All posts by Ramon Antonio Vargas

Ramon Antonio Vargas has covered the Saints for The Advocate since 2013. He can be reached at rvargas@theadvocate.com and is @RVargasAdvocate on Twitter.

‘We’re all the reason’: Saints address disappointing 1-3 start

Some of the most prominent Saints were in the locker-room at team headquarters Monday to face the media after a 38-17 defeat at the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday dropped their 2014 record to 1-3.

Below is some of the best material they delivered in their conversations with reporters.

–Saints safety Jairus Byrd, on whether the team lacks hunger to be better than it’s been in defeats to 2-2 Atlanta; 1-2 Cleveland; and 3-1 Dallas, after a victory over 2-2 Minnesota: “I don’t know. All I know is that we just got to figure out what we’re doing. As far as the hunger and all that, if you’re in this sport and you’re playing this game, you better be hungry. … This thing doesn’t stand for long, and you have to take advantage of your opportunities.”

Byrd caused the Saints’ lone turnover this year, forcing a fumble New Orleans recovered in the first quarter of a Week 1 loss at Atlanta. New Orleans has given the ball away seven times and was tied for last in the NFL Monday with a turnover differential of minus-6.

–Veteran tackle Zach Strief, on whether the team has identified precisely what area is to blame for the 1-3 start: “We’re not looking around the room to find who’s the reason. We’re all the reason.”

The poor turnover ratio hints at that, as both the offense and defense contribute to that statistic. There have also been miscues on special teams, where kicker Shayne Graham missed a field goal in Dallas and had an extra point deflected against Minnesota.

–Byrd again, but this time on the importance of the different phases of the game not blaming each other for the Saints’ struggle: “Now’s not the time to start looking at getting in cliques and pointing fingers. You can’t start doing that.”

–In remarks similar to Byrd’s, Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette on the importance of staying committed and upbeat when fans who thought their team would be a Super Bowl contender are panicking: “It’s very humbling, but we still believe in our team and we still believe the sky’s the limit. We’re down, but we’re not out the game. It’s not over. It’s a long season. We have to stay as positive as possible and pull guys up and not try to be individuals and start getting in little groups, just stick together and stick this one through.”

–Meanwhile, in his usual day-after-game press briefing, Saints coach Sean Payton on whether it surprised him that his team was off to such a slow start: “Our players will respond well. (But) we’re playing like a 1-3 team right now.”

Indeed. Evidence of this is plenty, but here’s a sampling: the defense as of Monday was surrendering the fourth-most yards (396) and what was tied for the fifth-most points (27.5) per game in the NFL. The offense is gaining the third-most yards in the league per game (425.8), but its seven giveaways in four contests are way too many to achieve any meaningful level of success.

The Saints host Tampa Bay (1-3) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome at noon this upcoming Sunday.

Pierre Thomas is now the Saints’ all-time leader in receptions by a running back

Saints running back Pierre Thomas

Saints running back Pierre Thomas

ARLINGTON, Texas — It wasn’t much consolation for him, the Saints or their fans, but New Orleans’ Pierre Thomas emerged from Sunday’s 38-17 shellacking by the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium with the franchise record for receptions by a running back.

Thomas caught two passes for 15 yards against Dallas (3-1) — he needed one reception to surpass the Saints’ all-time mark for receptions by a running back, which had been 294 by Reggie Bush (2006-10 and now with Detroit). Thomas has 296 for his career and for the Saints (1-3), whom he joined as an undrafted free agent in 2007.

He is one of seven Saints on the team that won Super Bowl XLIV in February 2010.

Additionally, Thomas opened the season needing three receiving yards to break the record for receiving yards by a running back, which had been held by Dalton Hilliard (1986-93). He had 95 receiving yards on 12 catches through four games of 2014 after Sunday and also owns the franchise mark once established by Hilliard.

Thomas has 2,325 receiving yards and 38 total regular-season touchdowns for his nine-year career with the Saints and in the NFL. This season, aside from his running-back receptions records, he has one rushing touchdown.

Nonetheless, after defeats at Atlanta (2-2), Cleveland (3-1) and Dallas as well as a sole victory at home against Minnesota, the Saints haven’t been able to give Thomas the fanfare they may have liked to.

Thomas on Monday said, “Honestly, I didn’t even know I had (those records). I let my fans and my family members worry about that stuff for me — my main focus is what I have to do to help this team get a win.”

On Sunday, the Saints turned the ball over three times and allowed running back DeMarco Murray to rush for 149 yards and two touchdowns off 24 carries. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was 22-of-29 passing for 262 yards and three touchdowns.

Meanwhile, after facing a 24-0 halftime deficit, the Saints could only respond with a field goal by kicker Shayne Graham in the third quarter and one touchdown grab each by tight ends Josh Hill and Jimmy Graham in the fourth period.

The Saints host Tampa Bay (1-3) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome this upcoming Sunday. The Saints have won the last 18 times (including once in the playoffs) they have played at home with coach Sean Payton on the sidelines.

‘There’s no way someone should run the ball’ on Saints defense like DeMarco Murray did, N.O. linebacker Lofton says

Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray (29) fights off a tackle attempt by New Orleans Saints' Junior Galette (93)during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade) ORG XMIT: CBS207

Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray (29) fights off a tackle attempt by New Orleans Saints’ Junior Galette (93)during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade) ORG XMIT: CBS207

ARLINGTON, Texas — The stat line disgusted Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton.

It read: 24 carries, 149 yards and two touchdowns for Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray as Dallas (3-1) dealt a 38-17 throttling to New Orleans (1-3) at AT&T Stadium on Monday.

“There’s no way,” Lofton said, “someone should run the ball on us like that.”

Yet Murray did, outrushing the Saints as a team by 45 yards. He scored his fourth and fifth touchdowns of the season on runs from 15 yards and 28 yards out to give the Cowboys leads of 17-0 and 31-10 in the second and fourth quarters, respectively.

Murray entered the game as the NFL’s leading rusher with 385 yards on 75 carries. The Saints knew they had to stop him to have any chance of improving to 2-2, but they couldn’t; as he caused numerous missed tackles with New Orleans trying in vain to strip the ball from him and force what would’ve been only its second turnover of 2014 and its sixth in 13 regular-season games dating back to last year.

Then, when they did contain the Cowboys’ rushing attack, the Saints struggled to get their defense off the field, letting Dallas gain new sets of downs on eight of 14 third-down situations.

“What it comes down to is you have to whup the man across from you, and if you don’t do that, then you’re not going to be successful,” said Lofton, whose team headed into halftime trailing 24-0 and never looked to truly be back in the fight despite outscoring Dallas by a combined 17-14 in the third and fourth quarters. “There’s no magic schemes, no magic ‘I’ve got to do this,’ or, ‘I have to do that.’ You’ve got to whup somebody in front of you.”

Meanwhile, Murray attributed his success to blocking from his offensive line as well as outside from wide receivers such as Dez Bryant, who also had three receptions for 44 yards and the last touchdown in the game late in the fourth quarter.

“I think,” Murray said, “we’re all on the same page.”

Murray denied he took any extra satisfaction in Sunday’s victory, regardless of what had happened the previous time the Cowboys met the Saints. The Saints clobbered Dallas 49-17, set an NFL record for first downs converted (40) and established a franchise mark for yards on offense (625) while limiting Murray to 89 rushing yards and a score on 16 carries.

All he did was “come out here and play a good game with his teammates,” Murray said.

“I’m not worried about what happened last year or last game,” Murray said. “I just always try to prepare myself and gives us a great chance to win.”

Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was 22-of-29 passing for 262 yards and three touchdowns. The Saints turned the ball over three times (an interception and two lost fumbles) and didn’t take it away. They managed only two touchdowns grabs from tight ends Josh Hill and Jimmy Graham as well as a field goal by Shayne Graham in an effort that was clearly far from good enough.

“We’ve got to do the little things better,” Saints safety Jairus Byrd said. “They can’t be able to run and pass at will.”

Saints bring in C Alex Parsons for practice squad

The Saints added depth to their offensive line by signing free-agent center Alex Parsons to the practice squad, coach Sean Payton said Wednesday.

To make room for Parsons, the Saints (1-2) released guard Antoine McClain from the practice squad.

Parsons, who was active for 16 games for Oakland in 2012 and started one, arrives after first-string New Orleans center Jonathan Goodwin injured his ankle in a 20-9 victory over Minnesota this past Sunday. If Goodwin isn’t ready to play at Dallas (2-1) this upcoming Sunday, it’s expect second-year interior offensive lineman Tim Lelito will take his place; and reserve Senio Kelemete will be the reserve at guard and center.

Parsons entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie out of Southern California who signed with Oakland in 2010. That team waived him with an injury settlement in August 2013. He was with Cleveland through the 2014 preseason but didn’t make the team.

Parsons remains eligible for practice squads because he has appeared in fewer than 32 regular-season games in the NFL.

Fans getting fed up with NFL after violence cases? Maybe not as much as you’d think, S.I. poll shows

It’d be understandable to think fans far and wide are getting fed up with the NFL after developments in domestic abuse cases involving former Ravens running back Ray Rice, Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald and Arizona running back Jonathan Dwyer as well as the pending child-abuse charges against Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.

But that’d be an incorrect assumption to make, according to a Sports Illustrated online nationwide poll that examined the opinions of more than 500 NFL fans — both men and women — between Sept. 18 and 21. While there’s some disgust and disbelief in the headlines NFL personalities have made, fans are also showing a good measure of loyalty to the league shield.

For example, 29 percent of fans polled believed that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell should keep his job — 38 percent thought he should go, and 34 percent were unsure. Calls for Goodell’s resignation have been ubiquitous in traditional media and social networks, which might explain any surprise at the percentage of fans who support his keeping his office.

Other results are:

20%…Goodell’s approval rating among the 179 female fans polled

46%…Percentage of fans that believe the NFL players are not good role models.

66%…Percentage of fans that say the recent studies of long-term health risks of head injuries have no effect on their interest in the NFL

38%…Percentage of fans that were familiar with the degenerative brain disease CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy)

85%…Percentage of fans that stated they would let their son play tackle football; 91% of these said they played tackle football themselves

-79%…Percentage of fans that do not consider the Redskins an offensive name

-34%…Percentage of fans that say the events over the course of the last month have negatively impacted their stance on public funding for NFL stadiums

“Amid all the raw emotion that the actions, or inaction, of the NFL has generated in the last several weeks, (Sports Illustrated) wanted to take some measure of whatever shifts in attitude have taken place toward the game itself, toward the people who play it, toward the people who run it,” magazine Managing Editor Christian Stone said in a statement. “What emerges is a lot of gray. There is anger, disgust and disbelief reflected in some of the results. And there is plenty to suggest that fan loyalty and interest still trumps a lot of those aforementioned emotions.”

Jonathan Goodwin will miss time with high ankle sprain, NFL Network reports

Veteran Saints center Jonathan Goodwin has a high ankle sprain and is likely to miss time with the injury, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Monday.

Goodwin left the Saints’ 20-9 victory at home against Minnesota on Sunday after hurting his left foot on a rushing play in the third quarter and didn’t return. He was replaced by backup center/guard Tim Lelito, in his second year with the Saints and Goodwin’s main preseason competition at the position.

Lelito on Monday said to reporters that the possibility of starting at center in the intermediate future in light of Goodwin’s injury doesn’t daunt him. He prepares himself weekly to start at any interior offensive line position, he said.

Lelito started in two wins as a rookie at right guard for the Saints.

Saints coach Sean Payton declined to discuss Goodwin’s health at a news conference Monday. Goodwin on Sunday told The Advocate he was planning to undergo an MRI and was hoping for the best for himself.

The MRI will determine the severity of the injury, Rapaport said.

The Saints (1-2) face Dallas (2-1) on the road on Sunday night.

Saints QB Drew Brees, Vikings CB Captain Munnerlyn discuss suplex play during New Orleans’ win Sunday

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD --  The Minnesota Vikings were called for roughing after Minnesota Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (24) and Minnesota Vikings strong safety Robert Blanton (36) sacked New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) during the third quarter Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD — The Minnesota Vikings were called for roughing after Minnesota Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (24) and Minnesota Vikings strong safety Robert Blanton (36) sacked New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) during the third quarter Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees didn’t know who suplexed him pro wrestling-style during his team’s 20-9 victory against the Vikings at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday. When he got up and went after Vikings cornerback Robert Blanton, it’s because that was the first player Brees saw, the quarterback said after the game, which improved the Saints’ 2014 record to 1-2.

Brees later realized it was Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn who got flagged for a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty for slamming the Saints quarterback into the turf on what would’ve been a sack on a third-and-15 during the final play of the third quarter. Brees said he subsequently marched over to Munnerlyn (a former member of the NFC South rival Carolina Panthers), calmly told him, “Listen, I like you. I think you’re a good football player. I appreciate the 15 yards.”

The Saints QB then huddled up with his teammates and said, “All right, fellas. We got to stick it to ‘em.”

And stick it to them the Saints did.

On the next two drives, Brees (27-of-35 for 293 yards and two touchdowns) threw his second score of the day to help put New Orleans up 20-9 with 12:22 to go in the game. The next time the Saints touched the ball, they converted five first downs to drain the final 6:58 of the contest off the clock.

Prior to the most-talked about sequence of Sunday’s Saints game, the Saints had scored two touchdowns on their first two possessions to take a 13-0 lead. The Saints punted the ball on each of their following four possessions, gaining a paltry 56 yards on those advances.

The Saints were about to punt again at the end of the third quarter from their 32 after Brees was corralled seven yards behind the line of scrimmage. But Munnerlyn capped the play off by wrapping his arms around Brees’ waist, lifting the Saints quarterback and then falling backwards with him. Munnerlyn slammed Brees down, and Blanton jumped atop both his teammate and the opposing signal-caller.

Brees leapt to his feet, shoved Blanton in the back and went after him before things settled down and the Saints put the game away. Brees said he believed the penalty re-focused the offense.

“It just sometimes helps you lock in and … just creates a little fire,” Brees said of plays such as the roughing penalty. “And listen, whatever it takes.”

Munnerlyn told reporters afterward that he hadn’t heard the whistle blow and was simply doing his best to get Brees to the ground.

“I was just letting him know I’m not a dirty player,” said Munnerlyn, who was with Carolina from 2009-13 and has faced the Saints 11 times. “I just play this game with a lot of passion.”

The 5-foot-9 cornerback added, “Me watching Drew Brees on film, you can have him wrapped up sometimes; and he still throws balls away. I just tried to wrap his arms up. I’m not a tall guy, so I just tried to wrap his arms up and tried to throw him to the ground. I didn’t try to body slam him or nothing like that. I was just letting him know.

“He was like ‘I know you’re not a dirty player. I’ve played against you a lot of times.’ I just talked to him about the play and let him know that I’m not that type of guy.”

Munnerlyn said he expected to be fined and to appeal any levy that may be imposed on him.

Multiple observers couldn’t resist noting that the Superdome had hosted the event Wrestlemania XXX in April.

Advocate correspondent Brian Allee-Walsh contributed to this report.

Drew Brees congratulates ex-teammates Darren Sproles, Malcolm Jenkins for roles in big Eagles win on Monday Night Football

After former Saints running back Darren Sproles and safety Malcolm Jenkins made crucial plays to help Philadelphia win at Indianapolis on Monday Night Football, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees tweeted out congratulations to his two ex-teammates.

“My boy Darren Sproles had a big night tonight,” Brees wrote on his Twitter account. “And (Malcolm) Jenkins. Happy for them both. Two great teammates! Wish them the best.”

Sproles had seven receptions for a career-high 152 yards as well as four rushes for 26 yards and a touchdown in Philadelphia’s 30-27 victory against the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. Jenkins intercepted a fourth-quarter pass.

They’re each in their first season in Philadelphia. The Saints traded Sproles in March to the Eagles in exhange for a fifth-round draft selection they used to acquire rookie linebacker Ronald Powell as well as to clear up salary-cap space. Jenkins signed in free agency after his contract with the Saints expired.

Sproles was in New Orleans from 2011 to 2013 and set an NFL record for all-purpose yardage in his first year with the Saints. His first year in San Diego was Brees’ last year there before he arrived in New Orleans in 2006 via free agency.

Jenkins won Super Bowl XLIV with the Saints at the end of the 2009 season, his rookie campaign.

The Eagles were 2-0 after Monday night. The Saints were 0-2 after being defeated in Cleveland on Sunday, ranking among the NFL’s best offensively but worst defensively.

Browns pass-rusher Paul Kruger bedeviled team that coveted him in free agency as Cleveland beat Saints in Week 2

CLEVELAND — Back in the 2013 offseason, before they reached an ill-fated deal with Victor Butler and Junior Galette had a breakout campaign for them, the Saints pursued former Baltimore Ravens pass-rusher Paul Kruger in free agency.

The 6-foot-4, 265-pound Kruger joined up with the Browns, however. And when the Browns hosted the Saints on Sunday and defeated them 26-24, he showed all day why New Orleans wanted him in black and gold.

It began with his first-quarter sack of Saints quarterback Drew Brees. At left outside linebacker, on a Saints first-and-10 from New Orleans’ 8, Kruger was first engaged by second-year tight end Josh Hill, who nudged the Browns defender toward veteran tight end Benjamin Watson.

Watson then tried to pick up the block on Kruger, but the defender quickly stepped to his right and around the tight end, who almost fell in his attempt to keep pace. Kruger then rumbled toward Brees unimpeded and slammed the Saints quarterback down at the 1 of New Orleans, who three plays later punted for the second of three times in a first quarter that saw Cleveland seize a 10-0 advantage.

The havoc Kruger created Sunday didn’t stop there — it continued with a second-quarter pressure on Brees that produced six points for the Browns.

The Saints had an empty backfield on that play from their 44. Lined up with his hand in the dirt on Brees’ blind side, he charged toward New Orleans’ QB with left tackle Terron Armstead in his way. Kruger briefly tussled with the second-year tackle, executed a swim move with his right arm and managed to get inside and past Armstead.

Kruger barreled into Brees an instant after the quarterback fired a deep pass down the middle of the field to tight end Jimmy Graham that appeared to be affected by the oncoming Kruger. The pass came out high, sailed over Graham’s outstretched hands and was intercepted by Browns safety Tashaun Gipson.

Gipson ran the interception back 62 yards for a touchdown that put Cleveland up 16-3 before a failed two-point conversion.

Kruger subsequently quieted for a bit but resurfaced in the fourth quarter with about seven minutes to go and New Orleans leading 24-23. On a first-and-10 from New Orleans’ 37, Kruger swatted down a quick throw Brees aimed at Watson, running an out to the right.

For the ensuing snap, Kruger lined up on the right edge of the Saints’ offensive line, and New Orleans brought left guard Ben Grubbs over from his spot to tussle with the Browns defender. Kruger nonetheless managed to work past Grubbs and hurry Brees up into throwing away a pass to avoid another sack.

The Saints converted the ensuing third down and eventually drove as far as Cleveland’s 31 on that drive. But that’s when Browns linebacker Karlos Dansby sacked Brees for a loss of 7 on a third-and-5, forcing a punt. Cleveland (1-1) then drove for a 29-yard, game-winning field goal to vanquish the Saints (0-2), who had lost their season opener at Atlanta on Sept. 7.

Kruger’s sizable contribution to Cleveland’s victory over the Saints was not lost on Dansby. “Oh, he’s awesome — Paul is playing out of this world right now,” Dansby said of Kruger, whose sack against the Saints was his second of the season. “I love every second of it. I get to watch it up close in person.”

All of which also presented a reason to revisit the Saints’ interest during the spring of 2013 in Kruger, who was with the Ravens his first four years in the NFL from 2009-12 and helped them win a Super Bowl against the 49ers in New Orleans with nine-regular season sacks in his final campaign in Baltimore.

The Saints were reported to have expressed a high degree of interest in Kruger, alongside the Browns and Colts. The Browns outbid the Saints and Colts with a five-year, $40.5 million contract, and Kruger has since recorded 6.5 quarterback sacks for Cleveland.

New Orleans then landed Victor Butler — who had spent four seasons in Dallas — on a two-year, $3 million deal. But Butler didn’t play a single game for the Saints, sitting out 2013 with a knee injury, missing much of this year’s training camp with a hurt ankle and then being released.

Ultimately, as the Saints held opponents to the fourth-fewest yards in the NFL in 2013 and made the divisional round of the playoffs, New Orleans’ Junior Galette had a career-high 12 sacks, the sixth-most in the NFL and second-most for the Saints behind Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan’s 12.5. Galette recently signed a four-year, $41.5 million extension that will keep him under contract for the Saints through 2019 (he had been due to become a free agent in 2015).

But, at the beginning of their second year under coordinator Rob Ryan, the Saints’ pass rush has been less productive. The Saints only have a pair of sacks through their first two games — one by Galette on Sunday and another by defensive lineman Tyrunn Walker in Week 1.

The Saints averaged slightly more than three a game in Ryan’s first year.

“We’re disappointed, but we’re not discouraged at all,” Galette said in Cleveland about the Saints’ slow start in 2014. “We’re going to get this right, and we’re going to be the team that everyone expects us to be — the team we expect us to be.”

Among the reasons that Saints aren’t that at the moment was a standout day by Kruger.

Sean Payton: Supporting Devon Still a worthy cause

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton smiles before an NFC divisional playoff NFL football game in Seattle on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton smiles before an NFC divisional playoff NFL football game in Seattle on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

It was after driving home and hearing a story on the radio about a member of the Cincinnati Bengals practice squad whose 4-year-old daughter had cancer that Sean Payton ordered and purchased 100 of the player’s jerseys, the Saints coach said Thursday.

Proceeds from sales for Devon Stills’ jersey are benefitting Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and pediatric cancer care and research; and, in a statement released by the team, Payton said he was moved to support the cause because he’s a father to a son, Connor, and daughter, Meghan.

“As a parent myself, I couldn’t help to think about the situation he was in,” Payton said of Still in the statement. “What I did was just a small token to a very worthwhile cause. I wish them nothing but the best and am hoping that his daughter will make a full recovery.”

Still, a defensive tackle, was waived by the Bengals at the end of the preseason. But the Bengals signed Still to their practice squad to provide him health insurance to care for his daughter, Leah, who’s been battling cancer. Cincinnati promoted him to its 53-man roster Wednesday.

“Only one word to describe everything,” Still wrote on his Twitter account about the Bengals. “AMAZING!!”

Payton lauded the Bengals’ treatment of Still.

“I thought it was a class move by (Bengals owner) Mike Brown, (head coach) Marvin Lewis, and the entire … organization to keep him on their roster and allow him to get the proper benefits so he could give the best care to his child,” Payton said.”