It would be oversimplifying things to point at the second-quarter hit that left Drew Brees with a banged-up shoulder as the reason for Sunday’s loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
There were too many issues to point to one symptom and jump to a diagnosis. But it’s the easiest, most obvious way to explain how a once-proud New Orleans Saints organization stumbled to a 26-19 defeat against a team that finished with the NFL’s worst record last season.
Brees wasn’t Brees after that hit. To be fair, Brees hasn’t looked like Brees at all during the first two weeks of the season as the offense has been too willing to dink and dunk its way to consecutive losses. But once the playbook opened up Sunday and New Orleans began trying to hit deep shots down the field, the quarterback wound up and found out his arm wasn’t there.
Again, it would be too easy to point to one play and call it the difference in the game. There were a lot of moments that could be pulled from the pile and stretched out for a game of “What if?” The interception Brees threw in the third quarter that took seven points away from New Orleans and put another three on the board for Tampa Bay qualifies as one of those moments.
It was the perfect play call. It was the third time in the game the Saints used their 22 personnel (two running backs and two tight ends). Until this point, through the first two weeks of the season, New Orleans used the personnel grouping four times. Three of the plays were runs, the other a screen.
Tampa Bay was thinking run. The play-action fake opened things up for Brandin Cooks, who took off down the right sideline and appeared headed for a touchdown. Brees wound up and threw a pass that was well short and landed in the arms of Bucs safety Chris Conte.
“It should have been a touchdown,” Brees said.
A lot of things should have been different. It would be misleading to point out that the Saints had a chance to tie the score on the last play of the game and harp on that. The defense deserves a lot of credit ensuring every snap in this game was meaningful. The offense deserves the scorn.
In fact, in a plot twist few foreshadowed during training camp, it has been the offense that has let this team down in consecutive weeks. Last week against Arizona, there were the red-zone issues. This week, despite going 3-for-3 in the red zone, there were issues all over the other 80 yards of the field.
“When you have a game like today, you get frustrated as a head coach, you are frustrated as a play caller, you are frustrated in a lot of areas,” coach Sean Payton said. “But I was encouraged with the takeaways we got defensively.”
The Saints are downplaying the impact of the loss, but this team is in a critical situation. Teams that start the season 0-2 typically do not make the playoffs.
It’s too soon to rule this team out. But now, instead of looking at the schedule and seeing soft spots, shadows hang where optimism once prevailed. The next five games against Carolina, Dallas, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Indianapolis could get this team shot out of the sky like Brees’ throw to Cooks if things don’t click in the immediate future.
New Orleans has plenty of talent to turn things around, so the issues aren’t terminal but, until the symptoms clear up, this has to be considered a bad football team. Good teams don’t turn the ball over three times and fumble three other times. Good teams don’t get called for 10 penalties for 115 yards. Good teams don’t lose to the Bucs.
“We just have to come together as a team,” offensive tackle Terron Armstead said. “We have a lot of great guys. We have a lot of young guys. We are going to run into obstacles like this, but this is when we need to come together as a team.”
As far as the underlying issues with this team, it’s hard to know whether many of the issues plaguing it are coming from what were once perceived as areas of strength.
No one assumed the offensive line would be one of the bigger issues. It was Sunday. The running backs averaged only 1.8 yards per carry in the first half, and Brees was sacked four times, three of which were surrendered by right tackle Zach Strief. The other sack came from interior pressure.
It also was assumed the offense would be able to move the ball, regardless of who was on the field catching passes. That remains up for debate. New Orleans tried to move away from veteran Marques Colston early, instead using Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead and Brandon Coleman as the top three receivers.
New Orleans quickly realized Colston was needed. While the other three receivers combined for 53 yards during the first half, Colston marched into halftime with 45. And it shouldn’t be lost that many of the issues were the result of Brees (24-of-38 for 255 yards, one touchdown, one interception) missing his receivers all over the field.
Things improved in the second half. The running game opened up. Passes started falling where they should. And the play calling was on point, with one plus moment coming when Snead scored on a pick play.
But there needs to be more, and it needs to come consistently. If there were any confidence in this offense’s ability to take advantage in the fourth quarter when the defense kept producing turnovers, it was created by residual images of a bygone era.
Cooks has flashed the ability, and perhaps the view of his performance would look much different if Brees had hit him on that deep throw, but he hasn’t pieced together a No. 1 receiver performance through two weeks.
Colston, Coleman and Snead are solid players. But things look different when Cooks is being erased and they’re all that’s left. Tight ends Ben Watson and Josh Hill will make you remember Jimmy Graham is gone.
So far, this offense has been reliant on the running backs to carry them far too often. Maybe that’s OK once C.J. Spiller is healthy. Right now, it hasn’t worked as hoped.
While the defense has been good enough during the first two games — at least until safety Jairus Byrd, cornerback Keenan Lewis and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe are back — good enough means the offense has to score close to 30 points.
Healthy shoulder or not, Brees doesn’t have the weaponry around him that once made this team great. For the offense to move the ball, he needs to be healthy and avoid mistakes.
While there were plenty of mistakes to harp on against the Bucs, that was the underlying issue Sunday.