There was a moment Sunday when the Saints displayed so much heart that it couldn’t be denied — but it was probably more heart than anyone wanted to see, since it led to pushing and shoving and fisticuffs.
You had to see it to believe that there was a moment during Sunday’s 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers that New Orleans was not going to be disrespected in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton would not be doing his signature Superman celebration in their end zone. That was not going to fly in their house.
So defensive end Cam Jordan let Newton know how he felt by exchanging words and, when Newton failed to receive the message, linebacker Curtis Lofton pushed him through a gate located behind the end zone. A fight broke out between several members of both teams, spilling into the tunnels of the stadium. Things ended with Carolina tight end Brandon Williams dropping Jordan with a punch, which brought to a close one of New Orleans’ few competitive moments of the day.
After piecing together an impressive road win over the Pittsburgh Steelers last week, the Saints succumbed to mediocrity and were beaten on by the Panthers for 60 minutes. Once the carnage was calculated and the Saints had time to digest the flavor of what might be rock bottom, many players admitted that this is a flawed team that has several issues to resolve with three games remaining.
“Obviously that’s embarrassing — how we played, how we coached,” coach Sean Payton said. “It was awful. ... Here’s the thing I told them: Let’s make sure we’re crystal clear — it’s not a question; it’s crystal clear — there’s no question as to why. It’s right out there, and we just saw it. We have to look closely at everything — preparation, who we’re asking to do it, starting with me.”
It didn’t take long to figure out the team that played in Pittsburgh last week was not going to show up for this contest. The Saints allowed Carolina to march 80 yards over seven plays to score a touchdown on the game’s first series behind 5-of-5 passing by Newton (21-of-33, 226 yards, three touchdowns; 12 carries for 83 yards). On New Orleans’ second offensive play, Mark Ingram fumbled a screen pass, leading to a Panthers field goal.
On the Saints’ next play, quarterback Drew Brees (29-of-49, 235 yards, one touchdown, one interception) tried to hit receiver Joe Morgan deep down the middle, but he underthrew the pass, leading to a Bene Benwikere interception. Carolina (4-8-1) scored on the next possession when Newton rushed in from the 2-yard line. The brawl broke out as he attempted to celebrate.
The rout was on, and the rest of the game only served to provide more disheartening moments for a team that now is very much questioning its makeup, each dropped pass and missed tackle only furthering the misery. Those feelings are unavoidable considering the loss, which tied for the most lopsided during Payton’s tenure, puts New Orleans at 5-8.
Payton stood at the podium after the game and questioned whether he has the right personnel and whether his team played with enough heart to win. Others questioned the leadership and maturity of this group.
“I learned that we have some growing up to do all around,” tight end Ben Watson said. “Everybody has a hand in this, and we have to be honest with ourselves. The things that aren’t football-related can a lot of times impact football.”
Several theories were floated about why the Saints laid an egg. All parties involved agree the team had a good week of practice and that the game plan should have worked. They thought they were prepared to face their NFC South rival.
Those feelings were wrong. And, as it has at other points this season, bad losses tend to bring out frustrated truths. This time, there were questions raised about whether everyone is putting in the work needed to succeed.
Brees, who questioned the team’s mental toughness, said the players need to be more professional in their approach and that the squad has struggled to handle adversity.
“I felt like things got out of hand pretty quick,” he said. “We have to be able to handle those ebbs and flows better. We did not do that today. I think there’s been many times this season where we have not handled those very well.”
The question now becomes where this team goes from here. Payton dismissed talk about winning the NFC South and making the playoffs by pointing at the team’s record. Brees also distanced himself from the idea by saying the team now has three one-game seasons ahead.
The first one is next Monday in Chicago against the Bears. New Orleans then hosts Atlanta and closes the season at Tampa Bay. If things go well, despite Sunday’s setback, New Orleans can still make the playoffs. Once it gets there, if it sorts out the issues plaguing this team, anything is possible.
But those issues still need to be sorted out. Is it possible to get beyond them?
“I believe it can be fixed. Like I said, it’s not always about talent,” Watson said. “There are things that need to be fixed, and it’s going to take all of us to fix them and be honest off the field.”
Brees, who called himself “annoying optimistic” about this team’s fortunes during a rough patch earlier this season, also admitted that big changes need to be made — and quickly.
“Yes, I am optimistic,” Brees said. “I’m just going to be a realist here: That performance out there was not good. That’s not something any of us want to hang our hat and leave our signature on. We’re much better than that.
“We got to go play like it, we got to prepare like it, we got to handle ourselves throughout the week like professionals, like men, with a level of maturity. Until we do that, we’re not going to have consistency in our performance.”
It certainly wasn’t there Sunday. But there are three one-game seasons to get it fixed.
If the Saints are lucky, they’ll make those fixes and still be around to play the one-game seasons that matter.