It’s not about bricks and mortar anymore with the Saints, where they’re playing the game and whose fans are doing the most screaming.
It’s not about being tied for the top spot (or at the moment just below it) in the NFC South standings.
It’s about whether the Saints are a good team or not.
And right now, as has been the case most of this season, the Saints truly are not.
For the Saints, Sunday’s game will live in infamy. The Carolina Panthers came to town, having failed to win a game for exactly two months, and turned the Saints into an early Christmas bonfire on the levee in a 41-10 rout.
Actually, the Saints handed the Panthers the matches. New Orleans committed two turnovers on its first three plays from scrimmage. Before the Saints even had a first down, they were down 17-0 to previously 3-8-1 Carolina, the team New Orleans bullied into submission with a 28-10 victory Oct. 30.
The Saints followed that road win with another last week at Pittsburgh. The 35-32 final score belied the fact that most of the game New Orleans played superbly, actually dominating a good and proud team in their stadium.
Then the Saints returned home to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the place that used to be their fortress, and basically allowed Carolina to go all NASCAR victory celebration on them, cutting doughnuts all over their formerly hallowed turf.
And the Saints didn’t have the horsepower, or the willpower, to keep up.
The Saints showed a bit of fight when Cam Newton, that hammy over-actor, did his Superman-ripping-open-his-shirt thing after scoring on a keeper to make it 17-0. Curtis Lofton shoved him, touching off a gate-busting melee behind the end zone that resulted in the ejection of Panthers tight end Brandon Williams.
“I saw it as disrespect,” Lofton said, “so I did what I had to do.”
But it was sound and fury signifying nothing. New Orleans trailed 24-3 at halftime and fell hopelessly behind 31-3 when Jonathan Stewart scored on a 69-yard run on the Panthers’ first play of the second half.
The Saints couldn’t execute on offense, couldn’t get off the field on defense and drew the first of a rising chorus of boos when Shayne Graham missed a straightforward 42-yard field goal in the second quarter.
Could paper bags be far behind?
Things aren’t that bad — yet — but being a contender for first place in the NFL’s worst division isn’t a soothing tonic after a loss like this.
Afterward, a foray into the mostly empty Saints locker room was as pleasant as a field trip to the coroner’s office.
But a couple of voices stood out, among them that of tackle Zach Strief.
“There’s no reason to look at the standings in the NFC South if we can’t win a game,” a plainly disgusted Strief said. “It won’t matter if we don’t come ready to play.”
Coach Sean Payton leveled the accusing finger of blame at everyone, including himself.
“We have to look closely at everything … starting with me,” he said. “It isn??t a giant mystery.”
In a way, though, it is. If the Saints were just simply miserable week after week, it would be one thing. But they summoned up the effort to win at Pittsburgh, to dominate at Carolina, to manhandle a Green Bay team that has won four straight since.
But Payton says he sees recurring mistakes, cracks in the façade of even the Saints’ victories. New Orleans has given up touchdowns on its opponents’ first drive an NFL-worst six times this season. Five of the Saints’ eight losses have been by a touchdown or less. Sunday brought a flurry of dropped passes and defensive ineffectiveness on third down that wasn’t truly told by the Panthers’ 7-of-15 stat in that category.
Something is not right. Payton’s place has become a Peyton Place. If you believe the Saints have enough talented players and enough talented coaches, the issues must be internal.
Payton, Strief, quarterback Drew Brees and tight end Ben Watson broached the subject of a lack of leadership. A screed by linebacker Junior Galette last week aimed at former Saints defenders like Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma and Roman Harper (now starting at strong safety for Carolina) could be interpreted as taking up for your current teammates like Kenny Vaccaro and Cam Jordan and the injured Jarius Byrd. But Galette’s bravado rings hollow when you’re not around to face the media after the game.
“That was (the story) this week, wasn’t it?” asked Brees when he was asked about a possible lack of leadership on the team. “I feel like there are (leaders) — and yet there should be more.”
A diplomatic yet telling comment, to be sure.
Galette and all of the Saints need to make sure they’re part of the solution and not the festering problem, because pro football is a transient business at best.
Eventually, you aren’t the problem anymore, one way or another. If his players keep repeating the same mistakes, Payton candidly said, “Then we have to find other people to do those tasks.”
Then, with even more candor, Payton added, “Ultimately then at some point they will find someone to be in charge of the other people.”
It’s hard to recall whether Payton has ever spoken of his own coaching mortality in those terms before.
Maybe it’s a good sign.
Admitting you have a problem, and that you’re part of the problem, is the first step to a cure.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.