CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It could have been the kind of game they make movies about: “Cool Hand Luke II.”
Or write songs about: “Nothing could be finer than to win in Carolina.”
Or that inspires ginormous headlines: “SAINTS ALIVE!!!”
Or that transfers someone from obscurity into a legendary hero: Luke McSkywalker.
Or maybe it just gets him more commercials.
Instead, despite the superb efforts of their career backup quarterback replacing their Hall of Fame-bound starter and commendable performances by just about everyone else in black and gold, the New Orleans Saints came up short here Sunday against the Carolina Panthers 27-22.
So, instead of making comparisons to the other unexpected, inspiring victories in franchise history, the cold, hard facts of life are that the Saints are 0-3.
To make it worse, they’re three games behind both Carolina and Atlanta in the NFC South. That’s a playoff hole that appears impossible for them to climb out of, even though there’s more than three-quarters of the season left.
To be sure, Sunday’s game came down to the final play — McCown dumping off to Mark Ingram when there was no chance for a Hail Mary from the Carolina 45, and Ingram getting to the 22 before he was tackled.
“I tried to score,” Ingram said. “It just didn’t happen.”
No, it didn’t.
The Saints came just that close to playing well enough to win.
They came in with an excellent game plan: Let McCown lead a ball-control offense (18 minutes, 21 seconds with the ball in the first half to the Panthers’ 11:39), contain Cam Newton (8 rushing yards at halftime) and make plays rather than mistakes on special teams (Marcus Murphy’s 74-yard punt return for a third-quarter touchdown).
They also benefited from Carolina’s ability to commit penalties both numerous (10) and obscure (Teddy Williams staying out of bounds on the punt before Murphy’s return, preventing the Saints from starting at their 9). And two-thirds-full Bank of America Stadium never raised the noise level to anything noticeable, especially after the Saints scored the first 10 points.
But still they couldn’t get it done.
Newton started finding open receivers, most notably tight end Greg Olsen (eight catches, 134 yards, two TDs). And on a third-down play when forcing a field goal would have left the visitors only seven points behind, Newton bootlegged around left end for 13 yards and a TD that put the Panthers up by two scores, a deficit the Saints couldn’t overcome.
The Saints contributed to their demise as well.
McCown muffed the PAT snap after Murphy’s TD, and the Saints, chasing that point, went for two and failed after their last TD.
Tight end Benjamin Watson was having a solid game, but he fumbled after a reception that went into Carolina territory, and the Panthers turned that into a field goal.
Watson’s fumble and Josh Norman’s fourth-quarter interception meant the Saints lost again in turnover margin. They didn’t win a game when they had more or even the same amount as their opponent last year, and they’re on the same road again.
And this, coach Sean Payton pointed out, is a team with too small a margin of error to overcome its mistakes.
That also includes a pair of dropped passes in the fourth quarter by Marques Colston. It was sad to see the best receiver in team history pounding the ground in disgust after the last one.
There was equal frustration from others in the locker room.
“We didn’t do enough to win this game,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “That was all there was to it.”
So where do they go from here?
There’s a Sunday night home game with Dallas coming up. The Cowboys are also playing a backup quarterback: Brandon Weeden was even more accurate than McCown on Sunday (22-of-26) but couldn’t produce a second-half point after getting 28 in the first half of a loss to Atlanta.
Drew Brees may be back for the game.
It might be trendy to say the Saints would be better off staying with McCown, but we know that’s not true. Having seen what McCown can and can’t do, the Cowboys will be better prepared than the Panthers, who seemed caught off guard in the first quarter.
Some other players — most notably Keenan Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe — could be back as well. Lord knows, they’re needed.
Also, this does not appear to be a team that is giving up or pointing fingers, the latter of which appeared to have happened during last season’s swoon. That’s good.
But it’s worth remembering that, when the Saints last played here, all seemed right with the world. Or at least it was getting right.
Coming off a Sunday night victory against Green Bay, the Saints turned a short week disadvantage into a 28-10 victory that evened their record at 4-4.
Brees threw for 297 yards, Jimmy Graham was the leading receiver with seven catches for 83 yards and a TD and Junior Galette had two sacks and a forced fumble as the defense held the Panthers to 231 yards. None of those guys were playing for the Saints on Sunday.
Since then, the Saints have lost eight of 11, the worst stretch in the Sean Payton era. If that trend continues against the Cowboys, it’s going to get ugly.
Turning things around right away doesn’t look likely. The ramifications for not doing so likely will transition the franchise into a major rebuilding mode. Actually, that rebuilding mode may have already begun.
Third-year guard Senio Kelemete replaced injured six-time Pro Bowler Jahri Evans on Sunday. Playing alongside Kelemete, tackle Zach Strief said he didn’t notice any drop-off.
“I don’t think he could have played any better,” Strief said.
That could have been said about a lot of the Saints players Sunday. Unfortunately, with this team, even playing at its best isn’t proving to be enough.