SEAN PAYTONthought long and hard about what he wanted to say to his team when he openedtraining camp. Many now see the Saints' run to the 2006 NFC Championship Gameas a fluke after last season's return to 7--9 territory. And the NFC South willbe a lot stronger because of Tampa Bay's resurgent defense and Jake Delhomme'sreturn from injury in Carolina. The Saints coach wondered, How can we find thatedge that will enable us to win the division again and return to the league'selite?
So he lookedaround the room and said, "Drew Brees, the Chargers gave up on you. ScottFujita, same thing with you and the Cowboys. Hollis Thomas, the Eagles gave youaway. Jeremy Shockey and Jonathan Vilma, New York teams gave up on you guys.Me? I wanted the Packers job, and they picked someone else. My point? We allhave something to prove."
The firstpriority is to avoid last season's 0--4 start. "We spent all the energy wehad getting back to 4--4, and we didn't have much left," Payton says. Hetold his players they had to avoid what he called "the sins of '07."Most came during that horrible first month. Brees threw one touchdown pass andnine interceptions in those first four games; the running attack, which lostDeuce McAllister to a torn left ACL in Week 3, produced only 3.4 yards a carry;and the defense gave up 30 points a game. Brees then threw 27 touchdown passesand nine interceptions in the team's 7--5 finish, but it wasn't enough toovercome that bad start.
So the Saintsacquired Shockey from the Giants and Vilma from the Jets, two players happy toget out of New York. During his first two years in New Orleans, Payton didn'thave a classic 4--3 middle linebacker who could make plays all over the field;Vilma, coming off knee surgery that ruined his 2007 season, is expected to fillthat role. He ran freely and without pain through training camp. Shockey, whosuffered a broken lower left leg in December, was the forgotten tight end whileNew York made its stunning Super Bowl run. Still limited in practice in Saintscamp, he should be ready Week 1.
The Saints wereseeking a premier cornerback in the draft, such as Troy's Leodis McKelvin, butcouldn't pass on USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, who beefs up the line. Sothey tried to patch the leaky secondary—New Orleans allowed an NFL-high 32touchdown passes last year—by signing free-agent corners Randall Gay, anickelback, and Aaron Glenn, who is 36. It figures that the Saints' offensewill have to score in the mid- to high 20s to give the team its best chance towin.
"We canscore," says all-purpose back Reggie Bush. "We're one of the eliteoffenses in the league, but a turnover here or a turnover there and not beingproductive in the running game killed us last year. We have to get thatfixed." Bush, who in his two NFL seasons hasn't shown the explosivenessthat made him a Heisman Trophy winner at USC, worked regularly on squat liftsin the off-season in an attempt to improve his burst through tight holes in theline.
It's essentialthat the ground game produces more big plays. New Orleans can't rely on Breesalone—though it's tempting. Over the past two season he had 8,841 passingyards, 404 more than Peyton Manning and 506 more than Tom Brady.
"I feel goodabout this team," said Payton, who then pulled from his desk drawer a bookthat Brees had given him in the off-season: 212° The Extra Degree. Paytonexplained the message: At 211° water is hot, and at 212° it boils. Boilingwater produces steam, and steam powers engines. Brees's point was, See whathappens when we all work a little bit harder.
On the title pageBrees wrote,
You are the reason I'm here, and I'm thankful for that every day. There is noone in this league I would rather play for. I want to win a championshiphere.
He's got somehelp this year.
PROJECTEDSTARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH SEAN PAYTON (17--15 in NFL), thirdseason with Saints
Jeremy SHOCKEY --New ACQUISITION
SACKS 2 1/2
Sedrick ELLIS(R)-- New ACQUISITION
SACKS 8 1/2
Jonathan VILMA --New ACQUISITION
Randall GAY --New ACQUISITION
New ACQUISITION(R) Rookie (college statistics)
2007 RECORD 7--9NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 28/3/4 DEFENSE 13/30/26
7 TAMPA BAY
14 at Washington
21 at Denver
28 SAN FRANCISCO
6 MINNESOTA (M)
19 at Carolina
26 vs. SAN DIEGO (in London)
9 at Atlanta
16 at Kansas City
24 GREEN BAY (M)
30 at Tampa Bay
11 at Chicago (T)
21 at Detroit
(M) Monday (T) Thursday
NFL Rank: 28
Opponents' 2007 winning percentage: .449
Games against playoff teams: 5
NOW AT SI.COM
EXCERPTED FROM SI
September 19, 2005
WITH A minute left in Sunday's game, the Saintsconfronted the fact that they were squandering an inspired performance. WideoutJoe Horn felt only rage. All the emotions he and teammates had experienced inthe wake of Hurricane Katrina—agony, empathy, helplessness—gave way to a primaldefiance that fuels special football players at pivotal moments.
-- Michael Silver
Free access to all SAINTS stories and photographs from the SI archives, plusvideo clips.
SI.com's NFL personnel expert Michael Lombardievaluates the Saints' units.
Brees is the guy generating the big plays in this offense.
Reggie Bush yet to be a force; McAllister coming off ACL.
Grade rises if '07 first-rounder Robert Meacham contributes.
Shockey's arrival gives Brees added target in this spot.
Saints' success relies heavily on protection from Brown & Co.
Finally has depth but must get pressure from Smith and Grant.
A healthy Vilma brings much-needed speed and athleticism.
In desperate need of some lockdown cornerbacks.
Training camp battle doesn't bode well for placekicking stability.
Jeremy Shockey TIGHT END
In six years with the Giants, Shockey never had 900receiving yards, and he exceeded 70 catches only once. The Saints expect him todo both—and block like a third tackle for Reggie Bush. "This offense isperfect for me," Shockey says. "And if you can't be happy working withDrew Brees, who can you be happy with?"
POINT TAKEN As the defense retools, Brees will again have to find the end zone early and often.
BOB DONNAN/US PRESSWIRE (COVER)