CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Riding the magic arm of some guy from East Texas while their Hall of Fame quarterback looked on with a headset on his head and a play sheet in his hands, the New Orleans Saints almost found a way to knock off the Carolina Panthers and bring a detectable pulse to this season.
But the thing about magic is that it runs out. That’s always the lesson in a fairy tale. The protagonist flies high for a while and then, at the end, he has to find a way to win or save the day in adverse conditions.
Luke McCown almost did it. He stepped in for Drew Brees and delivered one of the better single-game performances in team history. But he flew too high in the end and burned away the magic.
Things returned to normal and came crashing down when Josh Norman leaped and picked off a pass intended for Brandin Cooks in the end zone late in the fourth quarter, which ensured New Orleans left Bank of America Stadium as 27-22 losers.
It was the expected outcome, but there was a white-knuckle feel throughout the game. Every time the ball was snapped, it felt like the next punt or mistake could be the one that sank the Saints.
That might be the way this whole season goes. New Orleans has the talent to win games. The issue is that this team doesn’t have enough talent to overcome more than a couple of mistakes.
Every week, this team is going to have to grip tight, go in the pursuit of perfection and hope the team on the other side of the field trips early, stumbles through a few mistakes and falls before they do. That’s the reality of this situation, and the Saints know it.
“Listen, our margin for error isn’t that good to overcome,” coach Sean Payton said. “Some of the miscues that can come in a game — we’ve got to look to get those things corrected.”
That’s a tough way to live. No one wants to be in that situation. The old Saints didn’t have those issues. They could show up and run teams off the field because they often weren’t as talented.
This team isn’t that good. They don’t need magic, but they need something close to perfection to win — like McCown’s 31-of-38 performance Sunday.
And even that isn’t good enough when the defense surrenders 431 yards. In a game like that, magic is the only answer. That’s an issue once you realize magic doesn’t exist and you have to find a way to survive in the real world.
“There’s no magic answer. There just isn’t. We’re not doing the things we need to do to win games,” offensive tackle Zach Strief said. “We turned the ball over twice, we don’t execute in the red zone, we don’t run the ball consistently — you’re going to lose the game. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing. You’re just not going to win the game. It’s the same things we talk about every week, and we’re not fixing them. That’s where the frustration is coming from.”
Being 0-3, the margin for error becomes even slimmer.
Look around the division. The Atlanta Falcons and Panthers both have three wins after three weeks. The Saints are 0-3. That’s a difficult hole to crawl out of. With the injuries this team is dealing with, it needed to win this game and last week’s contest against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It’s not time to write the eulogies yet. Crazy things happen in sports all the time. But it’s probably a good time to start outlining some lines. It’s better to be prepared than be caught off guard.
If this team loses to Dallas next week, it might be time to reshuffle your weekend schedule so you can pay attention to college prospects on Saturdays and spend your Sundays making cursory glances at NFL scores while you do household chores.
The Saints won’t admit it, but this team is in a frustrating spot. There have been glimmers of good play in all three phases of the game. The offense looked good late against Tampa Bay last week and played as well as it could for about 58 minutes Sunday.
But this week, the defense, which played well enough to win the first two weeks against Arizona and Tampa Bay, didn’t show up early enough and couldn’t prevent big plays.
The pass rush wasn’t good enough, the team had no answers for Panthers tight end Greg Olsen and the secondary couldn’t get stops. When cornerback Keenan Lewis is finally healthy enough to play, the Saints should think long and hard about keeping Delvin Breaux on the field for every snap.
While doubt is crawling up the exterior walls, those inside the building believe things can turn around. They still believe they have the right mix of guys and believe in the character of this team, which wasn’t true about last year’s 7-9 edition.
“Keep fighting and keep pressing on and keep staying together,” Cooks said. “There’s going to be a lot of noise; we just got to make sure inside the locker room we know what we have and we keep going to work together and keep fighting.”
And even though many players tried to conceal their frustration, it boiled over in some corners of the locker room. The players feel like they’re doing the right things, practicing well and studying hard. The results just aren’t showing up.
“All the hard work that we put in as a unit and not coming out here and getting (wins),” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “I don’t think we can do much more in practice and pay attention — I don’t know what we can do. That would be the only frustrating thing to me.”
Vaccaro was reminded that he said similar things last year and it was later revealed the team had all kinds of issues behind the scenes. He insists things are different now.
“I was delusional about it,” he said. “There’s a different level. I think we work hard. There was a thing last year — I don’t know what happened. I don’t want to talk about last year.”
Maybe it’s delusional to believe things will change, but there’s a chance things will click at some point and this team will be able to fly high on its own accord. Things will certainly get better when Lewis, Brees, safety Jairus Byrd and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe get back on the field.
The problem is, with the way things are going for this team, it might be too late to matter. Sunday was another step in that direction.