The New Orleans Saints have forgotten their roots, which in their case is a good thing.
Long banished to the ancient archives are the baggies, Russell Erxleben, John Mecom Jr. and Mike Ditka trading away all of his draft picks to select the kooky Ricky Williams.
Long gone too, apparently, is the feeling that a 35-17 victory over a solid team like the Buffalo Bills is something to be celebrated.
There were virtually no light moments during Sean Payton or Drew Brees’ postgame news conferences, little but clipped congratulations and thin grins as Saints players dressed and hustled out of their locker room.
This is a team that just jacked up its record to 6-1, only the fifth start of 6-1 or better in franchise history, and the tone was almost that of a team that just dropped to 1-6. This is the franchise that didn’t post as many as six wins in a year until its 12th ever lovin’ NFL season.
The Saints needed Ricardo Montalban, Mr. Roarke from “Fantasy Island,” greeting the team as it trooped off the field saying, “Smiles, everyone, smiles!”
Of course, coach Sean Payton doesn’t live on Fantasy Island, or even Revis Island, which we hear recently sunk into Tampa Bay.
Payton’s world is the hard and unsentimental reality of the NFL, where even a reunion with Bills coach Doug Marrone — a close friend and Saints offensive coordinator under Payton from 2006-08 — elicits barely a grudging acknowledgement. In the NFL, if there’s a game to play and your mother just fainted on the 50, you step over her body and keep going.
Payton and his quarterback — who was flagged for back-to-back false start penalties that bracketed the end of the first and start of the second quarters (Brees had to be thinking, “Don’t you know who I am?!?”) — were a chorus lamenting their team’s mistakes.
Gaffes like the times the Saints had just 10 men on the field on both offense and defense and the eight penalties thrown New Orleans’ way (one holding call was erased by an offsetting face mask penalty on the Bills). No one even bothered to bring up Garrett Hartley’s two missed field goals that helped put the Saints behind 10-7 with 4½ minutes left before halftime.
“If we continue to repeat the same mistakes, we’re going to get beat,” said Brees, who was sacked three times but otherwise buffaloed the Bills with five touchdown passes. “Let’s not be staring at each other in the locker room after a tough loss. You’re never going to be perfect, but you want to get as close to it as you can.”
Yes, there were mistakes for the Saints on Sunday, and certainly they were a team that played far from perfect.
But I’m here to tell you that, for this point in the season, this could have been as close to perfect a win as the Saints could have.
1. It stopped a losing streak before it started. New Orleans’ 30-27 loss at New England two weeks ago was painful but part of the cost of doing business in the NFL. No one gets through unscathed. What you don’t want is to see your invaluable momentum from the 5-0 start evaporate. Sunday’s win insured that it will not.
2. One loss happens. Two is a trend. Two straight losses and doubts start to creep in, especially when the Carolina Panthers are showing signs of improvement week by week. New Orleans’ lead in the NFC South is still a healthy two games over 4-3 Carolina. With the Atlanta Falcons slipping to 2-5 Sunday and the Buccaneers still winless, it looks like a two-team race for the division title.
3. Winning while you work. Every coach’s secret dream is to win and still have something to hammer your players about in practice. This is Payton’s place this week, and his inner coach is giddy about it.
4. The road is rough ahead. The Saints’ tour through the AFC East wraps up next week at the 4-4 New York Jets (crushed 49-9 Sunday at Cincinnati) and dovetails into a formidable stretch that includes games with Dallas, San Francisco, at Atlanta, at Seattle and Carolina. Those five games will likely define the Saints’ season, their playoff hopes and a shot at a bye and home field advantage, so it’s exceptionally important to win the games you should while you can.
The standard is set high in New Orleans, Payton said, and rightly so. The Saints are again a team that is aiming at nothing less than the Super Bowl and has legitimate reason to believe it can get there.
But winning in the NFL is hard, and hardly guaranteed. Each victory is worth a mini-celebration. So you wish for their sake the Saints would take just a moment after beating Buffalo to smell the roses.
And maybe burn a baggie.