NEW ORLEANS — The Saints season isn’t over after all.
In fact it never really was.
But their playoff hopes seemed at least on life support after a 0-3 start to the season, not just because they lost all three games, but also because they had inadequate defense to hold an 11-point fourth-quarter lead in losing to Oakland 35-34 and had inadequate offense in losing to the New York Giants 16-13.
On top of that they were inferior to the Atlanta Falcons in just about every way in a 45-32 loss on Monday Night Football.
Then came the stat — since 2002, 69 NFL teams have started the season 0-3 and none have made the playoffs. Zero for 69.
That’s a tough trend to buck.
So in the immediate aftermath of that loss it was understandable — in the context of that history — when WDSU-TV sports director Fletcher Mackel asked former Saints coach and current WDSU analyst Jim Mora if the season was figuratively “over.”
But coaches, especially Mora, tend not to assess teams or seasons figuratively. When there are games left to be played, the season is not over regardless of the bleakness of its prospects.
“That’s the most negative stat I hear from fans and media ever and it bugs me,” Mora barked at Mackel. “Unbelievable. The season is not over. No way. That drives me crazy.”
Mora’s outburst was reminiscent of several he famously had as coach of the Saints and the Indianapolis Colts. The one most relevant to this situation occurred on Oct. 25, 1987 — you know, “coulda, woulda, shoulda”.
The Saints had just lost to the San Francisco 49ers 24-22 to drop to 3-3. The game began as an opportunity for Mora’s second New Orleans team to show whether it had arrived as a legitimate competitor to the 49ers, then the NFL’s gold standard.
The closeness of the Saints loss, one in which they “coulda” won, “woulda” won and maybe even “shoulda” won if only one or two things had gone differently, showed that they might be nipping at the Niners heels. But Mora’s point — based on the only thing that mattered, the final score — was that this team just wasn’t good enough to beat the 49ers. Period.
Then New Orleans won its next nine games and earned its first playoff berth.
A lot of us were reminded of that win streak after Mora’s latest mini-tirade, not because the 2016 Saints are capable of making a run like the 1987 Saints did (they’re not) but because Mora was right on target just as he was in ’87.
That ’87 team wasn’t equal to the Niners, but Mora’s reality check seemed to accelerate its development.
Another Mora reality check came last month: this season wasn’t over at 0-3. No season is over nor is its outcome ever fully determined after three games.
If you believe a team that is 0-3 cannot make the playoffs because of the improbability of it, then you probably were convinced the Saints were going to be 0-4 when they trailed San Diego by 13 points and the Chargers had the ball with less than seven minutes left to play. A victory there was just as improbable as a playoff berth at the end of this season seems.
But two San Diego fumbles and two New Orleans touchdowns later the Saints were 1-3. After a bye week and a 41-38 shootout victory against Carolina last Sunday in the Superdome they’re now 2-3.
They’re tied for second place in the NFC South, a whopping game and a half out of first, and they are technically the hottest team in the division.
Now to paraphrase a memorable quote from another former NFL head coach — the late Dennis Green — the Saints are who we thought they were.
They’re still a flawed but capable team. They’re still defensively challenged, but the fourth-quarter performance against the Chargers and the first-half performance against the Panthers and the return to health of some key players suggest potential improvement.
And the continued excellence of Drew Brees still gives this team a puncher’s chance even when it seems defenseless.
The point is that a 16-game season is longer and more subject to course changes than we sometimes realize when its inevitably ebbing or flowing.
So Mora was right — the season wasn’t over at 0-3. By the same taken, the two-game winning streak doesn’t warrant making playoff plans or anything close to that.
But the Saints have a pulse, their offense is still fun to watch and there are 11 more games to go.