NEWORLEANS- Up until Sunday the 2013 New Orleans Saints season has been about good times, Rob Ryan hair jokes, and mostly smooth sailing to 6-1.
Welcome to the first crisis of the New Orleans Saints 2013 season.
If you just look at the surface the Saints seem in pretty good shape even after losing to the New York Jets 26-20. They are 6-2, had a chance to win on the road in spite of two turnovers and 9 penalties, and are still in first place in the NFC South. Not a bad place to be, just ask Tampa Bay Buccaneer fans. The problem for the Saints is if you take a deeper look at them the 2013 season is at a crossroads.
After eight weeks the question isn't, 'Can the Saints offensive line start to play up to the standard we are used to?' It's, 'Can the offensive line improve just enough so their poor play doesn't cause the 2013 season to implode.'
Think I'm being a little overly dramatic? How's the offensive line going to hold up the next four weeks against Dallas, San Francisco, at Atlanta, and at Seattle?
Right now my money is on 'not well.'
The Saints offensive line at the halfway point of the season is the worst offensive line in the Sean Payton Era. They are on pace to allow Drew Brees to get sacked 52 times and show a maddening inability to generate a running game.
You are probably screaming at your computer, 'Ralph the Saints can't run the ball because Sean Payton refuses to even try!'
We can debate why the Saints can't/don't run the ball all day. All I know is Sean Payton has absolutely no confidence in the running game to do anything when it matters.
Facing a third and less than a foot late in the game Payton decided to have Brees throw a pass to Jed Collins instead of run straight ahead. The play call was brilliant except for the fact Collins dropped the pass. On fourth down Payton made maybe the worst play call I've ever seen him do as Saints coach; a double reverse to tight end Josh Hill.
The Saints of course say they saw something on film and believed it would work but I guarantee if the 2009 or 2011 Saints are in the same spot they simply run Pierre Thomas off tackle for a yard.
I love magic and I love trick plays but you don't do magic tricks at funerals and you don't run a reverse with third string tight ends on critical fourth downs. In 2013 Sean Payton is reduced to a trick play featuring a guy 90 percent of Saints fans don't even know is on the team. That tells us everything we need to know about the confidence he has in the offensive line.
The defense got gashed for a couple long Chris Ivory runs but overall hung tough and gave the Saints one last chance to win late. They weren't great but considering the spots they got put in because of turnovers they were good enough.
Next Sunday night's home game against the Dallas Cowboys suddenly has a 'must win' feel to it. Lose to the Cowboys and the Saints will have dropped three of their past four games and might be caught in the NFC South standings by the Carolina Panthers.
The good news is the Saints have won 11 straight prime time home games.
Halfway through 2013 the Saints defense has been better than anyone could have ever imagined and the offensive line is a border line nightmare.
The Saints seem certain they'll be fine and figure it out, and veterans like offensive tackle Zach Strief didn't seem too worried in post game interviews.
'They always say there's crisis or carnival,' Strief said. 'This is a great time for crisis. We've lost the last two on the road and can we win on the road and that'll be a big deal. And yet, I think the locker room is built to get better in these situations.'
After the Buffalo game I said the Saints have never faced the problem of fixing a terrible offensive line under Sean Payton and so far they don't seem to have the answers to a solution. This week was same song different verse. Drew Brees won't survive the next month if it continues. If Drew Brees doesn't survive it's time to talk Pelican basketball.
We really don't want to do that until February.
The answers about the 2013 Saints are going to come to us quickly this month. So far they are not the ones we were hoping for.