The New Orleans Saints’ slogan for this season is “Prove Them Right.”
The reference is to NFL observers who see the Saints as being capable of reaching the Super Bowl. It’s a reasonable evaluation, given that New Orleans went 11-5 and won the NFC South last season, has a Hall of Fame quarterback in Drew Brees and has surrounded him with a bevy of young talented players who should be ascending.
At first glance the Saints haven’t looked anything like a team capable of going to the Super Bowl. They lost to the team that finished last in the NFC South last season (Tampa Bay) 48-41 in the season opener and needed the Cleveland Browns to miss two extra points and two field goals in order to avoid being the first team to lose to the Browns in 21 months.
Coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees rightly tempered satisfaction over the 21-18 win against the Browns on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“Let’s not kid ourselves,” Payton said. “We have a lot to do to improve.”
Brees: “There’s a huge sense of urgency for our improvement as we move on to next week.”
Next is a trip to Atlanta to play the Falcons, who took the defending champion Eagles to the wire on the road in the opener, then beat another playoff team, the Panthers on Sunday.
But the Saints’ 1-1 record is best evaluated by looking at the last two weeks more than last season.
The Buccaneers beat those same Eagles on Sunday and the Browns, coming off a tie against the Steelers, appear to be much improved over the winless group of a year ago. Cleveland isn’t all that good, but it’s not fair to consider it a 0-16 team.
The Saints haven’t looked like a Super Bowl team in the first two weeks, but Super Bowl teams are formed over several months not two weeks.
Payton and Brees are right. New Orleans has a long way to go.
But the 1-1 start is just a start, and maybe not as terrible a start as it seems at first glance.
MARCUS WILLIAMS MAKES A BIG PLAY
It’s hard for Saints fans to see Marcus Williams and not think about his missed tackle on the miracle touchdown on the game’s final play that sent the Saints home and the Vikings to the NFC Championship in January.
The second-year safety won’t be able to erase that memory, but maybe he started to make it seem a little less acute when he made one of the biggest plays of the game Sunday. His fourth-quarter interception set up the Saints’ go-ahead touchdown.
It wasn’t as big a play as the one in Minnesota, but it was a big one nonetheless and likely a precursor to many more to be made by a really good young player.
LUTZ SHOWS COMPASSION
Saints kicker Wil Lutz made a compassionate gesture when he ran to the Cleveland sideline to console Browns kicker Zane Gonzalez after he missed the four kicks that were the primary cause of Cleveland’s loss.
Lutz had just rescued himself from the doghouse by making a 44-yard, game-winning kick with 21 seconds left after missing from the same distance in the second quarter.
Only fellow kickers can fully understand the ups and downs of their occupation and how quickly one can go from hero to goat and vice versa.
Taysom Hill is an intriguing player. That’s how he made the Saints roster as a quarterback who’s not ready to play quarterback in the NFL.
He has the talent and smarts to contribute in a lot of ways, covering on special teams, returning on special teams, up-back on punts, wild-card on two-point conversions.
But Payton might have gotten a little carried away with this fun toy when he inserted him at quarterback on the goal line Sunday. Hill went in for a similar situation on the first drive last week and handed the ball to Alvin Kamara for a touchdown.
On Sunday, though, the Saints faced a critical third and 2, trailing by two in the fourth quarter, when Payton sent in Hill and had Brees split out wide. It was one of the most crucial moments in the game and that seems to be a good time to have your Hall of Fame quarterback play quarterback and not be a decoy.
We don’t know what would have happened if Hill had been able to run the play because the Browns seemed confused and called timeout. When play resumed, Brees was back at quarterback and Kamara got a first down and moments later Brees threw to Michael Thomas for a touchdown.
The use of Hill arguably caused the Browns to use a timeout, but that seems like little reward for taking the ball out of Brees’ hands.
On the other hand, Hill’s 47-yard kickoff return from deep in the end zone in the third quarter didn’t lead to anything, but it did seem to spark the team as Payton found another way to utilize Hill.
BY THE NUMBERS
If the Saints stay on their current pace, Brees will pass for more than 5,400 yards, Thomas will catch 224 passes and New Orleans will finish 8-8.