Thirteen games, and countless looks in the mirror, have revealed a sobering reflection for the New Orleans Saints this season.
"There are certain things that win in this league and there are certain things that don't," Coach Sean Payton said Monday, the day after the Saints' record dropped to 5-8, courtesy of a 41-10 loss to Carolina on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
"It's the commitment to one another throughout the week, the detail in what we do," Payton continued. "Right now, truth be told, we're 'that' team. When you talk about, 'Will they jump offside on fourth down? Will they bust a coverage? Will they turn the ball over?' One of the things I brought up in the team meeting, I said, 'It's been awhile, but right now we're that team.' "
It's a team that has lost four consecutive home games for the first time since 1999, and has been unable to string together more than a two-game winning streak. After evening its record at 4-4 following a 28-10 road victory over Carolina on Oct. 30, New Orleans has lost four of its last five games.
"The disappointment for me, and I think our players, is that there are X number of games our fans pay to see," Payton said. "We've raised the bar as to what they expect and what they should expect, and that was the antithesis of how I'd expect us to play at home. And that's the thing that was most disappointing."
Turnovers (22, which have led to 75 points), penalties (72 in 13 games), the inability to stop the run (133.5 yards allowed per game, fourth-most in the league) and the inability to produce third-down stops (opponents convert 47.4 percent on third down, most in the league) are among the missteps that have dogged the Saints this season.
"We talked about being that team," Payton said. "We talked about some of the silly penalties, we talked about the turnovers, we talked about the things that keep you from winning games and before you go out and win a game, you've got to prevent yourself from losing a game.
"I saw alignment problems, I saw execution problems, I saw guys not aligned with leverage the way they were supposed to be, I saw poor tackling, I saw dropped balls, I saw turnovers, I saw fumbles, I saw some loose ball security issues that weren't turnovers that very easily could have been.
"And there are times where, as coaches, we go back and look at the tape and, 'Man, we've got to have a better plan and be more prepared for the QB run.' That ended up being significant. Those are the things that stand out when you watch the tape. Blown coverages – there's a guy loose in man to man and it's their top receiver. Something's wrong."
Payton also said that the Saints haven't handled adversity well this season.
"I would say this, when we have some success early, then all of a sudden there's a certain way you see us potentially play," he said. "But I don't know how mentally tough we've been when we've gotten hit in the mouth early on. And when you play in this league there are going to be those momentum shifts and you're going to have to be able to collect yourself and get on to the next play. And I think we've probably struggled in that area, in all areas, this season."
He wasn't alone in his assessment. Players agreed that the one constant this season has been the inconsistency to play high-caliber football and not commit game-altering errors.
"It's been very characteristic of this team, and that's the problem," right tackle Zach Strief said. "That's been the discussion for weeks and weeks now. It's the one thing we're used to, unfortunately, is a lack of consistency, of not knowing what in the world we're going to get week to week. That's why it's angering and embarrassing, because if there's one thing that should be consistent, it's energy and readiness. That should be the one consistent, because it's the one thing you can control.
"Now, you're going to go into games and the other team is going to have a good gameplan and you're going to struggle, because that's exactly what happens in this league. And you play teams that are more desperate and are going to have a good game against you and you're going to struggle. But what should never happen is a lack of energy. That's what's disappointing and that's what makes this one, and really a lot of games this year, tough to swallow. That's what we can control and we're not doing that.
"It's very hard to win in this league. It's absolutely difficult, and it doesn't just happen. You don't show up, put your jersey on, walk on the field and win games. That's just not how it works and we have to find that urgency and that professionalism of finding that energy in yourself because every game is going to be a battle and the second that you don't go out and have everything that you've got to put on the field, that's exactly what's going to happen. It's fair, the game is fair, it's always been fair and we got exactly what we deserved."
Payton said he would consider personnel changes, and that coaches weren't absolved of blame. The Saints have a little extra time – their next game is Monday night, in Chicago against the Bears – to make corrections and, if necessary, personnel changes.
"I'm anxious to see what we're getting ready to do this next week," he said. "I'm anxious to see our response and how we prepare and how we play against Chicago. I'm anxious to see that."
Official team photos of Saintsations from the New Orleans Saints vs Carolina Panthers game on Sunday, December 7, 2014. Photos by Michael C. Hebert (New Orleans Saints photos)