Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Saints Season Preview Part One: Offense

            While it remains insufferably hot in Louisiana, the calendar is about to flip from August to September and that means one thing: it’s football season. Football season in Louisiana means one thing: the Saints. With all that in mind, let’s turn to our yearly Saints season preview. This week we’ll start by looking at the offense and next week we’ll tackle the defense. We’ll go position by position, taking a “What’s new? What’s old?” approach. With all this in mind, let’s get started.  


What’s New? This offseason, the Saints brought in two new position coaches for the offense. Dan Campbell, formerly the interim head coach of the Miami Dolphins last year, was hired as the tight ends coach/assistant head coach. Campbell, during his brief run in Miami, garnered headlines when he announced that he wanted the Dolphins to be a tougher team—as if this was some ingenious new insight into how to play football. The Saints also hired Joe Lombardi as their new quarterbacks coach. If that name seems vaguely familiar, it’s because Lombardi coached the Saints quarterbacks from 2009-2013. He left to coordinate the Detroit Lions offense in 2014 and midway through the 2015 season before getting fired and replaced by a grown man named Jim Bob Cooter.

What’s Old? The men at the top of the offensive coaching staff, head coach Sean Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael remain. Since 2009, when Carmichael took over as offensive coordinator, the Saints have finished an average of 6th in Football Outsiders offensive DVOA, only finishing outside of the top 10 once—in 2010 when they finished 11th.  With Payton, Carmichael, and quarterback Drew Brees there’s every reason to think that the Saints will once again be a top 10 offense.

Brees and Payton = offensive success 

QBs: Drew Brees, Luke McCown, Garret Grayson

What’s New? Nothing. The Saints will return the same three quarterbacks they had on their roster last year. Drew Brees is the starter. Luke McCown is the veteran backup and 2014 3rd round pick Garret Grayson is the developmental player who may push McCown for the backup job.

What’s Old? While Brees is entering his age 37 season, there’s little reason to suspect that he’s slowing down. In 2015, Brees completed 68.3% of his passes for 4,870 yards and 32 touchdowns. According to Football Outsiders, Brees was 7th among quarterbacks with a 15.8% DVOA (meaning he was 15.8% better than a league average quarterback). He was third in QBR with a 75.5 (on a scale of 0-100 with 50 being average). He’s going to decline someday; it’s just hard to say exactly when.

Mark Ingram, Tim Hightower, C.J. Spiller, Daniel Lasco, John Kuhn

What’s New? After losing fullback Austin Johnson to injury, the Saints signed former Packers fullback John Kuhn. Kuhn mostly plays in short yardage and goal-line situations. He can also contribute as a blocker out of the backfield. Lasco is a 7th round pick from this year’s draft who projects as a bigger running back in the mold of Pierre Thomas.

What’s Old? Last offseason, the Saints spent heavily on their running game, ignoring their history of digging up productive running backs (Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles come to mind) on the cheap. While Ingram played effectively last season—14th in DYAR (defense adjusted yards above replacement) and 12th in DVOA—Spiller, signed to a four year, $16 million contract, was injured and ineffective. He ran the ball 36 times for 112 yards for a 3.1 yard per carry average. The speedy Spiller has big play ability, but has rarely been healthy or effective enough to showcase it. This is a make or break year for him.

Brandin Cooks made a lot of great catches last year. Like this one. 

WRs: Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead, Michael Thomas, Tommylee Lewis, Brandon Coleman
TEs: Coby Fleener, Josh Hill, Michael Hoomanawanui

What’s New? The Saints inexplicably gave Fleener a 5 year, $36 million contract. Fleener, who played for 4 seasons with the Colts, has rarely been particularly healthy or effective. That’s a lot of money for a team right up against the salary cap (again), especially after last season when they garnered great production from tight end Benjamin Watson. Watson had 74 receptions for 825 yards and 6 touchdowns while counting next to nothing against the salary cap.  As with the running backs, the Saints have ignored their own history of finding productive players on the cheap and instead paid top dollar for a tight end who might not be very good.

What’s Old? Last season, Brandin Cooks emerged as a number one wide receiver and the Saints best big play and deep threat. Cooks caught 84 passes for 1,138 yards with 9 touchdowns. With Cooks, Snead, Coleman, Watson, Hill, and Hoomanawanui, New Orleans finished 7th in the league in passing offense according to DVOA. With the addition of Michael Thomas to replace Marques Colston, there’s little reason to think that the Saints won’t have an effective passing attack.

Terron Armstead, Max Unger, Zach Strief, Andrus Peat, Tim Lelito, Senio Kelemete, Jack Allen, Tony Hills

What’s New? Not much other than undrafted center Jack Allen. Allen, however, won’t supplant Max Unger as the starter at center.

What’s Old? Pretty much everything else and that’s kind of the problem. The Saints had a decent offensive line last season, finishing 7th in adjusted sack rate. Although some of the credit for that pass protection goes to Brees and his ability to quickly dispense the ball to his wide receivers. The rushing offense finished 13th in adjusted line yards (an adjusted measure of rushing yardage). Armstead and Unger are two of the best players in the league at their respective positions, left tackle and center. Strief will once again be a serviceable right tackle. The Saints will try out 2014 first rounder Peat at left guard to replace Jahri Evans who was released this offseason as a cost cutting move. Neither Lelito or Kelemete has distinguished themselves at right tackle leaving the Saints with two very effective linemen, one okay guard, and two giant question marks.

Next week we’ll tackle the defense and offer up a prediction for the season. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

DGA Dining: Border Grill

Exterior of Border Grill Downtown

           On a recent trip to California, we had the chance to eat at Border Grill in downtown Los Angeles. Due to its proximity to Mexico, it’s not surprising that Los Angeles has some of the best and most authentic Mexican cuisine in the United States. And the food we had at the Border Grill revealed the depth and wonder of Mexican regional cuisine that is so rarely found in the United States where chain restaurants declare tortillas smothered in cheddar cheese “authentic.” 

The Border Grill Downtown Dining Room
              Border Grill is the brain child of chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken. They stumbled upon their idea to open up a Mexican restaurant while working in Chicago at a French restaurant. While they were preparing traditional French fine dining classics, Milliken and Feniger ate the authentic cuisine of Oaxaca and the Yucatan, prepared by their fellow cooks for their staff meal. Feniger and Milliken realized that the dishes they were eating had the same complexity and depth of flavor as the refined French fare they were serving to their diners out front. So in 1985, the two chefs loaded up a Volkswagen buggy and went off to Mexico. They learned recipes and ingredients from the locals and when they returned to Los Angeles where they opened the first Border Grill. The flagship location has been in Santa Monica since 1990. Since then, they have opened two new outposts at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas in 1999 and The Forum Shops at Caesars in 2014. In Los Angeles, they opened the downtown location in 2010 and two spots at Los Angeles International Airport, one in the Tom Bradley International Terminal in 2013 and the other in Terminal 4 in 2015. Additionally, they have two Border Grill Food Trucks that rotate around Los Angeles. 

Border Grill Peruvian Ceviche
            Okay, enough history, time to talk about the food. The complementary chips and salsa came with three different delicious homemade salsas ranging from mild to hot. We started with an order of guacamole and ceviche.  A lot of commercial guacamole is rather heavy, weighed down by additional ingredients like bacon. This guacamole was bright and compromised of five simple ingredients: avocado, onion, jalapeno, cilantro, and lime. It ate so light that we quickly demolished the entire order. The ceviche was flavorful with a nice balance of acid and heat. The real star of the meal, however, was the carnitas. Carnitas are pork that has been braised for a long time until tender. These Border Grill carnitas were served atop roasted corn grits that were soft with a rich corn flavor. The dish also came with a Serrano chile salsa that added heat and acid, red onion, cilantro, and jalapeno bacon. The jalapeno bacon combined the heat from the peppers with the saltiness and crunch of the bacon. It was a masterful combination.

            So if you’re ever stuck in Los Angeles and are looking for an authentic exploration of Mexican regional cuisine, check out Border Grill.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

            Star Trek Beyond is the third film of the J.J. Abrams led Star Trek reboot. Director Justin Lin and writers Simon Pegg (who also plays Scotty) and Doug Jung have stepped in to fill the void left behind by Abrams when he departed for a galaxy far, far away. Beyond has everything you would expect from a Star Trek movie: a dangerous threat to the Federation, the crew enjoying being in each other’s company, an alien female lead, and our heroes coming out just fine in the end. While Star Trek Beyond is an enjoyable enough summer action movie, it highlights just how much better Star Trek is suited for television. 

Just a few of the memorable Star Trek characters

           From its original incarnation through Deep Space Nine (Voyager had its moments but devolved into too much repetition and silliness), Star Trek thrived on exploring the lives of its characters. Viewers of the original series reveled in the relationship between the intuitive and impulsive Kirk and the analytical Mr. Spock. The Next Generation offered Jean-Luc Picard and his more diplomatic approach to space exploration. Data yearned to become more human and Worf questioned his role as the only Klingon in a human society. On Deep Space Nine, Benjamin Sisko grappled with his own demons—his anger over his wife’s death while trying to come to terms with his role as the Messiah like figure in Bajoran culture. Odo, playing the role of outsider, attempted to adjust to his life as the station’s chief magistrate. Much of the satisfaction that came from Star Trek came from watching these characters change, grow, and fail over the course of multiple seasons of television. These many hours of television offered depth and nuance to people who while living in a future were very much like ourselves. 

            The best Star Trek movies, at least by my estimation, built off of the themes and character work introduced in the various series. You don’t get Wrath of Khan without the original series episode “Space Seed” that introduces Khan and his genocidal rage. The passage of time between the original series and the film also helps the character work as we see, not the brash James Kirk, but an older, more introspective man reflecting on his own mortality. It is his encounter with his old nemesis and the loss of Spock, his best friend, that reinvigorates him. First Contact similarly builds off a key moment from Next Generation, Picard’s assimilation by the Borg. Like Kirk, Picard must once again face off against his old enemy and destroy them. For Picard, he must confront the trauma and guilt that came from participating in the death of so many of his fellow Star Fleet officers. Data contemplates an offer from the Borg to become more human, the realization of his longstanding dream, only to reject it in favor of saving Picard and humanity. These films build on the character work of their respective series and are deeper and richer experiences for it. 

           While Star Trek Beyond has an enjoyable cast and has a good amount of action and humor, it lacks the depth of these earlier movies. The actors have comfortably settled into their roles as Karl Urban has captured Dr. McCoy’s cranky humanity. Zachary Quinto’s emotionally conflicted Spock stands out as he confronts his own mortality. Simon Pegg plays Scotty with the right amount of camp. This familiarity gives the film an easy confidence as the Enterprise crew are scattered across a barren planet, reunite and take down the bad guy. Each character’s motivations are less clear. Spock is sad, Kirk doesn’t want to be in Star Fleet. Yet we’ve seen these issues explored in the earlier Abrams led films. Here, Lin and the writers don’t have anything new to say about them. They’re just there to be restated and overcome in the course of two hours. Lin’s direction is generally solid apart from his over-reliance on shaky-cam in the film’s opening space battle. He disorients the viewer by not letting the camera linger on anything for longer than a second.  The film’s other big weakness comes from its villain as is so often the problem in these franchise films. Idris Elba is a superb actor buried in alien-ish makeup and a blatantly obvious back story. The cast’s chemistry alone makes for an enjoyable movie, but one that lacks that the character elements that separate a great Star Trek movie from a run of the mill summer blockbuster.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016


            Who knew the trailer for the reboot of Ghostbusters, directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat, and others) and starring Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and Chris Hemsworth would be the most hated trailer in the history of YouTube? Turns out that allowing human beings to communicate with one another virtually unheeded has its upsides and downsides. One of them being the fan-boy backlash against the film. A recent analysis by Walt Hickey of FiveThirtyEight revealed that before the movie premiered, male users of the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) gave Ghostbusters a ranking of 3.6 out of 10 while female users rated it 7.7/10. A million cries of “This movie is ruining my childhood” emerged from the darkest corners of internet comment sections—an aside, if a remake of a movie can ruin your childhood perhaps you should reconsider the key moments of your childhood and your life that led you to make the comment. And here’s what really has to eat at the people who loathed the idea of a Ghostbusters remake and gave the plot keywords with labels like “male objectification” and “feminization” on IMDB, the film is really quite funny.

            From the very first joke about an old New York City mansion containing an “anti-Irish fence”—the latest in 19th century home security, Feig’s Ghostbusters unleashes an unrelenting torrent of jokes. There’s physical comedy with the crew testing out their equipment with destructive results. There’s the jokes at the expense of Wiig’s status-seeking Erin Gilbert whose letter of recommendation from Princeton might not be enough to get her tenure. And finally, and perhaps most hilariously, is the performance by Chris Hemsworth as Kevin, the Ghostbusters’ dimwitted secretary. Kevin turns the traditional stereotype of the blond bombshell on its head. He’s clearly an idiot—hanging up on clients and removing the lenses from his glasses because they get in the way of his finger—but Wiig thinks he’s hot, so he stays around. For all those who cried out that Hemsworth, who brings a empty-headed enthusiasm, was only there as an object of the women’s sexual desire and is therefore demeaning to men, hit upon the point that the filmmakers were shooting for. This character appears in movies all the time as a woman and few people question it. When it’s a man, then suddenly it’s a problem. Welcome to institutionalized sexism fellas.

Who you gonna call? 

            The film moves along at a brisk pace as the Ghostbusters join together, get some cool equipment and defeat the villain—a maladjusted man seeking to channel supernatural energy in order to destroy the world. The film is littered with throwbacks to the original movie including cameo appearances by Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and Sigourney Weaver. There’s an appearance by Slimer the Ghost, ECTO-1, and even the iconic firehouse. These throwbacks are fine tributes to the previous movie, but do little to enhance the film itself. In this age of reboots and referential filmmaking, it would be nice to have a movie that could just stand on its own without needlessly pandering to the audience. Indeed in all the internet outrage about a female led Ghostbusters, it’s telling how far Hollywood has to go in terms of overcoming its sexism that a comedy starring McCarthy, Wiig, McKinnon, and Jones couldn’t get greenlit without it being a reboot. After all, how many people want to go see a bunch of women being funny together for an hour and a half? If the 155 million dollar earnings of Ghostbusters are any indication, a lot.