|Saints reflect on their fall from grace|
|Written by Admin|
|Monday, 31 December 2007 14:52|
A day after New Orleans finished a disappointing season with a loss at Chicago, the Saints' coach and quarterback offered different impressions of what kind of team they had in 2007.
Payton borrowed a line from his mentor, Bill Parcells: ``We are what our record says we are right now, and that's 7-9.''
Brees said he still believed the Saints were a playoff-caliber team that should have done better.
``I feel like our team was good enough to have gone to the playoffs,'' said Brees, who surpassed 4,000 yards passing for the second straight season. ``What went wrong? It seems like sometimes the ball didn't bounce our way. We lost a couple really close games we had no business losing.''
After a splendid return to a storm-battered city that needed an emotional lift in 2006, the Saints entered this season brimming with optimism and labeled Super Bowl contenders.
They had gotten so close a season earlier, losing in the NFC championship game in Chicago. Nearly all of their starters were back, and the Saints thought they had strengthened their defense with the signing of free agent cornerback Jason David.
It just didn't work the way they planned.
New Orleans yielded eight touchdown passes longer than 30 yards, the most memorable being Reggie Williams' 80-yarder, Andre Johnson's 73-yarder and Joey Galloway's 69-yarder. Those were just the big plays that ended in the end zone.
The Saints' draft did not yield the same kind of early production as a season earlier, when several rookies became instant regulars. Receiver Robert Meachem, their first-round selection, never dressed for a single game.
The Saints lost their first four games of the season, a hole that proved too deep for a team that wasn't as fortunate with injuries as it had been a season ago.
In Week 3, Deuce McAllister went out for the season with his second torn anterior cruciate ligament in three seasons.
When Reggie Bush took over as the Saints' featured running back, the adjustment proved difficult. He never had a 100-yard rushing game and missed the last four games of the season with a partially torn knee ligament.
New Orleans still managed to play inspired football at times, led by Brees (4,423 yards, 28 TDs), second-year receiver Marques Colston (98 catches, 1,202 yards, 11 TDs) and a host of role players - such as veteran Aaron Stecker - who turned in strong performances.
But the Saints were inconsistent, hurt on offense by 30 turnovers (12 fumbles, 18 interceptions) and on defense by trouble stopping the pass.
``You're looking for something specific because you want to have a culprit, you want to have a villain,'' Payton said. ``There are a number of things. ... Offensively, we didn't do a good enough job protecting the football. Defensively, we didn't do a good enough job avoiding the big play.''
Just as life began to seem more normal for residents recovering after Hurricane Katrina, the Saints began to play more like the mistake-prone, losing team they've been through much of the franchise's four-decade history.
In fact, there's a striking resemblance between former coach Jim Haslett's first two seasons and Payton's. Haslett took over a team that had gone 3-13, won coach of the year by going 10-6 and making the playoffs as a rookie head coach, then fell back to earth with a 7-9 record in his second season. Payton took over a 3-13 team, won coach of the year by going 10-6 and making the playoffs as a rookie head coach and then stumbled this season.
Payton, however, bristled at the notion that the Saints were falling into old patterns of ineptitude.
``We're all disappointed. Our expectations are higher than that,'' Payton said. ``This isn't the same old Saints. We're changing that.''
Payton's offense should be in good shape, even if McAllister struggles to come back.
Brees has continued to throw for a lot of yards. Colston proved his stellar rookie season was no fluke, and veteran David Patten showed he still has some big plays left in him.
Rookie running back Pierre Thomas broke a franchise record in his only start against a respected defense at Chicago, becoming the first Saints player to surpass 100 yards rushing and receiving in the same game.
Despite Bush's sophomore slump, he still has obvious potential, given his effectiveness when the Saints are able to use him more on screens and as a receiver instead of an every-down running back.
``It's very simple. You take all the things Reggie is good at and you try to utilize those as best you can,'' Brees said. ``Reggie is a great athlete and he can be a big part of this offense. Obviously, we have to work to his strengths.''
Payton made it clear, though, that his offseason priority will be improving a defense that gave up more than 100 rushing yards and 245 passing yards per game and was repeatedly burned on demoralizing third-and-long conversions.
``That's something that we'll look at hard in this offseason,'' Payton said. ``I'm talking about getting some more good young players to help on that side of the ball. ... It's an area we want to upgrade and try to address.''