A quarter of the 2014 NFL season is in the books, and all of our wildest dreams and expectations are either on the cusp of developing further into reality or crumbling right before our very eyes.
Then again, it's just four games. Twelve games remain on the schedule, and the underachievers still have time to reverse the trend, while the overachievers may, yet, be grounded. Then there are those who, as Denny Green would say, are who we thought they were.
The New Orleans Saints, are not who we thought they were, and they won't be let off the hook easily if their recent form continues into this weekend's home matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Saints, preseason favorites in the NFC South and one of a handful of teams viewed as legitimate contenders from the conference, are off to a subpar 1-3 start over their first four games. The Saints have lost a pair of games in frustrating fashion, and got run off of the field by halftime in the other. Sandwiched in between, their lone win came against a depleted Minnesota Vikings squad in a somewhat uninspiring manner, and with the first quarter in the books, the Saints are now staring their own reality right in the face.
Poor defense, turnovers, miscommunication, indifferent play-calling, and a lack of overall sense of 'what in the hell is going on out there?' have killed the Saints through the first quarter of this season. They've been bullied in the trenches on both sides of the ball, their defense has been poor, predictable and pedestrian, at best. The offense, while still effective and hard to stop when it gets clicking, has had too many hiccups in the engine room. Even the kicking game has been off at times. In other words, a quick glance at the Saints' form 10-Q is not going to inspire their most loyal investors, Who Dat Nation.
The Saints' defense was thought to be one of their strengths heading into 2014. Unfortunately for New Orleans, it may be, to date, their biggest bugaboo, as they rank near the bottom of the league in almost every major defensive category. The secondary has struggled with communication and coverage breakdowns. The front seven, while able to establish some pressure and pass-rush, has not been able to convert those opportunities into many sacks or consistent duress to opposing passers. Opposing offensive lines are not afraid of any of the Saints' defensive linemen, and have not felt the need to use double teams, leaving every man in 1-on-1 situations, complicating things for the linebackers. They've been beaten on the ground and through the air, not doing enough to supplement the offense on days where they do look like the Saints of 2009. Drew Brees and the Saints hope to get back to their winning ways this weekend against Tampa Bay.
A year after Rob Ryan revitalized the team's defensive fortunes, a season after the Saints were historically and laughably bad on that side of the ball, New Orleans looks too predictable. On the rare attempt that they do decide to disguise a blitz or a coverage, communication breakdowns leading to missed assignments and poor angles and tackles ensue all too often. The Saints put an emphasis on forcing more turnovers entering this season, but have produced just 1, in contrast to 6 giveaways. The -5 turnover margin ranks, you guessed it, near the bottom of the league.
Sean Payton, while often capable of looking like the best in the business in terms up dialing up plays, has not had his best quarter at the helm. The Saints have still yet to commit to the run, despite all of the offseason talk of a slight shift in offensive philosophy. It was the decision to abandon the run which cost them dearly in week 2 against Cleveland. They never had a chance to get it going last Sunday night in Dallas. Drew Brees, while putting up admirable numbers, has not looked as sharp, and the offensive line has been weak on the interior.
Injuries have played their part on both sides of the ball, and those called into duty have been unable to answer the bell. It's been a tough go of it for New Orleans through four games thus far. But, even with the walls closing in on them, there is still plenty at stake.
Looking at the division as a whole, none of the Saints, Panthers, Falcons or Buccaneers have done much to convince anyone that there is an undisputed leader in the NFC South. Each team has had their moments, such as Carolina defeating Tampa Bay in week 1 without the services of Cam Newton, Atlanta thrashing Tampa 56-14 on a Thursday night where seemingly nothing went wrong, and the Bucs finally getting their just desserts with an impressive comeback win over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. The Saints, if only for the first quarter, looked something akin to that Super Bowl contender against Minnesota. Cameron Jordan and his defensive teammates still have time to reverse their fortunes in 2014.
Nevertheless, with each team still staring down the barrel at a dozen more games to be played, it's hard to identify any finite separation between the quartet of teams. New Orleans still has five divisional matchups to be played, three of them coming at home. They nearly pulled off a big win in week 1, only to be undone by the Falcons in overtime. Starting this Sunday against the Bucs, with a bye week on deck, now is the time for New Orleans to begin picking up the pieces and building for what has to be an 11-game assault on the rest of their schedule.
Recent history shows that the Saints have been able to shake themselves off after a slow start and fight until the bitter end. Going back to 2007, a year after surprisingly reaching the NFC title game in what was Payton and Brees' first year together with the team, the Saints stumbled out the gate to the tune of an 0-4 start. They got themselves together with a resounding Sunday night win over the Seahawks in Seattle, and proceeded to win their next 4 games on the trot after that miserable start. They would finish 7-5 over their last 12 games, and like this season, the NFC South left much to be desired in the form of a runaway leader. Tampa, at 9-7, won the division that year, and New Orleans finished third at 7-9. It was too little, too late, and too many defensive miscues to help the Saints defend their NFC South crown and get back into the playoffs.
The following season in 2008, New Orleans got off to a 3-4 start. It was a see-saw type year where they could never string a few wins together. They wound up finishing 8-8, just out of the playoffs thanks to a top-heavy NFC South that year. Carolina and Atlanta finished 12-4 and 11-5 respectively, with Tampa at 9-7.Despite their week-to-week issues, the Saints still managed to do enough to remain in the hunt for a wildcard spot deep into December, only to be undone by further defensive struggles.
Then there was 2012, the infamous bounty-plagued season that was always destined for trouble. The Saints limped out to another 0-4 start. The offense was clicking, but the soon-to-be historically woeful defense would be their undoing once again. After shaking off that poor quarter, New Orleans, partially inspired by the return from suspension of assistant coach Joe Vitt, won 5 of their next 6, but wound up chasing too many games from behind, and ended up in third place at 7-9. Their late surge saw them with another outside long shot of a wildcard berth into December, but the odds quickly disappeared as they ran out of games to atone for their poor beginning. Only the Falcons, at 13-3, proved to be the one true threat out of the division that year.
The downside of those three late-season rallies was that the Saints always just finished on the outside looking in relative to the postseason. It could be reasonable to say that they already face long odds of making up for similar lost time in 2014. All of last week, they heard the statistic of the 12 percent of teams that recovered from 1-2 starts to make the playoffs. One week later, and they are now 1-3 with even longer odds. However, in a division that lacks a true frontrunner, a defense that is not devoid of talent, and an offense that can still do enough to win games, it is still too early to write the Saints off.
Road woes will continue to linger until the Saints can prove that they can cope with playing away from the Mercedez-Benz Superdome, but let's not forget that this team did, indeed, win a road playoff game in January at Philadelphia. Additionally, this team has players that rounded into form defensively around that time, and weapons who made plays to put points on the board and secure victories at the back-end of last season. The hopes of going 13-3 and winning "Dome"field advantage may be too far gone to recover, but in terms of the playoffs, the Saints' hopes aren't dead just yet.
It will take some premium coaching and positive performances from the players to flip the momentum and kickstart the 2014 season. Twelve games is a lot of games. The New Orleans Saints may be hurting, but they are not yet dead. They may be barely alive, but it's too soon to pull the plug, and too soon to hand this quarterly report over to the auditors. Perhaps, by next month, it will be an appropriate time to start condemning the Saints and others to their soon-to-be final fates. But for now, all that exists is an opportunity to play things out and let the chips fall where they may. The time will come to announce the 2014 New Orleans Saints as contenders, pretenders, duds, could've been/should've been's, or just plain unlucky. That time, however, is not now.
Even Dennis Green and Vince Lombardi would have to agree.