In other words, the media -- which doesn't seem much different in its conclusions than the average Saints fan, or from last year even -- believe that the Saints appear set for another wrestling match with .500. Despite what appear to have been modest steps toward improving on last year's 8-8 season -- one that saw the Saints win their last four to essentially save Coach Jim Haslett's job -- preseason magazines aren't sure if New Orleans has what it takes to advance in an NFL South division that has produced three Super Bowl contenders and/or champs over the past seven years.
It's that season-ending surge that has many of the pundits scratching their heads. Was it too little too late, or the shape of things to come? Here's a typical reaction, from Athlon Sports: Pro Football's analysis: "It said something for a group that circled the wagons in the face of merited criticism and responded to a coach's decision to lighten the practices at a time when there was a growing chill between the coaching staff and the front office. Owner Tom Benson handed Haslett a two-year contract extension. The Saints still have to prove, especially on defense, they've turned a corner. At least the coach has a talking point, following the strong finish."
Athlon Sports isn't the only mag that wonders why a four-game win streak buys the coach a contract extension. Indeed, there doesn't seem to be much love for the man whose coming-out party in 2000 led not only to the Saints' first playoff appearance since 1992 but also NFL Coach of the Year honors. No playoff appearances since will do that for a guy's reputation. In fact, Haslett is the least successful coach to still have a job during this period. In Lindy's 2005 Pro Football preview, Haslett is ranked 25th out of the NFL's 32 head coaches. According to writer John Hadley, "His record of 43-39 illustrates his ranking to date: mediocre. The Saints have been competitive with Haslett in charge, but haven't shown upward movement and all too often collapsed down the stretch denying his team postseason play. What is the focus of his program? What changes have been made in the name of improvement? This team seemingly is destined to wallow in mediocrity with Haslett running the show. While results to date are slightly north of the .500 mark, the picture is less exciting."
Actually, that summary smacks of vagueness. For the most insightful "national" take on Haslett, read Sporting News correspondent Jeff Duncan -- the beat writer for The Times-Picayune. Few people have summarized Haslett better than this: "Haslett is at his best when he throws caution to the wind and attacks on both sides of the ball. When he coaches aggressively, his team feeds off of it and plays with abandon and passion. When he doesn't, the team tends to coast. He must not let up on his undisciplined team and keep it focused week to week."
Rarely has a four-game win streak earned so little optimism. Earlier in the Sporting News' preview, the Saints are ranked as the third team in the "Falling" category: "They finished 2004 on a four-game winning streak, which means this inconsistent team is due for a letdown. All the other NFC South teams did more to improve in the offseason, and playing a tough interconference schedule against the AFC East won't help."
While the philosophy itself may at first glance seem counter-intuitive, the national media seem to have grasped (though not necessarily agreed with) Haslett's offseason prioritizing the offense over the defense. (The notion being, as the cliche goes, defense wins championships.) After losing offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy to the 49ers, Haslett decided the key to the Saints' success next season was a more effective Aaron Brooks (both as a leader and player). Haslett figured the way to do that was to dumb down the playbook and focus more on the running game, thereby taking some of the pressure off of Brooks.
In order to do that, he needed Deuce McAllister on board in more ways than one. First off, Deuce needed to drop some weight; second, he needed some added beef up front, which Haslett did. Street & Smith's Pro Football gets Haslett's plan: "The Saints have ... made efforts to make McAllister's job easier by upgrading the offensive line. The addition of free agent Jermane Mayberry from Philadelphia and the drafting of Oklahoma tackle Jammal Brown with the No. 13 pick in the first round should help solidify an offensive line that was horrible last season and caused many problems for Brooks and McAllister." That doesn't necessarily mean Street & Smith's is looking for any phoenix-from-the-ashes number from New Orleans: "The Saints have been the NFL's most baffling team in recent years, and everyone knows the pressure is on. But this is a team that hasn't responded well to pressure in the past. The weight of that pressure could drag the Saints down to another season around .500, which won't be good enough to pacify the fans or ownership this time."
Despite the great regular-season finish, a fairly solid draft and free-agency shopping spree and a simplified offense, the defense remains a huge question mark, according to Pro Football Weekly. "This year, there will be no excuses," reports the magazine, which is relatively optimistic in picking the Saints to finish third in the NFC South (but with a 7-9 record). "The Saints managed to reach all of their goals in the offseason, and Haslett believes this can be the year things get turned around. RB Deuce McAllister must stay healthy and the Saints must adjust to a simplified offense, but the pieces are in place. Now it's up to the defense to give the offense the support it needs."
If the Saints have anything going for them, oddly enough, it's the history of the NFC South, which on the one hand has provided Super Bowl contenders and even winners. Then there's the downside. "If history is any indication, the Atlanta Falcons should be the least comfortable team in the NFC South," Street & Smith contributor Pat Yatsinkas, a sportswriter for the Charlotte Observer. "The Falcons won the division and went to the NFC Championship Game last season, but recent history has shown the following year hasn't been very kind to NFC South champions. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the division and Super Bowl XXXVII in the 2002 season. The Carolina Panthers won the division crown in 2003 and went to Super Bowl XXXVIII. Both teams had free-falls into losing records the next season. Will the Falcons, the only team in the division with a winning record last year, follow suit?"
Oh, how the mighty keep falling in this division. Can't the Saints take advantage of this? To quote the media consensus: Eh.