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
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
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
"We're a sub-.500 team right now that feels it should be better than its record,'' Saints linebacker
"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
• 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
• 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
None too surprisingly, the Saints on Wednesday banished Gramatica to the injured reserve list with a groin strain and re-signed rookie kicker
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
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
Injuries have been part of the problem on defense as well, with the Saints missing playing time from rookie defensive tackle
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
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.