TAMPA, Fla. — Maybe the answer is simple.
Maybe it was the Kool-Aid.
Maybe the problem is that the New Orleans Saints sat around chugging cups of the sugary drink while reading news clipping about how great they were during training camp and the preseason. Maybe the Kool-Aid is why this team couldn’t tackle in a Week 1 loss to the Atlanta Falcons or why it couldn’t cover anyone as it fell to the Browns in Week 2.
That’s the reason defensive coordinator Rob Ryan provided this week when discussing his group’s troubles. And, really, it’s as good as any explanation for a season that has been equal parts frustrating and baffling for all participants and those who observed this team.
“I drank the Kool-Aid — everybody on defense did,” Saints pass-rusher Junior Galette said. “There’s a reason for it; we finished top-five last year. There was a lot of hype, but we shouldn’t be drinking the Kool-Aid.”
August doesn’t seem that long ago. That was when former Saints great Archie Manning was proclaiming this the most talented roster in team history, that the Saints were in West Virginia talking up their own Super Bowl chances. It was the Kool-Aid talking, but the Saints aren’t alone. Everyone was drinking from the cup.
It was a simpler time. Everyone was secure. Hope was eternal. Diamonds and trophies and laurels seemed promised. Now, today, is the calm. Today only serves as a buffer between the end of the season and the period when heads begin to roll.
Someone has to pay for this. The disappointment is too great. Sunday’s 23-20 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will do nothing to save jobs. Ryan’s defense came to life late and made a couple of strong stands that allowed this team to finish 7-9, but his fate wasn’t riding on this game.
It’s the same situation for some of the aging veterans and fringe players who managed to stick to the end. Their fates will be judged on what happened throughout the year not on what happened during Week 17 of a lost season against a team that is going to pick first in May’s draft.
It might be baffling to be in this position. For those involved, though, it all goes back to the Kool-Aid.
“It always happens when you’re so successful in a short time span,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “I think guys are wanting to be great. I think we drank some, but we didn’t drink the whole glass.”
And that’s the thing: This team didn’t drink the whole glass. It only took a few early losses for this team to realize it wasn’t 2013 anymore. So that leaves the lingering question: What went wrong?
The pass rush wasn’t what it was a year ago, and ending the season with 13 players on injured reserve did not help either. There were also personnel gaffes that left the team short on talent at key positions, such as cornerback.
There was individual talent, but most of it failed to play up to expectations, and this team never became, well, a team. All of the quality moments were mirages. Those were the outliers. The team that showed up and beat Green Bay wasn’t the same one that took the field against the Falcons, Cleveland, Dallas and the second game against Carolina.
Where does the blame fall for that? Is it on the players for not showing up, providing leadership and displaying maturity at times? Or does it fall on the coaching staff for not bringing out the qualities in this team? Or is it our fault, as observers, for overrating this team based on last year’s 11-5 record?
Maybe the 6-5 finish last year was a better representation of the talent here than the 5-0 start. Maybe everything we thought was good about this team was — to at least some degree — the product of smoke and mirrors. Maybe losing offensive line coach Aaron Kromer and quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi over the last two offseasons hurt this team in ways we have not yet realized.
Whatever the answer, change is coming. This isn’t a team that can be fixed by slapping some tape here and buffing out a scratch there. Major changes need to be made. There’s no longer time for loyalty to aging veterans that once meant something to this franchise and city but are no longer performing up to par. It’s time to trim the fat and get better. If Sean Payton determines an assistant is not getting a response, he has to go, too.
This team was all-in this offseason. All-in got this team to 7-9.
It isn’t time to start worrying about Drew Brees’ future. He has time left, but it would be ignorant to ignore that he’s going to be 36 in a few weeks. His time as an elite quarterback is limited. There isn’t time for a lengthy rebuilding process. New Orleans needs a better all-in.
“We’re not getting any younger,” Brees said. “You never know when it’s going to be your last. These games are always tough. You look around the locker room, and you know the team isn’t going to be the same. ... You don’t know how that’s going to shake out. I don’t know when it’s going to be my last.”
The process for finding those answers begins immediately. This time, the talent evaluators can’t afford to get blinded by a guy like Champ Bailey and base all their decisions on an aging veteran with name recognition who many around the league assumed was done last season. They need to find impact players who can help today.
That means not drafting projects and missing. It means no more loyalty. It’s time to be shrewd.
It’s time to get back to the days when the defense could get off the field on third down, when tight end Jimmy Graham was one of the scariest matchups in the NFL, when the offensive line could protect Brees long enough for him to make his reads.
It’s time to put down the Kool-Aid and remember how it feels to be thirsty.