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Drew Brees & Co. struggling to recapture the magic.
By Ralph Vacchiano
The morning after is always the hardest, isn’t it? After an event you’ve been waiting for and building towards for what seems like forever, then it’s everything you expected and you enjoy it just a little too much. It’s never easy to get up and get going the next morning to do it all over again.
So welcome to the New Orleans Saints’ world, dominated by a Super Bowl hangover just eight months after a championship the town had been seeking since the franchise was born.
Past the quarter pole of their defense, they’re just 3–2 — still very much in position to make another run. But after near-miss victories over the Vikings, 49ers and Panthers, a loss to Atlanta, and then a 30–20 setback to the Arizona Cardinals — and undrafted rookie quarterback Max Hall — on Sunday, there’s no denying this: The Saints just don’t look or feel the same as they did last year.
“It’s not a crisis,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “But I told the players, ‘ We have to play better. We’ve faced challenges before, and we’re going to have to handle this one.’”
Maybe they will, but at the moment they’ve lost their aura, if nothing else. Last year their offense was unstoppable. Behind the genius of Payton and the lightning-quick throws of Drew Brees, it looked like the Saints constantly had receivers open everywhere on the field. And their defense, once maligned, had become opportunistic. It was a dangerous 1-2 punch.
Now, that once-dominant offense is averaging just 19.8 points per game — way down from 31.9 a year ago.
The defense is giving up 20.4 points per game, too. And they are sitting in the standings in their own division behind both the Atlanta Falcons (4–1) and the Tampa Bay Bucs (3–1). “We’re just not playing good enough right now,” said tackle Jonathan Stinchcomb. “We’re not hitting the panic button. But we haven’t played up to our standards.”
Unfortunately for the Saints, history suggests things won’t necessarily get better, either. Only six of the last 11 Super Bowl champs even reached the playoffs during their title defense, and three of those were bounced out of the playoffs in Round 1. Most of those teams returned with the same personnel — just like the Saints have, for the most part — and they still managed to fail.
It’s because things change fast in the NFL. Luck changes. Injuries happen. And no matter how hard the Saints try to deny it — like so many others before them — it’s nearly impossible to recapture the magic. It’s far more difficult to remain as motivated for an entire season when every team is gunning for you and you know in the back of your mind that you already have that coveted ring.
At least Payton is right. It’s not really a “crisis” At 3–2 they still have more than enough time to fix their problems, even though it’s highly unlikely they’ll duplicate their 13–3 mark from a year ago. And the odds suggest Brees will get on track, too. His self-described “terrible” three-interception performance against the Cardinals was only his second three-INT game since the beginning of last year.
Life for the reigning champs, though, won’t get any easier. They still have the Steelers on their home schedule and trips to Dallas, Baltimore and Atlanta ahead. The other games aren’t picnics either considering that the Saints are sure to get every opponent’s best effort. That means for the last 11 weeks — and maybe beyond — the Saints need to be at the top of their game, every time.
They’ll never face a game that won’t feel to someone like it’s the playoffs. And as the failures of past champions have proven, that’s a tough thing to have to deal with all season long.