Saturday, September 15, 2018

It won’t be close

 It appears as though New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees has this strange relationship with hyperbole.

Why else would he say, in the run-up to Sunday’s game with the Browns in New Orleans, something patently ridiculous about Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield? But that’s exactly what he did in a phoner with the Cleveland media the other day.

“I think he can be a lot better than me,” said the man whose outstanding professional career will land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame five years after he retires, and he’s still going strong at 39.

He still brings it, witness his 35-for-47, 439-yard, three-touchdown, no-pick performance in the season-opening 48-40 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“Man, he’s got all the tools,” Brees said, referring to Mayfield. “He’s more athletic, he probably can run around better, he’s got a stronger arm. Listen, he’s got all the tools.”

Definition of hyperbole: Extravagant exaggeration.

Yep, that’s it. And maybe just a wee bit premature.

Here is a man who has thrown for 491 touchdowns, more than 70,000 yards and completed 67% of his passes in a remarkable 18-season career that began only two years after the Browns reentered the National Football League in 1999.

His 70,884 yards rank third on the NFL’s all-time list for most career passing yards and he is certain to become the leader within the next several weeks, trailing the retired Peyton Manning, the man at the top, by only 1,057 yards.

Brees, whose prolific passing ability initially thrust him into the spotlight at Purdue University, has become without question the greatest short quarterback (at just a half at tick taller than six feet) in the history of the league.

Why he chose to strangely compare himself with Mayfield and seemingly beyond is puzzling. Perhaps he sees Mayfield as a worthy successor for the mantle of next great short NFL quarterback. High praise, indeed, for someone who has yet to take a snap as a professional.

But c’mon. “All the tools . . . more athletic . . . probably can run around better . . . stronger arm.” He’s also 16 years younger. My memory recalls a much younger Drew Brees with similar characteristics.

The key word in his Mayfield proclamation is think, as in I think he can be a lot better. Not quite the same as flat out predicting. If anything, that puts pressure on the young Cleveland quarterback, who must wait his turn while coach Hue Jackson clings to the belief that starting Tyrod Taylor gives him his best shot at winning.

That day will come, of course, perhaps sooner than later if Taylor duplicates his awful performance in the season-opening tie with Pittsburgh. For now, all Mayfield can do is graciously accept the praise from his idol growing up and wait.

Which brings us to Sunday’s game between the Browns and Saints in the Crescent City. Brees and Mayfield will meet for the first time on the field prior to that game even though they grew up only miles apart in Austin, Texas.

It will be a meeting of teams with totally different ambitions. The Saints made the playoffs last season and are favored in some quarters to not only return to the postseason, but wind up in the Super Bowl; the Browns are a revamped team looking for any slivers of hope that will lead to any form of respectability and relevance.

Their winless streak now stands at 18 games after last Sunday’s tie with Pittsburgh and their overall record in the last 54 games is 4-49-1, including 1-31-1 under Jackson. They have not won a game in 630 days.

The Browns have experienced little trouble when facing the Saints in the past, owning a 13-4 record, including an 8-2 mark when traveling to the deep south. That includes the last three in a row since 1999.

Brees has encountered moderate success against them, splitting four starts against them, three with the Saints. He has thrown for only five touchdowns and been picked off seven times.

Expect the Saints to arrive in an angry mood for the game after last Sunday’s embarrassment against the Buccaneers in front of the home folks. The secondary made fill-in Tampa Bay quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick look like an All-Star.

The bearded veteran shredded the Saints secondary for 417 yards and four touchdowns, clicking five times on pass plays more than 32 yards. Overall the beleaguered defense surrendered 529 yards.

Brees tied to keep pace with a 35-for-47, 439-yard, three-touchdown afternoon. Michael Thomas, his favorite receiver, was busy with 16 receptions in 17 targets for 180 yards and a score.

Based solely on the Saints’ pass defense stats of that game, the struggling Cleveland offense shouldn’t have much trouble, right? Surely, Taylor should have no problem atoning for his rather nasty performance against the Steelers, right?

Then one realizes that while Taylor might have the receivers who can stretch the field, he does not have an arm strong enough to take advantage of a shell-shocked New Orleans secondary, one loaded with former Ohio State stars: Cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safeties Kurt Coleman and Vonn Bell.

Also culpable in that loss was the inability of the front seven to sack Fitzpatrick, who escaped a dozen times, a la Taylor against the Steelers.

The big question is whether the Browns, minus defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah and possibly linebacker Christian Kirksey, can withstand the aerial onslaught of Brees, who also uses versatile running back Alvin Kamara as a weapon.

Several questions that need to be answered factor into this game

Defensively, how effective will Browns rookie corner Denzel Ward be against Thomas in a battle of former Ohio State teammates? How close will defensive end Myles Garrett come to duplicating his terrific performance last Sunday? Can the Browns stop the run? They couldn’t last Sunday against James Conner.

On offense, how much more will offensive coordinator Todd Haley involve wide receiver Josh Gordon in the game plan? Is Taylor capable of stretching the field, something he didn’t (couldn’t?) do against the Steelers? And can the offensive line provide running room for anyone who isn’t a quarterback?

                           This just in: Gordon will not play
                           due to hamstring problems. More 
                           work for rookie Antonio Callaway.

It’s hard to imagine a team as good as the Saints losing their first two games of the season at home. And despite all the success the Browns have had against the Saints over the years, particularly on the road, that was then and this is now.

This team will struggle a little longer before it not only wins, but learns how to win. It’s a little too early right now. The Saints are clearly the better team and the loss to the Bucs last Sunday just adds fuel to their eagerness to resume their quest to play in January for a second straight season.

The Saints have averaged more than 400 points a season since Brees arrived in 2006. The Browns have cracked 400 points only once (2007) since then. That offensive excellence, especially in the passing game, will continue against a Cleveland secondary still getting used to playing together.

With Mayfield probably collecting tips on how to play successfully in the NFL by watching his idol up close, Brees will put up another 300-plus yard day, connecting with Thomas for two scores in his three-touchdown afternoon, while Kamara scores twice as the run defense continues to have problems.

The Cleveland offense, meanwhile, manages to bust out with a couple of first-quarter touchdowns before the Saints adjust and shut it down, and the defense comes nowhere close to duplicating its six-takeaway performance against Pittsburgh, coming up with only one . . . and failing to capitalize on it. Make it:

Saints 38, Browns 17


  1. You do realize that we've beaten the Saints 6 out of the last 7 games, even with some of the most God-awful teams ever assemble? Just saying.

  2. Yes I do. And if you've read this piece, you'd know I do. It appears about halfway down. To wit:

    The Browns have experienced little trouble when facing the Saints in the past, owning a 13-4 record, including an 8-2 mark when traveling to the deep south. That includes the last three in a row since 1999.

    That is all.