CHARLOTTE N.C. -- The sun never came out on a damp, gray afternoon in Charlotte as the New Orleans Saints fell to 0-3 with a 27-22 loss to the Carolina Panthers. That same dark cloud was hanging over the team in the locker room afterward.
Judging by their reactions, this was the Saints' most disappointing loss yet. They arguably played their best game despite Drew Brees being sidelined with a shoulder injury, yet they still couldn't figure out how to win.
"Our margin for error isn't that good to overcome some of the miscues that can come up in a game," Saints coach Sean Payton said.
The margin for error isn't good enough because the team just isn't good enough right now -- a harsh reality that seemed to be eating away at Payton and the players.
When someone started to ask an optimistically tinged question about how "everyone says a loss is a loss, but ..." Payton cut off the question.
"It's what everyone says. We're 0-3," Payton said. "There's a couple little things that with where we're at, we've got to be able to clean up. Because we're going to play in other close games."
Other players said there are no such things as "silver linings" or "moral victories."
The Saints squandered a 10-0 lead and a surprisingly good performance by backup quarterback Luke McCown with too many defensive breakdowns. They then botched a late rally with too many offensive errors.
"We don't get paid to work hard. We get paid to win games. And we're not winning games," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "We turn the ball over twice, we don't execute in the red zone, we don't run the ball consistently; you're gonna lose a game.
"It's the same things we're talking about every week, and we're not fixing them, and that's where the frustration is."
Cornerback Brandon Browner blamed himself for not getting deep enough in zone coverage when he allowed two passes of 50-plus yards. McCown took the blame for a late interception and dropping the snap on a missed extra point. Tight end Benjamin Watson lamented his fumble in the third quarter. Payton was irate about a 12-men-on-the-field penalty that led to another shouting match with him and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
But the lack of big game-changing plays was equally frustrating. Other than rookie Marcus Murphy's 74-yard punt return, the Saints never made the kind of game-changing -- or season-changing -- plays they so badly needed.
"There is a skill in finding a way to win a game, where somebody makes a play," Strief said. "Without having a bunch of guys that have done that before, it's difficult, and we just don't right now. Because it's been a long time since we've won these close ones."
It's especially frustrating since the Saints insist they feel so good about the attitude and chemistry and work ethic and all of the other things they worked so hard to improve after those all became problems last year.
"Everybody's buying in. Last year it wasn't where it needed to be, and the locker room wasn't close. We're close now," said safety Kenny Vaccaro, who said he didn't want to talk about last year but admitted he was "delusional" during a similar losing skid early last season when he talked about how hard the Saints were working to improve.
Vaccaro said that work ethic is at a "different level" now, but "we're not coming out and getting W's."
Strief, who was one of the harshest critics of how badly the team's professionalism and maturity eroded last year, agreed.
"It's a lot better to come to work in this atmosphere than it was last year," said Strief, who said he "loves the guys" and called it one of his favorite teams. "But at the end of the day, if we don't find a way to win, this culture will change again because none of us are going to be here."