And right now, the Saints are an apathetic mess.
After four weeks, it's difficult to maintain hope that it will get significantly better for the Saints this season.
On offense, the Saints look passive and nonthreatening. On defense, they look confused and unmotivated.
And overshadowing the whole affair is whether we're now watching the slow death of the Payton/Brees era. Nine seasons in, and it's a fair question to ask. If that's the case, what exactly are we witnessing right now? A temporary bump in the road? Or the inexorable fade to black?
Of particular note this season is the Saints' coaching, or lack thereof.
The defense has fallen off a cliff. A season after being the backbone of a resurgent 2013 squad, the Saints' defense is lifeless in 2014. The pass rush is non-existent, and stands out among this team's shortcomings through four games. A year ago this was a defensive line productive, youthful, and imposing. Today, it's little more than a picket fence.
Whether this is attributable to complacency among the players, or the exploiting of Rob Ryan's schemes after a year's worth of film, is up for debate. Regardless, the defense is surrendering a near league-worst 6.1 yards per play and that starts with a lack of impact up front.
In the secondary, far too often have we seen opponents roaming free in friendly swaths of inviting turf, as if left alone to graze idly at their leisure. It's like opposing offenses are conducting operations on a Canadian Football League field. As much space as you need.
There have been blown assignments and bad angles, an unwillingness to tackle, and an inability to turn the ball over. Defensive adjustments come too late, or seem pointless.
There's ... just ... nobody in charge on the defensive side of the ball.
Combine the ineffectiveness of Rob Ryan's schemes with a dearth of on-field leadership, and you're left with a defense that, thus far in 2014, has shellshocked us back to the wretched haunts of 2012.
At this point, it's tough to dismiss the void of leadership and intelligence created by the departures of Vilma, Greer, Will Smith, Harper, and Jenkins in the offseason. There has to be something to that.
It's not that the defense lacks talent. Instead, it appears to lack for direction, preparation, motivation.
This extends, too, to the offensive side of the ball.
As an example, on offense, the Saints expended a noticeable effort involving Travaris Cadet in Sunday's game. Cadet had more touches than PT, Stills, Cooks, and Colston. It felt like some dopey rehash of the 'Mike Karney ... SURPRISE!' game from 2006 in Dallas, a desperate twist on an old trick from an aging dog.
Along those same lines, you had the most fruitless and depressingly comical of all fake punts, at the most critical of times, in a spot where they'd fool nobody, the last wilting move of a group devoid of direction, a lounge act befitting of Jake LaMotta.
The advancing age on the Saints' offense is noticeable. That's understandable and easy to accept. What's confusing is the slow pace to adapt to those changing conditions, to alter their approach to better fit the resources available.
Here, just let Wang explain from last year. This rings more true than ever:
They're older, they're slower, they're not as explosive, they're not as powerful up front, their weaknesses are becoming easier for opponents to exploit, and Sean Payton's schemes have gotten a bit stale. After all, they've been doing pretty much the same things, with pretty much the same guys, for eight years now. That's a long time.
But eventually, patching it up with duct tape to restore it to 90% of its previous functionality for the umpteenth time is no longer gonna be sufficient. Because it's still degrading, slowly but surely. Better to "fix" it for real at the first sign of a significant leak — when it's not really "broken" per se, just aging and weakening — than after your basement is already flooded.
I think that's where the offense is at this point. It's still "elite" but not nearly as elite as it once was, and it won't be "elite" for much longer without something a little more aggressive than just another couple layers of duct tape.
Or, to put it another way, it's not just the hardware, it's the software. Both are still functional, but both are overdue for an update or three."
And yet here they are four games in to 2014, this piece of wisdom from last year stinging with renewed truth.
An uninspiring, journeyman kicker. Meachem instead of Morgan. An endless loop of ineffectual bubble screens. Seam routes lobbed into heavy traffic. An offense resigned to making adjustments instead of forcing them.
The question now, for 2014, is whether this will all come crashing down. This just a month removed from what seemed like legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.
My, how the tables have turned.
One of these years the Saints were going to face the end of an era. Is this it, in all of its dulled glory? Or will they right the ship and contend for a division title?
I don't have an answer, but I'll be watching with rapt attention one way or the other. There's some sort of history to be made here, it would seem.
I will leave you on a high note, with this gleam of hope from the Black and Gold Review:
The Saints are in a mess right now. But if anybody’s going to get them out of it, it’s Sean Payton. The 2014 season has been a spectacular disappointment, and the Saints are probably at their nadir. They could stay here for a while. But they might not. This is a new era, with new rules, and nobody has any damn clue what happens next.