By Zach Berman, The Philadelphia Inquirer –
METAIRIE, La. — As unsettling as the Eagles’ season has been in Philadelphia, there’s similar bewilderment in New Orleans about how a team with high expectations has struggled through the first half of the season.
The Saints enter Monday night’s game against the 3-4 Eagles with a 2-5 record, meaning two teams that started with postseason expectations and Super Bowl aspirations could possibly be floundering toward irrelevance in the season’s second half. What appeared to be a marquee game is now a matchup of teams that badly need a victory just to stay competitive.
“They have some very talented players, and I would say that certainly their expectation level, just like ours, is much higher than maybe our records show at this point,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said of the Eagles.
Although the unexpected struggles are similar, the circumstances of the season are different. The Saints entered 2012 in almost unprecedented fashion, with head coach Sean Payton suspended because of the bounty scandal and interim head coach Joe Vitt suspended for the first six games.
The Saints maintained stability at quarterback when Brees signed a contract extension before training camp. So the questions about the Saints were whether Brees and the team could thrive without Payton on the sideline.
That contrasted to the situation in Philadelphia, where the questions focused on whether the team could still thrive with head coach Andy Reid on the sideline. Those questions linger, along with speculation about the future of quarterback Michael Vick.
Yet the rhetoric from both camps is similar. They say they’ve sought change without dramatically overhauling the team. They’re anticipating improvement based on past performance and not present results, sticking to the systems installed in the offseason and training camp.
“If you have dramatic changes and you have erratic changes, that’s when panic sets in,” Vitt said. “If you put that panic in, the players can smell the house burning before the match is ever lit.”
Saints linebacker Jonathan Casillas said desperation for a win creates heightened energy. It’s similar to what has been said in Philadelphia. The Eagles are saying they need to stop talking about fixing things and just find a way to fix them.
Both teams have issues on defense. The Saints have had trouble adjusting to defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and have allowed at least 24 points in every game this season. The Eagles replaced defensive coordinator Juan Castillo after losing two fourth-quarter leads and looked even worse under Todd Bowles in last week’s 30-17 loss to the Falcons.
“Two teams that I think wanted to be in a different place than they are right now,” Saints linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. “That’s where I guess the desperation comes from. But at the end of the day, there’s a certain type of desperate that you need. You want people who are desperate who play hard and play relentless but not try to do too much.”
Brees said he knows what Payton would preach to the team, and he acknowledged that it’s human to try to do more to make up for the loss of others. But Brees refused to point fingers.
“This is when a lot of teams, or maybe less mentally tough individuals, will start to point the finger and get overly frustrated,” Brees said. “That’s not the way we’ve been brought up.”
In the end, the Saints need to do a better job tackling and stopping the run. The Eagles must show a better pass rush and establish the running game.
What’s clear is that both teams are desperate. Saints defensive end Will Smith has been in the NFL for nine seasons, and even he didn’t think it would be possible that the Eagles and Saints would meet in Week 9 with just five combined wins.
“We struggled, and the Eagles struggled, and we’re both trying to find each other, so I think it will be a good game come Monday night,” Smith said.