Vince Lombardi once said, "We never lose, but sometimes the clock runs out on us."
The New Orleans Saints certainly weren't losers this season; they fought through a number of obstacles -- many unprecedented -- with toughness and determination. But the clock has run out on them.
Thursday's loss to the Atlanta Falcons sealed the 5-7 Saints' fate in the NFC South. To make the playoffs now, they'll need to secure a wild-card spot -- which would take a miracle.
Actually, it might take even more than that, because the Saints are not playing like a good team. They have too many problems on defense, too many problems on their offensive line, and, most of all, are making too many costly mistakes.
Can all of these problems be blamed on the fallout from the team's bounty scandal? No, but most are related to the absence of coach Sean Payton, who was suspended for the season as part of that fallout.
After I learned in March that Payton wanted to bring Bill Parcells, his former boss with the Dallas Cowboys, in to take his place with the Saints on an interim basis, I wrote that it was a great idea. Replacing Payton with an outsider who had Parcells' presence and command might have been the only way to offset the impact of the suspension.
The coaches who did end up stepping in, assistants Aaron Kromer and Joe Vitt, have done the best job they could have, but filling Payton's shoes is not an easy task, especially when it comes to game preparation. What we've seen in New Orleans is that there's a huge difference between being a head coach and just being in charge of the other assistants.
Payton had the ability to oversee the entire operation, ensure that the team played in the style and manner he thought would best help it win, and bring fear to the players. These are the things the Saints miss most.
Never forget, fear always does the work of reason. Vitt and Kromer likely haven't been able to put real fear into the Saints locker room, because they are managing the team -- not leading it. Leaders do the right thing, while managers merely do things right. Without Payton, it must be hard, if not impossible, to know the right thing to do on a weekly basis.
Coaches need coaching. Like players, they need someone above them demanding that they improve and perform their best. Coaching the coaches is a job requirement of the head man, and it's vital to his success.
But coaching the coaches must be especially difficult for an assistant who knows that, in a few weeks or months, he'll be back working alongside the staff he's been tasked with leading. Those circumstances made the situation facing Kromer and Vitt in New Orleans quite daunting, and in reality, few could have handled it.
A head coach in a normal situation might have walked into defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's office and ordered him to pressure less and cut down on the scheme each week. Can you imagine Vitt or Kromer doing that without offending Spagnuolo or over-stepping their boundaries? Can you imagine either man telling offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael to use less scat protection and run the ball more? Or telling receivers coaches Carter Sheridan and Henry Ellard to demand more attention to detail from their group? I can't.
Therein lies the difference between a manager and a leader. Payton had no problem being demanding; he embraced confrontation and held everyone accountable for their work. Without him there to monitor things on an hourly basis, attention to detail slips, and games are lost.
Again, this is not meant as an indictment of either Vitt or Kromer. I'm merely attempting to illustrate how difficult it is to replace a head coach.
When Payton returns to the office -- assuming he and the Saints are as close to working out a new contract as general manager Mickey Loomis recently indicated -- the Saints will have their leader back at the helm. They'll be hearing the one voice they need to hear, reminding them what to focus on. Most importantly, they'll have fear in the building again.