Saints get wake-up call in season-opening loss

It took an embarrassing loss Sunday, orchestrated by a talented-yet-youthful rookie quarterback, to humble the Saints, a team that entered the regular season focused on capturing the Lombardi Trophy.

Instead, the Saints exited the Superdome unable to explain how their record-setting offense from a season ago transformed into a plethora of penalties and dropped passes, their revamped defense worse than the discarded version.

This 40-32 loss to Washington will be remembered as the proverbial wake-up call for a championship team or a preview of the bumpy schedule ahead without suspended head coach Sean Payton.

"I think the entire team needs to look themselves in the eye, look in the mirror and say, 'what can I do better?" interim coach Aaron Kromer said. "How can I prepare better? How can I be a better teammate? How can I win a football game by doing my job?"

Too many questions on a roster with playmakers at nearly every skilled position on offense and on defense, a first-year defensive coordinator in Steve Spagnuolo whose goal was increased turnovers and getting off the field on third down, not allowing rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III to perform like he was auditioning for a second Heisman Trophy.

Griffin started with a number of passes to receivers behind the line of scrimmage, picking, picking, picking at the Saints defense. Then he added throws down the field, starting late in the first quarter with a mid-range throw across the middle to Pierre Garcon, who turned it into an 88-yard touchdown reception.

On the play, Saints safety Roman Harper said he was in position until he was picked by a Washington receiver. Cornerback Patrick Robinson was unable to chase down Garcon, one of Washington's newest free agents.

"We played bad ball," Harper said. "It just wasn't smart. That's the most disappointing part."

The moment proved to be the start of what was to come in front of 72,180 fans, ruining the return of Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma, whose bounty scandal suspensions were overturned Friday. Vilma did not play, while Smith started at defensive end after missing one week. Like his teammates, Smith never seemed able to curtail Griffin, who ran when he wanted, moved the pocket when he wanted. Did what he wanted.

"We've got to make a couple of tackles, we've got to make a couple of plays that are presented that we didn't make," Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said.

The offense wasn't any better. One season after Brees set an NFL mark for passing efficiency, the passing game more closely resembled futility. One season after averaging 41.1 points per game at the Superdome, an NFL record, 2011’s No. 1-ranked offense managed just one offensive score through most of three quarters against Washington (1-0), its defense coached by former Saints head coach Jim Haslett.

With 3:49 left in the first quarter, Drew Brees found Jimmy Graham between two defenders for a 20-yard score. Griffin's play with Garcon followed and the Saints never led again.

On the ensuing possession, right tackle Zach Strief was penalized for a false start on third down. After the 5-yard penalty, receiver Lance Moore was called for the same penalty. Now third and 20, Brees' pass to Darren Sproles fell short.

Never got any better for the Saints (0-1).

"If you look at our third-down percentage - 2 for 11 - that's about as bad as we've ever been," Brees said.

The Saints managed two scoring drives in the final seven minutes, including Sproles' 2-yard reception with 2 :25 left. But back on defense, the Saints failed to stop Griffin, who found Logan Paulsen for a 22-yard catch on second down.

By the time the Saints got the ball back, just 22 seconds remained. And it came as little surprise what couldn't be accomplished all game could not occur in four plays.

Gary Estwick, a correspondent covering the Saints for the Sun Herald, can be reached at Find him on Facebook and Twitter@EstwickSaints.