The fine line the New Orleans Saints walk offensively, and which side their fortunes have landed on this season, is evident.
Absolutely, the Saints endeavor to protect the football offensively and will continue to aspire to do so Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, for their game against Cincinnati. But if conservatism is the cost, it runs counter to what the Saints offense has been since 2006 under its choreographer, Coach Sean Payton, and its conductor, quarterback Drew Brees.
The calculated risks involved in creating a high-powered offense (Payton) and executing it (Brees) are inherent in an offense that has been as productive as has New Orleans' (since 2006, it has led the league in net yards per game four times and twice, has led the NFL in scoring).
"I think we are at our best when we are playing with that aggressive mentality," Brees said. "The turnover margin is the most important statistic in football and we preach it all the time. And we have our moments where we may go four or five games with one turnover. And then, we may go a few games where we have a couple each game.
"It's not OK and we come out in practice and we talk about it and we do things to correct. But we also don't paralyze ourselves because of it. Because at the same time, you know how important it is and yet, you know that you can overcome it. And you overcome it by coming back and being very efficient with everything that you're doing, you're being very balanced, taking advantage of big-play opportunities.
"And when you're playing that complimentary game with your defense, they're thinking, 'OK, we've got to get one back.' So it becomes a mentality on their end where, 'Hey, it's OK offense. We got you. We're going to stop them and eventually we're going to get one back that's going to give you an opportunity.' That's when you know that you're really cooking, is when you're able to play with that complimentary mind-set."
The balance hasn't yet been achieved between offense and defense this season. The Saints have committed 18 turnovers, fifth-most in the league, and their minus-8 turnover ratio is fifth-worst in the league. Brees, who has 18 touchdowns and 2,816 passing yards, has thrown 10 interceptions.
But New Orleans (4-5) still ranks second in total yards per game (435), third in passing yards (304.8) and sixth in scoring (27.9).
Still, the turnovers have been glaringly attributable to the close losses New Orleans has suffered this season. It sits atop the NFC South standings despite four losses totaling nine points.
In those games, the turnover ratio has been minus-5 (nine giveaways, four takeaways). In contrast, when the Saints have won their four games, the turnover ratio is even – six giveaways, six takeaways.
The Saints know it's possible to be aggressive offensively and protective of the ball. Last season, New Orleans posted 399.4 yards per game and committed just 19 turnovers. It simply is a matter of getting back to safely walking the line.
"There's a fine line and yet, there are a number of things with regard to the details that go into it," Payton said. "Often time, you can look at it and say, 'Well, we can't throw that pass.' But there are a lot of other little things in regard to route distribution, where guys are getting out in the pattern.
"All of those things kind of come into it, situationally as well, where we're at in a game. Obviously, we're going to have to be better at it in this second half of the season than we were at the start."
But if the turnover pace decreases, it's likely to be because the Saints became more efficient, rather than because they backed off offensively.
"I'm certainly not perfect," Brees said. "I know what wins and I know what loses. There's nobody who's harder on himself than me when some of those things happen where, 'Man, I know better. I can't let that happen. It's my job.'
"Regardless of how it happens or what – some things are just, you catch a bad break or whatever it might be – the ball is in my hands, I'm responsible. So I have no problem taking responsibility and accountability, because at the end of the day, it does fall on my shoulders. That's not me putting pressure on myself, that's just me being real. I have that responsibility.
"And I also feel like I have the ability to bounce back from that. That's also my mentality. I'm extremely positive. I'm annoyingly optimistic and confident, I've been told many times by teammates. So you know what? I'm going to come right back out the next series and if that throw is there, you can be darn sure it's getting thrown. And I'm going to expect to make the play, and I'm going to expect the guy I'm throwing to to make the play. That's also how we've made a ton of big plays."