The theory of what it takes to win doesn’t seem like it should be complicated or hard to understand.
If you go out and score more points than the other team, then you win. If you don’t, you lose. The formula is simple. It’s clean. It’s one of the reasons people love sports.
But nothing that happens on a football field is ever as simple or as easy as it looks from home or the stands. Teams have to learn how to win. It’s a process that involves experiencing and overcoming specific situations. Through those experiences, teams build confidence and figure out how to stare down and overcome adversity.
Finding ways to fight through the fire is the only way to become a good team.
“I think that you can’t just throw the ball out there and say we know how to win,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.
This was something last year’s Saints never quite figured out. They won the games they should have won and lost the games they should have lost. Then there were other the games in the middle, the games that often decide a season, and New Orleans lost four of those by a combined nine points.
For a 7-9 team, in a division where 7-8-1 was good enough to get in the playoffs, those four games were the difference between a decent season and a lost one.
As safety Kenny Vaccaro noted after Sunday’s 52-49 win against the Giants, last year’s team did not know how to finish games. That much should have been obvious to anyone who watched this team last season.
There was some undefined quality missing, and it ultimately sank the season. It might have been a cynical view, but it felt like you could pack up and go home when the smallest amount of control was relinquished last season. At that moment, it was often over.
This year’s team is proving not to have those issues. This group has already fought through some tough contests, been in situations where it looked like things were slipping away, and still found a way to rally back and pick up victories.
Those lessons are valuable for any team, but especially young ones like the Saints, who don’t have years of history together to draw upon. And the recent experiences have generated confidence.
“We get in a close game now, we’re going to find a way to win whether that’s offense on the field, defense on the field, or special teams need to make a play like they did last week,” Brees said. “At the beginning of the year, we came out on the losing end on a couple of those. Lately it’s been the other way around. That builds confidence, and we feel like no matter what the scenario, we’ll find a way.”
It’s too soon to know where this season is headed. New Orleans is still 4-4, and, looking back at recent history, this organization has disappointed before after rallying back to reach .500. It happened last year, when the Saints opened 2-4 and then beat the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers to improve to 4-4. That team then dropped its next three games.
The same thing happened in 2007 when the Saints dropped four games to start, then won four in a row en route to finishing 7-9. In 2008, they started out 4-4 and finished 8-8. And in 2012, New Orleans dropped four straight, improved to 5-5, and again finished 7-9.
These Saints are confident they can buck that trend.
“This team last year — I don’t want to call it falling apart — we just take one day at a time,” cornerback Keenan Lewis said. “When things bad happen, we just brush it off and keep going. I think last we were trying to figure things out. Since we had that role last year, we know what it takes. We’re not going back.”
There’s nothing written in stone saying things will turn out differently this year. Maybe this team is destined for another 7-9 or 8-8 finish. But at the very least, when juxtaposed to last season, this edition of the Saints should inspire a little more confidence.
There were likely feelings of dread in Week 4 when Zach Hocker missed a potential game-winning field goal that sent the game to overtime, or in Week 7 when the Indianapolis Colts threatened to even the score, and again last week when the Giants took a 49-42 lead with 7:11 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Those are the kind of games the Saints would have lost last season. This team, however, scored a winning touchdown in overtime against Dallas, clamped down on defense against the Colts, and found a way to rally back against the Giants. Those moments showed character and heart and instilled confidence inside of the locker room.
“It took a stretch here, and all of a sudden we get the win in overtime versus Dallas,” Payton said. “Then we get another ‘W’ after a tough loss in Philly, and then another and another, fighting back and being in different types of games.”
Now the Saints need to keep figuring out how to keep winning.