The bad habits, trends and lingering losing sure look eerily like the last three seasons. If the New Orleans Saints don’t soon do a clean 180, this 0-2 start could be a foreshadowing of another dismal 7-9 year — or worse.
If that’s the path for 2017, then the very patient Who Dat Nation might find itself not so forgiving and start banging the drums for a coaching change or more.
Of course, the only loyalty that counts is that of Tom and Gayle Benson, who appear to be entrenched and appreciative of Sean Payton bringing that Super Bowl Lombardi Trophy to long-suffering Saints fans. But that was 7 years ago, and not much good has happened since.
I know it’s only two games in — and two games against one of the top defensive teams (Minnesota) and the gold standard on offense (New England). But what the Saints have shown us so far is pretty much the same thing they’ve shown us over the course of their three straight losing 7-9 seasons: a defense that is one of, if not the, worst in the NFL, especially at defending the pass; an offense that once again has come out of the gate tripping over itself in the red zone and logging too many field goals and not enough touchdowns.
The Saints’ defenders have allowed 1,025 yards over the first two games, and of that, nearly 800 were through the air. This defense can’t seem to kill opposing offenses’ drives, giving up 15 of 26 third-down conversions. When it comes to first downs, they’ve been equally generous, giving up an average of 26 per game.
On the flip side, Drew Brees and the offense are shouldering a healthy dose of blame as well.
The disturbing trend now heaved atop the pile of the Saints’ incompetence so far is their inability to convert critical third downs and extend drives. New Orleans has succeeded on only 7 of 23 third-down opportunities.
Simply put, they ain’t movin dem chains over the first two games, and that has the offense in shackles.
Third downs have been the least of this team’s worries over the past decade. In fact, since 2006, the Saints, with the Payton/Brees offensive combo, have led the NFL, or been near the top, in third-down conversions. Believe it or not, they were top-ranked in the category in 2016.
NFL teams live and die on third downs. Well, at least normal ones do.
The main stat that every team is ultimately judged on is wins and losses. And for the fourth consecutive year, New Orleans has started 0-2. You should know by now how the last three seasons with that same 0-2 start have ended up.
Insert former head coach Jim Mora’s famous line here … “Playoffs. You want to talk playoffs? I just hope we can win a game!”
Now who’s to say this Saints squad can’t break away from their recent bad history? Anything is possible if you wish hard enough for it. There are some obvious facts that should crack the black cloud just a bit.
The Saints were going to be hard pressed to beat the Vikings on the road on a Monday night to open the season. Minnesota is a tad behind Pittsburgh for the best home field record over the last few years. Head coach Mike Zimmer is a defensive whiz, and has one of the most respected minds in the league. Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford decided to have one of his career-best outings that night and was just spot on.
That happens sometimes in the NFL.
New England, coming off a bad loss in their season opener against Kansas City, came down to New Orleans in a surly mood and seeking to make a statement.
Head coach Bill Bilichick is the best at finding a defensive weakness (no shortage of those on the Saints) and exploiting it with an advantageous personnel match-up. That approach is at the core of his coaching philosophy and is why he is the best in the business.
40-year-old Tom Brady was not about to have back-to-back sub-par games. He wanted to squash all that ridiculous media chatter that his arm and game are over the hill and falling off a cliff. Despite missing three of his top offensive receivers in Julian Edelman (season-ending knee injury), Malcolm Mitchell (knee injury) and Danny Amendola (concussion protocol), Brady sliced the Saints secondary, completing 30 of 39 passes for 447 yards and three touchdowns.
Before a sellout Superdome could get cranked up, Brady had the Patriots up 20-3, setting a career first with three TD passes in an opening quarter.
It was another milestone and record set against the Saints. Who knew Tom Terrific had never thrown three touchdown passes in a first quarter before?
He recognized bad match-ups across the entire Dome field, and took advantage of them with precise passes and nifty pocket moves to avoid what little pressure the Saints defense could muster up. Once New England was able to stretch their lead to three scores, the game was over.
And last of all, Bilichick and Brady have never started a season 0-2. Oh, and by the way, the Patriots are the reigning Super Bowl champs.
I get it. Two tough outs for New Orleans to open the season. But the look and feel of the this team doesn’t seem to be getting better at any position, including Brees.
He has three touchdowns with no interceptions and 647 yards passing through the two losses. But he was unable to keep up with the fast scoring pace of both Brady and Bradford.
This was not nearly all his fault, of course. The Saints defense simply doesn’t have enough top-tier talent.
Defensive end Cam Jordan is the only defender any opposing offense might scheme against. The rest of the defensive crew includes a lot of youth. You can mix in a few rookies and just a few good players. But no one is a budding All Pro performer.
Last year’s top draft pick Sheldon Rankins isn’t contributing like a first-round pick should. Safety Kenny Vaccaro, another first-round pick, is middle of the road and gets beaten in coverage. Payton and GM Mickey Loomis completed yet another clean house on the defensive side, so these guys don’t know each other from Adam — and they play like it.
No one on the Saints’ defense scares an opposing quarterback — and that’s scary.
In his post-game comments, Drew Brees has said he and his receivers “are not out of sync.” Well, Brees is too smart for that, and he’s just glossing over a glaring problem. He is not attuned and comfortable with three new receivers in Ted Ginn, Jr., Tommy Lee Lewis and scatback Alvin Kamara. Brandon Coleman has still not established a consistent pair of hands, and tight end Coby Fleener is not a game-changing weapon.
I’m still hopeful the Adrian Peterson signing and experiment doesn’t turn out like the Saints’ other two late-in-their-career Hall-of-Fame roster additions in Jimmy Taylor and Earl Campbell.
If significant improvement doesn’t arrive pretty quickly, Payton should forget about his post-game penchant for having to watch the game tape before issuing his true feelings and just call a spade a spade.
If the defense was incompetent, then just say they sucked.
If the offense blew opportunities and didn’t block anybody, then just say they sucked.
If the game plan looked good on paper but blew up in their faces by half-time, then just say it sucked, too.
Payton must think it’s way too early for such harshness and pessimism with a team tinkering on the edge, and he’s probably right. But the blunt honesty might wake them up.
The NFL starts and ends with the quarterback. The games are decided by how well the quarterback plays. And the Saints’ near-term success will depend entirely on how this patchwork defense holds up against some of the league’s elite passers on their schedule.
Over the next five weeks, the Saints will face Carolina’s Cam Newton, Miami veteran Jay Cutler in London, then, after an open week, it’s the Lions’ Matt Stafford. Then the Saints are at Green Bay against Aaron Rogers.
0-2 could easily be 0-6.
If that happens, the Saints would be lucky to finish up with their same old 7-9 record.
Now look who’s being too pessimistic.