NEW ORLEANS — For much of this offseason, there was underlying expectation that the New Orleans Saints would come out and pick up where they left off at the end of 2011.
People wondered what it would mean for suspended coach Sean Payton – and head coaches everywhere – that a team could remain successful without its leader.
Turns out, that was the wrong question; the demise of the head coach was greatly exaggerated.
The Saints didn’t fall 40-32 to the Washington Redskins because Payton wasn’t on the sideline.
But it certainly contributed, not that the players will admit to it.
“It’s absolutely completely irrelevant to us,” Saints right tackle and captain Zach Strief said. “People are going to have a million different ways to point and say this is the reason, that’s the reason. At the end of the day, it’s a bunch of professional football players whose job it is to come out with focus and poise and get into our rhythm.”
New Orleans was outcoached and outplayed Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, so thoroughly so that you had to wonder if we hadn’t returned to the pre-Payton Saints.
With Payton no longer on the sideline and in the locker room, the Saints apparently lost the ability to play disciplined football. They also lost the ability to make adjustments on defense.
The Saints had two first downs of 15 or more yards and five third downs of at least 10 yards. They were 2 of 11 on third down a year after converting 56.7 percent.
New Orleans committed 12 penalties for 107 yards. Two kept Washington drives alive, including a 12-man on the field penalty late in the third quarter that eventually led to a Redskins field goal.
When asked how Payton likely reacted watching the Saints, quarterback Drew Brees said probably much as the team did while watching the nightmare play out in front of them.
“It’s not us,” Brees said. “That’s not the way we play. That’s not what is going to bring us success.”
The loss falls on everyone inside the Saints locker room.
It falls on Aaron Kromer, the interim head coach and offensive line coach, for not finding a way to have the team play with a fire under it.
It falls on Pete Carmichael Jr. for not finding a way to get the offense rolling.
It falls on Steve Spagnuolo for not making the right adjustments to shut down Washington rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III.
But mostly it falls on the players.
Whether Payton was involved or not, they were given a perfect opportunity this offseason to play with a purpose beginning Sunday.
Maybe it was too much. Maybe the constant battle putting out bounty fires and talking about coaching and player suspensions and watching lawsuits unfold took their toll.
Next week at Carolina, if the same undisciplined play remains and the same lack of adjustments color the play-calling, forget about Payton’s absence.
There will be deeper issues.
One thing is for sure. The Saints get one mulligan this season in regard to the bounty weight.
They used it Sunday.