bananas from Central America in the early 20th century.

BBQ Shrimp in all their glory. 

BBQ Shrimp— The name BBQ Shrimp is somewhat misleading since the shrimp are actually sautéed (cooked in a pan rather than over open flame) in a sauce consisting of butter and Worcestershire sauce. While you can find BBQ Shrimp at a number of New Orleans restaurants, Mr. B’s Bistro in the French Quarter remains the best place to try out this local classic.

Beignets—Another French creation, beignets are a type of fried dough that are commonly served for breakfast while covered in powdered sugar. Although in New Orleans, breakfast foods can be eaten at any time of the day. When cooked correctly, beignets will puff up in frying oil leaving a delicious exterior and a soft fluffy interior. Café Du Monde in the French Quarter is still your best bet for mouthwatering doughnuts.

Boudin—The other type of famous sausage from Louisiana, Boudin is a white sausage made of pork, pigs liver, heart, and has rice stuffed into the casings. Boudin is more regionally specific than Andouille and is more typically found in the Acadiana region of Louisiana (Lafayette and Lake Charles amongst other areas).

The interior of Boudin. 

Cajun—Cajun specifically refers to the cuisine developed by the French settlers of Louisiana who were exiled from Canada during the Seven Year’s War. You will see them referred to by various terms including Cajun and Acadian (the region in Canada where they came from). Cajun cuisine tends towards simple, straightforward dishes cooked over a long period of time. The Cajuns tended to settle in areas outside of New Orleans in the bayous and other low lying areas around the Mississippi and Louisiana’s other rivers.

Crawfish Etouffee—Crawfish etouffee is a dish consisting of crawfish, rice, and a roux. A roux is flour and fat (generally butter) cooked together in order to thicken sauces. Etouffee in French means to smother. So at its most simple, the dish is like a thick stew consisting of crawfish and served over rice. The dish differs from gumbo (to be discussed next time) by featuring a blond rather than dark roux—a blond roux is cooked for less time than a typical darker roux and takes on a different flavor profile.  

Crawfish Etouffee 

Creole—The other famous type of Louisiana cooking, Creole cuisine blends French, Spanish, West African, Caribbean, German, Italian, and Irish influences. As each of these immigrant groups (voluntarily or not) arrived in Louisiana, they brought with them favorite ingredients and spices. As these groups interacted and shared their cooking their cuisines fused together. Famous Creole dishes include: crawfish etouffee, jambalaya, gumbo, turtle soup, red beans, and dirty rice. Green peppers, onions, and celery represent the so-called Holy Trinity of Creole cooking (to be discussed more next time) are essential to making most Creole cuisine.

So to be clear, Cajun cooking specifically refers to the French exiles from Canada and their culture and cuisine. Creole refers to the mixture of many more styles of cooking and is the more common and dominant of the two. We’ll be back next week to continue our look at the key parts of Louisiana’s culinary landscape. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Golden Age of TV

The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever by Alan Sepinwall

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad by Brett Martin

          The Wire. The Sopranos. Mad Men. Deadwood. The Shield. Breaking Bad. These shows and many others have redefined television in the last fifteen years. They have offered increasingly damaged, flawed, or downright evil protagonists for audiences to watch. They have done this to critical acclaim. Not since Lost in 2006 has a show from a major network won the Emmy Award for Best Drama. Bryan Cranston, who before Breaking Bad was most famous for his role as the frequently pants-less Hal on Malcolm in the Middle, won multiple Emmys for best actor in a drama series. 

This creative renaissance in television serves as the subject of two recently released books that reflect their authors’ approaches to television. The Revolution Was Televised, by television critic Alan Sepinwall, details the transformation in television storytelling from HBO’s Oz to Breaking Bad. Sepinwall casts a wide net, including network shows like 24, Friday Night Lights, and Lost alongside HBO staples like The Wire, The Sopranos, and Deadwood. He also tracks the emergence of networks like FX with The Shield and AMC with Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Sepinwall devotes a chapter to the development of each show, proceeding in chronological order apart from a small diversion to include Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.  Most importantly he offers a detailed critical analysis of each program. Sepinwall interviews the major players: showrunners, producers, network executives, etc. They tell the story of what drove them to create their shows and talk about important episodes or themes. The showrunners of Battlestar Galactica detail their decision making process in briefly turning the show into an allegory on the Iraq War. Then Sepinwall sets the show in the context of television at the time and generally how it relates to the shows that preceded it. The chapters work as part of a larger story, but can also stand alone or be read in any order.  

Martin, the reporter, adopts a more narrow focus on cable television and its role in the transformation of television. Difficult Men employs a more linear narrative approach. Martin first outlines the broader history of television and advancements in technology that made television production cheaper and opened up new revenue streams that encouraged networks to enter the realm of scripted television. Martin relates a humorous story of Breaking Bad cinematographer John Toll berating an Albuquerque, New Mexico Circuit City employee about the proper picture settings on flat screen televisions. Difficult Men also provides more of an inside baseball prospective into the development of these TV shows. He includes anecdotes about James Gandolfi’s increasing struggles with the character of Tony Soprano. Gandolfi once disappeared from the set for four days only to call from a Brooklyn beauty salon and ask for a car come pick him up. Martin also relates the creative freedom and difficulties of working in writer’s rooms with the new all-powerful showrunners. David Chase and Matthew Weiner gather special attention for their near fanatical control over the writing process and ascribing writing credits.

The defining moment of The Sopranos 

          Despite their different approaches, Sepinwall and Martin agree on the key moments in the birth of new Golden Age of Television. They pay close attention to fifth episode of the first season of The Sopranos: College. In College, Tony Soprano strangles a mob informer, Febby Petrulio, with a length of wire while taking his daughter, Meadow, on a tour of colleges in Maine. The scene stays with Tony as he chokes the life out of Petrulio. He, then, drives to pick Meadow up from her interview. Initially HBO objected to the idea of Tony strangling Petrulio, arguing that viewers would turn against Tony. David Chase argued that viewers would turn against Tony if he didn’t kill Petrulio. Chase won the argument. They similarly identify the casting of the brooding and emotionally raw Gandolfi over the more relaxed and humorous Michael Rispoli as essential for the show’s dramatic development. Sepinwall and Martin also stress the entry of networks like AMC and FX onto the scripted drama landscape. After HBO passed on Mad Men, AMC, a network that had next to nothing in terms of original programming, picked up the show. Since then AMC has premiered Breaking Bad and the commercially successful Walking Dead. FX gambled on The Shield and since has premiered Justified, The Americans, and a range dramas and comedies. While taking different approaches, Martin and Sepinwall agree on the important television touchstones along the way.

          Sepinwall’s passion and critical insight shine through in his writing. Martin displays a strong command of his material, guiding the reader through the book and never failing to include an amusing anecdote or factoid. The Revolution Was Televised is the work of a critic, introspective and thoughtful. Difficult Men is the work of a reporter, always telling a story and bringing the reader inside the world of television. They both succeed in explaining how we have entered a new Golden Age of Television. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Saints Free Agency 2016

            A month into NFL free agency, the rabid pace of signings has slowed to a crawl as teams shift their attention towards the draft at the end of April. Thanks to this lull in activity, we figured it would be a good time to look at the Saints’ biggest free agent moves as they attempt to rebuild the defense and remain in the playoff hunt in the later stages of quarterback Drew Brees’ career.

            We’ll start by looking at the players that the Saints have lost over the past few months either through signing with other teams or being released. The list below contains the most significant players.

TE Ben Watson
Signed with Baltimore Ravens
S Rafael Bush
Signed with Detroit Lions
G Jahri Evans
WR Marques Colston
CB Brandon Browner

Watson: Following the trade of Jimmy Graham last offseason, many Saints fans expected Josh Hill to step into Graham’s shoes. Instead, the 34 year old Watson emerged as Brees’ top tight end option. Watson caught 74 passes for 825 yards and 6 touchdowns. He finished 13th in Football Outsiders defensive yards adjusted received metric (DYAR). While Watson represents a loss to the Saints tight end position, they’ve tried to address his departure (something we’ll discuss below).

Bush: While not a starter, Bush frequently played because of injuries to starters Jarius Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro. Bush signing elsewhere isn’t a huge loss, but he had been one of the few consistent players in the Saints’ defensive backfield.

Evans: Evans entered the league as a 4th round pick of the Saints in 2006. In ten seasons, Evans went to the Pro-Bowl six times and was named to the All-Pro team 4 times. In 2015, Evans agreed to restructure his contract to help ease the team’s salary cap woes. This offseason, Evans declined to restructure his contract again and New Orleans released him rather than absorb his $8.4 million cap hit.

Colston: Colston, as we wrote about in December, went from a draft afterthought in 2006 to the best wide receiver in Saints’ history. In ten seasons, Colston caught 711 passes for 9,759 yards and 72 touchdowns—all from Drew Brees. With the Saints tight against the salary cap (again), an aging Colston became another casualty of the Saints poor management.

Browner: The Saints cut the penalty machine and designated him a post-June 1 cut, meaning they will receive $2.25 million in salary relief this year. Saints fans blessedly won’t be subjected to Browner’s insistence on interfering with opposing receivers and giving their opponents better field position any longer. Delvin Breaux, signed from the Canadian football league last season, will assume Browner’s spot in the lineup across from Keenan Lewis.

Having looked at the Saints free agency losses, let’s look at what they’ve gained.

QB Luke McCown
TE Coby Fleener
Signed from Indianapolis Colts
LB James Laurinatis
Signed from Los Angeles Rams
DT Nick Fairley
Signed from Los Angeles Rams

McCown: McCown played well in his one start this past season, filling in for an injured Brees against the Carolina Panthers. Having McCown on the roster gives the Saints some time to see if last year’s third round pick, Garret Grayson, will develop into a useful contributor.

Fleener: Soon after the opening of free agency, the Saints signed Fleener to a five year, $36 million contract. This contract has all the hallmarks of a bad Mickey Loomis move. Fleener only counts $2.4 million against the cap this season. But in order to keep that number so low, New Orleans had to offer large guaranteed salaries on the back end of the deal. So if the Saints are up against the salary cap (as they always are), they’ll have to convert that money into a signing bonus and spread it over all the years of Fleener’s contract. So if Fleener doesn’t pan out, the Saints will pay a heavy price. And there’s a pretty good chance that might happen since Fleener ranked 46th of 51 qualified tight ends by DYAR last season.

Laurinatis: The Saints signed Laurinatis to take over defensive play calling from rookie linebacker Stephone Anthony. The Rams released Laurinatis after his inconsistent play last season. New Orleans has to hope that Laurinatis can reverse his declining play and justify shifting Stephone Anthony, one of last year’s few promising defensive players, off of his inside linebacker position.

Fairley: Fairley possesses prodigious talent. The Lions picked Fairley 13th overall out of Auburn University where he anchored their defense. During his career with the Lions, Fairley struggled with weight and maturity issues. He played last year for the Rams as a effective reserve player. In New Orleans, he should step into a starting role with the Saints after signing a 1 year, $3 million contract. This is precisely the kind of low-risk, high reward contract the Saints should be pursuing. If Fairley plays well, then he fills a major hole in the Saints defense at a good price. If he fails, then New Orleans can move on without hurting their cap in the future.