Bobby Hebert is known as the Cajun Cannon, and he had just begun his postgame radio show Sunday night when he landed the latest detonation on the New Orleans Saints this season.
“We have no pass rush,” Hebert, a former Saints quarterback, said. “We’ll never have a pass rush. Right now some fans are hoping Gregg Williams will come out of nowhere, bounty and all, because right now the defence is pathetic.”
The Saints’ problems, after a 0-4 start, go much deeper than just the lack of a pass rush, although installing a new defence without the appropriate personnel would have stressed the Saints under the best of circumstances. But Hebert summed up the desperation felt for a franchise that has come unmoored since March.
If there had been hope that the Saints could hold themselves together with coach Sean Payton suspended for the season – and then the interim coach, Joe Vitt, suspended too – it is gone. They and the Cleveland Browns are the only winless teams in the NFL.
The offence looked more like itself Sunday in a 28-27 loss to the Green Bay Packers – Drew Brees threw for 446 yards and three touchdowns – but the Saints’ failure to hold off the Packers after roaring back from a disadvantage to take a lead was a microcosm of what has happened to them since the team’s bounty scandal first erupted.
Players are pressing and making mental mistakes. Brees is superb, but the rest of the team is not playing well enough to close out games. It is, in short, all too much for the Saints to handle. After just one month, they are four games behind the division leader, the Atlanta Falcons, and Hebert said he would not be surprised if the Saints lost to the San Diego Chargers at home next Sunday night.
“It’s impossible to go through what they have gone through, to lose the people they have lost for the entire season or for periods of time, and not have this kind of thing occur,” said the Colts’ former president, Bill Polian. “It puts too much strain on the organization, too much strain on the coaching staff, an impossible strain on Drew. No club could sustain what they have gone through.”
Polian said he thought people underestimated the impact a head coach made, even on a team stocked with veteran players, experienced assistants and one of the best on- and off-field leaders in football. The Saints are surely missing Payton’s play-calling and his skill at designing plays. But most of all, Polian thinks, they are missing his mind-set and the culture he created.
Payton is an exceptionally aggressive play-caller, reflecting a philosophy and a personality that seep into all facets of the organization. The Saints have a useful arrogance and insistence about them when Payton is around. Vitt would have been the perfect replacement because, like Payton, players believed in him. But with Vitt suspended for six games, the Saints turned to offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, which put a strain on the offensive line. And Kromer cannot lean on general manager Mickey Loomis, who is suspended for eight games.
The biggest burden in all of this has fallen, Polian said, most acutely on Brees, a burden that might not be lifted, in part, until Vitt returns. Brees is not just largely responsible for the offence, he has become, more than ever, the voice of the team.
“Any chance to get back the people who are driving forces behind the organization is a plus,” Polian said. “That will take a burden off Drew. There will be other people to talk to the press, other people to be the face of the team. Drew has had a burden placed on him that no quarterback can bear all the time and expect to do well. It’s amazing that he’s doing as well as he is. He’s gone through the contract issue, he’s had so many things to deal with that don’t have to do with playing quarterback. It’s a very tough situation.”
It’s one that will not get better soon. While Kromer said Monday morning that the team was on the cusp of breaking out, the NFL could announce this week discipline for the players involved in the bounty scandal, discipline that commissioner Roger Goodell had to reconsider under a ruling from an arbitration panel. That could lead to another round of court challenges from the suspended players, Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith.
Vitt cannot return until after the game against Tampa Bay on Oct. 21 because the Saints have a bye in Week 6. By then, it will likely be too late to salvage this season. In some ways, Polian said, it is like what the Colts faced last year when quarterback Peyton Manning was lost for the season with a neck injury. Once the season went bad, there was no way to recover.
The one bit of good news for the Saints: Payton will return early next season, his value never more obvious. Then the enormous photo of Payton that owner Tom Benson put up at the team’s practice facility to remind players who was looming over the franchise can come down.
“At least they can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Polian said.