METAIRIE — New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton has put his players on notice.
Some could be looking for jobs sooner than later.
“I don’t rule out any changes with regard to who we’re asking to do what we’re asking them to do,” Payton said Monday after reviewing video of Sunday’s 41-10 loss to Carolina.
“Guys understand, hey, this is serious. It’s their profession. It’s our profession. It’s going to be our job and the leaders of this team to lead. This is exactly when you find out who your guys are,” Payton added. “If it’s not happening … then we’re going to look at other options.”
Thanks to the overall struggles of all four teams in the NFC South, the Saints have had an unusually large margin for error this season. But with only three games left, that margin is thinning.
Despite falling to 5-8, the Saints returned to work Monday eliminated from NFC wild card contention but very much alive in the NFC South race, just a half-game behind first-place Atlanta before the Falcons played at Green Bay on Monday night.
Yet Payton seemed to be judging his team’s postseason chances more by what he’s seen on the field than in the standings when he said, “The only reason we’re sitting here still with that small sliver of hope is just because the way the division has unfolded this year.”
The Saints, who return to action next Monday night in Chicago, have lost four of five games, with two of those losses by three or more scores. Sunday’s beating was the season’s worst, not only on the scoreboard but also in the context of who the opponent was and what was at stake.
New Orleans entered the game tied for first in the division, preparing to play at home against a Carolina squad that had not only lost six straight, including a 28-10 loss to New Orleans on Oct. 30.
Odds makers had forecast a 10-point Saints victory.
Payton wasn’t bothered much by the physical effort his players put forth, saying he “didn’t see a ton of loafs.”
Rather, his film review revealed myriad mental mistakes.
“Man, I saw alignment problems. I saw execution problems. I saw guys not aligned with leverage the way they’re supposed to be. I saw poor tackling, dropped balls, turnovers, fumbles,” Payton said. “Now, if you’re on your guy and he makes a play, that’s one thing.”
But too often, Payton said, that wasn’t the case.
Saints right tackle Zach Strief described himself as “angry,” adding that too many players seemed unaware of the mental intensity required on game days. He said he was also angry at himself, as a team captain, for not doing more to counter that.
In practice, Strief said, the Saints consistently work hard, but too often show up for games looking too relaxed.
“I know what it looks like when a team is ready,” Strief said, adding that he didn’t see that Sunday. “I don’t think it’s guys walking in like, ‘I don’t care.’ … I think it’s not realizing how up you have to be for every game to be successful.”
NFL players sometimes talk about learning to channel a sort of adrenaline-infused, temporary insanity in order to attain the requisite ferociousness to perform against equally powerful, talented and motivated athletes in a violent game.
As an example, Strief described how former Saints fullback Jed Collins, now with Detroit, unleashes a primordial roar after the national anthem.
“For Jed, that was like a trigger” transforming Collins from his laid-back, usual self to his hyped-up, game-day persona, Strief said. “We don’t have enough guys that have that trigger.”
Second-year safety Kenny Vaccaro said he’d read comments by Saints veterans including quarterback Drew Brees about the need for greater maturity and professionalism across the roster. He said young players, himself included, need to take that message to heart and not be offended by it.
“They laid the foundation, those guys that were here before us,” Vaccaro said. “I wasn’t here when they won the whole thing, and that’s the standard. So whatever I’ve got to do to get to that, I’ll do it.”