Standing at his University of Phoenix stadium locker long after Sunday's 30-20 upset of the Saints, Cardinals safety Kerry Rhodes(notes) was talking about the "complete game" his team had played for the first time in 2010.
When I reminded him that good fortune had also played a role – twice rookie quarterback Max Hall(notes) fumbled forward and had teammates recover, with one play resulting in a second-quarter touchdown for tackle Levi Brown – Rhodes didn't feel particularly apologetic.
"That's part of the game," he said. "Bounces like that happen. Those guys should know – they got a lot of bounces on the way to winning a championship last year."
Well, so much for the Saints' Super Bowl aura. New Orleans is 3-2, and to be fair, one of those defeats (to the Falcons in Week 3) came after kicker Garrett Hartley(notes) shanked a 29-yard field goal that would have won the game in overtime. Yet there's little doubt that the champs are struggling, especially on offense, and it seems to have more to do with New Orleans' own lack of timing, rhythm and attention to detail than anything the Saints' opponents are throwing at them.
"I feel like it always starts and ends with us," quarterback Drew Brees(notes) said disgustedly as we walked from the visitors' locker room toward the team bus. "We could definitely be playing a lot better. We know what wins and loses games, and to turn the ball over three times, and have it cost you 21 points, that's going to get you beat every single time."
When you have a quarterback like Brees, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, and a head coach like Sean Payton, one of football's most gifted play-callers, the standards are understandably Madden '11-esque. And while everyone is looking for a big-picture explanation – injuries to backs Pierre Thomas(notes) and Reggie Bush(notes); the reality that many opposing coaches tried to figure out ways to defend Payton's scheme over the offseason (Brees summarily rejected that hypothesis, for what it's worth); the dreaded Super Bowl hangover – it's a buildup of little things that's causing the offense to stumble.
Most glaringly, the Saints have been lousy in the red zone. Over the last three games, in 13 trips inside the opponent's 20, New Orleans has scored just four touchdowns. On Tuesday the Saints decided to release 46-year-old kicker John Carney(notes), and to go back to Hartley, after he missed a 29-yard field goal against the Cardinals. More telling are the lengths of the five field goals Carney made during his return: a 25-yarder, a 31-yarder and three 32-yarders. The way the Saints are stalling near the goal line right now, they could use a 66-year-old kicker, as long as he had enough leg to make chip-shot field goals.
As Brees noted, turnovers (nine in their past three games) have also been an issue, and untimely penalties have been a killer, too. In the wake of what Jeff Duncan, who covers the Saints for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, would describe as "one of the worst offensive performances in the Payton/Brees era," this is a team short on swagger and desperately in search of balance, even though Payton assured reporters on Monday that "it's not time for any chair throwing."
I think Payton is probably right – and, more important, his players will inevitably buy into his keep-it-steady approach, given the freshness of last season's title run. Yet the reality is that opponents have no reason to fear the Saints in their current state, and if New Orleans can't get it together enough to defeat the surprising Buccaneers in Tampa this Sunday, the Saints will be a .500 team sitting in third place, wondering where their aura went and how they can get it back.
"Definitely, it's time," Brees said Sunday before leaving the stadium. "We trust the process and our preparation, and if you do things the right way it'll fix itself soon. If we can execute better and cut down on the mistakes, we'll go back to being us."
A few good bounces wouldn't hurt, either.
How big a bounce did the Cardinals get from their victory relative to last week's inquisitive breakdown of the NFL's current pecking order? Consider that a bonus question – here are the others:
9. New Orleans Saints: Are they the only team in NFL history for whom every single wideout wears a number in the teens – and am I the only human on earth who cares?
14. Houston Texans: When opposing teams pass, are they destined to fail?
15. Kansas City Chiefs: Is Romeo Crennel an early frontrunner for assistant coach of the year?
16. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Who was more bothered by Micheal Spurlock's(notes) pivotal sideline catch in Cincinnati last Sunday – Bengals safety Chris Crocker(notes) or Lions receiver Calvin Johnson(notes)?
26. Seattle Seahawks: Now that Nike has announced plans to make dramatic changes to NFL uniforms once it becomes the league's official supplier in 2012, don't you get the feeling that the 'Hawks will start to resemble their winged neighbors to the south?
27. St. Louis Rams: If I'd told you in August that the Rams would be consumed with the loss of wideout Mark Clayton(notes) after a 38-point defeat at Detroit, would you have thought I was loopier than former Rams tackle Kyle Turley(notes) after a 2003 concussion against the Lions?
- New Orleans
- Sean Payton