METAIRIE — The Saints are close to becoming a lame-duck team before assistant head coach Joe Vitt returns from his six-game suspension.
Even so, interim head coach Aaron Kromer said Monday that he won’t make drastic changes to a team that has competed hard and showed progress each week during a 0-4 start.
“No loss is easy to take, but you can see more positives and so you would have more of a brighter outlook on the future,” Kromer said. “We really feel that we’re on the cusp of getting on a roll.”
The Saints haven’t opened this poorly since 2007, which was Sean Payton’s second year as head coach.
That season, they ended up working their way back to .500 at 4-4 before fading in a 7-9 non-playoff season.
This time, Payton is not available to even try to help turn things around because of his season-long suspension in the NFL’s bounty investigation.
Only Vitt will return to the coaching staff, and take the reins from Kromer at that time.
Of course, Vitt’s return might hold more promise if the Saints could get a win or two before then.
Kromer backs up his optimism by pointing out that all four of the Saints’ losses have come by single digits — eight points each in the first two weeks against Washington and Carolina, then by three points in overtime to Kansas City and by a single point at Green Bay.
Indeed, the Saints were excruciatingly close to going 2-2 during their first four games. They blew an 18-point lead in the second half to the Chiefs when their offense uncharacteristically shut down.
At Green Bay, normally reliable playmaker Darren Sproles dropped a short third down pass that, if caught, likely would have allowed the Saints to run the clock down past the two-minute warning before trying a chip shot field goal for the lead.
Instead, the Saints had to try the field goal earlier, and from farther away. Garrett Hartley initially hit it, but the kick was wiped out by tight end David Thomas’ holding penalty. The second try, still well within Hartley’s range (48 yards), went wide.
The loss squandered a 446-yard, three-touchdown passing performance by Drew Brees, the clearest sign yet that New Orleans’ vaunted offense can still be effective without Payton on the sideline.
“If you really study our football team, you would go back like I and our staff has and look at the last four games,” Kromer said. “You can see the progress. Obviously it’s not good enough because we didn’t win. ... The progress is there and we are adjusting well to the situation, but we have to adjust a little better. I keep saying that each week. If you are looking at it, that’s the way I see it.”
New Orleans next plays at home Sunday night against San Diego, which opened 0-4 in 1992 but still made the playoffs.
At this point, Kromer doesn’t want to go so far as to highlight what the Chargers pulled off two decades ago as an example of why it’s still OK for the Saints to believe they can make the playoffs for a fourth straight season.
He said the focus has to be narrowed to simply doing whatever it takes to beat the 2012 Chargers, who have started 3-1.
If New Orleans’ defense doesn’t improve soon, beating San Diego and quarterback Philip Rivers will be a tall order.
Statistically, the Saints’ defense improved at Green Bay. The unit produced two turnovers on Malcolm Jenkins’ fumble recovery and Patrick Robinson’s interception.
The Packers finished with 421 total yards, which actually lowered New Orleans’ league-worst average of yards allowed per game to 463.3.
However, the Saints had virtually no pass rush on Aaron Rodgers, allowing him to sustain long drives and convert possessions deep in Saints territory into touchdowns instead of being forced to settle for field goals.
“We have to find a way to affect the quarterback more,” first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said, lamenting that the few times the Saints did get Rodgers to scramble, he was athletic enough to escape and still make a play.
“We had him in the red zone and (defensive tackle) Brodrick (Bunkley) gets his leg, but he maintains his balance going to his left and flicks it out there,” Spagnuolo said. “That’s a great play by a great quarterback. All those things put together limited what we did affecting the quarterback.
“The disappointment that I have is if we could have found a way to eliminate one score, or force one field goal in the red zone, that’s how much of a fine line it is right now,” Spagnuolo said.