Lewis: Even with Drew Brees, Saints just not good enough to make playoffs this year _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- Saints quarterbacks Drew Breees and Luke McCown, right, watch the clock tick down in the fourth quarter of a 26-19 loss to Tampa Bay on Sept. 20 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Who would have thought that three weeks into the Saints season the best news is that basketball practice begins Tuesday?

That’s why we’re back here, two months to the day from when the Saints began their training camp, awaiting the start of the Pelicans one-week version at The Greenbrier, the home away from home for Tom Benson’s two professional sports franchises.

Up here in the mountains, the leaves are turning, the temperatures are cool (low 70s during the day, high 50s at night), and, as was the case when the football team arrived here in late July, hopes are high and all things seem possible.

Except we now know that even the mostly tempered predictions about the Saints aren’t coming to fruition.

Or at least they aren’t unless the team somehow overcomes franchise and league history by recovering from an 0-3 start to make the playoffs.

That’s happened only five times in the NFL, once during the strike-shortened 1982-season when 16 teams qualified, and not at all since 1998.

None of those five teams were from New Orleans. The Saints’ best finish out of the 12 previous 0-3 starts was 8-8 in 1979 when they finished only a game behind the Los Angeles Rams in NFC West.

A year ago, 8-8 would have won the NFC South.

This time, with Carolina and Atlanta both 3-0, that seems far less likely.

And for that matter, neither does the Saints making it break-even by the Jan. 3 finale at Atlanta, which we said would decide the division.

They’re just not good enough, and it has nothing to do with Drew Brees missing Sunday’s 27-22 loss at Carolina.

With the exception the end-zone throw for Brandin Cooks on which the Panthers’ Josh Norman made an exceptional effort to intercept, McCown, or probably any other NFL backup for that matter, could scarcely have played any better.

A 58 percent career passer, McCown completed 31 of his 38 attempts, had command of the huddle and effectively rolled out when pressured.

While Sean Payton on Monday expressed confidence that Brees will return this Sunday against Dallas, if No. 9 can’t go, No. 7 will again do a capable job.

But as for the rest of the team, well folks, as professor Harold Hill memorably said, or came close to saying, “We’ve got trouble. Trouble right here in this Mississippi River city.”

To wit:

There is just one quality receiver. And Brandin Cooks may be more a singles hitter than the home-run threat he was advertised to be when the Saints traded a third-round pick to move up seven spots in the first round to draft him in 2014.

Otherwise, those two late drops contributed to the notion that Marques Colston is shot (Brandon Coleman got the start ahead of him Sunday). Willie Snead is inconsistent, and the aforementioned Mr. Coleman was targeted only three times, making one catch for 9 yards.

As for the tight ends, Ben Watson can catch the ball, but seldom gets far downfield when he does; and Josh Hill, supposedly a rising star, has been almost invisible.

Together against the Panthers, Watson and Hill had five catches for 52 yards. After complaining about his role, Jimmy Graham had seven catches for 83 yards against the Bears on Sunday, including a 30-yarder for a touchdown.

And will somebody please remind us what all the fuss about C.J. Spiller was about?

How did a team that has led the NFL in passing yardage in the Payton-Brees era get in this condition?

There’s no pass rush.

Cam Newton is a tough man to bring down. But the Saints got to him only once, unless you’re counting another one of those Cam Jordan shoulder taps he seems to prefer instead of actually wrapping up his man.

Newton seemed more bothered by what referee Ed Hochuli said to him than anything the Saints did.

Through three games, only four teams have fewer sacks than the Saints’ four.

At least that’s four more than the team’s number of interceptions, which is zero.

To be sure, injuries ravaged the secondary, but it was disheartening to see Brandon Browner and Kenny Vaccaro unable to cover Panthers tight end Greg Olsen.

Through three games, the Saints rank 29th in total defense, which at least is an improvement of two spots over last year.

On Sunday, seven of the defensive starters were not with Saints last year, four of them rookies plus NFL novice Delvin Breaux.

Maybe that’s why the Saints were once flagged for having 12 men on the field Sunday. That’s not going to improve the fragile bromance between Payton and Rob Ryan.

Lots of other miscalculations and misfortunes have brought the Saints to this sorry state (And by sorry state, we don’t mean West Virginia, which is beautiful).

And while everyone professes that attitudes are still good, there doesn’t appear to be any way for the Saints to extract themselves from their deficiencies.

So be prepared for a long fall and tumultuous winter.

Hey, at least AD and the rest of the Pelicans are looking good.