NEW ORLEANS (AP) -A season of promise has become one of problems, and suddenly a Week 4 bye seems like the right thing at the right time for the beat-up and winless New Orleans Saints.
It's bad enough that running back Deuce McAllister is gone for the season with a knee injury. Cornerback Jason David is also out at least a month with a fractured forearm, linebacker Scott Fujita has a sprained ankle, left tackle Jammal Brown a dislocated finger and receiver David Patten a sore calf.
Emotionally, the whole team is hurting.
``I don't think we can feel any worse than we feel right now,'' quarterback Drew Brees said earlier this week, before the Saints left headquarters for a four-day weekend.
The Saints will return to practice Monday to begin preparing for a crucial Oct. 7 home game against NFC South Division foe Carolina. Lose that game and the Saints are all but finished - only a quarter into the new season.
As it is, only a handful of teams have rallied from 0-3 starts to make the playoffs.
So, what happened? The Saints themselves are grasping for answers.
``It's very frustrating. We feel like we are doing all the right things throughout the week and preparation, and just mentally preparing for the game,'' Brees said. ``We get out on the field and it is just not happening. It seems like the harder we try, the harder it gets. It reminds me of a saying from a coach. He would say, `Try softer.' Sometimes you are trying so hard, you press and you overanalyze, and you get paralysis by analysis and all those other things, as opposed to going out loose and just playing ball.''
After advancing to their first NFC championship a season ago, the Saints and their league-leading offense from 2006 returned with ambitions of a first Super Bowl.
But it seems as though their entire offseason strategy has backfired. Not wanting to mess with a good thing, the Saints focused on retaining their own free agents rather than attract new ones. Defensive end Charles Grant, defensive tackle Hollis Thomas and right tackle Jon Stinchcomb all got new contracts. Only Joe Horn was let go after he declined to accept a pay cut.
The Saints have yet to register a single sack. And Stinchcomb, like the entire offensive line, has struggled to protect Brees, who's been sacked four times.
The most significant free agent move the Saints made was to sign former Indianapolis starting cornerback David. The Colts have hardly missed him so far. They're 3-0.
David has made some big plays for the Saints - a fumble return for a touchdown and an interception - but he's also given up a few, and now he's hurt.
If high expectations were a problem, that's over. The Saints have been beaten soundly in all three of their losses, and the big question now is when they'll win their first game.
Although New Orleans has given up a lot of points, the real problem seems to be the dramatic decline in production by the Saints' once-prolific offense. New Orleans ranks 24th in yards per game (296).
Last season, Brees was runner-up for MVP after leading the league in passing. Through three games in 2007, he's thrown only one touchdown pass and seven interceptions.
After a highlight-filled rookie season, Reggie Bush, who'll be the Saints' featured running back with McAllister out, has 29 carries for 80 yards, putting him on pace to rush for fewer than 500 yards.
All things considered, Marques Colston is off to a decent start (18 catches, 185 yards, 1 TD), but he's been Brees' only reliable target.
Head coach Sean Payton, who calls the plays, blames himself in part for the team's difficulty moving the ball, saying he may have shown a lack of patience with the run, thereby making the Saints' passing attack too predictable. And each week, as the Saints fell behind, they were forced to take gambles downfield, raising the risk of interceptions.
Meanwhile, defenses have brought pressure. The Saints' offensive line, excellent a season ago, hasn't handled it well.
``I have to do a better job to give us some throws that come out quicker and take a little pressure off of those guys,'' Payton said of his line. ``I don't think they've gotten bad overnight. ... We have to have a little bit better balance. We obviously are looking for more balance in the running game.''
Last year, the running attack routinely surpassed 100 yards in a game between Bush and McAllister, but now ranks 28th in the league. Now the Saints will rely mostly on Bush, along with veteran Aaron Stecker and undrafted rookie Pierre Thomas, who defied the odds to make the team with long runs and three touchdowns in the preseason.
The offensive line will have to block better. And Colston needs help from his fellow receivers in the passing game.
Otherwise, the Saints could quickly revert to a rebuilding mode, much like the city in which they play.
``We have got the right guys; we have the right people,'' Brees said. ``You see so many guys down and depressed because of the way we are playing, and that is what you want. We want guys that care. We want guys that are not going to be satisfied with the point that we are at now. We all understand how good we can be. It is going to happen for us. We need to just continue to do things the right way and things will get better.''

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