Thursday October 9th, 2008

In the NFL, a bad start to a season will test and try a team in ways both big and small. The crisis of confidence that can ensue when a presumed playoff contender struggles to find its way early on can lay bare fissures in the locker room or weaknesses on the roster like few other things.

Since the Saints' bizarre upset at the hands of Minnesota at home on Monday night, a game they had no business losing, I've been wondering about them and where their team mood ring stands about now. Sitting at 2-3 and in last place in the NFC South, have they begun to doubt themselves and their legitimacy as an upper echelon team? Is that 30-27 loss to the Vikings the one that exposes them as flawed pretenders, and leads to a downward spiral for the club that I just weeks ago predicted would represent the NFC in the Super Bowl?

So which way is this season heading in New Orleans? Are those three agonizing losses by a combined 10 points a preview of how it's going to be for the Saints this year? Close, but never quite there?

"Hey, look, I know we've got a good team,'' Saints general manager Mickey Loomis told me Wednesday night, less than 48 hours after New Orleans managed to lose a mind-boggling game in which it got not one, but two Reggie Bush punt return touchdowns. "And I think our guys feel like we're a good team still. I don't see any lack of faith. We've got a team capable of making a run and winning the division. We all feel that. Nothing has happened to tell me otherwise.''

I know that sounds like glass-half-full rhetoric from a guy who has to believe the Saints season isn't lost yet, but in this case, I think it's backed up rather firmly by reality. When I look at New Orleans through the season's first five weeks, I see a team that, despite its weaknesses, has come within maybe two missed field goals and a converted third-and-1 of being 5-0.

That's not delusional, even though Bill Parcells is right: You are what your record says you are in the NFL. Given the narrowness of the margin of victory within the league, plenty of teams can argue their record should be far better than it is. But with these Saints, I get the sense their record truly doesn't tell the whole story. There is more to it than just being 2-3. And most importantly, where they've been so far doesn't preclude them from still getting where they want to go.

"We're a sub-.500 team right now that feels it should be better than its record,'' Saints linebacker Scott Fujita said Wednesday night, driving home after the team's first full day of preparation for Sunday's home game against Oakland. "We're 2-3, and we know we could have been 5-0. But we haven't finished well. We just haven't put teams away.

"Monday night was a tough one. But our mentality is still good. Everyone on this team is smart about having a short memory. We should have won that game the other night, but you have to move on and move on as quickly as possible. You have to do that in this league.''

What is it that the Saints need to forget? Let us count the near-misses:

• In Week 2 at Washington, New Orleans lost 29-24 despite holding a 24-15 lead almost nine minutes into the fourth quarter. The Saints were still up 24-22 with 4:34 remaining when running back Pierre Thomas came up empty on a 3rd-and-1 from the Saints 37, giving the Redskins hope. On Washington's next play from scrimmage, quarterback Jason Campbell hit Santana Moss with a 67-yard touchdown bomb, putting the Redskins up for good with 3:29 to play.

• In Week 3 at Denver, the Saints lost 34-32 when the offense wasted a second-and-goal from the 1 situation just before the half, then saw kicker Martin Gramatica miss a potential game-winning 43-yard field goal with 1:55 remaining. Again, a short-yardage failure was pivotal, as Thomas couldn't convert on 3rd and 1 from the Broncos 24 just before Gramatica's miss.

• And in Week 5's comedy of errors against the Vikings, the Saints lost by three when Gramatica again missed, this time from 46 yards, with 1:58 left. That kick would have put New Orleans up 30-27, but Minnesota instead won by that margin when Ryan Longwell converted from 30 yards with 13 seconds remaining. Gramatica, in the first quarter, had a 46-yard field goal attempt blocked, which was returned 59 yards for a touchdown by Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield, who also caused and recovered a Drew Brees fumble in the second quarter, leading to a five-yard Minnesota touchdown drive.

None too surprisingly, the Saints on Wednesday banished Gramatica to the injured reserve list with a groin strain and re-signed rookie kicker Taylor Mehlhaff, a sixth-round pick of theirs this year. Were the Saints' three losses all the work of Gramatica? Hardly, but you can't let a kicker continue to fail in such situations, or you risk disillusionment setting in locker room wide.

Injuries are always a variable from team to team, but New Orleans' health has been a factor in its uneven start. On offense, the Saints are getting an MVP-like season from Brees, the NFC's offensive player of the month for September. New Orleans' passing game leads the NFL with 325.8 yards passing per game, and the Saints' 27.6 points per game is 7th overall.

But how much better might it be if New Orleans hadn't played without its leading receiver Marques Colston (thumb), tight end Jeremy Shockey (hernia), receiver David Patten (groin), and hadn't held running back Deuce McAllister to limited early playing time in light of his second rehabilitation from ACL surgery in three years? Having starting left guard Jamar Nesbit slapped with a four-game suspension for steroids after Week 3 was another blow to a rushing game that has missed McAllister's power running and ranks just 29th (80.6 yards per game).

Defensively, a New Orleans unit I expected to be the most improved in the league has yet to jell or figure out its identity. Yes, the Saints held Vikings super-back Adrian Peterson to just 32 yards on 21 carries Monday night, and only 13 of Minnesota's 30 points were truly the fault of the New Orleans defense. But the Saints are allowing 26 points per game (26th overall), and opponents have averaged 351.6 yards (24th).

Injuries have been part of the problem on defense as well, with the Saints missing playing time from rookie defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis (knee), defensive tackle Brian Young, cornerback Mike McKenzie (knee), and safety Roman Harper. Rookie cornerback Tracy Porter (wrist) and linebacker Mark Simoneau (back) both have been lost for the season on IR.

The Saints' disappointing start has been built on a combination of bad health, poor execution in the running and kicking games, some costly turnovers, and maybe a bogus call or two by the officials along the way. But the best teams still find a way to overcome that and get things done.

If the Saints want to be in that number at season's end, they better start this week against the Raiders (1-3), who are coming off their bye and will be debuting new head coach Tom Cable in the Superdome. With next week's trip to first-place Carolina looming, and then their much anticipated Week 8 "home" game against San Diego in London, the Saints and their playoff hopes have next to no margin for error.

Of that, they are well aware.

"We've had some things go against us, some injuries, some bad luck,'' Fujita said. "But we have to get to that .500 point and then start building from there. There is still time, but unless we get things going now, there's not a lot of time. This weekend's game, for an early-season game, this is about as close to a must-win as it gets. We have to get back to .500. We can't lose this one and then face both Carolina on the road and then going overseas to play the Chargers. This is critical for us.''

So far, there's frustration but not discouragement in New Orleans. A sense of urgency, but not panic. Defeat has not yet become a habit, and the belief that the Saints are indeed playoff material has not yet faded away. But all those dominoes may be just one more loss away from starting to fall.

Bad starts can be overcome and survived. But bad teams eventually show themselves for what they are. It's time for these Saints to start defining themselves one way or another.

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