With half the league at 1-2, the only winless teams are the Cleveland Browns and the New Orleans Saints. You expected the Browns, but no one could have seen this coming with New Orleans after a 13-3 season that saw Drew Brees rewrite the record books.
There are unusual circumstances for the Saints, as Sean Payton became the first head coach in NFL history to be suspended for a full season after the fallout from the Bountygate scandal.
But this 0-3 start goes well beyond the loss of their head coach, who is one of the best in the league. The Saints are struggling in many phases against suspect competition—their three opponents are a combined 0-6 in all other contests—and making the kind of mistakes that not even Vince Lombardi would have fixed.
New Orleans has played competitively all three weeks, but they just have not been able to finish any game.
Sometimes you have to call a spade a spade. Drew Brees, the highest-paid player in the league, is quickly becoming the most disappointing player of 2012. The defense is one of the worst in the league, making for a bad mixture that actually makes 0-3 reasonable.
The Saints are a team without their leader, but they are also a team with bad player leadership. Brees and other players like Jonathan Vilma have been mouthy and in the media spotlight much too often in recent times, whether it was for the lawsuit against the NFL, the player lockout, the Bounty scandal, Brees’ contract negotiations or now, with more complaining about replacement referees.
There was a dark storm brewing all offseason over the Saints, and we are seeing the effects of it throughout the whole team.
Fundamentally, New Orleans is a flawed team that relies on the prolific offense to make up for the defense’s lack of stops. The defense has not been good the last couple of seasons, so the loss of defensive coordinator—and Bounty-leader extraordinaire—Gregg Williams is overblown.
Fact is, Williams has often led mediocre defenses, aside from the 2000 Tennessee Titans. Last season, the Saints forced just 16 takeaways, tying for the sixth fewest in a 16-game season. Guess which team holds the record for the fewest: Williams’ 2006 Washington Redskins, who had just 12 takeaways.
Williams was replaced by Steve Spagnuolo, who labored as the head coach in St. Louis but succeeded as a defensive coordinator with the New York Giants (2007-08), helping win Super Bowl XLII.
Pete Carmichael remains as offensive coordinator, and he has been with Drew Brees all this time in New Orleans. That relationship should only strengthen without Payton present.
A lot of Payton’s assistants have returned to the coaching staff this season. The big change, for now, is Aaron Kromer serving as interim head coach. Even Kromer has been in New Orleans for five years, mostly coaching the offensive line.
While another holdover in Joe Vitt will be assuming the job once his suspension ends, the fact is, the Saints have largely the same coaching staff they had last year, but without Payton available.
With that in mind, exactly how different is this from the 1989 San Francisco 49ers promoting defensive coordinator George Seifert to (rookie) head coach following Bill Walsh’s retirement? The 49ers had their most explosive offense yet and went 17-2 on their way to a second straight Super Bowl win.
That was before free agency, and the 49ers were loaded. How about a more recent example?
After Tony Dungy retired following the 2008 season, the Indianapolis Colts promoted longtime assistant Jim Caldwell to (rookie) head coach in 2009. Despite possessing the qualities of a scarecrow—evidently one with timeouts burning a whole in his pocket—the Colts started 14-0 and reached the Super Bowl. Sure, Caldwell was painfully outcoached by Sean Payton and the Saints, but the point is they got there anyway.
How did those teams manage that? Joe Montana and Peyton Manning having MVP seasons were huge factors. We thought the Saints could do the same behind Drew Brees, because he is trusted as one of the league’s most elite quarterbacks.
Isn’t a decent team with an elite quarterback enough to prevent a 0-3 start in today’s game, regardless of which first-time coach you promote?
Not when the quarterback is failing to play at an above-average, let alone elite level.
Starts with the Quarterback
To say Drew Brees is not meeting his usual standards is an understatement. To say the Saints picked a bad year to pay him $40 million is only partially supported by hindsight. If the Saints were going to make the playoffs this year, it was going to be with Brees leading an elite offense again.
Instead, they are getting the most subpar quarterback play Brees has given the team since his dreadful 0-4 start in 2007 that produced one touchdown pass, nine interceptions, two lost fumbles and 12.8 points per game.
Things are not that bad this season, but check the facts through three weeks and where Brees ranks among quarterbacks in various statistics from Pro-Football-Reference, ESPN, Football Outsiders and Advanced NFL Stats.
If the numbers are not mediocre enough, consider the caliber of defenses faced (Washington, Carolina, Kansas City).
Should these performances continue, opponent adjustments will not look kindly on Brees. While Brees has thrown the most passes against these defenses, he has had the least efficient game each time and all of the losses. These defenses only have seven interceptions in all of the games, and Brees tossed five of them.
Beyond just the regular numbers, Brees’ situational play leaves a lot to be desired this season.
The Washington game in Week 1 was a bit of a shocker, even though Brees has struggled with them in the past. In the first quarter alone, the Saints had two three-and-outs that were six incompletions by Brees. It’s not like the Redskins are fielding a good defense.
The 2012 Redskins are the first team in NFL history to allow three straight quarterbacks to go over 300 yards with three touchdowns to start a season, and Brees played a far worse game (at home where the Saints were 9-0 last year) than Andy Dalton and Sam Bradford did.
The offense managed just 10 points in the first 52 minutes of the game. After getting the deficit down to 33-25, Brees overthrew a pass poorly, and it was intercepted. Washington returned it to the N.O. 3-yard line, and it only took one play for a touchdown. Brees would get one more opportunity late, but his Hail Mary was short and intercepted.
Brees has found the running game to be optional at best this season. They had just 10 carries for 32 yards against Washington, while Brees dropped back 54 times.
In Carolina, things were productive with 25 carries for 163 yards, but Brees threw a horrific pick-six in the first half. It was the type of throw that might be acceptable for Brandon Weeden, but not a veteran like Brees.
He would later have other drives stall in Carolina territory after an intentional grounding call, and then a failed 4th-and-4 pass in the fourth quarter. Brees ended a second straight game throwing a desperate Hail Mary in the final minute as the Saints lost, 35-27.
On Sunday versus Kansas City, Brees was playing a very strong first half, but the Saints only led 10-6 at the break. Their third-quarter lead grew to 24-6, but that was all set up by turnovers. Brees only had to drive a total of 26 yards to score two touchdowns.
After taking that 24-6 lead, Brees and the offense imploded the rest of the game. He finished just 2-of-9 for 40 yards, a badly underthrown interception with a chance to score more points and two sacks, including one for a safety that led to Kansas City tying the game.
In overtime, the Saints went three-and-out on their only drive. Brees finished the game throwing seven straight incompletions. It was the biggest comeback win in Kansas City history.
Some will cite the loss of Sean Payton showing up most in late-game adjustments for the offense. It is only three games, but a look at Brees’ splits by quarter might give that some support as you see the downward spiral.
In past seasons, Brees either stayed rather steady or even improved as the game went on. The pattern was never this sharp, but again, it is only three games.
Brees has been under more pressure this season—just a 68.8 passer rating against the blitz—and is on pace to be sacked 37 times. His previous career high is 27. Brees has a league-high 12 passes thrown away intentionally so far this season. Some quarterbacks have just one or two.
Brees has thrown the most passes in the league (137), but he is not playing as efficiently as we are used to seeing. He might still throw for nearly 5,000 yards again, but without improvement, it is going to be for a 7-9 season at best.
For this to work in New Orleans, he must be playing at a high level. Right now, Brees is doing an average job, and that is inexcusable for the highest-paid player in the league. This is an offense he knows as well as anyone not named Sean Payton.
The Defense Rests
If the offense is not lighting up the scoreboard, then you can count on the opponent doing so to the Saints defense. For as great of an offensive mind as Sean Payton is, let’s not pretend he was making the defense better.
New Orleans has allowed the fifth-most yards in NFL history through three games (1,432 yards). None of those four teams ahead of them finished better than 6-10.
They are the first defense in NFL history to allow more than 450 yards of offense in each of the first three games in a season.
There have only been two offensive touchdowns of more than 80 yards scored this season, and the Saints have allowed both of them.
First, it was Pierre Garcon’s catch over the middle that came with 72 yards after the catch for an 88-yard touchdown. That was Robert Griffin III’s first career touchdown pass.
In Week 3, Jamaal Charles went left end on a rather simple running play. Once he hit the 15-yard line, he was gone the rest of the way for a 91-yard touchdown run that really put the Chiefs into comeback mode. Charles would finish with a prolific 233-yard rushing performance. This came a week after his horrible day in Buffalo (six carries for three yards).
How bad are these plays? In their franchise’s history (back to 1967), the Saints have only allowed one longer offensive touchdown, and that was Michael Haynes catching a 98-yard score from Bobby Hebert in 1993. The Charles run is the second longest, and the Garcon touchdown is tied for the third longest. This is after just three games too.
The defense ranks 26th in points allowed per drive (2.51) according to Football Outsiders’ drive stats. They are 23rd in drive success rate.
Largely thanks to Charles’ big day, no run defense has allowed more yards than New Orleans (645). The pass defense is not much better, with a 101.2 defensive passer rating and only one interception.
Getting off the field has been a big problem, as well. The average time the defense has spent on the field is 37:06. Only Tennessee (38:25) is worse, though the numbers are inflated after each team played an overtime game in Week 3.
This is a defense that has six first-round picks starting, so it is very disappointing to see such poor play on this side of the ball. Jonathan Vilma has yet to take the field, but there is only so much he could do to fix one of the worst defenses in the league.
Hold the Players Responsible
Coaches get a lot of credit for what they do during the week to prepare their team, but ultimately execution on the field on Sunday is what will decide the outcome of games. The Saints have made too many mental and physical errors through three games that no coach on the sideline could have prevented.
In Week 1, Marques Colston caught a pass in the red zone, but it was knocked out of his hands by Cedric Griffin. The ball rolled into the end zone, where the Saints failed to recover it. The result of the play was a touchback, and Washington maintained their 20-7 lead.
In Carolina, Jimmy Graham dropped a touchdown on 3rd-and-goal, bringing out the field-goal team and costing the Saints four points. Lance Moore dropped the same touchdown on second down. Throw in Brees’ awful pick-six, and this game should have been 14-0 New Orleans early on.
Against Kansas City in the second quarter, Pierre Thomas was ruled to have a touchdown catch, only to have replay correctly take it away as the ball hit the ground. Instead, Brees holds onto the ball forever and takes a sack, and then Garrett Hartley misses the 38-yard field goal wide right. Multiple mistakes went from adding seven points to adding none.
All of the losses have been by one score, and it is all the little things adding up that are really hurting the Saints in the end and causing the 0-3 record. Players must take more responsibility and make the plays we have seen for years now on this team.
It would be comforting to say the Saints had a brutal early schedule and things are easing up, but the reality is more of the opposite. They now have to go to Green Bay for a very interesting game against the 1-2 Packers.
If the Saints are going to dig out of this hole, it starts with delivering a huge blow to another NFC powerhouse this week.
Most importantly, the team needs to get over the fact that Sean Payton is gone and carve out their own team identity. That goes from the coaching staff down to the players. This was going to be a challenging and different season for the Saints, and they were seemingly unprepared to make that adjustment.
When Joe Vitt takes over as coach, he cannot worry about doing things the way Payton did them, because he is not Payton. All he can do is coach the team to the best of his capabilities, and hopefully Brees gets back to the level he is used to playing.
Defensively, the team is still going to be a mess, but things will be better balanced if the offense improves and the defense is able to play with more leads. That is the type of team Payton built.
Payton is not there to run it this year, but there are enough coaches and players left who know what their success is based on, and what they have shown so far is not living up to that standard.
Right now, New Orleans is the biggest embarrassment of the 2012 season.
“Next man up” may not apply as smoothly to a coach as it does a player, but it is the attitude the Saints need to show this year. Any attitude that does not involve whining about officials or the commissioner or reminiscing over the good old days with Sean Payton is a positive for the Saints.
Beating Green Bay would move New Orleans ahead of the Packers in the NFC standings, but that is another train wreck of a team to talk about some other day.
I am done talking. Let’s see if the Saints are too.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.