METAIRIE, La. (AP) -Eric Johnson was only the latest in a growing line of Saints whose glaring mistakes might have cost New Orleans a game.
Yet the normally sure-handed tight end didn't even try to duck reporters after mishandling two passes that turned into crucial interceptions in last Sunday's 23-10 loss at Houston.
Johnson said he let down his team, let down the city he represents, and felt terrible about it. And his accountability was representative of the way the Saints players and coaches have handled their 4-6 season so far.
``You love that about a guy that's going to stand up and say that,'' quarterback Drew Brees said. ``There's nobody who works on catching the ball more than Eric and there's probably nobody who has better hands than Eric Johnson. ... The fact that he steps up and takes some accountability, I love the guy for that, and I'd tell him, 'Hey, there's nobody I trust more than you catching the ball, so don't think I'm not coming to you whenever I get the opportunity.'''
These are frustrating times for the Saints, who line up for a crucial contest at Carolina (4-6) on Sunday. A two-game losing streak has left the Saints dangerously close to missing the playoffs a season after they came within one victory of going to the Super Bowl.
Yet, while coach Sean Payton points out mistakes that have cost his team games, he has routinely warned against looking for scapegoats.
Cornerback Jason David, acquired last winter specifically to shore up the secondary, gave up a 73-yard touchdown at Houston. He lost receiver Andre Johnson because he looked back at a play-action fake and hesitated, a mistake he has made repeatedly this season, even while playing in a man-to-man scheme in which he is supposed to ignore play fakes and stay with his receiver.
During that same game, running back Reggie Bush showed a lack of patience in following his blocks and finished with only 34 yards rushing on 15 carries. He also dropped a short pass over the middle with no one around him, something he's done several times this season. Worst of all, he fumbled on the Texans' 1-yard line, his sixth fumble this season and the second one lost.
Earlier this season, receiver Devery Henderson's dropped passes, one of which resulted in an interception, may have cost the Saints a victory against Carolina. Either that or kicker Olindo Mare's two missed field goals. New Orleans lost that game 16-13 and fell to 0-4.
The season appeared all but over at that point, but New Orleans rallied for four straight victories. Having players who held themselves accountable for their own failures and supported struggling teammates made the difference, Brees said.
``We wouldn't have been able to turn that 0-4 start around if we didn't have those guys because that was the time when it would have been very easy to do some finger-pointing,'' Brees said. ``Everybody just kind of turned that back on themselves and said, 'What can I do to make this team better and focus on my responsibility, my role and just trust that the guy next to me is going to do the same thing?''
Around New Orleans, frustrated fans are beginning to wonder why Payton is sticking with David as a starter, rather than go with Jason Craft, who filled in reliably for three games while David was hurt. Others are clamoring for more runs by promising rookie Pierre Thomas, who has a 24-yard touchdown and averages 6.6 yards per carry, but rarely gets a chance to play on offense.
If some of the Saints have had similar thoughts, they've kept it to themselves.
Veteran receiver David Patten said he's learned that more bad than good comes out of players questioning coaches' decisions, and that teams with fractured locker rooms tend to fall apart on the field.
``When coaches make a decision, everybody needs to buy into it, everyone needs to support it, because when you follow leadership, that's what gives you the best chance of being successful,'' Patten said. ``We can't afford any division at this point because we still have six games ahead of us. As inconsistent as we've been, the only way for us to have any chance of success is binding together.''
When Wednesday's practice ended, Johnson was still on the field running extra routes and hauling in the type of short, quick passes he mishandled in Houston several days earlier.
The seventh-year tight end said he appreciated Brees' unwavering support.
``You always worry about letting your quarterback down, especially a guy like Drew who throws such a great ball and finds you when you're open,'' Johnson said. ``But everyone makes bad plays and you just accept it and move on. ... I'm working on things to make sure nothing like that happens again.''

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