I spent three days this summer watching the Saints in training camp at The Greenbrier. Yes, the setting was beautiful but it did not blind me.
The team that I saw in July was very talented. Of the teams I saw in person during training camp (Patriots, Ravens, Washington, Eagles, 49ers), New Orleans ranked just behind New England in terms of talent. Give Sean Payton (offense) and Rob Ryan (defense) those tools to play with, you expect a high level of success.
So why are the Saints now 5-8 after Sunday’s 41-10 home loss (an unfathomable fourth straight loss in the Superdome)? After all, despite some injuries (Jairus Byrd, Brandin Cooks), New Orleans is still plenty talented enough to be running away with the NFC South.
But in football, winning is not just about talent. It’s about so many other things that can’t be tabulated, especially by those outside the meeting and locker rooms. It’s about preparation. It’s about mental toughness. It’s about discipline. It’s about carrying out your assignment, as boring as that may be. It’s about being a professional.
And one through 53, the Saints don’t have enough of any of that. If they did, they wouldn’t beat the doors off the Packers and Steelers, and then get taken to the woodshed by the Bengals and Panthers. Or blow winnable games against the Lions, 49ers and Ravens.
Some of Drew Brees’ comments after the loss to the Panthers scream at fundamental problems with the Saints.
“We're much better than that, but we have to play like it, we have to prepare like it,” he said. “We have to handle ourselves throughout the week like professionals, like men, with a level of maturity. Until we do that, we're not going to have consistency of our performance.
“Every season you're going to face adversity at times. We just need to be more professional.”
Brees might as well have just said, “We have a bunch of soft quitters who enjoy being football players more than actually doing the work required.” And there’s no bigger indictment of a professional football program than that.
Payton knows how to run a team. Sometimes that’s not good enough if you’ve picked the wrong players.
When you look at the players the Saints lost off of last year’s roster, you’d figure they would be just as good in 2014, if not be better. RB Darren Sproles, LT Charles Brown, C Brian De La Puente, S Roman Harper, S Malcolm Jenkins, WR Lance Moore, FB Jed Collins, DE Will Smith, CB Jabari Greer, LB Jonathan Vilma, LB Will Herring and DE Kenyon Coleman are not exactly an All-Pro team of cast offs. Some aren’t even in the league anymore. But players often accentuate their shortcomings by consistently being in the right spot, being professional and being mentally tough. Hard to find a player on that list who wasn’t known as a tough-nosed and thoroughly professional player.
You can’t blame Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis for parting ways with many of those players. Out with the old and expensive, in with the new and cheap is the way of the NFL. But those new players must be more than just cheap. Do they fit the room and the program? Will they do what’s expected of them? Are the players you’re counting on to fill the leadership void really the type of players you want to elevate to that position?
Are talented guys like Jimmy Graham, Junior Galette and Kenny Vaccaro (and they’re extremely talented) the type of players on and off the field that you want thrust into a big leadership role? Because that’s what you’re left with considering standard bearers like Brees, Zach Strief and Curtis Lofton are longer in the tooth and maybe not as dialed in with their younger teammates.
That disconnect played out this week in the Saints’ locker room, although not many saw it at the time. Galette, a pass-rushing linebacker who can take over games when he wants to, said the Panthers missed Steve Smith’s leadership. He was asked if that same comparison applied to the Saints.
“I mean, c'mon, who are you talking about?” he told reporters. “The guys that replaced them are better than they were.
“Here, the guys that replaced them are better than the guys we had. It's not even close. Across the board. I'll take Kenny Vaccaro any day over any safety. And I'll take (Cam Jordan) over any defensive end. Jairus Byrd over any safety.
"Lofton is putting up numbers Vilma never put up. So. It is what it is.”
Galette talked about “better” and “putting up numbers” like that’s all it takes to play winning football. Strief went to Twitter to make his opinion loud and clear.
“[Vilma] and [Will Smith] are the benchmarks for leadership and professionalism,” Strief wrote. “Blessed to have been their teammate. #walktogetherforever”
New school take. Old school take. Guess which one has a Super Bowl ring?
The Saints are still very talented. Wins over the Packers and Steelers tell you that. But losses like Sunday’s to the Panthers tells you something is missing. It’s not the game-plans or play-calls. The Saints did not play poorly for much of the game against the Panthers. Turnovers, dropped passes, missed blocks and tackles, and blown assignments (I know Ryan went over read-option ad nauseam, yet the players still couldn’t play assignment football) at key times doomed them, and Carolina pounced on every miscue. Sometimes that happens in football. But folding your tent up at halftime does not, at least not on winning teams. The Saints (5-8) are what their record says they are: losers.
Not enough players on this team understand how to do the little things that add up to winning in this league. Perhaps a “Come to Jesus” players-only meeting could snap the Saints out of this funk. It has certainly worked before elsewhere. But it won’t matter if the words are not backed up by a collective effort to buy in and be mature professionals. Obviously that’s not going on, judging by the post-game words from Brees, Strief and others. It’s now Week 15. It might very well be too late.
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