Drew Brees is correct that the Saints have begun this season almost exactly in the way they started last season: Each of their first two games came down, in effect, to a late, single play. The Saints hardly looked like gangbusters after two weeks last year, either. Indeed, they looked rather ragged.
But there’s obviously a big difference: Last year, each of the key plays went in the Saints’ favor. This year, they didn’t. Starting at 0-2 is one helluva lot worse than starting at 2-0.
Moreover, which way those plays go isn’t just luck. Good teams make good plays at the right time. Bad teams don’t.
More, it’s not exactly as though the Saints’ opponents in this year’s two openers are very good. We lost to the Falcons, who in turn were absolutely stomped by Cincinnati while the Dirty Birds scored an astonishing 27 fewer points than they put up against the Saints’ porous defense. And we lost to the Browns, who lost to an only fair-to-middling Steelers team in Week One. (In Pittsburgh’s other game, they were blown out 26-6 by a Ravens team that had lost its own first game of the season.)
Last year, at least the defense, surprisingly, looked very good through two weeks, while just about everybody knew the offense would pick up as the year went on. This year, it’s just the opposite: The offense has made some bad mistakes (one awful one in each game by Brees), but has overall been almost (not quite) as good as expected, and indeed with its running game much better than it’s ever been in the Payton era; but the defense has been just atrociously bad. And whereas there were years of experience telling fans last year that the offense would improve, there is no such confidence that this year’s defense will do so. Last year at this time, our second cornerback was a game and gritty Jabari Greer. This year, it’s Patrick Robinson, who just seems unable to bring practice-field decency into real games. Plus, so far this year our two key pass rushers, Cam Jordan and Junior Galette, look like they are sleepwalking. This is especially true of Jordan. He’s not the world’s fastest end, anyway, and if his motor isn’t revving high, he’s just ordinary. Combine that with the sense that the post-injury Kenny Vaccaro just hasn’t quite recovered his pre-injury moxie from last year, and the worries start to mount.
Then consider that with the offense running so well, it has been able to run far more time off the clock than the offense was doing last year, meaning that the D has had more chance to rest up and more chance to stay off the field than last year. Usually, a strong running game means that defensive stats improve, because they are on the field for fewer minutes. But not in these first two games this year.
The Saints still don’t have real speed on the edges. The only guy who really promised that was last year’s draftee Rufus Johnson, but he obviously didn’t have the right skill-set and is no longer even on the team. Plus, we now lack the hard tackling ability and blitzing ability of the always-over-criticized pair of Roman Harper and the speedy Malcolm Jenkins. I particularly miss Jenkins, who may have missed his share of plays, but also made some really good ones and was a guy who always hustled and gave maximum effort. I’m not knocking the signing of Jairus Byrd, who so far has been pretty good. But he has hardly been spectacular, though, certainly not yet worth his big contract — although that could come — and he seems to not quite have the Saints’ system down yet.
Here’s the truth: Other than adding Byrd and drafting a real winner in Brandin Cooks, the Saints haven’t made any additions this year that seem to promise any substantial benefits this year. After Cooks, this was probably the worst draft of the Sean Payton era, just as most fans opined right away. Stanley Jean-Baptiste has great size for a cornerback, but he was always a reach for Round Two. We really did need linebackers, but we passed on better ones earlier and then reached later on for both Ronald Powell and Khairi Fortt. I’ll be amazed if either of them make much of a mark for the team this year — and, like Jean-Baptiste, only time will tell if they ever do. Then, offensive lineman Tavon Rooks was even more of a reach, at draft’s end, by general consensus. In fact, beyond Cooks, the only wise choice (so far) seems to be a game Vinnie Sunseri, who seems like a poor man’s version of Vaccaro — gritty and hustling, but without quite the same effective size, strength or (probably) speed.
What worries me most, though, involves reading into the situation something for which I don’t really have enough evidence. In other words, it is more a suspicion than any knowledge. With that caveat, here’s what I sense: This is a team with some locker room problems, some lack of unity, some lack of the lagniappe of focused energy that comes from a highly motivated band of brothers. Maybe it’s the loss of guys who reportedly were good locker room presences: Harper, Jenkins, and Darren Sproles (and Jabari Greer and Will Smith, too, although they clearly weren’t physically able to do the job any more). But whatever it is, this team seems to have a bizarre tinge of discord. Why was Mark Ingram fuming on the sideline in the first game, and even refusing congratulations from Coach Payton? Why wouldn’t Ingram or Marques Colston speak to the press all last week? Why in God’s name wasn’t Colston even targeted for a single pass attempt this past week, after 86 straight weeks with at least one (and usually much more than one) reception? What’s with Coaches Payton and Ryan sniping at each other on the sideline? (And what’s with Ryan looking like he has added yet another 20 0r 25 pounds to an already obese frame?) Where is the “fire” from Cam Jordan? Why is Curtis Lofton almost the only defender truly “flying around the field” like he really means it?
And speaking of attitude, it’s a little disconcerting to see what seems almost like complacency, or maybe far more verbal confidence than the situation merits, in comments from so many players after the games. Brees, for example, seemed to take too much solace from the “just one play each game” excuse. The whole team seems, from a distance, to be talking about these two losses as if they are taking the losses too much in stride, all too certain that they will turn things around. Now I’m all for quiet confidence, but sometimes some anger is justified. Sometimes fiery frustration is warranted — not the widely smiling face that Brees (being, too his credit, a good sport) showed when congratulating his counterpart after the game. In fact,the only fire I’ve seen that was well aimed was Colston’s sideline anger at himself after fumbling the ball late in the Falcons game. But rather than using that anger constructively, and rather than helping such a key player get “back on his horse” by quickly going to him and getting him involved this past week, Payton and Brees instead acted like Colston was in their doghouse. Even when he was open yesterday (which he was, a few times), Brees seemed (and I WAS trying to watch this) never even to consider looking his way, much less passing in Colston’s direction.
Something is wrong. This is a team saying all the right things about have a “good locker room,” but so far it surely isn’t showing it. This looks like a team imbued with a certain level — maybe a low level, not a crisis, but still a higher level than most Payton Saints teams — of malcontentment.
Again, these are rather sweeping conclusions for me to make from the outside, based on just an overall impression and few concrete examples. But these are the things I sense. I hope I’m wrong.
All of which is to linger far, far, far too much on what sounds like doom and gloom. This is still a fairly talented team, although it’s not as talented as the team’s brass seemed to think it is. And I still think, for sheer professionalism and good technique alone, the Saints should re-sign Champ Bailey. But either way, this remains a team that should, on talent and coaching, reach the playoffs despite its current 0-2 hole. Then again, if the team doesn’t gel together very soon, it could end up being the biggest disappointment since the years where Jim Haslett was letting the ship sink with an injured Aaron Brooks.
Please, please, Saints: Prove me wrong. Go Saints!