For the love of God, Terron, don’t fuck this up.
I said last week I didn’t give a damn about the Rams game. I still don’t. Because what we have this week is what we should have expected all year, given the circumstances. The Saints aren’t technically out of the division race with a loss – next week a Carolina loss and a Saints win and some other things could give the Saints a division title via the strength of victory tiebreaker.
But ultimately, we all know that this regular season boils down to Sunday. The division championship, and a second-round bye, will be awarded to the winner of a division game. On the road. Outdoors. With a first-time starting rookie left tackle and a 60-year-old kicker who hasn’t tried a field goal in about 7 years.
That works for me. That’s what this season was supposed to be from the start, isn’t it? There is no perfect statistic by which to measure such a statement, but I’m not sure a legitimate Super Bowl contending team has ever been quite this different at home and on the road. Has a Super Bowl team ever changed left tackles by choice (barring injury) this late in a regular season? Started a first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback that somehow looked so consistently pedestrian in road games?
I’m fairly sure the answer is no. And yet, I’m not sure there’s anyone outside of Carolina that can claim to be absolutely sure of the result of Sunday’s game.
If Drew Brees decides to show up; if Terron Armstead can handle the Panthers’ pass rush; if Sean Payton puts together the right gameplan, the Panthers do not stand a chance.
Those are pretty big ifs. On the road. Outdoors. (As if outdoors means anything after last week.)
We may only hope that Sean Payton raised a few eyebrows in the locker room this week. That a cutting and a benching of two players that can have a hell of an effect on a playoff race will send the proverbial message.
I’ve had this argument in several venues this week, both on the internet and in real life. Sean Payton probably is not the type of coach to cut a player to “send a message.” And negative reinforcement just doesn’t work on real people in real life. I concede those points – they are valid.
However, football players are human beings like the rest of us. They can become #fuckingcomplacent, and they can find themselves mentally beaten down watching a teammate absolutely suck it up for weeks at a time and keep his job. That’s what it is – a job – and every adult in the real world has witnessed a pathetic coworker coast while receiving the same salary, the same treatment as the guy who’s putting in his all and succeeding at his job. That sucks for everyone involved.
Every player in the NFL is in the top one thousandth of the top one thousandth of the people who have ever attempted to do what he does. If mentality, psychology, motivation weren’t part of the game, teams wouldn’t go 15-1 or 1-15. Disparity comes, at least in part, from shitty attitude. From complacency. From, even if it’s created subconsciously, a lack of focus. Players don’t have to be bad to suck, and good players don’t have to choose to give up to give up. Sometimes it really is all in your head, and the psychological break becomes increasingly apparent as the discrepancy between talent and performance increases. The Haslett Saints, anyone?
Sean Payton is not immune from the phenomenon. Let a few undeserving guys keep their jobs for a while, and bring the rest of the team down with them. Fail to hold players accountable for their missteps. Next thing you know, Sean’s impregnating cheerleaders. The guy is divorced – it can happen quicker than you think.
So, yes, a message has been sent. Whether it was Payton’s intention or not. Hartley and Brown are not scapegoats; they were undeserving starters, and they had to go. But their absences will be noticed, and felt. The only question that remains: is this team just not that good? Or could it have been a case of a locker room temporarily riddled with pussies?
Time will tell, but I would ask of those of you who might not yet be convinced that you explain this football team’s nightmares on the road. Nearly every team is worse on the road than at home – a dome team benefits from a controlled climate. A defense benefits from crowd noise. An offense is affected by the opposing crowd, the inclement weather.
When a clearly superior team gets handled – absolutely embarrassed up and down the field – by a team like the Rams, indoors, with no crowd noise to speak of, what are the factors at play here? What changes the very nature of those two teams so dramatically if not psychology?
There is not a good answer. The 2013 Saints are, collectively, as much of a headcase as Garrett Hartley has ever been. The roster, even the coaching staff, must simply believe that they suck on the road, that the road owns them. They need help. They need intensive therapy, hypnotherapy, maybe a little electroshock. There has to be a solution to this nonsense that has plagued the team so.
The answer could come in one big game. Provide a spark – create a crisis, as Payton once explained – find motivation, and win that signature road win that has eluded this franchise for nearly eight years now. The one that changes a season, wins a division championship, allows hope that one road game in January isn’t enough to derail a championship run.
Or, perhaps, we’re overthinking this a little. Some of you mocked my post title last week (I see you, superdeformed), and maybe I was wrong. Maybe it was a trap game. Maybe the Saints were so damn focused on the Panthers game that they totally overlooked the Rams. I’ll allow the possibility, because if that’s the case, then they really, really overlooked that game and they should be prepared as all fuck this Sunday.
The reason aside, a win Sunday gives us hope. A 2-seed is clinched and one road game doesn’t look so daunting after beating the Panthers in their own house. And a loss effectively ends the season. A wildcard game on the road, with (likely) two more to win to make the Super Bowl, and no reason to hope that we can win even one of them, is too much for simple faith to handle.
It’s one game, and it’s as true a must-win as any regular season game under Payton has ever been. One game that we’ll remember, for better or worse, as the summation of the 2013 regular season. It’s how it had to be.
And I think that’s just great.
Saints 21, Panthers 20, on a last-second Shayne Graham field goal