Demario Davis examines the big picture for struggling Saints

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Demario Davis
(Photo: Stephen Lew)

METAIRIE – The New Orleans Saints are having a bad season.

You know this. We know this. The Saints know this.

The Saints are the only ones that can do something about this.

Linebacker Demario Davis is one of the best players on the team. He has been an on-field leader since arriving as a free agent in 2018. He became the team’s spiritual leader when quarterback Drew Brees retired after the 2020 season.

He has examined the team’s plight.

The Saints have won two games and lost five games.

Only two teams in the NFL – Detroit (1-5) and Houston (1-4-1) – have worse records. Five others have the same record – Carolina, Cleveland, Denver, Jacksonville and Pittsburgh.

The only other two-victory team in the NFL is the Saints’ opponent on Sunday in the Caesars Superdome – the Las Vegas Raiders, who are 2-4 after having their bye week earlier this month.

The Saints will play nine more games after Sunday, so there are enough opportunities left to salvage this season.

If there is a glass-half-full aspect to this mess it is that the Saints are in the NFC South, the only division in which every team has a losing record. Atlanta and Tampa Bay lead the division with 3-4 records.

So, even a division championship is still attainable. In fact, head coach Dennis Allen referenced the 2011 Denver Broncos this week.

He was the defensive coordinator on that team. They too started 2-5 as the Saints have. They won their next six games, then they lost their final three, to finish 8-8. (The NFL expanded to a 17-game season in 2021).

That Broncos team won the mediocre AFC West thanks to tie-breaking advantages over the Raiders and the Chargers, just as these Saints still hope to win the mediocre NFC South.

The 2011 Broncos even won a playoff game, defeating the Steelers in a wild-card game before losing to the Patriots in the divisional round.

So, the evidence shows that this Saints team can still make the playoffs, maybe even advance in the playoffs.

But none of that is going to happen if they keep playing the way they have for seven games.

This group is comprised mostly of players and coaches that have had five winning seasons in a row, one that barely missed the playoffs at 9-8 last season after winning four consecutive division titles.

This is foreign territory for most of these Saints.

The expectation within the organization was that this would be a playoff-caliber team. That view was shared by many outside the organization.

Even those outsiders that believed this team likely would not make the playoffs, still didn’t project that it would be as bad as it has been.

There are obvious factors in the disparity between the success of recent Saints teams and the failure of this team through seven games.

The easiest – and most simplistic – explanation is that it’s Allen’s fault.

This is the first season since Sean Payton, the Super Bowl-winning coach and guiding force of the football operation since 2006, resigned and was replaced by Allen, whose Raiders teams won eight games and lost 28 in his only previous tenure as a head coach.

It’s difficult envisioning this team being 2-5 if Payton were the head coach.

But seven games isn’t a big sample size to evaluate Allen, who presumably has grown as a coach since leaving the Raiders, and Allen maintained virtually all of Payton’s very successful staff and very talented roster.

So there must be more to it than that.

Other factors in the poor start are also obvious.

This team has been hampered by the absence of several key players due to injury. All NFL teams lose players to injury during the season, but the multiple-game absences of key players such as quarterback Jameis Winston, wide receivers Michael Thomas, Jarvis Landry and Deonte Harty, cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Paulson Adebo, running back Alvin Kamara, tackle Trevor Penning, safety Marcus Maye and guard Andrus Peat exceed the NFL norm.

Those aren’t excuses for the team’s record, but they are factors in its performance. And Thomas, Landry, Harty and Lattimore have been ruled out of Sunday’s game.

Another factor is the team’s propensity for making its opponents’ job easier. The Saints are last in the NFL in turnover margin and four of their turnovers have produced defensive touchdowns. The Saints defense has made one interception.

An inordinate number of missed tackles and poorly timed and especially damaging penalties have been periodically problematic although not chronic.

These are all symptoms of bad football teams.

And thus far the Saints are a bad football team.

And yet so many members of this bad football team have been members of several good football teams.

Dennis Allen
(Photo: William E Anthony)

The Saints are coming off a “mini-bye,” having had three extra days between games after losing at Arizona 42-34 last Thursday.

The extra time offered an opportunity for reflection on what has gone wrong and what can be done to fix things while there’s still enough time to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the team’s presence in a division comprised exclusively of losing teams. (The Saints can tie the Bucs with a win Sunday after Tampa lost to Baltimore on Thursday.)

When the Saints returned to work this week, Davis was one of the first team members available for an interview.

It was obvious that Davis had spent some of his free time pondering how this team got to be where it is, how he and so many of his coworkers had had so much success in previous seasons and how the experience of the past might be a tool in turning around the present.

At one point during the less-than-seven-minute conversation that packed a lot more punch than that duration might suggest, Davis responded to a question about his “soul-searching,” by smiling as he said, “Do you want me to preach?”

But Davis didn’t preach as much as he gave a state of the union address on where this team stands.

The first question was about the defense’s problem with missed tackles in the last few games, but he might as well have been asked about the weather, or his kids’ Halloween costumes or what to do about inflation because he had his response ready before he was prompted by a question.

Davis was thinking big picture.

He had a message to deliver. The message seemed useful for his teammates as well as the team’s supporters. Perhaps Davis had already tried out some of the elements with his teammates.

“It’s no secret,” he said. “We’re not where we want to be right now. At this point in the season this wasn’t where any of us expected to be, right? And a lot of that is due to us not playing at the standard that we have.

“It’s adversity because of that. It’s adversity because it’s unexpected and it’s unexpected because our standard for excellence is so high.”

This team’s inability to come close to reaching its standard of excellence can’t be explained simply because there’s a different head coach, even when they’re trying to replace one as accomplished as Payton.

And regardless of who is or isn’t head coach, the team’s challenge is to fix what’s wrong with the personnel (coaches and players) on hand.

Davis sees adversity as an “opportunity,” one that “excites” him.

“Though none of us want to be in this situation, there’s only one mindset that’s going to change it and it’s taking advantage of every opportunity,” Davis said. “The reason why it’s exciting is because all this happened and we’re still only one game out in our division and it’s also exciting because we understand what’s going on. We understand that we’ve been our own worst enemy in a lot of ways.”

Davis credited running back Alvin Kamara for speaking up in the locker room after the loss to Arizona and telling his teammates that the whole group has “got to get back to our swagger.”

“And how we get back to our swagger is it’s not a new recipe because you’re going back to what you have done,” Davis said. “And what we’ve done has always been one of the hardest-working teams in the NFL and one of the most focused teams in the NFL, and I’m not talking about just focusing on Sunday but our focus during the week.

“The thing I’m excited about is there’s not a harder-working group or a more determined group that’s locked in on figuring out and doing everything that needs to be done to get this thing turned around. … There’s not going to be a more committed team that’s committed to figuring out how to get it done with a sense of urgency. And that’s where our mindset is.”

Of course, if turning this thing around could be accomplished simply by working hard and being focused during the week, the losses would not have been stacking up the way they have and the turnover issue would have been solved when Allen started harping on it weeks ago.

Davis said “the nucleus of this team begins and ends with the defense,” and said Allen, the former defensive coordinator, and the rest of the defensive staff will “thumb through and figure out what is the best way to put us in the best position for our players to be successful.”

“That’s what we’ve always done,” Davis continued. “They’ve always found a way to get the best out of us. We know we haven’t performed to our standard and we’re OK with that being known, that it’s not acceptable because it’s not acceptable to us. It’s not acceptable in any of our minds. And we know that a turnaround has to happen. We believe a turnaround is going to happen and that turnaround begins and ends with us. The way that we go about getting there is in our work and that’s what we’re committed to.”

Davis was asked if the struggles of the defense were limited to one crippling issue or “three or four brushfires” that had to be addressed.

“This game is very simple,” he said. “It starts with stopping the run. It starts with getting after the quarterback and it’s taking the ball away. And how that gets done can change each and every Sunday, but that’s what the philosophy of the game is and that’s what we’ve got to be able to do on a consistent basis, as we’ve always done.”

But they’re not doing it this season.

Davis said he has been doing soul-searching, not because the team he plays on is 2-5 but because that is how he lives his life.

“I’m always soul searching,” he said. “My goal in life is to be the best human being that I can be. That extends way beyond the football field.

“I love the game of football because it presents every life lesson that you can ever have and it makes you a better person. It makes you a better husband. It makes you a better father. It makes you a better teammate. It makes you a better coworker. It makes you a better friend because, just like our situation, being at two and five, you’re going to have stuff that happened to you that you did not expect; matter of fact you expected the exact opposite and what are you going to do when that moment happens?”

That moment has happened.

“You have to do your soul searching before that moment happens because if you’re not prepared when the rain comes, it’s too late,” Davis said. “And it’s certain people that are built for moments like this and there’s certain people that get excited for moments like this because when it’s dark outside somebody has to be the hope, to remind people that the sun’s going to come back out.”

Davis paused.

“That’s all I got, people,” he said.

Then he was gone.

He went back to work with his teammates.

The challenge is clear: Reduce the turnovers, increase the takeaways, stop the run, pressure the quarterback, stop missing tackles and win the special teams.

The next kickoff is noon Sunday.

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Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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