> In a word,expectations. Coming off a miserable 3-13 record in 2005, the Saints reboundedin '06 to have the greatest season in their 40-year history, winning the NFCSouth, leading the NFL in total offense and reaching their first conferencechampionship game. More significant, they restored a large measure of civicpride to their rebuilding hometown. At the center of the team's turnaround wasa trio of new faces: coach Sean Payton, quarterback Drew Brees and running backReggie Bush. With all three back--and with no major losses to freeagency--hopes in the Big Easy are sky high. For a franchise with only eightwinning seasons to its credit, suddenly nothing less than a Super Bowl will do."We know how good we can be," says Brees, who started the Pro Bowlafter throwing for 26 touchdowns and a league-high 4,418 yards. "This isour time."
> To reachthe Super Bowl, New Orleans has to play better defense. In their first seasonunder defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs, the Saints gave up an NFL-worst 16completions of 40 yards or more, and allowed 14 rushes of at least 20 yards,the third most in the NFC. On top of that, the defense forced the second-fewesttakeaways (19) in the league, a problem that became crippling in thepostseason, when New Orleans failed to create even one turnover in two playoffgames. It's little wonder then that six of the club's eight free-agent signingswere defenders.
In particular,cornerback Jason David and free safety Kevin Kaesviharn were brought in to helpan inexperienced and porous secondary that was the team's weak link in 2006.Cornerback Fred Thomas, a 12-year veteran who turns 34 on Sept. 11, was burnedon a slew of big passing plays, and rookie strong safety Roman Harper lackedexperience. After Harper went down with a torn left ACL against Tampa Bay inWeek 5, New Orleans had to use journeyman Omar Stoutmire. "We'd be good forfive or six plays," says Gibbs, "and all of a sudden give up a 60-yardpass."
David, 25, whosigned a four-year, $16.5 million deal, was a three-year starter for the Colts.Though he lacks experience in the sort of man-to-man coverage schemes employedby Gibbs, he's a clear upgrade over the aging Thomas.
Kaesviharn, 30,is a ball¬†hawk who played in both the Arena Football League and the XFLbefore spending six years with the Bengals. He signed a four-year, $10 millioncontract with New Orleans after he had more sacks (four) and nearly as manyinterceptions (six) last season as the entire Saints secondary (one and eight).Kaesviharn will help mentor Harper and Josh Bullocks, who has not yet emergedas a playmaker in his two years as a starter. "We wanted to create somemore competition," says general manager Mickey Loomis. "We're going toneed all of those guys. They're all going to contribute."
Loomis's biggestoff-season move was actually re-signing one of his own players, defensive endCharles Grant (six sacks), to a seven-year deal worth $63 million. Grant teamswith Pro Bowl end Will Smith (101‚ÅÑ2 sacks) to form one of the top pass-rushingtandems in the NFC.
The front seven,the strength of the defense, stayed remarkably healthy a year ago. Grantstarted every game, and Smith started 14; linebackers Scott Fujita, ScottShanle and Mark Simoneau missed only a total of four starts. That concealed thegroup's startling lack of depth. But Loomis shored things up in the off-seasonby adding veteran defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy and linebackers Troy Evansand Dhani Jones. "We know we were pretty fortunate last year," saysFujita. "That doesn't happen every year, so the more experienced guys whocome in and contribute right away, the better."
With a defenseless likely to allow big plays and more capable of creating turnovers, theSaints and their high-flying offense appear ready to fulfill the team's loftyexpectations. That was surely on Payton's mind at the end of the team'soff-season workouts in June, when he and linebackers coach Joe Vitt staged amock funeral for the 2006 season and urged the team to look forward. With hisplayers gathered around, Payton oversaw the burial of a casket containingmemorabilia from last year, including a replica of his Coach of the Yearaward.
"Here's thething," he says. "We've got smart guys who know there's nothing wrongwith the bar being raised. That's what we want. We want to be a team that, yearin and year out, plays consistently and puts ourselves in position to competefor a championship."
New Orleans willdo more than that this season. Come Feb. 3, expect the Saints to march backhome as Super Bowl champs.
(M) Monday (T)Thursday
6 at Indianapolis(T)
16 at TampaBay
14 at Seattle
28 at SanFrancisco
11 ST. LOUIS
18 at Houston
2 TAMPA BAY
10 at Atlanta(M)
30 at Chicago
Opponents' 2006winning percentage ...¬†.484
Games againstplayoff teams ...¬†4
AN OPPOSINGTEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE SAINTS
> It's notsurprising they were good last year. They're very strong at quarterback withDrew Brees and at running back with Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush. Theiryoung receivers turned out to be pretty good, especially Marques Colston. . . .They're very professional up front, as long as Jammal Brown's knee injury isn'tanything serious. If he's out for any length of time at left tackle, that's anissue. . . . They're well coached on both sides of the ball. . . . Defensively,their linebackers are solid guys--Mark Simoneau, Scott Fujita, ScottShanle--but none of them are what you would call great athletes. The defensiveline is respectable. I've always liked Mike McKenzie at corner, but he'sgetting older. . . . You come down to it, this is just a better offensive teamthan a defensive team.
THE KING 500
Even though theseventh-rounder out of Hofstra led all Saints wideouts in '06 with 70 catchesfor 1,038 yards and eight TDs, he was still considered the No.¬†2 receiver.But with Joe Horn gone to Atlanta, the 6' 4", 231-pound Colston is now theman. He'll benefit from the additions of receiver David Patten and tight endEric Johnson. Says Colston, "I'm trying to take on that leadershiprole."
Instant access tothe latest and best Saints stories, stats and blogs from across the Web,handpicked by SI's editors.
COACH SEAN PAYTON(10-6 in NFL), second season with Saints
HT 6' 5"
HT 6' 4"
HT 6' 3"
HT 6' 4"
HT 6' 6"
ERIC JOHNSON (NEWACQUISITION)
OLINDO MARE (NEWACQUISITION)
SACKS 5 1/2
KENDRICK CLANCY(NEW ACQUISITION)
SACKS 10 1/2
SACKS 3 1/2
JASON DAVID (NEWACQUISITION)
> 2006 RECORD10-6 NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 19/1/1 DEFENSE 23/3/11
¬†WHAT ARUSH Smith had 10 1/2 sacks a year ago but must help the D create moreturnovers.
KEVIN C. COX/WIREIMAGE.COM