Lewis: Saints have a lot of work to get done

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNISNew Orleans Saints wide receiver Joe Morgan sheds the tackle of Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis in the second half Sunday in New Orleans.
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNISNew Orleans Saints wide receiver Joe Morgan sheds the tackle of Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis in the second half Sunday in New Orleans.

By TED LEWIS

Advocate sportswriter

NEW ORLEANS — Welcome back, Sean Payton.

Did you take the boys out to celebrate last night or what?

It’s hard to know what to make of Sunday’s finish except that it pretty much resembled the opener, when another Heisman-winning quarterback, Robert Griffin III, and his mates shredded the Saints for 459 yards in a 40-34 upset by the Washington Redskins.

This time, the margin was the same — six points — and Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers rolled up enough yards to make the Saints officially the most porous defense in NFL history — by halftime. That’s all it took for Carolina to amass 287 yards, 7 more than was needed to surpass the 6,792 surrendered by the 1981 Baltimore Colts.

Carolina didn’t stop until it had 530 for the day. And even at the end, the Saints couldn’t stop fullback Mike Tolbert from picking up the final two for the clinching first down.

But this game — and this season — won’t be remembered for the yards surrendered or even the final record of 7-9. If the Saints had won Sunday to finish 8-8, it wouldn’t have made any difference.

This season will be remembered for the hubris of an organization that had grown increasingly arrogant since its Super Bowl victory.

It doesn’t matter what was the intent or outcome of the pay-for-performance program the Saints have acknowledged existed. What can be explained as locker-room exuberance was the wrong crime at the wrong time in the eyes of the increasingly injury-sensitive NFL.

And Payton, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, General Manager Mickey Loomis and whoever else was responsible didn’t stop it after initially being told to do so.

Had they not continued, the punishments undoubtedly would have been less severe, and we wouldn’t have had the spectacle of it being dragged through the appeals process until it didn’t really matter any more.

Except that Payton was gone for the season.

A team going into its seventh year under the same leadership seemingly should not have been that affected by the absence of one man, albeit the one at the top.

But despite the declarations by all that things were being done as they had in the past and even the imposing “Do Your Job” poster on the wall of the indoor practice facility, the Saints never seemed to play with a Payton-esque sense of urgency.

Sunday’s performance destroyed the notion that somehow this was the best team not going to the playoffs.

And, honestly, if somehow a couple of those early results could have been reversed, is there anyone left out there who honestly feels that the Saints could beat any of the other NFC playoff teams?

Maybe Payton couldn’t have done anything much about the defense. First-year coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is considered one of the best in the business. But the group took a month to adjust to his system, never played physically tough, and as injuries mounted in the secondary, became increasingly vulnerable to the passing game.

Salary cap issues are going to mean hoping young talent emerges if things are to be fixed.

Drew Brees is Drew Brees, and with his guru back, the offense will remain explosive as ever.

But the Saints are no longer among the league’s elite or even a team on the rise, as Carolina looked like Sunday.

“Sean’s chomping at the bit,” Brees said Sunday.

He’d better be. There’s a lot of work to do.