No matter what level of football, it’s a locker-room cliché: players talking about how much tighter the team is than the year before and how that’s made them better.
But with the Saints, maybe it’s true. Not counting the current record, of course.
We’ve been hearing it all season. And Monday, the day after the team’s 24-17 upset of Tampa Bay, two of the players were still talking about the part it played.
“That’s real; that’s definitely real,” safety Jairus Byrd said. “You talk about being individuals about there, but you can’t win with individuals.
“Any time guys are together, there’s a camaraderie and a brotherhood there, and it starts in the locker room.”
Running back Timmy Hightower added: “It’s easy for guys to come to work, business as usual and go through the motions at this point of the season.
“But we were determined to win and determined to win the right way. For me, it’s beautiful to think how you can collectively overcome adversity as team.”
As one who hasn’t played for four years after a knee injury, Hightower is definitely an expert on facing adversity.
Certainly a team on a four-game losing streak — with rumors swirling about the future of its coach and quarterback, with only a miniscule chance of making the playoffs, and with its top running back becoming the latest in an increasing list of players lost for the season — needs something going for it.
And camaraderie is a quality that doesn’t require any special talent, unless you count the ability to bond quickly.
Not only is this a team with more than a 50 percent turnover from last year, but on Sunday out of the 53-man active roster, there were just 14 left from the Saints’ last playoff game, against Seattle just two seasons ago.
So while you can talk about Drew Brees, Zach Strief, Marques Colston and Jahri Evans having spent a decade together, some of the other players probably need their names on their helmets so the coaches know who they are.
Could you pick James Anderson out of a lineup?
The 10-year veteran linebacker wasn’t even in anyone’s camp this summer. But after being signed by the Saints last month, he led the team in tackles in the Carolina game with 11.
Sunday, even with Dannel Ellerbe back, Anderson had four stops in his 19 defensive snaps.
More than that, while last year Junior Galette could incur wrath from all sides by saying his current teammates were better than departed Super Bowl XLIV veterans like Will Smith and Jon Vilma, the first visible step toward his eventually being cut loose, Brandon Browner apparently can hurt the team on the field more than any player in memory but still have everyone’s support.
“Guys play for each other,” Byrd said. “That’s big.
“You can’t put a price on that or downplay that.
“The locker room being together is definitely huge: the type of guys that are in there and how guys get along and vibe with each other.”
Of course, it didn’t hurt Sunday that Tampa Bay played like, well, the Buccaneers we’ve come to know over the years and not the ones who outplayed the Saints on both sides of the line in September in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, becoming the first team in Drew Brees’ decade here to knock him out of the following week’s game.
On the game’s first play, Jameis Winston’s pass to Vincent Jackson for a 36-yard gain was negated by a holding call.
And afterward, when Winston’s passes weren’t off-target, several of them were being dropped.
But Byrd didn’t want to hear about good a rare dose of good fortune.
“To me, someone has a drop, someone needs to be there to contest that play,” he said. “You never want to leave anything to chance.
“Obviously you’d rather the breaks to go your way more often than not. But you are always striving to not have to rely on something bouncing your way.”
But in the NFL, there’s no way you pooh-pooh being a little lucky.
It certainly helped negate the five penalties for 55 yards the defense accumulated, the most damaging of which was a holding call on Browner on third-and-5 from the Saints 19 in the second quarter with the Saints leading 14-0.
Doug Martin ran for a touchdown on the next play, getting the Bucs back into the game.
And the Saints didn’t secure the victory until a defensive holding call gave them the first down that enabled them to run the clock.
That’s what this team is, though: one that looks and plays like a .500 team, which is the best it can finish unless there’s an unlikely playoff berth (PlayoffStatus.com still lists the Saints’ chances at 1 percent).
And while that’s obviously disappointing to both fans and the franchise, it certainly beats the imploding we saw at this stage last year.