The Saints 2014 season has been a long, cold shower.
What was once championship promise has been all but been extinguished, the result of inevitability coupled with an old, familiar problem.
Sprinkle in what appears to be an undercurrent of torpor, and you get 4-6.
First, the new issue:
Drew Brees is no longer great enough to elevate the Saints.
This isn't to blame Brees for the Saints' misfortunes this year. But it's a primary reason why the Payton-era Saints have started to noticeably fade. Over their last 20 regular season games, the Saints have produced a middling record of 10-10. This year, they've done almost nothing to live up to the ample preseason billing granted them.
For years prior, during his otherworldly prime, Drew Brees masked many of the Saints' flaws: unreliable defense, a toothless return game, a periodic indifference to running the ball, injuries, a shady kicking game, and turnover on the coaching staff among other issues.
These days, the masking's not so simple or effective.
Brees's dominance for, say, a four-year stretch vaulted the Saints from average to good, from good to great. For a team comprised of perceived afterthoughts, Brees was a sublime ingredient in a dish of leftovers. He almost single-handedly transformed the Saints into contenders. He helped fortify Sean Payton's reputation as the league's best offensive mind. He played perhaps the best half of football any quarterback ever has in a Super Bowl (18/19 to eight different Saints, 124 yards, 2 TDs, a two-point conversion, and 0 INTs for a 128.9 passer rating). Brees actualized for Saints' fans something that never seemed more than an afternoon daydream.
But that was always fleeting. So here we are, face to face with a new reality. A lesser Brees, and a lesser Saints' team. It is the natural, inescapable course of events.
With Brees's decline in dominance, the Saints have struggled to regain their championship form.
In 2013 this was most noticeable on the road, where Brees's performance vacillated wildly from his masterful efficiency in the Superdome. These road struggles came in sharp contrast to a Saints' team that compiled the NFL's best road record from 2009-2011; they were reflective of a team, naturally less competitive on the road, unable to carry its weight absent the absolute primacy of its star player.
In 2014, this trend has continued. Brees has been at less-than-his-best; his teammates can't compensate; and as a result, the Saints have perfected the art of mediocrity.
As it relates to Brees, there are a few examples that stand out. The end-zone interception in week one in Atlanta. A brutal pick-six in week two at Cleveland. Three interceptions, and another mindless pick-six versus Tampa. A damning interception at Detroit. And two maddening turnovers at home versus the Niners. (Sometimes the other team makes great plays too, so some of this is to nitpick.)
The most noticeable example, however, came in the Saints' loss to the Bengals in week 11.
Brees played well, but his non-dominance generated only ten points in a game the Saints badly needed to win. At home. It wasn't a poor performance from Brees that doomed the team. In the past, that's mostly what it took to beat the Saints, especially in the Dome. Yet Sunday, on top of everything else that's happened this season, a perfectly worthy performance from Brees in the friendly confines of the Superdome wasn't enough for victory. Instead, it resulted in a 17-point loss.
And that, of course, says as much about the supporting cast and coaching staff as it does about Brees.
This was a statement loss, persuasive and resonant: a Saints' team, as presently constituted, devoid of championship aspirations. That's not necessarily shocking, but it is a wholesale departure from the sentiments of just three months ago.
I'll say again, Brees does not solely shoulder the blame here. But he's no longer great enough to compensate for the shortcomings. And his teammates haven't been much help.
Which brings us to our second, and major, problem ... the defense.
Save for Keenan Lewis and Curtis Lofton, it's all gone wrong for the Saints' defense this year. Lack of pressure. No-shows. Blown assignments. Injuries. Hell, even Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper have salted the wound.
Anyway, there has been a seemingly endless series of crippling defensive breakdowns this year.
An inability to stop the Falcons with 1:20 remaining. Brian Hoyer blindly heaving the ball 30 yards downfield to a wide-open Charles Hawkins to set up a Saints' loss. A 73-yard touchdown by Golden Tate on 3rd and 14 when the Saints had the game all but won. The Tecmo Bowlish 51-yard completion to Michael Crabtree on 4th and 10. 3rd and 18 to AJ Green last week.
A. Cold. Fucking. Shower.
This is not a team plagued by bad luck, or an unlucky run of variance in close games. Believing that is to deny reality. This is a team that's been mind-numbingly bad at situational football, and has lost many close games as a result. That is attributable to both the players and the coaches. It's a systemic problem, not a sample size fluctuation.
Maybe the most frustrating part is that the defense has steadily improved as the season's worn on. But they've been beset by untimely lapses that have proved their undoing, time and again.
With consideration to a now-depleted secondary, will the defense make due over the final six games?
And what about the Saints' coaches? Are they out of answers? Or is there life yet for the 2014 season?
Quite enjoyably enough, at 4-6, the Saints are still ideally-positioned to win their division and host a playoff game. Only a season this puzzling could produce such a now unfathomably joyous end-result. And that's why, despite the heartache and frustration and advent of a new reality, there still remains the lingering hope of "well, maybe if ..." for the remainder of the season.
If 2014 has taught us anything, it's that we have little clue about what's going to happen.
With that in mind, we'd all be wise to stay tuned.