The New Orleans Saints in the 2013 Super Bowl in the Superdome. Supreme twofer. Who didn't believe it could happen?
Just a few months ago, the New Orleans Saints were talked about as a championship-caliber team. A new defense was just the weapon Saints quarterback Drew Brees needed for a second Super Bowl victory. The team seemed to build its talent pool with promising draft picks and acquisitions in free agency. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt appeared to be perfect for the job of interim head coach while head coach Sean Payton served a one-year suspension for the bounty scandal.
It all seemed like it would work, didn't it? Then the season started.
After having played a quarter of their games, the Saints are 0-4, while division rival Atlanta is 4-0. (The Saints face the 3-1 San Diego Chargers Oct. 7 before going into a bye week.) This is not what was supposed to happen.
Brees says the team is capable of earning a playoff spot this year.
"We go into the bye and get healthier, rejuvenated and ready to roll," Brees said prior to the San Diego game. In 2009, the Saints won 13 games straight, he said. In 2007 — the last year the team started a season 0-4 — the Saints recovered, winning the next four games and finishing the season 8-8.
What was the only team to begin a season 0-4 and reach the post-season? The 1992 Chargers, who finished that season by winning the AFC West division with an 11-5 record.
The question for Black & Gold fans remains: What happened this season and where did things go wrong?
The Saints defense ranks last in the NFL. Its offense is a shell of the record-breaking version of a season ago. And this team clearly misses Payton. The confident swagger and execution the Saints once possessed is gone, replaced by dropped passes, too many mental mistakes and failures to execute in the fourth quarter.
The unthinkable happened in the season opener against the Washington Redskins: The Saints fell 40-32. The Black & Gold appeared flat from the coin toss, and rookie quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III passed for 320 yards for the Redskins. The Saints defense gave up 459 yards, while its offense managed just one touchdown in three quarters and turned over the ball three times.
But hey, that was just one game — or so we thought. Everything would get fixed before the Saints met division opponent Carolina Panthers on the road the following week, right? The Saints offense scored on its first possession, an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. On the first play of the next possession, however, Brees was picked off, and the Panthers returned the interception for a touchdown. The Saints defense gave up 463 yards (219 on the ground) that game, Carolina led 21-13 at the half and went on to win 35-27.
Still we believed.
The third matchup, against the Kansas City Chiefs, was a punch in the gut to Saints fans. The Black & Gold had an 18-point lead with more than five minutes to play in the third quarter. The Saints offense then went into hibernation and the defense, which had held Kansas City to field goals up to that point, suddenly couldn't even tackle air. The Chiefs scored 21 unanswered points and won 27-24 in overtime.
After the game, Saints players looked shell-shocked. Some said the team desperately needed a win over Kansas City to bolster its confidence before heading to Lambeau Field to face the Super Bowl champions, the Green Bay Packers. The Saints played their best game of the season and even benefited from some "gift" calls from the officials. New Orleans had a six-point lead in the fourth quarter, but failed to score in the red zone. Then kicker Garrett Harley missed a 48-yard field goal that would have put the Saints in the lead. The team left the field with a 0-4 record.
The Saints still hope the 2012 season can be saved. Perhaps the hope lies with the return of Vitt (his suspension ends after game six), a coach whose energy this team definitely could use. Hopefully the bye week will be just what the doctor ordered.