After last week’s loss to the Cleveland Browns, a game that essentially ended on a defensive letdown, the members of the Saints secondary gathered to quietly discuss what happened and why they were in this situation.
It wasn’t an unusual sight. On any given day, these guys can be viewed chatting together in the locker room, cracking jokes or discussing an upcoming opponent. They are, at least from an outsider’s perspective, one of the closest groups on the team.
On this day, there were no jokes or receivers to dissect. There was only a play and an attempt to diagnose the breakdown that led to Andrew Hawkins getting open for a 28-yard reception that set up the winning field goal to send the Saints to 0-2.
It’s a different approach from previous seasons. When Jabari Greer and Malcolm Jenkins were in town, they served as the leaders of this secondary and were not afraid to stand before the other members of the secondary and speak their mind.
It isn’t like that now.
“Malcolm, last year, he’s a guy that can give powerful speeches before a game,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “We don’t really got anyone like that right now.”
And that’s OK. The approach is different, but issues still get addressed in a different manner. It would be unnatural for someone like Jairus Byrd, who likes to go about his business quietly, to stand before his teammates and give inspirational speeches as Jenkins once did.
But at the same time, these guys know that they need to open and speak to one another when the situation warrants, as they have this season.
“We gather each other together,” Vaccaro said. “I know Byrd just likes to make plays and not say anything. He’s just led by example. We talked about that today. I’ve always been like that, we said. We talked today that we’re just going to have to ride together and we’re going to have to get out of our comfort zone. Byrd’s not a speech guy. I’m not a speech guy either.”
“A leader don’t always have to be the one to be vocal. You just show by your play,” cornerback Keenan Lewis said. “One of the best Hall of Fame players ever I played with, (Pittsburgh safety) Troy Polamalu, never said a word, but he led by his play. That’s what we got to do, (and) we got guys to do it. I don’t think we need anybody hoo-ray, hoo-rah and all that. That’s really a waste of energy.”
So leadership isn’t the issue, but the players admit that there are issues they need to iron out to get back on track and end inquiries about their chemistry and criticisms of their performance.
They own the fact that they allowed Matt Ryan to pass for 448 yards in a Week 1 loss at the Atlanta Falcons. They also accept responsibility for last week’s loss to the Browns — even if their play was much approved from what they put on film against the Falcons.
But even though there were promising aspects to Sunday’s performance, there are new issues that are viewed as problematic.
“When you fix one problem, you can’t let communication be the next problem,” Vaccaro said. “I don’t know, man. We got just got to put a game together. We got to finish. Sean (Payton) put up a statistic today: Going back since last year (when) we started 5-0, if you look at the rest of the games since then, we haven’t been finishing in the fourth quarter on offense and defense.”
What that statistic shows is that the Saints are 7-8 since their hot start last season. In five of those games, including two losses this season, New Orleans was in position to win.
The Saints blew a late lead and lost on a last-second touchdown against the New England Patriots last season, blew a late drive with a chance to take the lead against the New York Jets, then surrendered a touchdown in the final minutes in a loss to the Carolina Panthers.
The Saints vow they can fix these issues. The 0-2 start is viewed as a mere setback. And as far as what’s going on in the secondary, even though no one is standing in the back corner of the locker room screaming, those issues are being discussed quietly and each man plans to lead the team out of this by simply doing his job.
Yes, concern exists. This week has taken on a critical tone. The Saints know they need a win against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. But there’s optimism over the 14 games left on the schedule.
“How many we lost last year? Five?” Lewis asked. “We have to do better than we did last year. We’ve lost two now. Fourteen wins? I think it can be done.”
Lewis laughed as he was talking, but his message was clear: The concerns about this team’s performance and the leadership in the secondary are greater on the outside of the building than they are on the inside.
As Vaccaro put it, “No one would be asking these questions if we were 2-0.”