In this time of reflection, I think the most important thing that the Saints can do is to be honest with themselves. No more finger pointing, no more excuses. If they have the courage to look themselves in the mirror, they will see only one reason as to why they have had consecutive disappointing seasons.
Truth is, the numerous games that the Saints have lost over the last two years weren’t due to penalties; although there has been times when the boys in Gold n’ Black did have too many mental errors.
Furthermore, as popular and as easy as it is to blame on the band-aids and boo-boos, the losses aren’t because of injuries. Yes, the Saints have had more than their share of doctor’s visits—but once again, looking in the mirror and being honest with themselves, couldn’t the Steelers say the same thing? Didn’t they play the majority of the season without their top two running backs (Parker and Mendenhall), numerous starters on their offensive line and other team leaders like Heath Miller? Oh, and let's not forget how banged up Ben Roethlisberger was almost the entire season.
The game is football, where very large, quick and hairy men hit each other as hard as they can for three hours straight. Injuries happen to everybody.
The losses aren’t because of the defense and they are not because of the offense.
Fact of the matter is, the Saints have lost their groove because they have lost their toughness.
If you look back throughout NFL history, you’ll see that the best teams played like a pack of wolves. If an opponent popped one of their teammates, the rest of the team rallied behind the man down and hit back.
That is why the 2006 Saints team was different. Think of it this way: in our entire franchise history, we have never had as much star power as we did this past year in 2008. However, Payton has taught our players to play with such finesse and flash that they have lost their fight. As a result, the offensive stats have piled up while the team has grown stagnant in the standings.
In 2006, the New Orleans Saints picked themselves back off the ground after one of history’s hardest sucker-punch sacks (Katrina). All throughout 2005, our Saints played without a home. We literally had the wind at our front and our world was spinning.
In 2006, as a team, we looked up from the ground and realized that we weren't ready to be knocked out. As a team, we picked ourselves up. Every team we faced, we fought. We played with an unparalleled swagger. Remember the Homecoming Monday Night game? We knew we were winning the game before the first kickoff. There were no excuses and no doubts.
In 2006, when one of our players got clocked in the open field, the rest of the team hit back. Not once did we not return a punch. If somebody threw a punch at us, we threw two back. As mentioned before, we played like a pack of wolves. Our city was starved and our defense played hungry. The offense didn't just want to put points on the board and break Dan Marino’s record—they wanted to run under, over, around and through the defense.
Our 2009 team needs to learn from their recent past. I don’t know about every other Saints fan, but I'm tired of making excuses about all our injuries. What ever happened to throwing some dirt and tape on your hand or ankle and getting the hell back out on the field? The great, toothless linebacker of the “Steel Curtain” Jack Lambert once said: “The season is too short to watch from the sidelines.”
Don’t get me wrong; I understand people will miss games because of injuries. I understand players will take hard shots. But what worries me about our current team is that I don't see enough of our players play with the hunger and the urgency that it takes to win games in the NFL.
My hope is that Payton and Williams make a commitment to initially work towards playing more old-fashioned football in 2009. They need to start preparing their Sunday morning sermons for next year about hitting the snot out of whoever is in front of them. Payton and Williams cannot become complacent with a few wins here and a few wins there. To win in the NFL, our players will have to stop seeing wins as simply outscoring the other team. They have to start defining a win as knocking-out the other team; out-willing the other team. The Saints number one goal should become the most feared and hated team in the NFL.
This isn't the Babysitters Club. No more excuses for injuries, penalties, defenses, fumbles, etc. This is football, dammit, and it's time to toughen up. As my old Drill Sergeant use to say: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”
Toughness is a state of mind and it's up to our coaches to instill that mindset in the locker room.
It's time for Payton to become one mean S.O.B. over the offseason.