NFL Nation: Sean Payton

DETROIT -- New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton became terse when questioned about his decision to keep throwing the ball with a six-point lead and 3:38 remaining in Sunday's game.

In hindsight, the decision backfired with quarterback Drew Brees eventually throwing an interception on third-and-9 that allowed the Detroit Lions to come back for a 24-23 victory.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
AP Photo/Paul SancyaSean Payton decided to go pass-heavy late against the Lions, a decision that ended up biting quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints.
"Three minutes, 30 seconds, three timeouts. That's like seven minutes," Payton said when asked why he chose not to start running out the clock at that point. Then he snapped, "Next question. Next smart question."

Payton returned to the question soon after, though, and explained that it would have been easy to second-guess the play calls in that situation either way.

And for what it's worth, I agree -- especially on a day when the Saints' run game was being silenced by a stifling Detroit defensive front.

Last year, for instance, Payton was criticized for choosing to run in a similar situation and allowing the New England Patriots time to march down the field for a late come-from-behind win.

"You get in that situation, and it's tough ... Hand it off three times, and there's two minutes, 48 seconds, more than that. So you go back and forth," Payton said. "It's less than a one-score game. We were in those situations last year. When the team's got three timeouts, and the team's got north of 3:30, 3:40 -- that's a ton of time. ..."

Payton was then interrupted and asked if he didn't think his defense could make a stop.

"I'm answering a question. Be quiet. ... Will you let me finish?" Payton shot back. "We made the decision at that point in the game with what we were wanting to do. I made it. Now it's easy when it doesn't work out to come back and [question it]. Now, if we hand that ball off and end up punting, then it's easy for you to sit in here and ask the same question again."

The Saints went with a pass-heavy mentality all day. But it was hard to second-guess the approach based on the results. The Saints' tailbacks gained 55 yards on 19 carries (an average of 2.9 yards per carry). Brees, meanwhile, completed 28 of 45 passes for 342 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

Brees' numbers were even better over the first three-plus quarters, when he completed 26 of his first 32 passes for 335 yards. But the passing game suddenly collapsed, with Brees completing just two of his final 13 passes for a total of 7 yards, including the interception.

Afterward, Brees fell on the sword, saying he let the team down.
DETROIT -- You wouldn’t know it by looking at the box score, but New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham indeed returned from his shoulder injury and played a limited role in a 24-23 loss to the Detroit Lions.

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Graham didn’t catch a pass and was targeted only twice. An official snap count was not immediately available, but Graham appeared to play roughly 20 snaps or more, mostly in clear passing situations -- including the ill-fated final drive.

Graham wasn’t available to the media after the game as he iced down his shoulder.

Saints coach Sean Payton said “there was a handful of plays tagged for” Graham. But he pointed out that the Saints actually played very few snaps in the red zone, which is where Graham might have been a bigger factor.

“He was in the nickel, some of the third down, some of the red zone,” Payton said. “We kind of did the same thing a year ago [when Graham returned from a plantar fasciitis injury] against Buffalo. We kind of had a set plan in place for him, and the challenge is just making sure you’re ready if you’re not playing on a more frequent basis.”

It’s tough to predict how much Graham’s role will increase in the coming weeks. He doesn’t appear to have any limitations when it comes to catching the ball, but his ability to block and absorb contact will likely be bigger determining factors.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Like everyone else a few days before the 2006 NFL draft, Reggie Bush thought he would be moving to Texas. As the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, the electric running back figured he would be the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Then Houston stunned everyone and the night before the draft hinted that Mario Williams, not Bush, would be the No. 1 overall selection.

"I was preparing to go to Houston, and we found out the same way everybody else found out, on SportsCenter,” Bush said. "That was that. That was my first real introduction to the business side of football.

"I got an introduction really quick."

[+] EnlargeReggie Bush
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsReggie Bush started his NFL journey with New Orleans and will play against the Saints for the first time on Sunday as a Detroit Lion.
It was that same night, on the eve of the draft, that Sean Payton called his quarterback, Drew Brees, and told him "I think we are going to get this guy."

Bush’s presence gave the New Orleans Saints a dynamic offensive weapon to add to a backfield that included starter Deuce McAllister at the time. It helped open up the New Orleans offense, and they couldn’t really believe their luck.

Bush fell right into their plans, giving them a game-breaking running back who could catch passes out of the backfield.

"Pure excitement," Brees said. "I think mainly because nobody thought that was even an option."

On Sunday, Bush will face his former team for the first time since being traded to Miami prior to the 2011 season for safety Jonathan Amaya and a swap of sixth-round picks.

The marriage between Bush and the Saints lasted five seasons and one Super Bowl before the team drafted another former Heisman Trophy winner, Alabama running back Mark Ingram, all but signaling Bush’s departure from New Orleans.

Payton said this week that he called Bush before the trade happened. Bush called the decision to pursue a trade and leave New Orleans "a mutual decision" and soon enough Bush was on to Miami and then, eventually, Detroit.

"It was nothing that was unexpected," Bush said. "I don’t have any bitterness toward the team or anybody. It’s part of the business side, the business side of our sport.

"Sometimes it can be ugly, but at the end of the day we all sign on the dotted line and we understand how it works."

Not only will Sunday be the first time Bush faces the team that drafted him, it’ll likely be the first time he talks with Payton since the trade. Bush said Friday the two have exchanged messages through other people but have not spoken directly – but that he plans on talking to him at some point Sunday.

In Bush’s five seasons in New Orleans, he played in 60 games, ran for 2,090 yards and 17 touchdowns, and caught 294 passes for 2,142 yards and 12 touchdowns. In the four seasons since he left the Saints, he has played in 50 games, rushed for 4,475 yards and 17 touchdowns, and caught 152 passes for 1,236 yards and six touchdowns.

He also had the first two 1,000-yard rushing seasons of his career after he left the Saints -- including last season with the Lions.

"He's someone that obviously was an important player for us," Payton said. "Whenever you're able to win a championship, and we were able to with that team in 2009, at that point it validates every selection, every trade, and every signing that brought you to that moment."

Bush, though, tried to downplay facing his former team Sunday -- even if he and another former Saints player, Isa Abdul-Quddus, are two of the team’s captains this week. And Bush acknowledged that it is probably no coincidence he was named a captain this week against New Orleans.

His head coach is pretty savvy like that, but Bush wants to treat it like a typical game -- but acknowledged if the game were in New Orleans instead of Detroit, the approach would be a bit different.

"I’m not going to try and make it more than that, because we still have a job to do and I don’t want to get caught trying to do too much," Bush said. "I think learning from experience in the past, when I’ve tried to do too much, it never really works out the way you want it to and you end up making a few mistakes.

"So for me, I’m going to go into the game with the same mindset I do every game."

All that will change is the opponent on the other side will look very familiar.
METAIRIE, La. – New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said coach Sean Payton will decide after a pregame evaluation on Sunday morning whether the tight end will be to play through his shoulder injury against the Detroit Lions.

“Sean said he’s gonna test it and then see where I’m at,” Graham said. “So if I can, I can. If I can’t, I can’t.”

Payton declined comment. Graham was officially listed as questionable on the Saints' injury report after participating in Friday's full-team drills on a limited basis.

Graham
Graham didn’t offer many specific details on the injury, which he suffered two weeks ago against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- other than to acknowledge that “it’s painful.” But he said he has been making progress after returning to team drills for the first time on a limited basis Thursday.

“I’m all right. It’s been better. I’ve had better days,” Graham said. “Right now, it’s been an OK week. …

“They’ve done a great job here (the training and medical staff), but you know we’ll see on Sunday. I actually don’t know. … Hopefully maybe in two days I’ll feel better.”

Graham tried to keep playing after he first suffered the injury, staying in the game for two more series after several chats with trainers and doctors on the sideline. Eventually, though, he was taken into the locker room for X-rays and did not return for the second half.

Graham laughed when asked if the Saints had a hard time convincing him to leave the field.

“You know, I played until I couldn’t really move it anymore,” Graham said. “So I just had to do what’s smart, and the doctors were smart. And Sean said if it was too much, then I needed to come out. So I had to do that. But Josh [Hill] and Ben [Watson] had a great game and they’re fantastic players, so with or without me they’re gonna do plenty to help this team win.”

It’s possible the Saints could opt to use Graham in a limited role, mostly in the red zone, which is what they did last year while he was recovering from a plantar fasciitis injury. Graham played just 18 snaps in that game against the Buffalo Bills and caught two touchdown passes.

But in this case it’s hard to predict anything based on Graham’s practice participation since he doesn’t face any contact in practice.

When asked if he would have any objections to being used in such a limited role, Graham said, “Well, who doesn’t just want the ball in the red zone? If I could do that for the next 20 years, I would. But that’s not how it works at tight end. So, you know, I just want to get back on the field as soon as I can and I’ll wait and see whenever I’m allowed to.”
METAIRIE, La. -- It's almost impossible to define Reggie Bush's tenure with the New Orleans Saints -- except to say he was one of the most memorable players in franchise history.

Bush certainly didn't live up to the immense hype, but how could he? The former USC Trojan was supposed to be the next Gale Sayers and Barry Sanders rolled into one.

[+] EnlargeReggie Bush
Brett Davis/USA TODAY SportsReggie Bush arrived in New Orleans following a 3-13 season in which the Saints relocated to San Antonio following Hurricane Katrina.
At the same time, it wouldn't be anywhere close to accurate to describe Bush as a "bust." He finished his five-year stretch from 2006-10 with more than 2,000 rushing yards, more than 2,000 receiving yards and a total of 38 touchdowns, including the playoffs. There were frustrating bouts with injuries and inconsistency. But there were also plenty of jaw-dropping moments as a runner, receiver and punt returner -- including some of his greatest during the Super Bowl run in 2009 and the NFC Championship Game run in 2006.

Statistically speaking, Bush has had more success with his current team, the Detroit Lions, and with his previous team, the Miami Dolphins -- averaging more than 1,000 rushing yards per season since 2011.

But unless Bush winds up leading a Super Bowl parade through the streets of Detroit, it’s hard to imagine him making a bigger impact anywhere else.

“[Former New York Giants general manager] Ernie Accorsi said it once, 'When you win a world championship, at that moment it validates every selection and decision and signing that brings you to that point,'" Saints coach Sean Payton said. "[Bush] being included, obviously. He was very good in that game (Super Bowl XLIV). And in the years that he spent with us, he was very instrumental in what we became. From the minute he was drafted, for those people that were here at that time, that was a significant step for us.”

The Saints will face Bush on Sunday at Detroit for the first time since they mutually decided to part ways in 2011 with a trade to Miami.

“He’s probably one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen play the game. He’s one of those guys that you tell your kids about as far as his athleticism,” said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who arrived in New Orleans less than two months before Bush as a free agent in 2006. “I’m not sure if there has been a player where there was as much hype and excitement for coming out in the draft as Reggie Bush. Maybe you could argue 'Johnny Football' this year. But he was the man.”

Brees recalled the elation throughout the Saints organization -- and the entire New Orleans community -- when Bush unexpectedly fell to the No. 2 pick in 2006 after the Houston Texans decided to draft pass-rusher Mario Williams on the eve of the draft.

That was on the heels of arguably the worst season in franchise history, when the Saints had to relocate to San Antonio following Hurricane Katrina and finished 3-13 before dumping coach Jim Haslett and quarterback Aaron Brooks.

“Sean and I have had conversations about this, about just him being in the room and realizing that moment when it happened that Reggie Bush just fell in our lap. 'Are you kidding me?'" Brees said. “Not only the type of player that he was, all of the things that he could do on the field, but I think what this city needed was somebody like that to be drafted here and the excitement that that brought, lifting everyone’s spirits and giving them hope. That was huge.”

The divorce also worked out for both teams. The Saints quickly replaced Bush with free agent Darren Sproles, who was even more electrifying in that 2011 season in a similar runner/receiver role.

And Bush got his wish to become more of a featured runner in Miami, where he had his first 1,000-yard rushing season in 2011 and has followed with at least 986 yards every year since.

Perhaps most importantly, Bush has stayed healthy over the past four years (though he’s ironically nursing an ankle injury this week that he’s expected to play through).

But Bush, now 29, has also matured as runner, showing better vision and patience inside instead of wanting to turn his runs outside and use his speed around the corner.

“I think he’s definitely matured from my times playing against him when he was here. He’s become an all-around running back instead of just being treated as a wide receiver or a gimmick guy,” said Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton, who used to face Bush as a member of the rival Atlanta Falcons.

“With a player like him, we knew going into the game how he was going to be used. So it made it, I wouldn’t say easy to game-plan for him, but we knew what he was going to be doing,” Lofton said. “Now when he’s in the backfield at running back, you don’t know what he’s going to do. He can run it downhill, he could run a reverse, can line up as a wide receiver, so I think that makes their offense very multiple by using him in those ways.”
NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints' running back duo of Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson earned my game ball Sunday by running through (and over) the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense to seal a 37-31 overtime victory.

Thomas
Robinson
Robinson
I just as easily could have given it to the offensive linemen who blazed their path while dominating the battle of "attrition," as coach Sean Payton called it, in a game in which the Saints' offense was on the field for a total of 86 snaps -- including 35 in the fourth quarter and overtime.

Or I even could have rewarded Payton himself for once again recognizing what was happening down the stretch and calling four straight run plays at the end of overtime -- finishing with Robinson's 18-yard run that linebacker Junior Galette described as "beast mode."

"It was just a battle of wills at that point," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "And our guys controlled the scrimmage and allowed Khiry the opportunity to really put it to 'em. He was the hammer and had a couple great runs there down the stretch there to obviously win the game."

Robinson followed a series of perfectly executed blocks on the game-winner before finishing the job himself by running over safeties Bradley McDougald and Mark Barron.

The end of this game played out much like the Saints' playoff win at Philadelphia last season. The Bucs' defense took away the deep ball, so the Saints found a different way to make them pay.

"There are times people are going to take something away from you, and I think it's important you can function in the other area," Payton said. "I thought, especially in that closing drive, we had some big runs that were well blocked and gave us an opportunity to get a little more than maybe we were expecting. ... And it was great to finish with a run like that."

Robinson had five carries for 34 yards on the final TD drive and finished with 21 carries for 89 yards, plus one catch for 8 yards.

Meanwhile, Thomas emerged as the Saints' go-to guy in regulation, with a huge 27-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter and the return of some of his vintage screen passes (including a 15-yard touchdown in the second quarter and gains of 19 and 13 in the fourth).

Thomas, who finished with four carries for 35 yards and eight catches for 77 yards, deflected most of the praise to his blockers after the game, saying those were their yards. But Thomas did allow that he prides himself on his consistency.

"I guess you can say that's my gift. I don't have the top speed like some of these guys. Consistency is my gift and what I bring to the table. It helps me out and it helps this team out," said Thomas, who had only four touches in a 38-17 loss at Dallas last week -- but said he quickly moved past that.

"My whole intention was to go out there and play this game like I know how, like I've been doing for years, and when my name is called, I'm gonna do my job," Thomas said. "And that's what I did."

Asked about wanting the ball in his hands down the stretch, Thomas said, "Definitely, you've gotta have that mindset. All great athletes think like that, 'Hey. I'm gonna win this game for us.' A lot of guys had that mindset. And Khiry had a heck of a run at the end of the game and sealed the deal.

"I'm happy for him, and I'm glad it was a run call that sealed the deal at the end of the game."
NEW ORLEANS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints' 37-31 overtime victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

Lofton
Proof of character: If you know anything about the Saints, you know they’re going to be more inspired by the gritty resolve they showed in the fourth quarter of a game like this than the disturbing sins that showed up in the second and third quarters.

“Last week, our character came into question, and the leadership of this team came into question,” Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “So you tell me a team that’s down 11 points in the fourth quarter and you come back to win in overtime, that says it all. It talks about the character and the leadership of this locker room. You know, things aren’t always gonna be pretty. But I’ll squeak out a win like that every week.”

No Graham update: Saints tight end Jimmy Graham wasn’t spotted in the locker room, and coach Sean Payton didn’t give a specific update on his status after he left with a shoulder injury during the first half. Graham tried to play through the discomfort for two more series, but doctors and trainers ultimately decided to take him inside for further examination.

"The key is being able to function at full speed," Payton said. "So I think we were smart and got a chance to take a peek and decided we were gonna wait.”

Robinson’s redemption: No individual player earned more redemption Sunday than Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson, who returned as the nickel back following his Week 2 demotion -- and responded with the Saints’ first interception of the season.

Robinson again admitted after the game that he needs to have the same confidence in his abilities that others have in him. He said it “meant a lot” that Payton went out of his way to keep encouraging him after the demotion by sharing stories of other cornerbacks who bounced back from similar fates.
METAIRIE, La. -- Drafting a quarterback hasn't been a very high priority for the New Orleans Saints since coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in 2006. They've only drafted one in that span -- Sean Canfield in the seventh round in 2010.

But Payton revealed Thursday the Saints were tempted last year by Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon in the third round. Glennon was drafted with the 73rd pick. The Saints went with left tackle Terron Armstead two picks later -- and obviously they haven’t been disappointed with that choice.

Glennon
"That discussion that came up, I can remember it like it was yesterday," Payton said. "Terron Armstead, Glennon was right in that cloud, if you will. And it's just funny how you go back. And both of those guys have bright careers in our league."

Payton said he got a great endorsement from Glennon's former offensive coordinator at NC State, Dana Bible, whom Payton had worked with at two previous stops (San Diego State and the Philadelphia Eagles).

"Dana, I remember calling me on Mike and really giving me good reviews. I mean over and above. So we studied more tape. He's someone that was in the mix," Payton said.

When asked if there have been many quarterbacks the Saints have come close to drafting over the years, Payton said, "I don't know that there's many. I just recall him specifically because we saw a lot of things we liked. And now unfortunately he's in our division and we're watching him."

Glennon has temporarily regained his role as the Buccaneers' starter this season as they prepare to face the Saints on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Glennon made his first start last week in place of injured veteran Josh McCown and led Tampa Bay to its first victory of the season over the Pittsburgh Steelers. He completed 21 of 42 passes for 302 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.

Glennon (6 foot 6, 225 pounds) also started 13 games as a rookie last season and fared well, with 2,608 yards, 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

"He’s big, he's tall. I think he's got a real good arm," Payton said. "I think his timing, his feet are very good. His feet are exceptional for his size. So he’s got good athleticism. He can locate the ball and make all the throws."
METAIRIE, La. –The New Orleans Saints' offense is not broken.

It didn't suddenly disappear or get old or get "figured out." In fact, as quarterback Drew Brees correctly pointed out on Wednesday, the Saints' offense is actually improved through four games this year in almost every statistical category.

"The major difference is we were 4-0 last year, 1-3 this year," said Brees -- though he made sure to stress that he doesn't want to "get too caught up in statistics, because statistics don’t always tell the story."

"It’s obvious it’s not good enough,” Brees said.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesDrew Brees and the Saints offense, aside from turnovers and big plays, has been statistically better this season than in 2013.
But his greater point, that the Saints' offense should stay the course and believe in the process and not try to “create problems” that don’t exist, should be well-taken.

Because those aren’t empty or misleading statistics that Brees was referencing. The Saints' offense truly has been better in just about every relevant way imaginable this year, based on numbers provided by ESPN Stats and Information.

The biggest difference, obviously, is that New Orleans' defense got off to a great start last year and is off to a lousy start this year. And the offense hasn't been good enough to make up the difference.

The Saints’ points per game are down from 27.0 to 23.8 through four games, but that's largely because the Saints aren’t getting as many possessions. They’ve had 9.75 drives per game, which ranks 31st in the NFL.

The Saints’ points per drive, however, are up, from 2.25 to 2.44. And their touchdowns per drive are up from 25 percent to 30.8 percent (which ranks second in the NFL this year).

Also:

  • The Saints’ yards per game are up, from 419.5 last year to 425.8 this year. And their yards per play rank No. 2 in the NFL this year (6.4, compared to 6.1 last year).
  • Their passing yards are down from 338.3 per game to 294.5. But their rushing yards are way up, from 81.25 per game to 131.3.
  • The Saints have the best third-down efficiency in the NFL (57.1 percent) and the best completion percentage in the NFL (71.4 percent). Their red-zone efficiency is way up (from 43.8 percent to 68.8 percent).
  • They’ve thrown fewer interceptions than they did in the first four games last year (3 vs. 4) and Brees has been sacked a lot less (5 times vs. 12 times). However, the Saints have four lost fumbles this year, compared to one at this point last year.
  • One other category in which the Saints have dropped off is “big plays.” Last year they had 19 pass plays of 20 yards or longer through four games. This year, they have only nine.
  • Combine all of those factors and the Saints’ offense is ranked by ESPN Stats and Info as the second-most efficient in the NFL this season, with 46.33 expected points added. Last year through four games, the Saints’ EPA was 27.07.

Saints coach Sean Payton said the Saints' scoring efficiency has been good for the most part (especially before the slow start at Dallas in last Sunday's 38-17 loss). But he said it's the "lack of opportunities" that have stood out "when we get to talking about a complementary game.” Payton, who attributed that to issues such as the Saints’ turnover ratio (minus-6, with seven giveaways and just one takeaway) and the defense not getting off the field enough on third downs.

Payton was hardly pinning the blame solely on the defense, though. When asked if there are things on offense that he’d like to clean up, Payton said, “Absolutely.”

“Look, we’ve turned the ball over too much,” Payton said. “Our third-down numbers have been good. Our rushing totals have been good. Our big-play numbers have been down. So the two specific things would be the turnovers and the big plays.”
METAIRIE, La. -- The highlight of Drew Brees' press conference Wednesday came when the New Orleans Saints quarterback answered one question about a theory from the "panicked mob," then another reporter followed up by saying, "Can I ask another panicked mob question?"

"Sure," Brees said with a laugh. "Let's go. The sky is falling."

Brees was good-natured while answering those particular questions about whether his arm strength is diminished and whether the Saints' training camp practices at The Greenbrier resort made them too soft. (The short answers: No and no).

Brees said he understands why fans are looking for such big-picture answers after New Orleans' surprising 1-3 start. But he said the team can't -- and doesn't -- think that way.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsDrew Brees said "areas where we can get better," but that the sky is not falling.
"I would say that because of how important all this is to all of us as players, as a community, as a fan base, as much as the media is a part of our game now, that everybody always wants a reason. Something or someone to blame," Brees said. "And I think sometimes you waste your time searching for that stuff as opposed to just knowing that if you continue to do things the right way, good things will happen. …

"We're not trying to create problems here. Just because everybody wants to know, ‘What the heck's going on? What's wrong? Why are you 1-3? The sky is falling. Oh my gosh.' Hey, we're gonna keep doing what we do. Yes there are areas where we can get better, absolutely. But we're also gonna continue on the path that we started this offseason."

Brees was one of many players who exuded that confidence Wednesday that the Saints will be able to work their way out of this early-season funk -- starting with Sunday's home date with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Although players and coach Sean Payton have said that they can't just rely on their past success, it can still serve as inspiration.

They know they have the talent and track record to succeed if they work hard enough and execute properly.

Even newcomer Jairus Byrd pointed Wednesday to the different "vibe" in the Saints' locker room, where there is a noticeable winning culture. He said it wasn't always like that during his first five seasons with the Buffalo Bills.

Linebacker Curtis Lofton, who began his career with the Atlanta Falcons, agreed.

"I've been in systems where I knew going into the game that a lot of things were flawed and we didn't have a chance of succeeding. But it's been proven that this system works," Lofton said. "We're not doing anything different than we did last year. We've just go to go out and just play."

That doesn't mean nothing has changed, though.

Payton said earlier this week that the Saints are playing like a 1-3 team right now and they can't expect different results without making changes to the process. He backed that up Wednesday with some tweaks to the practice routine -- including a spirited offense vs. defense competition instead of the traditional work against scout teams.

Certainly some game-planning tweaks will follow, as well.

But no one believes a drastic overhaul is needed as much as a dedicated effort from each individual to improve their own level of play.

"I'll be honest with you, my approach is no different. It's no different now than it was nine years ago," Brees said. "When you step into the building, it's time to work. Prepare as hard as you can as well as you can. … The mindset of, ‘Every time we get the ball we're gonna score, and every time we step on the field we expect to score 40 points,' none of that stuff changes. … I have a routine. I know it works, I'm gonna keep doing it. I'm gonna stay aggressive."

As for that question about his arm strength, Brees was a little taken aback.

"Ummm, I really don't even know how to respond to it to be honest with you. I mean, I'm not sure what would lead anybody to believe that," said Brees, who has not completed or attempted as many deep balls as usual this year -- though he did just complete a gorgeous 46-yarder to Kenny Stills at Dallas, and he leads all full-time quarterbacks with a completion percentage of 71.4 percent.

Brees, 35, acknowledged that age will have an effect at some point -- mostly, he said, with recovery time. But he said, "I don't feel like there's anything I can't do now that I could do when I was 25 years old. So I really don't know how to answer the question."
METAIRIE, La. -- That didn't take long.

After the best season of his career in 2013, New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is once again facing scrutiny just four games into the 2014 season -- at least outside of the team facility.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Rob Ryan
Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesYear 2 of the Rob Ryan defense has been a rough one thus far for the Saints, mimicking what's happened at Ryan's other stops.
The Saints (1-3) are ranked 29th in the NFL in yards allowed (396 per game), tied for 27th in points allowed (27.5 per game) and dead last in turnovers (1).

Inside the Saints' building, players and coach Sean Payton have continued to support Ryan. Cornerback Keenan Lewis offered the strongest possible endorsement Monday when he wasn't even asked about Ryan, saying, "We're gonna get it fixed. We've got the coaches, Coach Ryan's got all the faith, the best coordinator in the NFL. He's doing a great job. We just gotta listen, and we just gotta man up and get the job done."

Payton cut off a question when asked about Ryan not getting the same results as last season, saying, "Yeah, but that's 'we.' It's not any one individual. It's the Saints' defense. Sean Payton is not getting the same results as he did last year, and every player on this team is not getting the same results ... on defense."

However, a growing number of skeptics have pointed to Ryan's spotty track record in previous stops with the Dallas Cowboys, Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders. ESPN scouting Insider Matt Williamson said this week that if Ryan -- son of Buddy, twin brother to Rex -- had a different last name, "I don't think he'd be a defensive coordinator in this league."

Media members in both Cleveland and Dallas (where the Saints have lost games this year) suggested that Ryan's struggles are reminiscent of relapses his defenses had in those cities.

ESPN Stats & Information produced a chart this week, pointing out that last year's Saints defense was Ryan's first since 2006 to rank better than 20th in the NFL in defensive efficiency (a formula that measures the value of each play, based on the situation and result).

It's worth noting, however, that whether Ryan is the cause or the effect, he hasn't been with many good teams during his career. Last year's Saints team was the first to finish with a winning record in Ryan's 11-year career as a defensive coordinator.

Personally, I disagree with Williamson's assessment. There is more to Ryan than his family ties. Ryan has one of the most infectious personalities of any coach I've ever been around.

I've talked with many of Ryan's current and former players and scouting analysts who admire his work ethic as a creative schemer and "film rat." Players in both New Orleans and previous stops have almost universally praised him as a guy they love to play for. There is no question that Ryan's ability to both motivate and innovate got the most out of the Saints' young talent during their unexpected rise to prominence last year.

Even Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who fired Ryan after the 2012 season, said recently, "I think Rob's going to make a great head coach. I haven't seen anybody that is better in front of a team and better motivating than Rob Ryan."

But no one can dispute the fact that Ryan's defense needs to start producing better results on the field.

Injuries haven't been an issue this year, and talent shouldn't be either. Ryan is working with mostly the same players as last season, plus the addition of three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd.

The Saints did let go of several veteran leaders (Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Jabari Greer, Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper). But while their leadership clearly seems to be missed, many of them played limited roles last year because of injuries.

Ryan himself hasn’t shirked the blame. He isn’t scheduled to meet the media until Friday this week to discuss the defense's latest setback, a 38-17 loss at Dallas. But Ryan made no excuses after the Saints' first two losses, saying it was "on me."

Ryan also simplified his scheme before Week 3, eliminating the heavy amount of checks and adjustments he likes to use in his defenses (an approach that has also drawn its share of criticism in previous stops).

"When I was hired, I came into something special here. And I'm not going to screw it up," Ryan said last week. "I'm going to work hard and make sure we get it right."

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints seemed to have the proper mix of anger/frustration/confidence/realism/focus on Monday after a 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys that sent them reeling back to 1-3 on the season.

But they were the first to admit they won't really know if they're reacting the right way until they start to see real evidence on the football field -- beginning with Sunday's home date with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"Here's what we can't do: We can't continue with the exact same preparation plan and expect different results, right?" Saints coach Sean Payton said. "And so you've gotta constantly look at tweaking the approach coming into the next week.

"Look, we'll find out a little bit about this team here. When you start the season 1-3 and you get punched like that, very quickly we'll find out a little bit about what we're made of."

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Sean Payton
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images"Here's what we can't do: We can't continue with the exact same preparation plan and expect different results, right?" Saints coach Sean Payton said.
"Every team is different," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "This team is different from last year, and that team was different than the year before. And this team has not figured out how to win yet."

I know a lot of Saints fans are eager to pinpoint some grand, big-picture theme that can explain this inexplicable start.

I've heard countless theories, from this team buying into its own preseason hype to tuning out Payton's message to having a "country club" training camp in West Virginia to just plain not wanting it as much as the Cowboys did on Sunday night.

And none of those theories can be dismissed outright since, as Payton suggested, everything should be on the table when looking for a solution. Payton said he'll look closely at all factors with the staff and veteran leaders on the team.

But when I asked leaders such as Payton, Strief, Junior Galette and Keenan Lewis on Monday if they see any such big-picture reasons that could point to their slide, they said they genuinely didn't think so.

"There's no lack of fire. We practice our ass off," Galette said. "I feel like we practice harder than any other team I've been here with in five years. We practice harder than any of those teams, and we have more talent than any of those teams as well.

"You have to be realistic and know that we're not as good as we thought we were. We have to get better and improve drastically. It's very humbling, but we still believe in our team, and we still believe the sky's the limit.

"We're in a rut right now. Coach always talks about the rut and the groove, and we're in a rut. We've got to get in that groove, and once we find it, we'll keep our foot on the gas."

Strief said he can't guarantee that nobody was reading news clippings -- but he knows from experience they don't mean a thing, whether you're predicted to be good or bad.

"And do I feel that the idea of going somewhere to save guys' legs for the season is causing us to lose games? No," Strief said of the training camp theory. "Having three turnovers is causing us to lose games. Getting behind 24-0 before halftime is having us lose games. Not finishing drives in the fourth quarter had us lose games."

Payton agreed that it's important for the Saints to take a hyper focus on what's preventing them from winning -- including the "laundry list" of on-field problems that were on display Sunday night.

"That's all of us looking at the tape closely and looking at the specifics in regards to assignment technique and then us as coaches looking at, 'Are we asking the players to do things we feel like they can do well?'" Payton said.

And Payton stressed the "sense of urgency" that's needed isn't just about showing up on game days, but showing up on the practice field and in the film room.

"This is a win business, so when you're not having success, that challenges everyone. That challenges the players, the coaches. You have to dig down deep. It's a gut check," Payton said. "And I'm certain we will."

Whether or not the Saints did lose their proper focus or motivation or any other intangible you want to consider early in the season, it's clear there's no excuse for those things to be lacking now.

"I'm definitely angry," Lewis said. "I didn't picture us being 1-3, the team battling even to get to .500. So it hurts. And I'm going to try and challenge my teammates and get it going.

"The first two losses, you lose by 2-3 points, you look back and say we could have done more. But a team comes in and puts up 38 points, dominating from start to finish. It's definitely head-scratching, and we gonna get it fixed.

"We can't be waiting around saying, 'It's still early.' We've gotta start kicking the door in."
Thomas MorsteadTim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsThe Cowboys stopped Thomas Morstead for a 2-yard loss on the Saints' ill-fated fake punt.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- To be fair, there is no such thing as a high-percentage play when you are down 31-17 and facing a fourth-and-9 with 7:45 remaining in a game.

But a fake punt clearly wasn't the answer. And New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said after the game that "hindsight probably was 20-20" after punter Thomas Morstead was sacked for a 2-yard loss. The Dallas Cowboys scored soon afterward to ice their 38-17 victory.

Payton said he is not sure he would have gone for it in that situation, though. He likely would have opted to punt instead with two timeouts still remaining.

"It’s something we’d had up for a while. Even versus their 'safe' look, it was something we thought would have a chance," Payton said of the play, which began with a fake handoff to running back Travaris Cadet -- but the Cowboys didn’t bite.

"There was some misdirection involved. They played it pretty well," Payton said. "Hindsight probably was 20-20. I had kind of gone back and forth with it. It was on the hash mark we wanted, and they covered it pretty well."

Morstead said the Saints had been practicing the play for a while, but the Cowboys simply didn’t bite.

"No one was open, so I didn't throw it," Morstead told reporters. "I think they had three guys covering the two that were options for me to throw to, and I just didn't feel like it was there. I decided instead of going 0-for-1 with an interception, I'd try to extend the play, and it just didn't work."

It was hardly the only special teams gaffe of the night for the Saints.

Kicker Shayne Graham missed a 41-yard field goal wide right in the second quarter to help set the tone in an "everything that could go wrong ..." game.

It was Graham’s first field-goal miss of the season, but he also missed an extra point last week in a 20-9 victory against the Minnesota Vikings. Graham later made a 30-yard field goal Sunday and is 4-of-5 on the season.

UPDATED: Payton reiterated Monday that the blame for the failed play was "on me for being impatient" when asked if he would have liked to see Morstead at least throw the ball up for grabs.

"No. Listen, that's on me. That's not Thomas or that's not Cadet," Payton said. "It's a play designed for misdirection. Credit Dallas, they were in a punt-safe. I kind of felt like they would be, and really that's on me for being impatient. I thought we were at a point in the game once we got to two scores, if I had to do it over again, I'd have punted. Thomas did what he was supposed to."

Saints don't hide from harsh reality

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- New Orleans Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said it best: You can't jump in a hole and hide from 1-3.

The Saints’ two last-second losses were frustrating. And they took their problems seriously. But they still had that sense of, "Oh man, if just one or two things had gone differently we could have been 3-0."

Sunday’s 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys? That was downright disturbing.

[+] EnlargeCowboys
AP Photo/Tim SharpTerrance Williams caught two of Tony Romo's three TD passes against the Saints as Dallas amassed 445 total yards in its 38-17 rout.
It was disturbing because the defense imploded so badly that folks who cover the Cowboys were comparing it to defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's demise in Dallas two years ago.

It was disturbing because the offense was just as bad, getting shut out in the first half for just the third time since Sean Payton took over as head coach in 2006.

And it was disturbing most of all because this was the Saints’ chance to show who they really were on the national “Sunday Night Football” stage.

Maybe that is exactly what they did.

"We can talk all we want about talent or expectation or any of that stuff. Right now we’re not a good football team. We didn’t do anything right," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "You’re glad it’s the fourth game of the year and it’s not just decided (at the end of the season that) you were a bad team. But right now, we’re a bad team."

So how do they deal with that revelation?

"There’s one way to work yourself out of these holes, and it’s cliché to anybody that hasn’t experienced it, but you’ve got to work your butt off," Strief said. "I know guys feel like they’ve worked hard, and I know sometimes it looks like you’re working hard. But we have to find more. Somewhere, in really every department, we’ve got to work harder than we have and maybe harder than we ever have before."

Secondly, it has to start with some very real X’s and O’s corrections.

On defense, the Saints have a laundry list of fixes to make, but right at the top has to be figuring out how to generate more pressure with their four-man pass rush. That was maybe their biggest key to success last season, and it has virtually disappeared this season. That could lead to those badly needed turnovers and alleviate pressure on the secondary.

On offense, the Saints need to figure out how to hit on some deep passing plays. It was OK for three weeks when their offense was still very efficient. But those big plays were sorely missed against a Dallas defense that was also corralling Jimmy Graham and shutting down the run game at the same time in the first half.

On special teams, the Saints need to decide whether kicker Shayne Graham is still their guy, and they could use a little juice in the return game.

"It’s challenging, it’s disappointing, it’s frustrating. But that’s on all of us right now," Payton said. "It’s on me, it’s on our staff, it’s on the team. Obviously it’s not where you want to be, and we’ve got to make sure we look closely at the reasons why we’re not winning."

Last but not least, those fixes have to pay off immediately with a Week 5 win at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (also 1-3) before the Saints head into their Week 6 bye.

They don’t get much more "must-win" than this. The Saints haven’t lost a home game with Payton on the sideline since 2010 (not counting his 2012 suspension). And they certainly can’t stop now.

"We had a bad day today. That’s clear. Everybody sees it, everybody sees the score. You know, we’re disappointed and slightly embarrassed," Lofton said. "But at the same time, this is the first quarter of the season. We’ve still got a lot of season left. We’ve gotta go get this game against Tampa, get away from the bye and get on a roll.

"What we have on this team, the character of these guys, we’ve got to put more into the process. And we’ll get this thing corrected."
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints' 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys:

No sugar-coating: There were no real fiery speeches in the Saints' locker room. But there was a whole lot of harsh reality. The Saints (1-3) were cautiously optimistic after their first two losses came down to the final seconds. But they were a lot more matter-of-fact after this blowout saw Dallas jump to a 31-3 lead:

Strief
"We have to be realistic right now with ourselves. Right now we're not a very good football team," offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "You're glad it's the fourth game of the year, and it's not just decided -- it's the 15th [game], and you were a bad team. But right now we're a bad team."

Added safety Kenny Vaccaro: "It is a big deal now. First, it's like, 'OK, we're starting slow.' But once you're 1-3 it's like, 'OK. Now we gotta ...' The first 25 percent of the season's over. So I don't know."

"There's not going to be much good to see on this film," coach Sean Payton said. "We're 1-3 right now, and that's about how we're playing."

Why the fake punt? The Saints did just about everything wrong Sunday night, but the most inexplicable decision seemed to be their fake punt in the fourth quarter when they had closed the gap to 14 points. If you're gonna try for a miracle, why not at least have Drew Brees throwing it instead of punter Thomas Morstead on fourth-and-9?

Payton said, hindsight being 20-20, it was the wrong decision. But it was a play the Saints had considered for a while, and they had the ball on the hash mark they wanted. But the Cowboys covered it well.

Effort and energy? Payton has never been shy about calling out his team when he feels like the effort and energy aren't there. But he stopped short of doing that this time.

"I don't know, necessarily," Payton said. "We'll grade that when we put the tape on. I thought they came in with the right mindset. Obviously, though, it didn't match what Dallas' was."

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