If it could go wrong, it has
If it could go wrong for Saints this year, it has
Week after week, team keeps finding original ways to lose
Sunday, November 13, 2005
By Mike Triplett
The downfall started in typical Saints fashion.
A botched opening kickoff return on Monday night in New York -- fumbled by Fred McAfee, recovered by the Giants' Chase Blackburn. The whole nation getting to witness the beginning of the end of this Saints season.
It didn't seem so bad at the time. The Saints have always pulled that kind of stuff. Watching this team through the years, you learn the hard way that you've got to take the bad with the good.
The problem this season, however, has been an extreme lack of the good.
For every penalty, turnover, season-ending injury and inexplicable call by the referees, the Saints have responded with more penalties, more turnovers, more season-ending injuries and their longest losing streak in six years.
The Saints (2-7) have gained more yardage then their opponents this year, by an average of 12 yards per game. But they continue to sabotage their season with those turnovers, penalties and dismal inefficiency inside the 10- and 20-yard lines.
The Saints rank in the NFL's bottom six in each one of those categories, among several others.
The old expression long favored by Saints fans has never rang more true: They keep finding ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
"It's something different all the time," Saints coach Jim Haslett said. "It's just a breakdown here and a breakdown there, and I think we're close. The good teams do those things to get over the hump. We're just not doing them right now."
It used to be the Saints could at least count on a potent offense to keep games within reach. This year, many of the games have been within reach, but the offense has been the team's most glaring deficiency.
It's too bad, because the defense is playing better than it has in several years.
Quarterback Aaron Brooks, long a target of disgruntled Saints fans, even when he didn't deserve it, is having the most ineffective season of his career.
The running game has been decent in spurts. But, for the most part, the Saints' master strategy of featuring a clock-controlling ground game has failed.
Some finger-pointing at Haslett and offensive coordinator Mike Sheppard probably is well-deserved. And, if things keep going this way, there could be some major changes in store after the season.
But, to be fair, their game plans have been stymied by the overwhelming number of penalties and turnovers. The players, particularly the veterans, must be held accountable for the repeated mental mistakes.
It also would be easy to blame the team's situation, the makeshift home in San Antonio and the weekly road trips.
But, even mired in a five-game losing streak, the players are saying the right things, doing the right things in practice and still coming out with energy and enthusiasm week after week.
They're simply playing bad, inefficient football more than anything else. And, even in losses to struggling teams like Minnesota, Green Bay, St. Louis and Miami, it would be hard to argue that the Saints were the better team.
QUARTERBACK -- D. Big things were expected out of Brooks this year after a healthy and impressive offseason. But, in his fifth year as a starter, Brooks has looked uncomfortable on the field at times. In his defense, every other unit on the offense has been plagued by injuries and inconsistent play. But Brooks hasn't stepped up in response.
Brooks' quarterback rating of 66.6 is the lowest of his career and ranks 28th out of 31 eligible quarterbacks in the NFL. He has thrown 12 interceptions in the Saints' seven losses. And, like the rest of the team, he has been particularly inefficient in the red zone.
Brooks has been effective running the ball. And, on the rare occasions that the team was in command, he made smart decisions and led lengthy touchdown drives. That hasn't happened often enough, though.
The Saints have never wavered in their commitment to Brooks as their starter. But with the Saints likely to earn a top-five or top-10 draft choice this season, they will have an interesting decision to make this offseason.
RUNNING BACKS -- C. If anything, the coaching staff should be blamed for not finding ways to stick with the running game, which has been effective at times, non-existent at others. Even with Deuce McAllister out for the season, both Antowain Smith and Aaron Stecker have been solid alternatives.
The 33-year-old Smith has shown more explosiveness than expected. But he also coughed up two unforgivable fumbles in close losses to Atlanta and Miami. The team added another experienced veteran this week in Anthony Thomas, so depth won't be a problem here.
RECEIVERS -- D. This has been perhaps the most inconsistent position on the field, with starter Joe Horn missing four games with a hamstring injury, Az-Zahir Hakim missing three games with a variety of injuries and starting tight end Ernie Conwell missing two games with a knee injury. There has been an abundance of poorly run routes and dropped passes, and there has been no consistent passing threat.
With Horn and Hakim healthy now, perhaps this is the area where the Saints can show the most improvement coming out of the bye week.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- D. This has been the most disappointing unit on the team. With two new starters added to an already veteran line, this was supposed to be a stable unit around which the Saints built their offense. Instead, they have been the biggest penalty culprits, and, in at least two games (Minnesota and Miami), they were overwhelmed by the blitz.
Injuries have been an issue. But the Saints are as healthy now as they have been all season. Improvement at this position will be expected and demanded from here on out.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- B-. The entire defense has been better than expected, starting with the depth at defensive end. Starters Charles Grant and Darren Howard have not been as dominant as they are capable of, but backups Will Smith and Tony Bryant have made up the difference.
Even the defensive tackles have been more consistent than in years past, with Willie Whitehead, Brian Young and, finally, Johnathan Sullivan playing solid up front.
LINEBACKERS -- C. The occasional missed tackle still creeps up, as does the occasional breakaway run. But, for the most part, this has been the most improved unit on the team -- if only because they had so far to climb. The Saints defense ranks 12th in the NFL in yards allowed this year after a 32nd-place finish in 2004.
Projected starter James Allen suffered a season-ending knee injury, and projected starter Courtney Watson has been demoted for his inefficiency against the run. But their replacements -- Sedrick Hodge and Ronald McKinnon -- have stepped up to fill the void.
DEFENSIVE BACKS -- C. Free agent safety Dwight Smith has been the Saints' best signing in years, and he's been their most valuable player this year. He's been the only true play-maker in the back seven of the defense. The main thing this defense has been lacking is game-changing plays.
Cornerback Mike McKenzie has been struggling during the past month or so. He is a playmaker who usually gives up a handful of big plays and makes a handful of big plays. But he has not intercepted a pass since Week 1.
Losing starting safety Jay Bellamy for the year was a tough blow, but rookie replacement Josh Bullocks will be a lineup mainstay in the future. Cornerback Fred Thomas has locked up the other starting job by returning to the level he played at two years ago.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- D-. Just like the offensive line, these are supposed to be stable veteran units, but they have committed a ridiculous amount of penalties. They have had two field-goal attempts blocked, and they had a nasty fumbling problem early in the season. Losing return specialist Michael Lewis for the season was a big blow, and the team has not returned any kicks for touchdowns. At least punter Mitch Berger looks primed for a return trip to the Pro Bowl.
COACHING -- D. This staff deserves an enormous amount of credit for keeping this team together through everything that has happened this year while working away from their homes and families, some of them sleeping on air mattresses in the bowels of the Alamodome.
But, in recent weeks, the Saints' losses have come down to things such as questionable play calling and the inability to adjust to opposing defenses. The last three losses to St. Louis, Miami and Chicago fall on the coaching staff, and those three winnable games are the ones that have hurt the most this season.
RE: If it could go wrong, it has
I think the criticism of the O-Line was a little strong, praise of the D-line undeserved considering how much ground has been given up, and NOT giving the special teams a double F triple minus is rediculous. And how is Haslett's staff "keeping this team together"? They suck. They're all in SA, they are all living large and they're LOSING in the same fashion as they have during Haslett's tenure. After the first two weeks of dislocation, this team has only slightly more aggravation than does a high school team battling for field time with the band.
RE: If it could go wrong, it has
I agree with XAN... to a degree O-line D. Dline deserves a C - at best, when a team needs to to score they will move the ball on us like nothing, they are no key drive stops. They give up to many big plays.
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