0-2. Again. Staring down the barrel of 0-3 with a probable loss on the road at the Panthers. Excitement has quickly turned to frustration for Who Dats around the world watching the Saints opening game at the Minnesota Vikings and then last night’s embarrassing loss by the reigning Super Bowl Champion Patriots. Frustration watching the much discussed defense which was supposedly improved upon from last season’s porous unit that ranked at or near bottom of the league in all the major categories. Saints fans have become accustomed to watching opponents drop bombs and gash the defense. The most frustrating part of the last 2 performances was the shear lack of rhythm on offense and the inability to move the ball or punch it in from within 20 yards out on more than 1 occasion, which has always been a strong point for this offense during the Payton-Brees era in New Orleans.
Here is the question, at what point in the preseason did Coach Payton put this team in a position for a fast start? Brees, Ingram and Peterson all sat until the limited snaps they saw in the 3rd preseason game at home to the Texans and even at that point the Saints didn’t look in midseason form ready to roll. They struggled to move the ball then as well. So should Who Dats be surprised by the slow start that has plagued the Saints for the last 4 seasons now? The answer is no. When asked about the lack of snaps in preseason for the key members of the offense Payton said they were replaced with the snaps they received on the training field in the joint practices with the Chargers and Texans. However playing game situations on the practice field is different to actually playing out the same situations on game day when the adrenaline is pumping and players are giving that little bit extra because the floodlights are on and the stadium is packed.
When the offense was as sluggish against the Texans should Payton have risked the starters for an extra couple of series against the Ravens to give them a few more opportunities to find a groove? Would it have benefited them? Maybe not, but by that point it was too late, the Saints should have been working the Starters into form since week 1 of the preseason like they have done previously and like most clubs do around the league.
The Saints will have known they were going to approach the Vikings game by running the ball to nullify the Vikings formidable pass rush so why weren’t the 2 main options to do that thrust into the role without a proper chance to get up to speed. Even if they didn’t want to risk Brees they could have been giving Ingram and Peterson a chance to knock the rust off. To make matters worse the coaches knew they were going to lose Willie Snead to a suspension, even more reason Brees should have been in to help build a rapport with the receivers he would have at his disposal week 1.
Through the 7-9 seasons and bounty gate of 2012 I haven’t once questioned Payton’s ability as a head coach but I am starting to wonder if things have gone stale and are beyond repair for Coach Payton in New Orleans. Sometimes it happens to coaches, there is evidence of it in sports around the world where a top coach at his profession loses the dressing room and it is all downhill from there. To an extent, I wonder if Payton can no longer motivate or inspire this group of players whether it is through speeches, quirky motivational gimmicks or slogans. He has preached a fast start for the Saints the previous 3 seasons and even more so this season and in those seasons the team has responded by starting slow and inevitably finishing the season before we even get past the 1st quarter of the season. Now the Saints could make me look foolish by winning the next 2 games in a row (I seriously hope they do). But has Payton done enough to put the Saints in a position to do so? I don’t think he has.
Don’t take this as me saying I don’t like Payton, I still love the guy for leading this team to its 1st Super bowl victory in 2009, but is he the same coach who made one of the bravest calls in a super bowl by opening the 2nd half with ambush on the ensuing kickoff? Since his season suspension in 2012 due to bounty gate, Payton seems to have lost his edge. The Saints were able to ride the emotion of getting coach back in 2013 to our lone playoff appearance in 5 years but since then the Saints have been mediocre and have ruined the twilight years of Drew Brees’ career. Personally I look to the gut wrenching playoff loss at the San Francisco 49ers in 2011 when the Saints thought they had secured a place in the NFC Championship game only to blow it on the last play of the game. Due to Payton’s suspension from the league he wasn’t able to get back to it and get it out of his system. Had the Saints won that game they would have went on to host the NFC Championship game against the eventual winners of the Super Bowl the New York Giants in the Superdome (when the Superdome was still a fortress). I think that has ate away at him.
Payton is regarded as an offensive genius but even though his offenses are consistently rated in the top 5 since his return from suspension it does seem that including last year his playcalling is becoming a bit predicable and plays that used to be a staple of the offense are now easy to diagnose and snuff out i.e. the screen pass. Last night as he answered questions at his postgame press conference, I heard a lot of the same quotes we have heard in the last 3 seasons at this stage, but where is the passion coach? He looked dejected, not like a man ready to lift this team to string together an unbeaten run. I didn’t see any conviction in what he was saying.
Maybe the Saints will turn their season around in the coming weeks but to do so there needs to be a massive turnaround in their fortunes. Maybe this year will be the year they break the Hoodoo and go on to make the playoffs against the odds. As coach Payton said last night “we play Carolina and then go on the road for another week so we will find out what we are made of” That goes for Payton and his staff not just the playing squad.