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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.