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Great Expectations 

After a Cinderella 2006 season, the Saints won't be sneaking up on anybody this year. But they've got all the key players back -- and some promising new talent.

Whether it's his passes or his message, Drew Brees is usually on the target. "I could see in their eyes from a lot of them as they left the room ... as I shook their hand or signed an autograph for them that I had struck a chord with some of them," Brees says.

The Saints quarterback wasn't addressing a captive audience of season ticket holders, a passel of promising high school football players or a ballroom crammed with corporate executives. He was talking to inmates in a Utah jail.

In June, while visiting a friend in the area, Brees accepted an invitation to speak at the Beaver County Correctional Facility. During his two-hour stay, he says he tried to find some common ground with the prisoners.

"I just tried to take a lot of my experiences athletically and in life, maybe some of the adversity I've faced, and try to compare it to adversity that they've faced in their lives. It's kind of like there have been mistakes made in the past and you're suffering those consequences, but as you move forward, know that you have a great chance at life."

It may have been a jailhouse talk, but it's a theme Saints fans can readily embrace. Last season, with Brees headlining a revamped roster under the direction of a new coaching staff, the Saints ignored a mistake-riddled history and escorted a success-starved fan base on the most unexpected and unforgettable season in team history.

After winning just three games in 2005, the Saints finished the regular season with a record of 10-6, won the NFC South title and advanced to their first-ever NFC Championship game in fairytale fashion. With most of the key players back for the 2007 season, the Cinderella label no longer applies.

"Obviously we know there are a lot of expectations," Brees says. "All the so-called experts who said we were going to finish fourth in our division last year are picking us to go to the Super Bowl now. You just need to put all that stuff out of your head."

If there's a man to ensure that "that stuff" won't obfuscate the Saints' goals, it's head coach Sean Payton. The 2006 NFL Coach of the Year restored discipline and accountability to an error-prone team. Payton's mantra is to eliminate the mistakes that keep teams from winning games. They did just that, winning more games than they had since 2000.

Payton earned plaudits not only for winning games and raising expectations, but also for doing it with alarming speed. In his first year as a head coach, Payton assumed control of a team with a new quarterback, a retooled offensive line and a defense that was such a work in progress that only one of the starting linebackers began training camp in a Saints uniform.

Payton, however, is quick to declare that the magic of last season has no bearing on the upcoming one. "I think you just try to stay focused on what we have to do to improve and be guarded against taking it for granted," the coach says. "I do think you have to start again, you have to start with all the little things that gave you an opportunity to succeed a year ago. There's nothing promised to you from '06 that takes you to '07."

 

The man most responsible for the resurgent Saints offense is Drew Brees. Although he underwent major shoulder surgery on his throwing arm after the 2005 season, Brees was sharper and more productive than ever in his first year in New Orleans.

He threw for a league-leading 4,418 passing yards and his 26 touchdown passes were third most in the NFL. He was named the starting quarterback for the NFC in the Pro Bowl. During the annual Hawaiian all-star game, he dislocated his left elbow, but Brees says the injury was completely healed by the team's June mini-camp.

As impressive as his statistics were, they only capture part of Brees' importance to the Saints. A fiery competitor who is preternaturally cool in the huddle, Brees brings calm and confidence to the team that is crucial at the quarterback position.

Fortunately for Brees, he has a strong supporting cast. Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush return as one of the best tailback tandems in the league. In 2006 they showed there was plenty of room in the backfield for both players.

McAllister rebounded from a season-ending knee injury in 2005 by grinding out another 1,000-yard season, the fourth of his career. The Saints all-time leading rusher also scored 10 touchdowns and exhibited flashes of elusiveness that called to mind his early years in the league.

McAllister's running mate is the singularly spectacular Reggie Bush. The second overall pick in the 2006 draft struggled early in his rookie season to find the same room to roam that he enjoyed at USC, but as his patience increased, so did his productivity. Bush finished his rookie year with a team-best 88 receptions for 742 yards to go along with 565 rushing yards and nine touchdowns.

"I feel like I'm just starting to scratch the surface, and the sky's the limit," Bush says. "It's about the hard work that I put in. The amount of work I put into it is going to be a direct reflection of what I get out of it."

After a successful first run, Sean Payton will get another crack at devising a game plan that best utilizes McAllister and Bush's disparate skill sets.

"I think the balance with those guys and the challenge we have an as offense in terms of each week that we're paying attention to is scheme, design, how many touches and the predictability within the scheme and how much balance there is," Payton says.

With Joe Horn gone to the Atlanta Falcons, there's little question who will be Drew Brees' preferred target. The Saints' acquisition of 6-foot-4 Marques Colston in the 2006 NFL Draft was pure larceny -- call it the Great Hofstra Heist. They selected him from the Division I-AA university late in the seventh round.

The reticent Colston went on to put up numbers during his rookie season that screamed for recognition: 70 receptions, 1,038 yards receiving, and eight touchdowns.

Colston bulked up during the off-season, adding about seven pounds of muscle to his lithe frame. He says the extra weight won't slow him down, and he hopes it will enable him to endure the rigors of an entire NFL season. "I definitely feel like that second half of the season I slowed down, so I definitely want to work on being consistent throughout the whole season and just fine tune my game," Colston says.

Colston is sure to draw plenty of double coverage this season, so there will be ample opportunity for another receiver to assert himself. Former LSU star Devery Henderson is coming off the finest season of his three-year career. Henderson caught 32 passes and scored seven touchdowns. His 23.3 yards per catch average was the best in the NFL. Henderson's problem has never been ability. It's his reliability that's been questioned.

"I've got a little bit more experience under my belt," Henderson says. "I'm kind of familiar with how everything goes. I just need to go out there with a different attitude, control how I go out there, not get frustrated, and I think I'll be alright."

Also competing for playing time at the receiver position are Terrance Copper and free agent acquisition David Patten. Patten won three Super Bowl rings with the Patriots, but has entered the twilight of his career.

The wild card at receiver is first-round draft pick Robert Meachem. The former University of Tennessee star has a coveted combination of size (6-foot-3) and speed (4.42 in the 40-yard dash). As a junior, he caught 71 passes for a school-record 1,298 yards. He seemed like an obvious choice to fill the void left by Joe Horn, but a less than stellar off-season has made that possibility far less automatic -- and Meachem's future more enigmatic.

Meachem arrived at Saints rookie mini-camp overweight and out of shape. He suffered a sprained ankle early on that limited his involvement in workouts. And during the team's June mini-camp, he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. He had surgery on the same knee during college.

Head coach Sean Payton says Meachem should be ready to participate in the first training camp practice on July 27 at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. But it's clear that Meachem's road to New Orleans, to this point, has been rocky. "You kind of feel discouraged a little bit because you want to show the coaches what you can do, and you can't do that when you're hurt," Meachem says.

One of the few offensive areas that the Saints addressed in the off-season was tight end. The team released oft-injured veteran Ernie Conwell and signed free agent Eric Johnson. Johnson has battled injury issues of his own but when healthy, he's a superb receiver. In 2004 he caught a team-high 82 passes for the San Francisco 49ers. While it's safe to assume the Saints have too many offensive options for any tight end to put up those numbers, his ability to stretch the field should add a new dimension. Johnson will battle for playing time with Mark Campbell and Billy Miller.

The Saints offensive line remains intact from a season ago. All five starters return, including left tackle Jammal Brown, who made his first Pro Bowl in 2006.

Last year every starter on the offensive line was new or playing a new position. Center Jeff Faine says keeping the group together was key. "I think it's going to be a huge advantage," Faine says. "When you look at the better offensive lines in the league, they've all been together for so long. For us to come together again for back-to-back years, I've never done it before and I'm excited for it."

 

While they didn't hook any marquee-name free agents or draft picks, the Saints did more to buttress their defense. Last season New Orleans ranked 11th in total defense, but forced just 19 turnovers -- only the woeful Washington Redskins had fewer. All 11 defensive starters return this season, but it was obvious they needed more playmakers.

The Saints' most significant maneuver along the defensive line was retaining the players the team had. Initially, the Saints placed the "franchise tag" on defensive end Charles Grant. It was a decision that vexed Grant because it prevented him from testing the market as an unrestricted free agent. However, the Saints signed him to a seven-year extension worth up to $63 million dollars, stifling any discord.

The former first-round draft pick says he's ecstatic that he'll be able to retire as a Saint. In five seasons in New Orleans, he's racked up 36 sacks and 15 forced fumbles.

Grant, who's prone to fits of hyperbole, makes this bold pronouncement about the defense: "We'll be a wrecking crew, man. We'll be better than the Dome Patrol (the fearsome Saints defenses of the late 1980s and early '90s), and that's a lot to say."

Grant and fourth-year pro Will Smith are perhaps the finest set of young defensive ends in the league. Smith, who led the team with 10.5 sacks last season and made the Pro Bowl, still has three years remaining on his current contract. Signing him to a long-term deal will no doubt be a top priority in the coming year.

Grant and Smith will be joined on the defensive line by returning tackles Brian Young and Hollis Thomas. The Saints re-signed Thomas, a rotund run-stuffer entering his 12th season, to a four-year, $12-million contract.

All three starting linebackers are back for 2007, although a couple of free agents will bolster depth and ratchet up the competition during training camp.

Strong side linebacker Scott Fujita was the lone starter to begin training camp with the Saints last season. Dhani Jones, a free agent pick-up who spent the last three seasons with the Eagles, will back him up.

Scott Shanle will start at weak side linebacker. He came to New Orleans from the Cowboys in a trade at the end of training camp last year and was an extremely productive performer. He led the team with 97 tackles.

Mark Simoneau, who the Saints acquired from the Eagles in the Donté Stallworth trade, started every game at middle linebacker last season. His starting status could be threatened by a new teammate.

Free agent Brian Simmons spent his entire nine-year career with the Bengals. A neck injury limited him to 11 games in 2006, but he has an attention-grabbing resume. In 2004, he registered some astonishing statistics: 132 tackles, three forced fumbles and two interceptions. If he doesn't wrest the starting job from Simoneau, the Saints will find a way to get him on the field.

The Saints most notable defensive addition is cornerback Jason David. At only 5 feet 8 inches, David is at an obvious disadvantage against taller receivers, but he's a playmaker with superb leaping ability. In three seasons with the Colts, he had eight interceptions. He is just 25 years old, and has yet to reach his peak.

David figures to start at cornerback opposite veteran Mike McKenzie. The Saints needed to upgrade the position after a disappointing season from Fred Thomas. Thomas struggled late in the year and gave up several big pass plays during playoff games against the Eagles and Bears. Thomas took an $800,000 pay cut to stay with the Saints.

"I didn't finish the season well and that just gave me more motivation to work hard to correct the things that I messed up," Thomas says. "That's what I'm doing. I'm putting last season behind me. It's a new season. And that's the way you got to prepare."

Second year player Roman Harper, whose rookie year was cut short because of a knee injury, is likely to start at strong safety. Josh Bullocks appears to have the early nod at free safety although he'll be pushed by free agent pick-up Kevin Kaesviharn.

The former Cincinnati Bengal led all NFL safeties with six interceptions last season. He also had four sacks. His knack for the big play is something the Saints targeted.

The returning players agree that a second season in defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs' system will yield improved results.

"Absolutely it's going to be a lot better," linebacker Scott Fujita says. "Last off-season there were so many moving parts. Not just at the linebacker position but really across the board. It really felt like coaches and players were trying to figure each other out."

 

Some new specialists hope to make a seamless transition in New Orleans this season. Olindo Mare replaces longtime kicker John Carney. Carney was far more accurate than Mare was last season with the Dolphins, but the Saints coveted Mare's leg strength.

Ex-Jaguars punter Chris Hanson signed a one-year contract with the Saints. The former Pro Bowler is favored to beat out returning punter Steve Weatherford for the starting job.

The 2006 Saints overcame amazing odds to achieve their unprecedented success, but 2007 brings an entirely new set of challenges. The first is a first-place schedule.

The Saints open the regular season in a nationally televised game against the defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts. They play at least three more prime-time games and finish the regular season in a familiar setting -- frigid Soldier Field on Dec. 30 against the Chicago Bears in a rematch of last year's NFC Championship game.

The Saints will also have to contend with an emotional element. Last season in their return to New Orleans post-Katrina, they benefited from the metaphysical momentum of a grateful city in desperate need of a boost.

How will the team match the motivation of a season ago?

"Now standards and expectations have been raised dramatically," Fujita says. "So I think the players are going to put it on themselves to raise the emotion level. It's nice to set standards high. [Last season] was a good starting point, but by no means was that the end result for us. And it's good to have a season like that now kind of in the bank. You can draw from that anytime this season."

Adam Norris is a sports anchor for WGNO-TV, ABC26 in New Orleans.

click to enlarge Drew Brees No. 9 -  - Quarterback, 6 feet, 209 lbs. -  - Seven years in the NFL -  - Hometown: Austin, Texas -  - College: Purdue University -  - Acquired by Saints 2006 from San Diego Chargers -  - Last year threw for 4,418 passing yards and 26 - touchdowns
  • Drew Brees No. 9

    Quarterback, 6 feet, 209 lbs.

    Seven years in the NFL

    Hometown: Austin, Texas

    College: Purdue University

    Acquired by Saints 2006 from San Diego Chargers

    Last year threw for 4,418 passing yards and 26 touchdowns

click to enlarge Deuce McAllister No. 26 -  - Running Back, 6-1, 232 lbs. -  - Seven years in the NFL -  - Hometown: Lena, Miss. -  - College: Ole Miss, picked by Saints in first round of the - 2001 NFL draft -  - Last year racked up 1,057 yards rushing on 244 carries - with 11 touchdowns -
  • Deuce McAllister No. 26

    Running Back, 6-1, 232 lbs.

    Seven years in the NFL

    Hometown: Lena, Miss.

    College: Ole Miss, picked by Saints in first round of the 2001 NFL draft

    Last year racked up 1,057 yards rushing on 244 carries with 11 touchdowns

click to enlarge Marquis Colston No. 12 -  - Wide Receiver, 6-4, 231 lbs. -  - Two years in the NFL -  - Hometown: Harrisburg, Penn. -  - College: Hofstra University, picked by Saints in 2006 NFL - draft -  - Last year caught 70 passes for 1,038 yards and eight - touchdowns -
  • Marquis Colston No. 12

    Wide Receiver, 6-4, 231 lbs.

    Two years in the NFL

    Hometown: Harrisburg, Penn.

    College: Hofstra University, picked by Saints in 2006 NFL draft

    Last year caught 70 passes for 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns

click to enlarge Reggie Bush No. 25 -  - Running Back, 6 feet, 203 lbs. -  - Two years in the NFL -  - Hometown: Le Mesa, Calif. -  - College: University Southern California, 2005 Heisman - Trophy Winner, picked by the Saints in the first round of - the NFL draft in 2006 -  - Last year racked up 1,523 total yards -- 729 receiving, - 565 rushing and 216 in punt returns -- and nine - touchdowns
  • Reggie Bush No. 25

    Running Back, 6 feet, 203 lbs.

    Two years in the NFL

    Hometown: Le Mesa, Calif.

    College: University Southern California, 2005 Heisman Trophy Winner, picked by the Saints in the first round of the NFL draft in 2006

    Last year racked up 1,523 total yards -- 729 receiving, 565 rushing and 216 in punt returns -- and nine touchdowns

click to enlarge Scott Fujita No. 55 -  - Linebacker, 6-5, 250 lbs. -  - Six years in NFL -  - Hometown: Ventura, Calif. -  - College: University of California -  - Came to Saints from Dallas Cowboys in 2006 as a - defensive free agent -  - Last year had 119 tackles (11 in the NFC CHampionship - game) and had 3.5 sacks, two interceptions, two forced - fumbles and eight pass defenses
  • Scott Fujita No. 55

    Linebacker, 6-5, 250 lbs.

    Six years in NFL

    Hometown: Ventura, Calif.

    College: University of California

    Came to Saints from Dallas Cowboys in 2006 as a defensive free agent

    Last year had 119 tackles (11 in the NFC CHampionship game) and had 3.5 sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and eight pass defenses

click to enlarge Will Smith No. 91 -  - Defensive End, 6-3, 282 lbs. -  - Four years in NFL -  - Hometown: Utica, N.Y. -  - College: Ohio State, picked by Saints in first round of the - 2004 NFL draft -  - Last year had 10.5 sacks, 56 tackles, two pass defenses, - three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery
  • Will Smith No. 91

    Defensive End, 6-3, 282 lbs.

    Four years in NFL

    Hometown: Utica, N.Y.

    College: Ohio State, picked by Saints in first round of the 2004 NFL draft

    Last year had 10.5 sacks, 56 tackles, two pass defenses, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery

click to enlarge It will be hard to match the excitement that fans felt for - the first game back in the dome in 2006, Saints vs. - Atlanta Falcons, but advance tickets sales indicate that - Saints fans are ready for the sequel.
  • It will be hard to match the excitement that fans felt for the first game back in the dome in 2006, Saints vs. Atlanta Falcons, but advance tickets sales indicate that Saints fans are ready for the sequel.
click to enlarge Sean Payton -  - Head Coach -  - Joined the Saints in January 2006 as its 14th head coach - and has coached in the NFL for 11 years -  - Hometown: San Mateo, Calif. -  - College: Eastern Illinois, degree in communications -  - Came to the Saints from Dallas Cowboys, where he was - assistant head coach -  - Led Saints to NFC Championship Game in 2006 and was - named NFL Coach of the Year
  • Sean Payton

    Head Coach

    Joined the Saints in January 2006 as its 14th head coach and has coached in the NFL for 11 years

    Hometown: San Mateo, Calif.

    College: Eastern Illinois, degree in communications

    Came to the Saints from Dallas Cowboys, where he was assistant head coach

    Led Saints to NFC Championship Game in 2006 and was named NFL Coach of the Year

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