Were the Saints Right to Avoid Kicking To Leon Washington?

By Kevin Meers

Despite all the uncertainty surrounding the NFL – who will win the 2011 Super Bowl, whether a new collective bargaining agreement will be reached – one belief stood as near fact: the defending champion New Orleans Saints were going to beat the Seattle Seahawks in the wild-card round of the playoffs. In Las Vegas, the Saints were 10-10.5 point favorites over the Seahawks; ESPN’s SportsNation showed that 86% of Americans and every state except Washington predicted that New Orleans would win. The Saints clearly outplayed the Seahawks during the regular season, ranking over twenty spots ahead of them in both total offense and defense. In a game they were truly capable of winning, the Saints’ initial strategy of avoiding Leon Washington in the return game allowed Seattle to stay in the game early, giving them and the rowdy fans at Qwest field legitimate belief that they could dethrone the defending champions.

There was little reason for New Orleans to avoid Leon Washington the way did. Washington is a good kick returner, but he could not win this game on his own. In the 2010-2011 season, he was eighth in the league in average kickoff return yards at 25.6 yards/attempt, and also ran back three returns for touchdowns, tied for most this season. While these statistics make Washington and his blockers formidable weapons, the Saints’ kickoff squad should have been capable of containing them. Thomas Morstead, whom the Saints use on kickoffs, averaged 68.0 yards/kickoff (third best league-wide) and kicked a touchback 20% of the time. The New Orleans’ coverage unit only allowed 24.1 yards/return and did not allow a return touchdown all season. Averaging Washington’s return yards with New Orleans’ yards allowed, Washington should have gotten around 24.8 yards/return, making each kickoff net 43.2 yards. By those numbers, Seattle should have started around their own 27 yard line, on average.

Instead, the Saints opted to pooch their first two kicks short to avoid Washington, giving Seattle an average starting position on their own 40 yard line. Using expected point values from www.advancednflstats.com, the Seahawks’ expected point value (the number of points a team can expect given their current field position) more than doubled, increasing from 0.78 to 1.91. In a game the Saints could have put away early, this tactical mistake helped Seattle stay with New Orleans. The Saints’ offense looked dominant early, scoring on each of their first three possessions. If New Orleans had made Seattle go 80 yards instead of 60 on their first two drives, it would have been more difficult for them to keep up with the New Orleans offense.

This tactical mistake on special teams contributed to the most improbable upset of Wild Card Weekend. The rest of the game demonstrated that the Saints’ coverage team was capable of containing Washington. After the first quarter, New Orleans began kicking to Washington; he averaged 19.8 yards/return on four returns. There appears to be little reason to have given Seattle such good field position early in the game. There were, of course, many other factors to contributing to Seattle’s victory. However, as attempts to quantify the effects of Marshawn Lynch’s “Beast Mode” remain inconclusive, this early error gave the Seahawks enough momentum to upset the Saints.

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