In the heart of the 2023 NFL season, the New Orleans Saints find themselves in a situation that was neither anticipated nor ideal. With a record of 2-2, they sit at a crossroads, and for a franchise that has become accustomed to perennial success, this is a precarious position to be in.
The two losses the Saints have suffered thus far are particularly disconcerting. When the season schedule was released, many pundits circled these matchups as potential victories. The Packers had parted ways with their four-time MVP award recipient, Aaron Rodgers, while the Bucs QB, Tom Brady, finally called it a career after years of pure dominance. However, the reality on the field has told a different story. The Green Bay Packers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, two teams initially considered beatable, have dealt the Saints their losses in stark fashion.
The Green Bay game was particularly gut-wrenching. The Saints held a commanding 17-point lead in the second half, only to surrender it and eventually lose. To make matters worse, their newly acquired quarterback, Derek Carr, exited the game with a shoulder injury. Backup QB Jameis Winston made a valiant effort, driving the team close to field goal range, but kicker Blake Grupe’s missed 46-yard attempt sealed their fate.
A sense of competitiveness was conspicuously absent in the subsequent clash against the Buccaneers. With divisional control hanging in the balance, the Saints were outplayed for all four quarters. The Buccaneers were now led by Baker Mayfield, who guided his team to a decisive 26-9 victory in the Superdome. By far, it was their worst performance of the season. The offense only gained a total of 197 yards and no touchdowns.
This brings us to Derek Carr, the man the Saints are banking on to lead them back to the championship-contending days they enjoyed under the stewardship of future Hall of Famer Drew Brees. The offseason saw Carr signing a significant four-year contract worth up to $150 million. The commitment includes a $28.5 million signing bonus and fully guaranteed base salaries for 2023 and 2024. An additional $10 million roster bonus in 2025 and $30 million in guaranteed salary for that year loom if Carr remains on the roster.
The financial stakes are undeniably high, placing immense pressure on Carr to deliver immediate results. The Saints are looking to him as the catalyst for a resurgence in their postseason fortunes, which have been on hiatus since Brees retired at the end of the 2020 season.
While the Saints’ defense has shown proficiency, the offense has struggled to find its groove. The Saints are ranked near the bottom of the league in every offensive statistical category. That’s a stark contrast from a unit that would keep defensive coordinators up at night wondering how to neutralize a once potent group. With elite talents such as Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, Rashid Shaheed, and Chris Olave at their disposal, the expectations were sky-high. Yet, for the most part, they have underachieved.
A glaring issue has been their red-zone performance. Despite venturing deep into enemy territory, Carr and the offense have struggled to convert their opportunities into touchdowns. Field goals have been the frustrating result, leaving valuable points on the field.
The 26-9 loss to the Buccaneers in Week 4 has triggered a sense of urgency within the organization. Carr decided to play despite not looking his best due to the shoulder injury suffered in Week 3 against Green Bay. It’s hard even to gauge if Winston would have made a difference as the starter due to how putrid the offense has looked under the guidance of coordinator Pete Carmichael. New Orleans must quickly regain their swagger to stay competitive in an NFC landscape with only three teams that are head and shoulder levels above everyone else. During the postgame press conference, Carr immediately shot down any notions of his injured shoulder hindering his abilities in Sunday’s loss.
“That’s no excuse for us playing the way we did today,” Carr said via The Associated Press. “Whatever it is that I have to do, I’ll do it. I just don’t want the shoulder to be an excuse for the way that we executed.”
The urgency is particularly acute for head coach Dennis Allen, who staked his long-term future on the signing of Carr. Allen was mandated to find a quarterback who could deliver immediate results in 2023, and Carr was his choice. However, if the Saints miss the playoffs this season and Allen loses his job, Carr will remain with the team, adding further weight to his performance this year.
While drafting a quarterback from the rich pool of prospects in next year’s class is possible, the Saints have posted records that have prevented them from selecting top-tier signal callers. The urgency to make the Carr transaction work this season and beyond cannot be overstated, given the countless stakeholders depending on its success.
Carr must succeed now and in the future if the New Orleans Saints wish to return to their dominant ways in the NFC. The financial investment, the hopes of a championship-starved fanbase, and the futures of key figures in the organization all hinge on Carr’s ability to lead the Saints back to glory. The Carr conundrum is not just a quarterback issue but a crossroads that will define the Saints’ trajectory for years.
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