NEW ORLEANS — One year ago this week, the Saints were preparing for a home finale against the Panthers, eyes set on establishing an NFL record for most yards gained in a season.
Today, when New Orleans once again hosts Carolina at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in the curtain closer, it’ll have its eyes on another record.
Give up 282 yards to Cam Newton and the Panthers (6-9) and the Saints enter NFL lore for giving up the most yards in NFL history.
Déjà vu this is not.
“It won’t take until after the season for me to grimace about it,” Saints first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. “I’m doing it now. I don’t have an answer for that. I wish I did.”
The 1981 Baltimore Colts own the record for most yards allowed.
But not even they started the season giving up at least 400 yards in 10 consecutive games, something the Saints (7-8) did this year. Heading into the finale, New Orleans is giving up nearly 100 yards more than the NFL mean and 43 yards more than the next-worst defense.
“For some reason those stats seem so skewed and I don’t know why,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “They don’t tell the story about our defense. It’s unfortunate that’s what you read and that’s what the stat line says because I look back at the production at times certainly don’t feel that way.”
Maybe it’s because there have been signs of improvement.
In four of the past five games, the Saints have kept teams below 400 total yards, including a stellar performance against Atlanta when they allowed just 283 total yards and held the Falcons to just 1 of 11 on third down.
Two weeks ago, New Orleans shut out Tampa Bay, the franchise’s first since 1995.
And yards certainly don’t tell the whole story.
The Saints’ are ninth in the NFL on third downs, allowing opponents to convert only 36.5 percent of the time. They’ve also intercepted 14 passes, a top 15 number this year in the NFL. They’re also No. 8 in goal-to-go situations, keeping teams out of the end zone 38 percent of the time.
Those are the numbers defensive end Will Smith says need to be looked at, not the yardage.
“Obviously we’ve given up a lot of yards this year,” Smith said. “I think that doesn’t isn’t the tell all of what the season really is based upon the yardage because there are a lot of other statistics you can look to and say this is a pretty good defense.”
When asked this week about the number, safety Roman Harper said he didn’t even know what it was.
“I don’t even know the numbers,” Harper said. “I don’t know the yards. It’s not even about that stat. It’s more about just going out and playing our game and doing what we do.”
Meanwhile, interim head coach Joe Vitt said he hasn’t brought up the record to the players, instead focusing on trying to win against Carolina. Maybe it’s because he was a member of that 1981 Colts coaching staff and know what it feels like to be a part of it.
In the end, Vitt said if the stats say they’re No. 32 in total defense, then that’s who they are regardless of the past five weeks.
“I’ve said it from day one – in the National Football League, you are who you are,” Vitt said. “You can skew it anyway you want. Have we played better and gotten better? Absolutely. Two weeks ago, we pitched a shutout. We’re much better against the running game now. The numbers show that, but in this league you are who you are.”
When today is done, they hope that’s the only thing you can say about the defense and not that it’s record-setting.