Kenny Vaccaro sat down Saturday night and started watching all of the defensive plays from his rookie season. Then he watched all of the plays from this season. And then he watched the Cincinnati Bengals offense.
The safety was up late — maybe even too late, considering the New Orleans Saints played the Bengals on Sunday afternoon in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome — but he was looking for something that he desperately wanted to find.
He wanted to feel and see something he hasn’t felt or touched lately.
“(I wanted to) remind myself of what our defense is,” Vaccaro said. “I’m going to look myself in the mirror and make sure I’m doing my job. At the end of the day, that’s all you can do at this point.”
Vaccaro’s efforts didn’t make a difference Sunday. The Saints fell to the Bengals 27-10 in what many players felt was their worst loss of the season. Some players remain optimistic that this season can still be turned around — but others are now staring into that mirror, trying to figure out how things can change.
The Saints still believe in their process. They believe that they work hard, have a good plan and practice well. But it did not translate to success Sunday. This team is not designed to surrender 9-of-13 third-down attempts or fail to get into the end zone until the fourth quarter.
This team isn’t designed to lose to teams that are struggling to find an identity or get beaten in their own house in consecutive weeks. This team was supposed to compete to make the Super Bowl. Yet, after Sunday’s game, players were left scratching their heads when asked how this team can be fixed.
“It’s frustrating because you don’t know what to do,” Vaccaro said. “What’s the solution? We prepare hard, we practice well, coach (Sean) Payton takes care of us. I have no answer.”
The Saints — at least on defense — are still trying to figure out who they are. Everyone agrees that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan puts together a plan that should work each week, but the players are struggling to make it work.
Vaccaro wondered after the loss whether losing veteran players — such as safeties Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins, defensive lineman Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma — this offseason altered the makeup of this team, and he noted the “vibe” is now different on the field.
“Just because you have great players on paper doesn’t mean everyone is going to mesh together right away,” Vaccaro said. “Guys like Roman, Malcolm, Vilma, Will Smith, they all played together for a long, long time. You got to mesh together, and eventually if we — at this rate, if we stay together — you’ll get that chemistry.”
Cornerback Keenan Lewis, who is battling a knee injury and played 11 snaps Sunday, wondered whether the struggles are a matter of leadership. Visibly frustrated after Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton lit up the secondary for 220 yards on 16-of-22 passing, Lewis agreed the team needs to come together, and he put some of the blame on himself.
”Those guys there last year (had) been here forever,” Lewis said. “We have to find a way to build our own identity. When you around for so long, you done built the identity. The standards are set. We have to set our standards. We have to find a quick fix. ...
“I feel as though I fault myself being one of the older guys in the group, in the secondary. It’s time for me to step up and bring my leadership and show them the things I was taught from some great veteran guys (in Pittsburgh) like Troy (Polamalu) and them. It’s going to have to be the standard — period. From here on out, I feel as though it’s time for me ... my play on the field can say one thing. It’s time for me to show them how to really get the job done. If they don’t buy in, they got to go.”
Nobody is going anywhere, and even though the players aren’t sure how to fix all that ails them, this team still believes it’s talented enough to do damage in the playoffs. Payton told his team that it will do things differently this week, and quarterback Drew Brees was one of those who remains optimistic about the team’s prospects.
After the game, Brees stood in the locker room and told his teammates that the formula for winning football will always be to work hard at practice and to study hard away from the field. This was his way of reminding his teammates to not lose faith after a difficult loss and to continue to trust in the process.
“I’ll be honest,” he said. “You may think I’m crazy, (but) this is the annoyingly optimistic part of me: I feel good about our chances and opportunities we have in front of us.”
The other thing this team has to remain positive about is that it is still right in the thick of things in the NFC South. All it has to do is aim for .500, and it could make the playoffs. But right now, with the way they’re playing, the Saints do not want to think about the playoffs. They don’t want to back in or be gifted a spot because everyone else in their division struggled more than they did.
On Sunday, the postseason felt too far in the distance. All Vaccaro could think about was how he and his teammates failed. He was embarrassed.
“It just sucks when we put bad tape out there like that,” he said. “Everyone sees it. That’s the Saints. Undisciplined. Don’t know what they’re doing. Even if we do, it looks like that. That’s what makes me get down.”
Now the Saints need to figure out how to bounce back. The leaves they’ve turned over haven’t revealed the answers.
Vaccaro might not have found it Saturday night. But eventually, if he and his teammates keep looking, they’ll eventually find it on the tape.
The hope now is they find it before it’s too late.