The Saints’ post-bounty season is officially dead. Stick a fork in them. Now a game and a half out of the NFC’s final wild-card position with the defending Super Bowl-champion Giants and upstart Buccaneers next on the schedule, we can officially close the book on one of the more unique season-long stories we’ve seen in recent memory.
In the wake of the suspensions levied against head coach Sean Payton and interim coach Joe Vitt, there wasn’t much precedent for prognosticators attempting to tell the fortune of the 2012 Saints.
Well, after Thursday night’s crushing loss in the Georgia Dome — a game that couldn’t have more accurately depicted the way the Saints’ season has gone — we can finally determine the full extent of the impact that Payton’s absence had upon this talented New Orleans bunch.
The Saints needed a coach last night. Drew Brees needed a coach last night.
Payton’s team fell in a 17-0 hole against the Falcons, much like the 0-4 hole it dug to start the season, and simply didn’t have the focus or the resolve to pull itself out. The offense got moving and the defense was giving Matt Ryan and Co. fits — after an early second-quarter Falcons TD, the Saints outgained Atlanta 282-33 in the second and third quarters, earning 17 first downs and allowing none. But New Orleans made crippling errors in the most inopportune moments, errors that reeked of a lack of leadership.
Jimmy Graham began blocking for a Darren Sproles screen too early and nullified a touchdown that would have closed the gap to 17-14 late in the second quarter with another possession coming to begin the second half. Then, after Brees hit Sproles for 12 yards to the Falcons’ 5-yard line, his decision to huddle the offense burned nearly 30 seconds before the next snap, precious moments that were needed when Brees threw short of the endzone and time ran out after Sproles was tackled at the 3-yard line.
The mistakes didn’t end there. On the opening drive of the third quarter, Brees hit a wide-open Lance Moore in the endzone only to have the pass dropped, again missing an opportunity to cut the lead to three points. On the very next play, Mark Ingram caught a swing pass with a convoy of blockers ready to escort him to the endzone, but he couldn’t get past his own feet, tripping himself up for a loss on the play. Really? These are the Saints we’re watching?
On top of it all, the Saints turned 436 total yards of offense into just 13 points, Brees threw a career-worst five interceptions and his streak of 54 consecutive games with a touchdown pass ended with a devastating thud. Think that would have happened on Payton’s watch?
The Saints’ lack of focus and breakdowns in pivotal moments, especially those by a Super Bowl MVP quarterback, perfectly demonstrated the effect that Payton’s suspension has had on this team: It has robbed them of their killer instinct and composure, of their unflappable nature that so perfectly complemented their “Who Dat?” swagger.
And buried in the roots of his clock-management gaffe and inexcusable barrage of interceptions is the fact that Brees has been pressing in the absence of his coach and play-caller. He has taken almost all of Payton’s responsibility and heaped it onto his own shoulders, taking more risks (like gambling for a touchdown instead of a field goal in the half’s final seconds) in hopes of overcoming the Saints’ plight. He suddenly has become the league’s leader in interceptions (ahead of Tony Romo and Philip Rivers for the moment) on a 5-7 team that has removed itself from playoff contention in the past two weeks.
Ultimately, it seems the pressure was just a little too great.