GREEN BAY, Wis. – The captain of the New Orleans Saints' seemingly sinking ship was the last man out of the visitors' locker room at Lambeau Field last Sunday night, his manner conceding nothing, his head held high.
"Our best is yet to come," Drew Brees insisted as he strode to the team bus outside the stadium, following a 28-27 defeat to the Green Bay Packers that dropped last season's NFC South champions to 0-4. "We're gonna continue to fight and grind, and if we can keep getting better each week and build on this, the wins will start coming."
When you play as masterfully as Brees did in Sunday's setback, a game in which the 12th-year quarterback completed 35 of 54 passes for 446 yards and three touchdowns, it's easy to avoid copping a defeatist attitude.
Indeed, if Brees can perform similarly against his former team, the San Diego Chargers, at the Superdome on Sunday night, the Saints might be able to start a winning streak to save their season.
Never mind that New Orleans has a ready-made excuse: The offseason bounty scandal which jolted the franchise and, most significantly, led to the yearlong suspension of coach Sean Payton. As my colleague Jason Cole detailed so adeptly Tuesday, Payton's absence caused a far bigger void than most people saw coming.
Surely, he is missed as a shrewd offensive mind and innovative play-caller, but the problems run far deeper. The Saints players and other team sources to whom I've spoken recently all cite Payton's tone-setting qualities – and prickly personality in general – as the element the locker room most glaringly lacks.
"Let's face it – Sean's kind of a cocky bastard, and that was the way our team carried itself, too," one veteran player said. "We're missing that swagger, that sense that we're better than you, and we could really use it now. … He had a way of keeping everyone on edge. It makes a big difference."
The Saints have other issues as well. The transition from former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to replacement Steve Spagnuolo has been an abrupt one, both schematically and in terms of coaching style, and New Orleans has struggled to stop opponents to an almost embarrassing degree. Because the defense has been so deficient, Brees and his fellow offensive players have pressed, believing they have to score touchdowns on virtually every possession to keep pace.
The Saints' offensive line has also fallen off, undoubtedly a byproduct of the strange interim/interim decision that has kept offensive line coach Aaron Kromer – the fill-in coach while interim coach Joe Vitt serves a six-game suspension – from devoting the bulk of his energies to his position group.
In retrospect, though I was skeptical of the idea at the time, hiring Bill Parcells to serve as Payton's stand-in might have been the best approach. Parcells, like Payton, is a master of keeping his players on edge, in addition to being very smart about strategy and team-building. Instead of a business-as-usual mantra, the Parcells-coached Saints might have been able to foster an us-against-the-world complex that actually resonated, considering that even Payton's most trusted associates – and even Brees – would have truly felt uneasy about the situation.
Given the emotional energy expended, I expected the Saints to fall off this year – but I certainly didn't think they'd lose more games in September than they did in all of 2011. For that reason, Brees' optimism aside, I'm designating them as my biggest disappointment of the first quarter of the 2012 season.
Here are six more:
•Cam Newton: After a record-setting rookie season, Newton seemed primed to achieve full-fledged stardom in his second campaign, especially with a first-ever offseason of tutelage from offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski under his belt. Then Robert Griffin III took that rookie-debut thing to an even more outrageous level while Newton got off to a shaky start – and let the whole world know how much it tore him up. As I wrote before the season, Newton's blatant intolerance of losing need not be considered a bad thing. But when a respected veteran like Steve Smith conspicuously tells Newton to get his head out of his towel and, in essence, stop being a baby, the quarterback's demeanor has officially become an issue. It's early, and I still expect greatness from Newton, but the Panthers (1-3) are in a hole to start the season, and they'll likely need some mature leadership from their quarterback to pull them out of it.
• The Lions: Last year, Detroit made the playoffs for the first time since 1999, and it looked like Jim Schwartz's team was anything but a one-year wonder. With ultra-talented stars like Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh, the Lions seemed poised to become a bona-fide NFL power. Yet after a fractious offseason marred by repeated off-the-field misconduct, Detroit has been a disaster in 2012, with only an opening-week victory over the St. Louis Rams (aided by a replacement ref's timing mistake in the final minutes) to its credit. Most recently, back-to-back defeats to the Titans and Vikings – two teams the Lions should be able to outclass while wearing ankle weights – have some speculating that head coach Jim Schwartz could be in trouble. That seems a bit far-fetched, given that Schwartz is the only coach since Bobby Ross to have guided this franchise to the postseason, but last place in the NFC North isn't where anyone expected his team to be.
• Mario Williams: As for the franchise which, in the wake of the Lions' 2011 postseason trip, now has sole possession of the league's longest playoff drought – well, the Buffalo Bills (2-2) still have some work to do. And Williams, the prize of free agency, is the guy who needs to get busy if he wants to avoid being labeled the dreaded B-word. With just nine tackles and 1 ½ sacks, the former Houston Texans edge rusher is already being called a bust by bitter Bills fans. Given that the defense gave up 45 second-half points to the New England Patriots last Sunday – and has allowed 100 points combined in two games against a pair of AFC East rivals, the Pats and New York Jets – it's tough to make the case that the $100 million man has been a difference-maker.
• Chris Johnson: Yeah, I know the Tennessee Titans' fallen star is coming off a 141-yard rushing effort in last Sunday's blowout defeat to the Texans. However, given the protracted slump in which Johnson has been mired since he ended his high-profile holdout just before the start of the 2011 season, I tend to look at that game as an aberration, rather than as the start of a trend. Consider that in the first three games of 2012, Johnson had 45 yards on 33 carries, which put him on pace for a 200-plus yard season. For the man who in 2009 became the sixth NFL back to rush for 2,000 yards, that's quite a sobering dropoff. I don't see this in simplistic terms, i.e. Johnson got a fat contract and then stopped trying and/or got soft. Rather, I think there are other factors impacting Johnson's vastly decreased production, such as second-year offensive coordinator Chris Palmer's scheme being a poor fit. I also believe Mike Munchak's promotion from offensive line coach to head coach before the 2011 campaign hurt Johnson: Munchak's replacement, longtime teammate Bruce Matthews, was a brilliant player, but he is not his old buddy's equal when it comes to coaching the linemen. When Johnson goes up against the Vikings on Sunday, it will seem almost laughable that many people once believed he had surpassed Minnesota's Adrian Peterson as the NFL's top back.
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• Rex Ryan: When the Jets traded for Tim Tebow last March, it brought up all sorts of tantalizing possibilities, from the Wildcat-like packages the team could create to maximizing the lefty quarterback's unique talents to the possibility that fourth-year passer Mark Sanchez could be headed to the bench if he struggled early. What, so far, has happened? Well, Sanchez has been iffy, the Jets (2-2) have sputtered – and Tebowmania is hauntingly dormant. The third-year icon has yet to make an impact in the spot duty he has seen as a changeup to Sanchez, and Ryan is standing resolutely by his starter in the wake of an embarrassing, 34-0 home defeat to the San Francisco 49ers. I'm not saying Ryan should necessarily bench Sanchez; indeed, I can see many reasons why he wouldn't. For one, I suspect that Tebow has been his typical shaky self in practice, and that doesn't exactly inspire confidence in a team that has already lost its best player (Darrelle Revis) to a season-ending knee injury and is without its top offensive playmaker (Santonio Holmes, whose foot injury will land him on injured reserve) for the remainder of the year. Then again, Tebow's gift has been an ability to transcend logic and rationality and make magic when a team needs it most. If the Jets' offense continues to sputter under Sanchez, I'll be disappointed if Ryan doesn't at least give Tebow a shot to spark a turnaround.
• Randy Moss: From the time the 49ers signed Moss last March, the Jim Harbaugh Spin Machine was cranked up to maximum velocity, while skeptics like me questioned whether adding the NFL's ultimate frontrunner to a team that had great chemistry in 2011 was a sound idea. Moss, after all, is a great guy to have in your locker room – provided that you're winning, that he's getting the ball thrown to him early and often, that he's getting paid as much as he believes he's worth, that the catering is up to his (and his dog's) lofty standards, and that 4,000 other things are as he thinks they should be. Of that list, the getting the ball caveat is a big one. So far, Moss isn't. When asked by reporters about his lack of involvement in San Francisco's offense, he has twice said "No comment." History tells us that won't last. In Sunday's victory over the Jets, Moss was targeted once – on a deep pass into triple coverage which fell incomplete. It's not that I expected Moss to make a big impact; it's that, given his irrelevance, I'm disappointed that he hasn't snapped by now, if only to allow me to say I told you so. In the meantime, I'll leave you with three words to describe this devolving situation: Tick, tick, tick …