|Garrett Hartley's missed field in the fourth quarter against the Packers didn't help the Saints, but poor clock management by the coaches was equally responsible for sinking New Orleans to 0-4. (AP)|
Little things go a long way in determining winners and losers in the NFL, and the 0-4 Saints showed exactly how much they missed suspended coach Sean Payton in their painful 28-27 defeat to Green Bay on Sunday.
They're rudderless without him, making mental errors that never would have happened under his leadership.
Nothing indicated that point better than the way they used their final two timeouts against the Packers.
Facing a fourth-and-2 at their 49-yard line with 4:41 left, they decided to go for it. It clearly was the right call because the defense had struggled to stop Green Bay all day, but after some indecision, the play clock already was below 10 seconds when they broke the huddle. They still were nowhere near snapping the ball when the clock got down to 1 second, so interim coach Aaron Kromer frantically called for a timeout, leaving them with only one remaining. Quarterback Drew Brees' mind was somewhere else as he called out the signals. He had no idea the Saints were coming this close to a killer delay-of-game penalty, a strange mental lapse for one of the headiest players in the league.
The Saints converted the first down -- but at a cost. That timeout was one they needed after Garrett Hartley hooked a potential go-ahead field goal wide right with 2:49 left.
The coaches then flunked basic clock management. Green Bay ran a play, and the Saints called their final timeout immediately, with 2:44 left.
“Aaron and I were talking, but that was the obvious thing to do,” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said Monday. “We only had one left. We looked up there and (the game clock) was two (minutes), 40-something (seconds) when that first play ran, so you knew at the end of that play it was going to be under 40 seconds. If you don't call a timeout, they just sit there and let it go down all the way to the 2-minute warning. That was the right thing to do.”
He's wrong, and here's why: The 40-second play clock starts no later than a second or two after the previous play ends. If the Saints had saved their timeout, Green Bay would absolutely have been forced to snap the ball before the two-minute warning. The clock would have stopped for the 2-minute warning after the second-down play, and New Orleans still would have had a timeout to use after third down.
Instead, Green Bay ran a second-down play, the clock wound down to the two-minute warning and the Saints were out of timeouts.
Ultimately, the mistake did not matter because Green Bay converted the first down and ran out the clock. Still, the potential loss of 40 seconds is huge when a desperate team is trying to save its season.
It was symptomatic of life without Payton. The Saints haven't been as disciplined on the field or the sideline in his absence.
In Week 1, Washington scored a touchdown after Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson was slow to get to the sideline before a fourth-down punt, resulting in a penalty for 12 men on the field.
Against Green Bay, running back Darren Sproles dropped a third-down pass that would have extended New Orleans' final drive. Sure-handed wide receiver Lance Moore, who made a sensational catch on fourth down earlier in that same possession, dropped a pass that hit him in the chest on the next play.
The Saints have some issues that appear to be unfixable. Their defense, which ranks dead last in the NFL in yards allowed, is nearly devoid of playmakers. Although Spagnuolo praised his group for preventing big gains by the Packers, Green Bay still scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives in the first half. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, sacked 16 times in the Packers' first three games, remained upright on all 41 of his throws.
But one-dimensional teams can win when that dimension is as good as Brees and the New Orleans pass offense. The Saints went 13-3 last year with a defense that ranked 24th in yards allowed, tied for 29th in yards allowed per carry (5.0) and, just like this season, gave up touchdowns to Green Bay on three consecutive possessions at Lambeau Field.
Brees torched Green Bay for 446 yards and three TDs with no interceptions on Sunday, regaining the form that made him the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year in 2011.
If he maintains that level, the Saints can salvage something from their demoralizing start. Maybe the return of linebackers coach Joe Vitt, who will reclaim his role as interim coach when he comes off his bounty-related suspension after two more games, will stabilize the sideline.
“This isn't about me,” Kromer said when asked how he would feel emotionally handing the team back to Vitt. “It's not about Joe. It's about the organization, team and players. It's a group effort.”
Mentally and physically, that effort has not been good enough, but as bad as the Saints have looked for stretches, all four of their losses have been by eight points or fewer.
With the right direction, they are not that far from a recovery.