Drawing conclusions from the preseason is a perilous exercise.
Usually, there are important subtexts at play that outweigh the final score. The shadow game behind the game is the one that’s important.
On the face of it, Saturday night’s 26-24 loss to the New England Patriots was for the New Orleans Saints a second straight come-from-ahead defeat. But it differed from the 30-27 loss two Thursdays ago against the Baltimore Ravens in some telling ways.
This was the full-length feature version of the workouts the Saints and Patriots engaged in last week at The Greenbrier. In those days, in their leafy mountain retreat, the Saints often appeared to get outplayed.
But upon their return home, it was clear the Saints were eager to give an effort. To make a statement. To atone, as much as you can in August, for their undercooked showing against the Ravens.
“You want to win the games, but there are elements to the game that you want to see throughout,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “But I was pleased early on, emotionally, with how our guys came out. I thought we had good focus.”
This was the first action for Drew Brees this preseason, and his single quarter of work was brilliant.
He was 8-of-10 for 159 yards and two touchdowns. The second score was the kind of pass they’ll show on Brees’ highlight reel one day when he’s enshrined in Canton, Ohio — a high-arcing ballistic missile that perfectly found Brandin Cooks 45 yards away. It showed that he still has some juice in that highly scrutinized 36-year-old body.
But more than a single, graceful power ball, there was the foundation it was built upon. Afterward, Brees was more candid than he’s ever been about the oblique muscle injury last preseason that, coupled with an other injury he didn’t specify during the season, called into question whether his legendary passing skills were waning.
“I felt as good throwing the ball as I have in a long time,” Brees said. “At times, I got away from my mechanics. I was trying to manufacture power because it wasn’t coming from the places it should.
“Without getting too complicated, you throw with your core. For a while, I didn’t have that. Battling back from that, I compensated for it. That worked for a time, but you get away from the good habits and consistency of your mechanics.”
The result was a mechanical marvel. Brees left with a perfect 158.3 passer rating. The only time he ever did that in a real game was in 2009 against the Patriots.
The Saints kept Cooks, starting tailback Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Benjamin Watson (who caught the other TD pass from Brees) at it longer than the Patriots seemed to go with their regulars. When both teams were playing with their best, the Saints had the better of it. Even with the reserves, the Saints were going for two-point conversions and as late as the third quarter gambled on fourth-and-2 at their end of the field (they drew the Patriots offside).
Again, this seemed to be effort and attitude as much or more than talent and craftiness, but whatever it was, it was better. This was not the kind of loss like the one to the Ravens, when for much of the night the Saints looked like a wandering band of nomads — or, in other words, the Oakland Raiders.
There is, Payton said, more to do. Pass rush was a point of emphasis but the Saints didn’t lay a finger on Tom Brady or Jimmy Garoppolo all night. There were eight penalties, half of their ghastly total against the Ravens, but still more than you want.
The Saints lost a meaningless battle Saturday night, but they may have won the war with themselves. The third preseason game is always the most important, so it will be critical to observe whether the Saints can continue their quest for self-improvement next Sunday against the Houston Texans.