The only way to not have heard New Orleans Saints players and coaches harp on the desire to get off to a fast start this season is to not have been listening.
Entering the season opener against Houston on Monday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Saints have lost five straight regular-season openers and in the first four of those five years, they went on to lose the second game, too.
What New Orleans has been able to do more recently is totally reverse the tide: After finishing 7-9 each season from 2014-16, the Saints in ’17 went on an eight-game winning streak to lead to an 11-5 record, and the ’18 team crafted a 10-game winning streak en route to a 13-3 record. And the Saints won the NFC South Division title each of the last two years.
But just because the Saints have shown the ability to overcome the early hole doesn’t mean they want to continue to put themselves to that test.
“There is always a sense of urgency,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “You are not going to sit here and say, like, ‘Are you preparing that much harder for Week Two if you lose Week One,’ as opposed to a win.
“You're always fighting human nature. Human nature is that when you are winning maybe it is like it’s all good, we're winning and little mistakes kind of get swept under the rug and that kind of thing. And then you still feel good about everything. You have to self-discipline yourself to just sit there each and every week and just take a hard look at everything.
“Whether you won or lost, It's when we’ve got to get better and it's a race to get better, especially early in the season. It's a race to get better. We're always looking for constant improvement. We've never arrived and we're always striving.”
The defense, in particular, wants to have a better opening act.
In ’17, when the Saints opened with losses to Minnesota and New England, they allowed an average of 33 points per game and quarterbacks Sam Bradford (27 of 32 for 346 yards and three touchdowns) and Tom Brady (30 of 39 for 447 yards and three touchdowns) combined to complete 80 percent of their passes without throwing an interception.
Last year, in the season-opening, 48-40 loss to Tampa Bay, Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 21 of 28 passes for 417 yards and four touchdowns, without an interception.
“You just want to start fast regardless of how the seasons turn around,” safety Marcus Williams said. “You want to start fast, you want to all be on the same page, you want to all be clicking. Once you start fast, then everything starts rolling. That’s what you want to see coming out.”
Cornerback P.J. Williams agreed, and said a fast start would help the Saints achieve some of their defensive goals.
“We want to be a better defense and a better secondary, so starting fast is going to be important to that,” he said. “Because we fell behind big early in the season. We want to be in the top half (defensively) pretty much the whole season.”
Improved secondary play will be critical to that, and it’ll be more possible because of the experience the current group has gained. Williams and cornerback Marshon Lattimore are entering their third seasons as starters, cornerback Eli Apple is in his second season as a Saints starter, safety Vonn Bell started 32 games in his first three seasons and cornerback Patrick Robinson, who played three games before suffering a season-ending ankle injury last year, started 58 games in his first 10 seasons.
“I think we’re a much older group,” Marcus Williams said. “We’re all on the same page now, and it helps us to be able to communicate and talk and to know what’s coming. The more we watch film, we all come out here and we’re able to dissect it and when it comes to the field, we’re able to go make those plays.”
“I feel like the DBs we’ve got, all of us have a lot of experience and we’ve been playing in the system long enough and been together long enough,” P.J. Williams said. “I feel like we all have gotten better throughout the offseason, so I feel like we definitely can take a big step this year.”
Taking that step early isn’t a necessity, but it’s a trend the Saints want to start.