The promise of the unknown surrounding the Saints’ offense never arrived as hoped

We waited all year to see the New Orleans offense.

Hope existed that there was something more than what we were seeing. So many players were missing, in and out of the lineup. Health and chemistry had to be the fix. But it turns out the cloud of uncertainty, which became occupied with wonder and imagination, only hid the truth.

There were times Drew Brees played well. There were times he reached back and hit a deep pass or an out route from the opposite hash, which meant the quarterback had something there that could be untapped once everything came together.

But the offense was simply the offense. Michael Thomas returned, and it helped, but not enough to overcome the deeper issues this team had. Twelve wins and a playoff win isn’t a bad season, but this year was dubbed Super Bowl or bust back in July by the players in black and gold, and things went bust during Sunday’s 30-20 loss to Tampa Bay.

This might have been Brees’ last game in New Orleans, which means it could be the last best chance this team has with this core group of players, which was largely assembled through the 2016 and 2017 drafts. Some of the losses weren’t their fault. Some of them were. Today, there is no room for nuance. There is just hollowness, both in the results and the uncertain future.

Turnovers,interceptions and blown drives. Too many field goals and hard-earned yards. The only good thing about being in this position is there aren’t too many questions about how they ended up here, which, at least, allows for some level of closure since there is nothing to be bitter about other than the lackluster performance.

“You turn the ball over four times, and the other team turns the ball over zero times,” Alvin Kamara said, “that’s not a winning formula.”

In time, the view will change. This era of Saints football was special even if the results were not. There wasn’t a team that had more fun or brought more energy to the league. Playing for the Saints is cool. A culture here will endure beyond this loss into next season.

But a lot will change. Brees is unlikely to be back, even though he says he will give himself time to think about things before making a decision, which means the team will have to find answers at quarterback. Taysom Hill will be back to compete, and the Saints will have to decide what to do about Jameis Winston, whose contract expires this offseason. Will Winston come back? Does the team draft a quarterback? Nothing is more important.

There are money issues that mean some players are going to be gone. New Orleans can move the pieces around to keep many core players in place, but it will be hard to sign everyone. Guys like Trey Hendrickson and Marcus Williams could price themselves out. Hard decisions will get made on Emmanuel Sanders, Janoris Jenkins, and some others. Things are sure to change, but this team can remain competitive if things fall into place.

But that’s a conversation for later. Today there are open wounds and the autopsy of this loss. The shocking lack of execution, which saw Brees throw passes into coverage, sometimes without much arm on it, and make mistakes that shouldn’t have happened, was worse than expected. There was also the revelation that Brees simply couldn’t throw this team back into the game after at times looking like a rejuvenated player who simply needed to work back into a rhythm once returning from injured reserve. Fool’s gold, it seems.

There were concerns about this and, for a while, we knew that the Saints could win with him and potentially still win games because of him. But when they needed him, with Thomas well covered, Jared Cook struggling and Alvin Kamara drawing a lot of attention, the team turned to the quarterback, and after so many heroic moments, so many comebacks and dominating performances in this building, he didn’t have another one left.

There isn’t a need to harp on it. The end of this season has come. Prematurely, but that’s how it is always going to feel. This season, this era, this chapter all feel like they are coming to an end before they should have. There will be time to mourn and process the end of Brees’ career when he says so, but for now, this one stings.

“This sucks,” Cam Jordan said, trying to choke back the emotion in his words.

The defense played well enough. They gave up 21 points off of turnovers. They held it down against an explosive offense and kept the team in the game as long as they possibly could have. At some point, holding on was just too much. There were too many blown opportunities.

So, now, we see what comes next. This team has enjoyed incredible stability. As long as Brees has been here, you knew who the Saints were. It was him and Sean Payton. Others came and went, but those two were here, and you always knew some level of success was never far away.

Now, we’ll see. Things have become undefined. Imagination and wonder will fill the voids. Hopefully, this time, the picture doesn’t become distorted, and the outcomes meet the vision.

THREE UP

WR Tre’Quan Smith – The wide receiver returned from injured reserve and made a significant impact during his return to action. Brees’ trust in him was one of the things that stood out, and played a part in Smith’s touchdown catch.

QB Jameis Winston – One play. One touchdown pass. The execution was easy because of how well-schemed the play was – one which New Orleans stole from Chicago after Chicago ran it against New Orleans last week. But it was good to see the quarterback succeed, and it makes one wonder what the future could hold for Winston.

S Malcolm Jenkins – Jenkins made a bunch of big plays for the Saints, including a few third-down stops. His coverage on the tight ends were a key factor early on as the defense kept this team in the game.

THREE DOWN

LB Alex Anzalone – The Bucs went after him in coverage a bunch of times, and it looked like the linebacker was in the crosshairs, especially in the red zone.

The offense – Not scoring after Deonte Harris just about delivered the ball to the red zone on the opening drive was a precursor to how the rest of the game would play out. The squandered opportunities early led to the interceptions and mistakes that sunk the team later in the game. Brees had a rough game, Thomas wasn’t involved enough, the offensive line had issues – none of it was good enough.

TE Jared Cook – Cook fumbled once and was targeted on another interception. The fumble was such a turning point in this game that it is hard to overlook. Cook has flashed promise during the last two years, but he never delivered as hoped this year and that fumble felt like the turning point of the game.

PRESSURE REPORT

New Orleans took a conservative approach against the Bucs, choosing to get after Tom Brady with a four-man pass rush most of the time. While using four rushers, the Saints created seven pressures and one sack. The team sent five or more pass rushers on only six snaps.

OFFENSIVE PERSONNEL

The Saints did not use very many personnel packages in this game, the result of being without Taysom Hill and Latavius Murray, who missed the game due to injury.

• One running back, one tight end, three wide receivers – 17 plays
• Two running backs, one tight end, two wide receivers – 12 plays
• One running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers – 12 plays
• Six offensive linemen, one running back, one tight end, two wide receivers – 6 plays
• One running back, three tight ends, one wide receiver – 4 plays
• Six offensive linemen, one running back, two tight ends, one wide receiver – 3 plays
• Two running backs, three wide receivers – 2 plays
• Two running backs, two tight ends, one wide receiver – 2 plays
• One running back, four wide receivers – 2 plays

DEFENSIVE PERSONNEL

The Saints mixed up their looks a little bit, and played more base defense in this one than what is typical.

Nickel (five defensive backs) – 32 plays
Dime (six defensive backs) – 18 plays
Base (four defensive backs) – 13 plays
Three defensive backs – 6 plays

 

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