The loss to the Redskins, who debuted a high volume of new plays with rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, was one thing.
Dropping a divisional road game at Carolina was understandable, but a little bit disturbing since the defense gave up more than 200 yards rushing and passing.
But blowing an 18-point lead at home to the winless Chiefs?
Yeah, there’s a problem in New Orleans.
And while the season isn’t quite on the line yet, the Saints face the very real possibility of starting 0-4 as they travel to Lambeau Field. New Orleans will be facing a Packers team and crowd that will be champing at the bit to take out their frustrations from the Monday night “loss” on someone.
“It’s all been really tough, but we’re making our way through,” said quarterback Drew Brees. “We knew it was going to be challenging. Obviously didn’t expect the way that we started off here but very confident in the guys that we have in the locker room and the type of character guys that we have that we’re going to be able to turn this thing around.
“I feel like we’ve gotten a little bit better each week. Unfortunately, that hasn’t translated into wins yet but, hopefully, it will very soon.”
It better. The Saints and Browns (0-4) are the only winless teams in the league. New Orleans trails the first-place Falcons by three games in the NFC South.
So what has gone wrong? A lot, obviously.
On defense, you figured there would be a learning curve as the Saints adapted to the scheme of coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, a Grafton native. It can be complex, and the Saints are having big problems with their assignments. That’s showing up against the run. The Saints have allowed an average of 215 yards per game, including 233 to Jamaal Charles of the Chiefs.
The Saints have good players in the front seven, with middle linebacker Curtis Lofton being an upgrade over the injured Jonathan Vilma. And the Saints paid former Broncos tackle Brodrick Bunkley $8.9 million guaranteed to be the run stuffer in the middle.
The talent is there to be better against the run, but if your fundamentals in the scheme are poor, you’re going to have trouble stopping a ground game.
“You don’t junk what you are doing,” said Spagnuolo. “We believe in what we’re doing. I think the guys see some encouraging things there.”
The Saints need to get the run defense shored up because until they do, Spagnuolo will have to bring more secondary players into the box to shut it down. That has exposed a secondary that hurt the team at the end of last season. Safety Roman Harper and cornerback Jabari Greer both seem to have lost a crucial step. And Corey White, the nickel back, is playing like a fifth-round pick out of Samford.
The defensive issues, while a little bit surprising, figured to be manageable in the early going because of a soft schedule and the Saints’ high-powered offense directed by coordinator Pete Carmichael of Medway.
So much for that.
Brees’s completion percentage has gone from 71.2 percent in 2011 to 54.7 percent, and his passer rating of 77.0 is 25th in the league after he posted a career-best 110.6. And Brees has started to press of late, which is making things worse.
“I think those are just the natural feelings of somebody who feels like they can really control the situation, especially when you’re a leader on the team and certainly the quarterback,” Brees said. “I think there’s a balance to doing that and yet not putting too much pressure on yourself.
“I’m always trying to find ways, not only to make myself better, but how can I help my teammates? That’s why this is frustrating because, certainly, this is not a situation we’re used to being in. It’s not something we like.
“So, yeah, as the quarterback of the team, I take it very personal and I want to get this thing turned around just as much as anybody.”
Two NFL pro personnel directors who have watched Brees feel that he is trying to do too much, and is missing the input of suspended coach Sean Payton, who elevated Brees’s game once he was signed away from the Chargers. Combine Payton’s absence with Brees’s protracted contract issue with the Saints — he missed all the offseason workouts — and that’s where the issues may have started.
And it seems Brees is starting to feel the pressure.
“People are going to say, ‘You’re not on pace to break the touchdown mark anymore or the yardage mark anymore,’ ” Brees said. “Do you have to break that record every year? Do you understand all the things that have to come together in order to do what we did last year in breaking that yardage mark?
“But we might never get close to that yardage mark again. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to be a good team, we’re not going to be a successful team. We may not win 13 games this year in the regular season. It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to be a contender.”
Issues were compounded when top receiver Marques Colston sustained a foot injury. Devery Henderson suffered a concussion in the first game and missed Week 2. The Saints were counting on Adrian Arrington (knee/released) and fourth-round pick Nick Toon (foot/injured reserve) to replace third receiver Robert Meachem (signed with San Diego as free agent), but injuries to both took them out of the picture. The Saints have had to rely on unheralded Courtney Roby and Joe Morgan for production.
First-year receivers coach Henry Ellard has had to deal with these issues on the fly.
The offensive line hasn’t been terrible, but it has been inconsistent. You have to wonder if having offensive line coach Aaron Kromer serve as interim head coach has contributed to that.
Joe Vitt will be back as the interim head coach after Week 6. But will it be too late?
“This team is on the up,” said Kromer. “You can see it and sense it. When you look back and see where we are today and where we were Week 1, it’s definitely an upgrade.”
ART OF THE DEAL
Kraft reflects on labor pains
Patriots owner Robert Kraft didn’t have as large a role in ending the officials lockout as he did in the player lockout. But he was in New York for the better part of the last week assisting in any way he could.
According to an NFL source, Kraft was part of a small group of moderate owners who served as a sounding board for commissioner Roger Goodell as he tried to get the deal done. Kraft, John Mara (Giants), Bob McNair (Texans), Arthur Blank (Falcons), and Clark Hunt (Chiefs) were needed to sell the deal to some other owners, mostly the hard-liners.
Kraft didn’t want to speak about his role in the talks Thursday, but he did want to make sure Patriots fans heard from him.
“I’m speaking to all our fans, who are frustrated, just like I was and I’d say the majority of owners,” he said. “We had really hoped that the refs would have been in before the first game, and I know Roger Goodell worked very hard to do it and I thought we were close.
“But any time you try to do a long-term deal, it’s difficult, and if you want to get the right agreement, it means you have to take on the hard issues. What was reported more than anything [was] that this was about money. And anyone who is a half-decent businessman knows the money is always an issue, but it was not the main issue.
“The hardest thing for us to have this new agreement [was to] have these full-time officials and create a bench of officials, a deep pool, and still maintain the commissioner’s ability to discipline and allow those refs who did a great job, like in a private business, get rewarded and do the end-of-the-year [games], the playoffs. And so we were able to maintain those rights.
“I understand the fans being disappointed that this didn’t happen right away. Believe me, we wanted it. The good news is we have a long-term deal, the integrity of the game is protected, and we have the highest-qualified guys in it.”
Kraft was asked if he thought the officiating affected the Patriots’ ability to win the Sunday night game in Baltimore. He didn’t say no.
“Well, you know [laughing], even when the regular refs were on the field . . . the only people who complain about refs are the people who have lost games, you know?” he said. “I’ve had that feeling when there have been regular refs and we’ve lost a game.”
Kraft was informed of his Pro Football Hall of Fame nomination the same day.
“It’s a great honor,” he said. “As a little kid, you dream about something like that. It’s just an honor to be nominated.
“It’s out of my hands. Whatever happens, happens. But it’s quite an honor to have it happen while I’m still alive.”
Jets attempt to plug a hole
It would be an understatement to say that the Jets suffered a huge loss when All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis was lost for the season with an ACL tear.
The ability to shut down a third of the field — the opponent’s best receiver — with Revis was the basis for Rex Ryan’s defense. It covered up some of the other problems on the defense (pass rush, aging linebacker and poor safety play) and allowed Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to keep dialing up unusual pressure schemes, especially against Tom Brady and the Patriots.
Now the Jets have to go back to the drawing board. Antonio Cromartie may have some trouble against smaller receivers and tackling, but he’s a No. 1 corner.
Beyond Cromartie, the Jets have issues.
Kyle Wilson, the team’s first-round pick in 2010, will be put in the starting lineup. He has been a huge disappointment so far. Perhaps a move out of the slot, where he played in nickel, will help.
‘‘Either you’re prepared or you’re not,” Wilson said. “I looked at myself as more capable and well-prepared every week to do that and be in that position. I’m not going to look at it any different.
“Obviously, it’s a nice opportunity and I’m definitely going to do everything I can, but I’m not going to change anything I’ve been working on.’’
Ellis Lankster and Isaiah Trufant will be elevated to the nickel and dime backs.
The Jets said they won’t be making major changes to their scheme.
‘‘We’re not going to all of a sudden change our packages and become a Tampa-2 defense and say, ‘We’re going to protect our corners every snap,’ ’’ Pettine said. ‘‘That’s not what we do.’’
Moves afoot on LA scene
With the Los Angeles City Council clearing the path for Farmers Field to be built in the southwest edge of downtown, the race is now on to see which NFL team dives into the city. A Los Angeles team is no sure thing, of course, though the NFL wouldn’t be opposed to even two teams there. AEG, the prospective owner of the stadium, is for sale. That will probably help things, because with the money Phil Anschutz was looking for to house a team, no owner was going to move. Billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong is likely the next AEG owner, and he already has had some NFL meetings. There’s also the timing. According to league rules, any teams interested in relocating have to submit an application by the first six weeks of 2013. That would put relocation on the docket for the March league meetings. That seems a bit rushed, so 2014 is a better target. The likely candidates: Raiders, Chargers, Rams, Jaguars, and Bills.
1. This is an opportunity for a season-changing victory. The Bills, at home against a limping Patriots team, will play as if this is the Super Bowl. The Patriots ran into trouble in the same spot last year (a season-high 60 snaps for Chad Johnson). They’re better prepared this time with Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Rob Gronkowski, and Daniel Fells. That group can gut out a much-needed win.
2. But even if the Patriots lose today in Buffalo — and this is an offense that attacks the Patriots’ weakest points — the season is far from over at 1-3. I know three-game losing streaks don’t happen very often around here, but the Patriots are still a very good team.
3. Somebody needs to explain to me how Ravens safety Ed Reed gets fined $21,000 for trying to take Deion Branch’s head off, and Bill Belichick pays $50,000 for touching a referee’s arm.
4. The Browns are lacking overall talent and anyone that can catch a pass, but quarterback Brandon Weeden has toughness, an arm, and smarts, and running back Trent Richardson is the real deal. That’s a good start.
5. Broncos coach John Fox is appealing his $30,000 fine for inappropriate behavior toward replacement officials — on the grounds that said officials caused him to act out of character. My kids think up better excuses. They’re 5.
Mark down Oct. 3 on your calendar. NFL Films will debut “Cleveland ’95: A Football Life” on NFL Network at 8 p.m. Then-Browns coach Bill Belichick and the staff he put in place will be the focus — along with some sweet Coke-bottle glasses on Belichick and Nick Saban, and some groovy ’90s sweaters from The Hoodie . . . The Ravens have 10 days off after playing three games in 18 days. Reed was not a fan of the schedule. ‘‘With this league changing, and the people upstairs making decisions to adapt to this economy, we’re the ones who are in jeopardy as far as injuries and stuff like that,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s why you have to take care of yourself and do the things that are going to help you rejuvenate and recover. I know a lot of guys out there were fighting fatigue at the end of the game.’’ . . . The Ravens are feeling good at 3-1, and even better about outside linebacker Terrell Suggs returning this season from an Achilles’ tendon injury. “Football shape will be a factor,” said coach John Harbaugh. “As soon as he gets on the field, it’s not like he is going to be back to Defensive Player of the Year form. We need to all understand that. Just give him a little space and let him kind of grow into this thing. He is going to be back.” The earliest Suggs can return is Oct. 21 against the Texans . . . This week’s entry in the category “How Warren Sapp continues to be employed by the NFL Network is beyond me”: He called Bears receiver Brandon Marshall a “retard” for comparing himself to former Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe.
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.