Another blocked kick on Thursday night run back for a score (but called back due to a holding penalty), the fifth blocked kick and third run back for a score on the Saints this season, cemented in my mind the notion that this is the worst special teams unit the Saints have ever put on the field in my lifetime. Without Thomas Morstead, my gut tells me this would be the worst special teams unit of all time. But that’s me sensationalizing things. How bad is it really? Let’s take a closer look statistically:
The Saints (and Wil Lutz) are 16 of 22 on the season for field goals, a conversion rate of 72.7%. That’s good for 28th in the NFL, tied with the Raiders. The Saints have also missed one extra point, the block against Denver, for a conversion rate of 96.9%. That’s tied for 11th. Lutz has also had 5 kicks blocked, though the NFL stat books only count 3 because two of those five blocked kicks actually went through as “good” kicks despite the deflection. The only other kicker that’s had 3 kicks blocked is Steven Hauschka, all on extra points. Hauschka has had 7.5% of his total kicks blocked (FGs and PATs combined). That’s really bad. Lutz has had 9.3% of his kicks blocked, that’s worse. Worst in the NFL, in fact. I would call the Saints kicking a disaster.
Morstead is a beast. The Saints are 3rd in gross average punting and 3rd in net average. And despite being 30th in number of fair catches caused (just 5), the Saints yield an average of 7.6 per punt return, which is 12th best. So basically, while Morstead’s punts get returned more than most punters – probably because he booms it so far – the Saints are still doing an above average job covering these punts. Morstead’s directional ability certainly helps with this, but give the coverage unit credit for doing a pretty good job. I’m going to call this very good.
The Saints are 31st in the NFL with an average of 16.3 per return. Only the Bucs are worse, somehow, at 14.7 per return! Cadet and Murphy have taken turns fielding kicks that were going out of bounds, and their longest return of the season was by their upback (primary blocker) Tim Hightower who gave the Saints their first field position past the 30 on a kickoff return this season. The Saints have started inside their 20 28 times this season, tied for 7th most in the NFL. Just take the touchback, guys. I would also call this a disaster.
There’s been some big time disasters with this unit and the Saints have thrown A LOT of guys out there. Tommylee Lewis and Marcus Murphy have been the best when they don’t fumble, though it’s been an issue for both. The Saints average 10.2 per punt return, good for 9th in the NFL. While that’s above average, they’ve had the De’Vante Harris debacle, killer field position problems with Nate Stupar penalties last Thursday, and fielding punts inside the 5 to go with a number of fumbles. The return yardage has been pretty good. It’s worth noting that the Saints are 16th in opposing punter’s net average. So I’m going to be generous and call this average.
The Saints give up an average of 23.5 per kick return. It’s today climate, that’s quite high. Consider that 10 teams yield an average of under 20 yards per kick return. The Saints are 24th in the NFL in kick coverage. That’s actually an improvement, sadly, as they were 27th overall in both 2014 and 2015, 26th in 2013, 24th in 2012, 28th in 2011, 24th in 2010, 29th in 2009, 23rd in 2008, 15th in 2007. So yeah, you read that correctly, the Saints haven’t been better than 23rd in the NFL in kickoff return yards average since 2007. Greg McMahon was an assistant until 2008 when he took over as the special teams co-ordinator. Since then? Kickoff coverage has been 23rd in the NFL or worse every single year. I’d call this really bad.
So I’ve identified 5 major areas of special teams. The Saints are a disaster at two, really bad at a third, average at one, and very good at one. You guys know I love to grade, so let’s call this F, F, D+, C and A-. That would add up to a GPA of 1.40 across the board. Barely higher than a D+, but lower than a C-. That’s where the Saints special teams performance resides as a unit WITH THOMAS MORSTEAD!!!! Can you imagine?
Keep in mind we haven’t even covered the fact that this unit in 2016 has no big plays. No returns for scores, ZERO turnovers created, no blocked kicks, no blocked punts. Any exciting big play over a 10 game stretch might mitigate the statistical abyss they are in, but alas. I guess we can say Lutz has hit a 57 yarder and came close from 61 against the Raiders.
In conclusion, Saints special teams is worse than our wildest imaginations, masked in its terribleness by one elite punter. The coaching cannot be defended. Some defend McMahon by saying there’s a lack of talent and players. I think that’s a defensible position – clearly having good special teamers is not a priority for the organization. They’ve never gone out and tried to find an explosive returner or spent money on a kicker. I don’t count Reggie Bush or Darren Sproles because they were running backs first, returners second. But when you look at the failures across the board, repeated same issues over and over, and little improvement by young guys – that’s where I take issue with the defense of McMahon.
We thought the Saints were a 7-9/6-10 type team and we were right, that’s where this team is headed. But the reason we thought that is because it was a declining offense paired with a bad defense. Turns out it was a still very good offense paired with an improving defense. That should be good enough for 10-6, but you’re forgetting one phase of the game. Special teams is terrible, it’s cost the Saints 3 games this year, and it’s primarily responsible for where we stand now on the outside looking in at the playoff picture.