Four reasons the Saints expect to compete for a playoff spot in a toughdivision: 1) Drew Brees is a major upgrade over Aaron Brooks at quarterback; 2)Reggie Bush is the home run threat the offense has long been missing; 3) thereturn to New Orleans will give them the biggest home field edge in the NFL; 4)the organization and new offense brought by first-year coach Sean Payton willrevitalize the franchise.
Payton struck the right chord in his first speech to his players and coachesthis summer. "You've got a unique opportunity in sports history," hesaid. "No team in America in the last 200 years has the opportunity to heala city the way you do, simply by playing to the best of your ability."
"Corny,"Payton would later say of his message, "but true. This city wants us to dowell so badly. We're so important to New Orleans. A guy came up to me at a[Kenny Chesney] concert this summer and said, 'Coach, I don't have a job rightnow, but I scraped up enough money to buy six season tickets to theSaints.'"
Emotion,however, can carry a team with fourth-place talent only so far. Two of theSaints' best players in the trenches, center LeCharles Bentley and defensiveend Darren Howard, left for big free-agent deals in Cleveland and Philadelphia,respectively. And a patchwork offensive line had Brees--who completed 65% ofhis passes and threw 29 more touchdowns than interceptions for the Chargersover the last two years--running for his life in the preseason. "Our linehas to prove they can stop the best pass rushers in football. Can they? We'llsee," says wideout Joe Horn, sounding unconvinced.
The situation isequally dire on the other side of the ball. Last in the NFC in sacks (25) lastyear, New Orleans did nothing in free agency to fortify its pass rush. And theprojected unit at linebacker--Scott Fujita, Colby Bockwoldt and AlfredFincher--might be the worst in the league.
If DeuceMcAllister--whose 2005 season was cut short by right ACL surgery lastOctober--stays healthy, Bush will likely get 15 to 22 touches a game as arunning back, receiver and punt returner. (The coaches don't want him to weardown, so Bush will not be an every-down back, nor will he return kickoffs.)Payton has been careful to give McAllister sufficient work so that he doesn'tget ticked off by the attention lavished on the rising-star rookie. "Italked to Jerome Bettis about what's happening to me here because I figured thesame thing happened to him in Pittsburgh," says McAllister, who averaged1,368 rushing yards a season from 2002 through '04. "He told me, 'You'vegot to be comfortable with yourself, confident in yourself.' I know I'm one ofthe best backs in the league, but I also know why the Saints did this."
Bush and Brees,the latest marquee names on an ever-changing roster, have been passionateambassadors for the new New Orleans. How well they play once the season startswill ultimately determine their p.r. value. And as much as every kid in town isfawning over Bush, it's Brees who will have a bigger say in whether this teammakes a quick turnaround. Will he get the new offense on track? Will hissurgically repaired right shoulder hold up? "My mind has told my body I'llbe better this year than I ever have been," Brees says. "I'm convincedI will be."
10 at Cleveland
17 at Green Bay
25 ATLANTA (M)
1 at Carolina
8 TAMPA BAY
5 at Tampa Bay
12 at Pittsburgh
26 at Atlanta
3 SAN FRANCISCO
10 at Dallas
24 at N.Y. Giants
Opponents' 2005 winning percentage
Games against playoff teams
AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE SAINTS
> The Saintsmight get some help at defensive end from Rob Ninkovich, the fifth-rounder fromPurdue. He's a little small--6'2", 252--but has great motor and looks likehe knows how to rush the passer.
> Thisdefense will be awful. Other than Will Smith, there's not one above-average NFLstarter out there.
> ReggieBush is going to have such a different experience in the NFL from the one hehad at USC, where he had five road graders blocking for him for three years.He'll have to make most of his rushing yards on his own, on broken plays,because of the Saints' offensive line is so weak.
> I wonderif Sean Payton has the moxie to lean on this team when it goes in the tank.He's a smart guy, but this team will test him to see if he's tough enough.
For Drew Breesto be good, he's got to have confidence throwing on the run. I don't see thatyet. He's holding back.
After SeanPayton took the Saints' coaching job, he was asked to name the players hethought would be his cornerstones on offense and defense. "Deuce McAllisterand Will Smith," he answered without hesitation. A first-round pick out ofOhio State in 2004, Smith is the team's only true pass rusher. He accounted fora third of New Orleans's sacks (8.5) in '05 and played the run well too. Oncethe Saints find a bookend pass rusher who commands enough respect to keep foesfrom double- and triple-teaming Smith, expect even bigger numbers.
WITH 2005 STATISTICS
SEAN PAYTON (0--0 in NFL), first season with New Orleans
JAHRI EVANS(R)--NEW ACQUISITION
SACKS 1 1/2
SACKS 2 1/2
SACKS 8 1/2
ROMAN HARPER(R)--NEW ACQUISITION
(R) Rookie (college statistics)
NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL)
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SIMON BRUTY (BUSH)
Bush carries the hopes of a city, but he won't be asked to carry too much ofthe offensive load.
HELMET PHOTOS BY DAVID N. BERKWITZ