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One more window closes on Saints after 30-14 loss to Falcons

OPINION
By Bradley Handwerger

There was a moment in New Orleans’ 30-14 loss to Atlanta on Sunday when it appeared all wasn’t going to be lost for the Saints this season.

That through all the trials and tribulations, through all the lows and deep, deep lows, that the 2014 could still turn into something that might resemble success.

It was fleeting.

New Orleans’ latest effort – and season as a whole - can be summed up in a three-decision sequence late in the first quarter.

Coach Sean Payton sent out the punt team. Then he called timeout, deciding instead to go for it on fourth-and-two.

Left tackle Bryce Harris jumped the gun on the snap, however, putting New Orleans in fourth-and-seven.

Instead of punting, Payton decided to stick with the plan.

Quarterback Drew Brees, as he has done for much of the season, tried to fit a pass into a spot that’s not open for him anymore.

And instead of possibly being up 10-3, the lead remained a field goal less.

New Orleans had its chances, but like in many of the other losses, it blew it.

That sound you heard leaving the Superdome wasn’t the whisper of wind blowing past as fans streamed out.

It was one more window closing on the golden era of Saints football.

When asked it this season has been a head scratcher, Payton said no.

“I don’t really look at it like it’s puzzling,” Payton said. “The things you need to do to play consistently and win in this league, we haven’t done those consistently.”

The Saints appeared as soft as they have in any Payton-coached season since 2007.

The mistakes that were made again and again come from having a lack of focus, from not being mentally tough. They happen when a team reads its preseason news clippings and believes in the reports of being Super Bowl favorites.

New Orleans’ failure in 2014 has little to do with where they practiced during the preseason than it has to do with in-game decisions and roster moves.

Maybe we’re seeing the fissures in the Saints’ system growing larger. Or maybe we’re seeing a one off bad season that will result in a 2015 rebound.

How the Saints finish up next week against Tampa Bay will give us a little insight into whether Payton has lost the team and who remains checked in.

For the Saints to keep one more window open, they’ll have to show some poise beginning now.

It’s 2015 even if the calendar says it’s not.

This Fall is Revealling

As the calendar turns to October, in our football world, we've had better falls.

After a promising off season of signings, draft picks and country club training, five games in, the Saints have the look of a team teetering on decline. The Payton/Brees mystique is all but gone. A once feared road team, today they are greeted with open arms by their host cities. Now, something more disconcerting than the road woes and perhaps the signal of decline, the most dominant home team since 2011 is struggling to win against even the NFL's weaker opponents. At home!

A respected coach lauded as cutting edge in talent evaluation, motivation, play design and a master play caller, Sean Payton has seemed to have lost his magic touch. Sure, statistically, they the Saints remain near the top of the NFL in most offensive categories but in reality, this is hardly the pinball machine offense we've grown accustomed to. Every yard seems to be a struggle. Every score a minor victory.

It doesn't help that his defense has once again abandoned him. Actually, it's always been a drag on his team in one form or another. It's not like he hasn't tried to improve it. High draft picks, free agent signings and multiple defensive defensive coordinators all produced pretty much the same results. Though the statistics have been all over the board since Payton arrived, the one constant(except 2009) and the most important factor has been the lack of creating turnovers. Forcing even the most prolific offenses to continuously drive the length of the field to score causes more and more stress increasing the risk of turnovers and injury.

But the biggest sign that this is the beginning of the end to the Payton/Brees era is Drew Brees.  Brees will always be the greatest player to ever wear the black and gold.  He is permanent royalty. It's been the most fun I've ever had watching the Saints. Ever. But like that teeny tiny little snowball that slowly begins its slide down the mountain, Brees has begun his descent.

It starts with poor road showings against elite teams then average teams then hapless teams. Those road woes start to purge into home games. The deep ball first discreetly falls short then eventually floats and flutters. The interceptions first credited to great plays by opposing defenders become the unforgivable type thrown in the waning seconds of the first half of Sunday's game. Usually thrown by an unseasoned rookie or an aging QB feeling pressure and fearing injury. Even worse to come right back and commit the same sin the very next possession is stunning.

What's happening to Brees is not unusual. In fact, it's expected. A 36 year old with a family and multiple business and civic interest is nearly impossible to commit the type of focus of a 26-30 year old just hitting his prime. Even if it's a minute, almost undetectable loss of focus. Once it goes, its tough to get it back. Couple the lost focus with the natural deterioration of an athletes ability and you get those poor road performances then eventually those poor home performances.

I understand he just shot a Pepsi commercial this week on his day off. That's where his focus is. I once did a commercial shoot for a one minute spot for a Magazine Street merchant. It took about four hours. A national commercial with a huge budget is taking all day. A man with less distractions and more focus(and who doesn't need the money) would be in the film room on his day off trying to figure out a way to compensate for his new physical limitations. One would think.

At LSU the decline is more obvious. As people point to the defections of juniors and loss of seniors the last two seasons as the main culprit, I take a different angle. Sure, there has been an inordinate amount of attrition but at the same time the SEC West has gotten stronger. Les Miles can no longer count on easy victories against weak sister SEC opponents such as Ole Miss and Miss St. Auburn, up and down during the Miles era has ended Miles three game winning streak against them as they have become a perennial power.

People who state Miles overall record as an indication of his superior coaching ability fail to mention this. Where was Ole Miss, Auburn, Florida and Kentucky in 2011? Miles greatest season. A combined 11-29 in SEC play. Also with an incredible amount of NFL talent on that defense, the offense could be hyper-conservative with below average QB play and still succeed. Not anymore.

Not only the defections but Miles' indecisiveness to pick a starting QB and his unwillingness to use that QB to best suit his athletic ability have lead to agonizing predictable play calling. His overprotectiveness of either starting QB is destroying both of their confidence and crippling the talents of highly recruited and potentially explosive players at WR and RB. Now that the league is much stronger, the offensive deficiencies are heightened.

On defense, his affection for players on defense who are clearly overmatched by SEC talent has been disastrous. The lack of developing highly touted defensive linemen results in undersized and slow-footed D-tackles being manhandled. LSU has given up 645 yards rushing in two SEC games. When a team is leaking yards at that rate, nothing else needs to be stated.

Can these teams turn their seasons around?

Sure. But it will be tough.

The Saints seem to have less daunting road as seven of the remaining twelve games on the schedule are in the dome. However their opponents are much tougher. At Detroit, Chicago, Carolina. Home against Green Bay, San Francisco and Carolina.

Guess who has the nations #1 toughest remaining college football schedule?

LSU.

 

 

 

 

Loss of leadership showing up in late-game collapses

OPINION
By Bradley Handwerger

An optimist would look at the Saints road results thus far and, the Dallas game notwithstanding, would say at least New Orleans is trending in the right direction, having lost by three and then two and then one point.

If you find that optimist, let me know. I know a good therapist for him (or her) from which to seek help because that’s a sure sign of some type of mental deficiency.

The Saints have lost seven consecutive road games, including four straight this season, and Sunday’s 24-23 loss to Detroit was as gut-wrenching as they come.

New Orleans had a 13-point late fourth-quarter lead. And then it didn’t.

Detroit gave the Saints every possibly way to win, dropping as many passes as New Orleans accrued penalties (12 for 134 yards).

But a poor pass by quarterback Drew Brees – he threw with his balance on his back foot and he didn’t see the Lions defensive back – and an ill-timed pass interference by Rafael Bush doomed the Saints.

Now the New Orleans is 2-4 and as likely to get things turned around as Justin Bieber is going to get public support for, well, anything.

New Orleans came into 2014 as the darling pick for the Super Bowl. It added the pieces in the offseason through free agency and the draft that everyone thought was necessary for a championship run.

Instead, only three draft picks remain on the active roster and the main offseason acquisition – Jairus Byrd – is on injured reserve.

Gone are team leaders Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer, Jed Collins, Brian de la Puente, Lance Moore and Darren Sproles. All were locker room leaders and experienced players, teammates who had been through triumphs and trials with each other before.

All have left New Orleans and, for the most part, have improved on their situations. Jenkins and Sproles are seeing their production increase on a team challenging Dallas for NFC East lead while Collins, who didn’t contribute as much today, is on a team that is now 5-2 after beating New Orleans. And Harper leads the Panthers with three interceptions.

It’s easy to look back and say it was a mistake to let these players go, but as many right decisions as the organization has made in the past nine years, poor choices sometimes happen. It looks like dispensing with so many high-character players is having a negative effect at this point.

Hitters go through slumps in baseball, point guards go through turnover streaks in basketball and general managers and coaches swing and miss on personnel decisions in football.

There are leaders on the roster. Brees, linebacker Curtis Lofton and offensive tackle Zach Strief fit that bill. But on a roster of 53 Type A personalities, you need more than that.

The 2012 season notwithstanding – you know, because of the whole pay for pain thing – the Saints haven’t been in this position since 2008. Football years are like dog years – that may be only six years in real life, but it’s like 30 in football.

As blindsided as fans have been at the first six games of this season, it has no doubt hit the players harder. It’s likely they’re confused at what’s happening.

Sunday’s loss to Detroit is the latest in the humanization of a one-time power. League leaders don’t lose consistently on the road and they definitely don’t lose a 13-point lead in the final five minutes.

Coach Sean Payton likes to say you’re either in crisis or carnival in the NFL. This season is neither for New Orleans. The Saints haven’t just passed crisis, they’ve gone full-blown plaid (as any Mel Brooks fan would certainly understand).

And even an optimist knows that’s hard to come back from.

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