CLEVELAND — The offseason is a learning process.
You gather pieces of information, bit by bit, as the summer carries on. Once you have enough pieces, you start to assemble them and hope a favorable picture emerges.
Thursday was the next step. The Saints lost to the Browns 20-14 in their preseason opener and, well, there are still a lot of questions remaining.
How much can you learn when Drew Brees isn’t on the field? How can you find out how Ryan Ramczyk is shaping up at left tackle or how Adrian Peterson looks coming out of the backfield when both are out of action? What’s the secondary without Delvin Breaux and Marshon Lattimore?
No, we can't make sweeping conclusions on many of the more pressing issues facing the Saints. But we shouldn’t make any sweeping conclusions after the first preseason game anyway, even though some people will panic over a loss to a Cleveland team coming off a woeful season.
Before you approach level red, just remember the Saints attempted a sweep on fourth down, near the goal line, while down by one point because they wanted to try a play out. If winning is all that mattered, a field goal is kicked there. Just remember the preseason is about more than wins and losses.
Still, maybe it’s better that we saw a diluted version of the offense at FirstEnergy Stadium, because the offensive line was a watered-down version of itself with Terron Armstead, Ramczyk and center Max Unger sidelined. No need to risk the franchise in a meaningless game against the Browns.
But what little we did learn from Thursday's game was valuable. It looks like the Saints have a solid player in running back Alvin Kamara; receiver Michael Thomas is still good at football; and there were some good signs from the defense early in the game. And further down the roster, some things might be started to get sorted out. The collapse at the end will certainly put some people in the hot seat.
And, no, coach Sean Payton isn't pleased with how things turned out. The Saints getting torched for a 45-yard touchdown to lose the game has a way of leaving a team irked.
"I'm sure we're going to have a lot of things to correct on that film," Payton. "Things that sit in your craw, obviously, are some of the situational awareness we lacked. Some of the substitutions, there was a handful of things penalty-wise that was kind of sloppy."
A lot of that came later. Early on, there were some things to be excited about.
With Peterson and Mark Ingram out of action, the rookie Kamara was given the opportunity to handle the heavy lifting in the running game. He handled the job and then some. After having his first run stall, he took his second one up the gut, behind a block by backup center Josh LeRibeus, and got free for a 12-yard gain.
If his day ended right there, it would have been enough to give him a positive review. But Kamara was given another series, taking that positive review and making it "two thumbs up" when he took a run up the middle, crashed into a wall of defenders and bounced outside for a gain of 22 yards. A few defenders got their hands on him in the pile, but his effort, as well as one by guard Larry Warford, helped him escape for a big gain.
"Just instinctive," Kamara said. "Just one of those things that happens and you got to roll with it."
If Kamara can keep adding pieces to his puzzle in the running game, it will make him even more effective in the receiving game. The so-called "satellite back" in this offense is most effective when he can also run the ball, as was the case with Darren Sproles. It will help keep the defense off balance and make the offense more unpredictable.
And while Kamara still needs to prove he can do everything in the receiving game and in pass protection, perhaps it was positive that he split out wide once in an empty set. That is an important element of the Saints offense — especially in the two-minute attack — and will be a needed skill for him if he is to supplant Travaris Cadet.
And if there were any doubt about Thomas’ ability to build on his stellar rookie season, he followed up with a pair of catches for 20 yards during the first two series. It’s only one game, but it looks like there is no need to worry about a sophomore slump.
It might be foolhardy to get too excited about the defense. The Browns aren’t exactly the best team in the NFL, but there were positive signs. Defensive ends Hau’oli Kikaha and Alex Okafor created pressure, and the Saints first-team defense didn’t give up much of anything. Later in the game, defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad and defensive tackle Mitchell Loewen kept playing well.
But it wasn’t all good Thursday night. Ted Ginn Jr. didn’t help himself by dropping a pass in the end zone. That was the big knock on him when he came here, and that issue will likely emerge from time to time. New Orleans is just going to have to hope the good outweighs the bad — and, given his history, it should.
And, yes, things got a little dicey once the starters came out. The second-team offensive line did Garrett Grayson few favors. He was under pressure or on his back far too often for comfort. And Grayson didn't help himself, either, though he did hit on a beautiful pass to Tommylee Lewis, who made several good plays, down the left sideline during the third quarter.
But here's the thing: The second-team offensive line, which already had two members pulled up to the first team on Thursday night due to injuries, should never play in its entirety during the season. And if Grayson enters a game, it means that things have gone terribly wrong further up on the depth chart. It won't matter by then.
That's not to say it doesn't matter how these players perform. It does. Some of them are going to serve as depth. But it matters much less than how the players who were in the game early on perform. So, anything that happened after the key players were already on the sidelines should be taken with a grain of salt. Much is made of preseason records — especially when a team doesn't win one of its four contests — but very little of what happens in the second half of these games has any bearing on what happens in September.
Otherwise, the Saints would have kicked a field goal on that fourth down instead of running a reverse.
"You expose your team to as much as you can," Payton said. "The fourth-down call, probably I'm going to kick a field in a regular (game). You want to see guys and see how they respond and kind of go through it."
Overall, there was good Thursday night, with a little bad. The early pieces weren’t all sharp and there are things to work on. But as far as the starters are concerned, it looks like there might be some pieces there to work with. And that's all you can really ask for after the first preseason game.