GLENDALE, Ariz. — Déjà vu is such an unpleasant experience.
For the second straight season, the New Orleans Saints started their season with a rugged road opener. Last year, the result was a gutting of an overtime loss at hated divisional rival Atlanta.
Sunday, it was a close-but-never-quite-good-enough 31-19 loss here to the Arizona Cardinals.
Pushing the panic button is an easy reaction. Considering a year ago the Saints went into the season regarded as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, it might even be the feel good thing to do.
It’s right there, just the flick of a finger away. After a winless preseason pockmarked with so many issues for New Orleans — key injuries, the lack of a pass rush, a frantic search for playmakers on offense — it’s understandable to sound an urgent, DEFCON 1 type of alarm.
Sifting through the positives and the promises in Sunday’s loss requires more of an effort and is definitely much more of a reach.
Let’s start from this premise: The Saints aren’t a great team. Maybe they could become one by season’s end. After all, the Saints have a lock Hall of Fame quarterback running the show in Drew Brees and a potential Hall of Fame coach in Sean Payton calling the plays. (Yes, he’s still got the play sheet, not offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael.)
But probably not. Too many problems, too many hurdles that can’t be traded or drafted away, at least not in the short term. The Saints’ goal, and it may not be a palatable one, is to try to get to eight or nine wins and win the NFC South, the biggest throw pillow of a division in the entire NFL.
Don’t talk Super Bowl contenders. The Saints’ only trip west of the Rockies this season is going to be as close as they get to Super Bowl 50 hard by San Francisco Bay.
Talk about building respectability, then worry about being the kind of team people can fear again.
Right now, the Saints are not that. It’s evident in the fact that a team like Arizona — a solid, respectable, playoff contender but hardly the 1985 Chicago Bears — could stay just out of the Saints’ grasp all afternoon long. The Cardinals were just a half-step better in converting the big offensive opportunities and making the critical defensive stops. Three times the red-coated Cardinals got in the Saints red zone, and they cashed in for three touchdowns. The Saints got in the red zone four times and had one touchdown while settling for three field goals.
“That’s the difference in the game,” said Brees, who threw for 355 mostly hollow yards. “We played the game we wanted to, but we kept getting field goals instead of touchdowns.”
At game’s end, down five points at the two-minute warning, facing fourth-and-6 at their 7-yard line, the Saints couldn’t dare gamble on the long odds of making a first down. Instead they punted, a prayerful move asking their defense and two timeouts to give them one last chance. It was emblematic of an entire game in which the Cardinals dictated terms, forcing New Orleans into a buttoned-down, take-what-you-can-get offensive approach while trying to minimize the damage Arizona’s offense could inflict.
But the Cardinals even took that away, as Carson Palmer found running back David Johnson in the right flat on a 55-yard coup-de-grace touchdown catch-and-run for the final score with 1:33 remaining.
Afterward, Payton was left to defend his decision to punt. Any reasonable person would think it the right call, but it typified the meek corner New Orleans found itself confined to for much of this game.
When you got right down to it, going for it simply wasn’t worth the risk, because it likely wasn’t going to pay off anyway.
“There’s an aggressive side of you that wants to go for it,” Payton said, “but to put our defense on the field on the 7- or 8-yard line …”
It isn’t all gray skies over New Orleans. Young receivers like Brandon Coleman and Willie Snead showed great promise. The Saints didn’t sack Palmer, but they hurried him often, with Cam Jordan showing much of the bull-rushing gumption he had in 2013. Mark Ingram, who led all receivers with nine catches for 98 yards, continues to build into being a star player.
But being an upper-echelon team for the Saints looks like a wish on a distant star. At least right now. All they can do is not let their heads hang too low and go home next Sunday and take out their frustrations on Jameis Winston and the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I’ve watched this team practice for a week now, and it’s a good team,” offensive tackle Zach Strief said. “I think this team has heart. I do. We’ll keep improving.”
For the Saints, you have to hope they can. Because last year they started 0-2, and a loss next week would take them from déjà vu to nightmare in an awful hurry.