ARLINGTON, Texas — DeMarco Murray broke into open space, into one of the many fault lines that have fractured the New Orleans Saints defense this season, bound for glory.
The only man between Murray and the big blue heaven of the Dallas Cowboys end zone was free safety Jairus Byrd — the Saints’ $54 million man, the man supposed to help the New Orleans defense go from good to great. Byrd is one of the many talented athletes on this team, this derailed locomotive, this broken-down Mardi Gras float, this Super Bowl contender turned pumpkin.
Even if you didn’t witness the Saints’ demolition Sunday night, you can probably guess the rest. Murray ran over Byrd like he was a cardboard cutout, spilling into the end zone at the end of a 28-yard scoring run midway through the third quarter that put an end to any hopes of a New Orleans comeback, if they still existed anyway with the score already 24-3.
To their credit, the Saints didn’t quit, but a second-half mini-rally to get within two touchdowns only served to make the pain of New Orleans’ eventual 38-17 defeat that much more acute.
In what was supposed to be a winnable road game, a game against the often comically inept Cowboys, the Saints’ season may have come to a practical if not actual end.
How fitting that New Orleans’ players wore black uniforms from head to toe for this game. Just four games in, it feels appropriate to mourn this 2014 football season and wonder just what the hell has gone wrong — and what, if anything, can be done about it.
There are still a dozen games left for the Saints, three-quarters of a season. If you ask whether there’s time for them to get their dome in order and get back in the fight, that’s absolutely true.
Despite its woes, New Orleans is only a game out of first in the mediocre-at-best NFC South. The Carolina Panthers were in exactly this same spot a year ago, 1-3 after a loss at Arizona, before reeling off 11 wins in their last 12 games to capture the division flag.
So anything is possible. But before rampant optimism surges down Rampart Street, there are a couple of issues:
One, rebounding from a 1-3 start to win a division title is a rarity. Lightning rarely strikes twice, especially within the same division.
Two, Carolina turned out to have a good team last year. Do the Saints look like a good team? Have they looked like a good team at all this season? Are they improving?
The answer is no, no and hahahahaha, um, no.
What, or whom, is to blame?
Is Drew Brees slipping? He sure doesn’t seem to chuck it downfield with the same abandon he did just a year ago.
Is defensive coordinator Rob Ryan really the coach killer a CBSSports.com writer labeled him in an article earlier this season? By the way, the Saints’ turnover ratio now stands at a whopping minus-6 after going 0-3 in that category Sunday, something Byrd (a poster child for the Saints’ woes but hardly the only culprit) was supposed to help fix.
Did the Saints’ croquet-and-crumpets surroundings during training camp at The Greenbrier make this team soft? It looks like the Saints are waiting for afternoon tea before actually starting to play the game.
Could Roger Goodell somehow be at fault? That would at least make some Saints fans feel a smidge better.
There are no easy answers. New Orleans’ unpredicted fall from the NFL’s upper echelons to ’Aints paper-bag territory is an all-time head-scratcher. No one following sports on Earth thought this anything but a high-quality team ready to challenge Seattle and San Francisco for NFC supremacy and their conference’s berth in the Super Bowl.
This team is talented. It was believed to be well-coached. But there is something getting lost in the translation. One possibility is, for whatever reason, a lack of chemistry, of team cohesiveness. It’s not something that’s easily repaired once the season’s ship starts moving inexorably forward, like yet another ball carrier sliding through the Saints defense or another pass slipping through a New Orleans receiver’s fingers.
At halftime, as us media types were picking through the wreckage of New Orleans’ first half, former Saints coach Jim Mora materialized in the press box. It was almost paranormal, considering the Saints’ plight this night and Mora’s famous quote when coaching the Indianapolis Colts.
“Playoffs?” Mora exclaimed back in 2001. “Don’t talk about — playoffs? You kidding me? Playoffs? I just hope we can win a game! Another game.”
Right now winning a game, another game, like the next one at home against Tampa Bay, appears to be the only reachable goal for New Orleans.
But hardly a satisfying one.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.