PFW article on saints collapse
Saints doomed by myriad of factors
By Eric Edholm
Pro Football Weekly
NEW ORLEANS -- As the game wore on, Saints' scoreboard watchers geared up for a fantastic finish of giveaway. The Falcons labored through their game in Cleveland, and the hometown team was doing everything it could to not beat the Panthers.
The season came down to one game for each of those teams, to ultimately decide whether the Saints or Falcons would make the playoffs. Both lost, and Atlanta had a better winning percentage to slip in. Talk about backing your way in. But, truth be told, there was something just plain wrong with a team that started 6-1 but slipped to the middle of the NFC pack in finishing the season. Even the usually sanguine French Quarter fortunetellers probably wrestled with their consciences before predicting a Saints wild-card berth.
Brooks' woes epitomized the Saints' late-season struggles.
The Saints' 10-6 loss to the Panthers was not a total shock. It was a clear indication of all that went wrong during the team's fateful, three-game slide to end the season. New Orleans had fostered a reputation for being one that plays up -- or down, as was the case recently -- to its competition all season, and it did nothing to change that Sunday. Four of New Orleans' seven losses this season were to teams that will pick in the top 10 picks (or in the case of the Bengals, No. 1) of the draft this April.
At the end of the first quarter, it was clear we were watching some bad football. The Saints came out excited, and a pregame fight featuring -- who else? -- New Orleans linebacker Bryan Cox got the team energized. But their enthusiasm slowly dissipated with two penalties, a few missed tackles and dropped passes -- two by wide receiver Joe Horn.
With 11:30 left in the second quarter, the New Orleans fans got their first sign: Browns 10, Falcons 0, messaged the Superdome scoreboard. The problem was that the score that mattered here would soon be 7-3 Panthers, and Carolina would never look back in a game that got uglier as it went on.
The rubbernecked fans turned their energy from score-watching to QB-booing as Aaron Brooks struggled throughout. Two weeks ago, chants of "I'd be embarrassed" rained down from Bengals fans in Cincinnati; last week Saints fans started up calls of "We want Jake," referring to backup quarterback Jake Delhomme.
After the game ended, scores of fans waited outside the home locker room just to get a chance to jeer the home team. So much for home-field advantage. The Saints' collapse will remind some of last year's Hindenburgian fall, when they lost four straight. This year's finish with three straight losses is nothing to sneeze at, but this team is clearly better than it was last year. No postseason aside, the Saints are improved.
So what is wrong with them? Each one of the team's ills was evident in one form or another in the loss to Carolina. Here are some of the reasons the Saints can blame for being home for the playoffs:
Defense: It allowed 20 or more points to each of the first 15 opponents this season. Against Carolina, the Saints held tough, allowing only 10 points, but the Panthers gave away three turnovers without much provocation. And too often the defense gave up drive-sustaining plays. The lack of a defensive leader is a major weakness and should be the target of the team in the offseason.
Attitude: Although the bad apples are mostly gone from last year's team, there are very few chiefs in the locker room. Sure, Horn runs his mouth, and Cox can get in people's faces, but who does the team lean on when times are tough? That question was answered -- no one -- as the season slipped away once again.
Third-down and red-zone offense: In the final two games, the team that was once the most efficient on third downs and in the red zone in the NFL sputtered, especially on third downs. Against the Panthers, the Saints were 4-for-17 on third down; the week before they converted 2-of-14 against the Bengals.
Brooks: Although he has utterly denied any problems with his arm, Brooks just didn't look right Sunday, nor has he looked right since he got hurt in the win over Tampa Bay in Week 13. The last five games, Brooks was 67-of-152 passing -- a 44.1 percent completion rate. "I thought I played pretty well," said Brooks, who was 12-of-31 passing for 145 yards and 2 interceptions against the Panthers. "I can't control the fans. I play because I love the game."
The Saints controlled their destiny -- and lost it -- and if there's one solace for them, it's that the reasons for folding are clear. With a young nucleus and flexibility to upgrade the roster, the Saints once again should challenge in the NFC next year. Now about those late season swoons ...
"We shouldn't even be in this position," said Horn before the season-ending loss. "We're making all of these teams that are out of the playoffs feel good in their offseason."
All except one.
Eric Edholm covers the NFL for Pro Football Weekly.
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