When New Orleans Saints tackle Zach Strief addressed reporters surrounding his locker at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday, the franchise he represents had lost a fourth straight home game for the first time since 1999, its final season under the ill-fated command of coach Mike Ditka.
Any fans that didn’t leave when the Saints headed into halftime down 24-3 against the Carolina Panthers in the latest setback booed and jeered New Orleans’ players and coaching staff. Then, when the Saints punted after three plays to open the third quarter and Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart immediately ran in a touchdown from 69 yards that helped put Carolina up 31-3, a beer bottle flew onto the field from behind the end zone that New Orleans failed to defend.
Even more fans booed, jeered and followed in the footsteps of those who had already left. The sparse crowd remaining in the stands paled in comparison to the ones that attended the high school state championship football games at the Superdome two days earlier.
In Strief’s eyes, he and his fellow Saints (5-8) deserved nothing less as they took a 41-10 pounding from the Panthers (4-8-1), who hadn’t won since Oct. 5.
“I don’t blame any fan for being disappointed not only (for) this game, but (for) this season,” Strief said. “I do not blame them for that whatsoever. We have to come and play; we have to come and give them a reason to cheer; we have to give them a reason not to boo. End of story.”
Referring to the home season-ticket sellouts the Saints have enjoyed in each of his nine seasons with them, Strief added, “We get unending support in this city — unending. So people who pay good money to come to a game and watch us and are disappointed, (go ahead and) boo. Absolutely we deserve it. That’s on us to keep that from happening.”
For a while there, it seemed that days like Sunday were a thing of the past for the Saints. They hadn’t dropped four of their first seven homes games since 2007, coach Sean Payton’s second season in charge, when New Orleans missed the playoffs with a 7-9 record just two campaigns before winning Super Bowl XLIV.
The Saints had won the 20 games they had in the Superdome under Payton from the beginning of the 2011 season through Oct. 26 this year, including the playoffs.
They lost four regular-season home games in 2012, when Payton was suspended in the wake of the bounty scandal. But upon Payton’s return, they won all eight home games in 2013 and the first three at the Superdome this year, and the building’s reputation of being a tough place to travel to and triumph was cemented.
That has come undone in startling fashion in a little less than a month. In defeats at the Superdome to San Francisco on Nov. 9, Cincinnati on Nov. 16, Baltimore on Nov. 24 and Carolina on Sunday, the Saints have been outscored 129-71. They have been outgained 1,775 yards to 1,494 yards. And they have turned the ball over seven times while taking it away only twice.
It all bottomed out Sunday. Against a team they trounced 28-10 on Oct. 30 in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Saints lost by 31 points for only the second time overall and the first time in New Orleans under Payton.
“I believe that our fans are some of the best in the country, if not the best in the country — we just haven’t given them much to cheer for these last four games,” said tight end Benjamin Watson, who caught the Saints’ only touchdown Sunday on a 7-yard pass. “It’s been very disheartening to lose in front of the home crowd — you always want to give the home crowd a show. You always want to play well at home, and that’s what we expect.”
Never a believer in these kinds of things anyway, Payton on Sunday denied there was some complex explanation behind the team’s home losing streak. Having more giveaways than takeaways and being outgained will get teams beat no matter where or whom they play; it has been a coincidence that it has been happening in New Orleans lately and not elsewhere.
Yet he did sound frustrated when noting the irony that his team entered this season with questions about whether it could win consistently on the road. The Saints won only one of their last five regular-season away games in 2013, and they lost their first four on the road this year.
Now, after triumphing at Carolina and at Pittsburgh on Nov. 30, the Saints are bafflingly on a two-game road winning streak and a four-game home losing skid as they prepare to visit Chicago (5-8) next Monday night.
“That’s the unfortunate thing because you’d like to take advantage of our home crowd,” Payton said. “We’ve had great support, and we don’t even give them a chance.”
The Saints’ final regular-season home contest this year is against Atlanta (5-7). Having beaten the Saints in Atlanta on Sept. 7, the Falcons lead the NFC South by a half-game before playing at Green Bay (9-3) on Monday night.
The need for the Saints to kick off a new home winning streak when they host the Falcons on Dec. 21 couldn’t be more obvious.