* NOW OR NEVER:* The New Orleans Saints enter the 2003 season with high expectations. Just three seasons ago, the Saints made the 2000 NFC Divisional Playoffs. Since then, they've been stuck in mediocrity.
In 2001, they faltered down the home stretch, losing five of their last seven games to finish the season with a 7-9 record and far away from playoff contention.
Last year, they carried a 9-4 record into week 15, boasting impressive wins over the 2002 Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers twice, as well as the playoff-bound Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons. They proceeded to finish their season with three puzzling defeats against the Minnesota Vikings, Cincinnati Bengals and Carolina Panthers, respectively. With a 9-7 record, the Saints were on the outside of the playoffs looking in for the second consecutive year.
One wouldn't expect a team coached by Jim Haslett to be an offensive juggernaut, especially considering his defensive-minded philosophy and NFL playing history as a defensive end. But the Saints were an offensive force in 2002, scoring an NFC-leading 27 points per game. Ironically, their defense was among the league's worst.
Neither unit has particularly improved during the offseason. In fact, the offense lost stalwart Kyle Turley, who despite his crazy antics, is one of the best offensive tackles in the NFL. Defensively, linebacker Charlie Clemons and safety Sammy Knight left for the Houston Texans and Miami Dolphins, respectively.
If the Saints can overcome their personnel losses as well as their lack of late-season execution, they have the weapons and coaching to make their post-season dreams come true. If not, you can expect some serious changes in the Big Easy.
**POWER PACKED:** With the speed, athletic ability and overall talent that New Orleans has at their offensive skill positions, it is extremely difficult for most NFL defenses to match up well with the Saints.
In the backfield is third-year running back Deuce McCalister, who impressed coaches so much during his rookie season that they didn't mind letting running back Ricky Williams leave for Miami. What McCalister may lack in brute strength and size, he makes
up for with great vision, elusiveness, and break-away speed. In his first full season as the starting running back, McCalister led the Saints with 1,388 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns.
Complementing McCalister is arguably the NFL's fastest wide-receiver tandem. Eight-year veteran Joe Horn returns after grabbing 88 passes for 1,312 yards with seven touchdowns to earn his first Pro Bowl berth. Second-year wide receiver Donte' Stallworth caught just 42 passes last season, but averaged 14.1 yards per catch and led the Saints' wide receivers, as well as all NFL rookie wide receivers, with eight touchdown receptions.
Leading the offense is quarterback Aaron Brooks, who tied for second in the NFL last year with 27 touchdown passes even though his throwing shoulder was injured for a substantial portion of the season. His numbers are impressive, but his consistency and leadership could use some improvement. Entering his fourth NFL season, Brooks will be under serious pressure to perform after his successive late-season meltdowns.
To booster the offensive line after losing Turley to the St. Louis Rams, the Saints acquired nine-year veteran offensive tackle Wayne Gandy from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Former Rams tight end Ernie Conwell was also signed during the offseason and will provide quality depth along with tight end Boo Williams.
**TIME FOR ACTION:** The Saints defense won't cause too many teeth to chatter from fear, but that plays to their advantage. If New Orleans can sneak up on some unsuspecting opponents and grab a few wins, it wouldn't bother them at all.
Linebackers Darrin Smith, Sedrick Hodge and James Allen are not household names, but that won't stop them from using their speed and athleticism to create havoc. In the middle, Smith hopes to improve on his most productive season last year when he finished with a career-high 123 tackles, as well as 3.5 sacks and two interceptions.
The Saints' defensive strength lies in their secondary, where cornerbacks Dale Carter and Ashley Ambrose share 23 years of NFL experience. They will be joined by veteran safeties Jay Bellamy and Tebucky Jones. The Saints traded with the New England Patriots to acquire Jones, who hopes to make fans quickly forget about the loss of Knight.
New Orleans boasts one of the biggest defensive lines in the NFL.
Running lanes are slim when you face defensive tackles Grady Jackson and Jonathan Sullivan, who weigh a combined 643 pounds. Defensive ends Darren Howard and Charles Grant, who both weigh in around 280 pounds will also play their part to improve the Saints' run defense. Howard recently injured his right wrist and will sit out Sunday's contest, but 6-3, 285-pound defensive end Willie Whitehead is available to take his place. Grant already
has gotten off to a quick start with a team-leading two sacks in their first game at Seattle.
**SUNDAY DELIVERY:** Punt/kickoff returner Michael Lewis' former employment as a beer-truck delivery man has been well chronicled; so has his emergence as one of the NFL's top returners. Last season, he averaged 25.8 yards per kickoff return and had two returns for touchdowns. As a punt returner, he averaged 14.2 yards per punt return and took one to the house.
Punter Mitch Berger and kicker John Carney handle the rest of the Saints' special teams duties. Carney has made 59 of the 67 field goals (88 pct.) he has attempted since he signed with the Saints during their 2001 training camp.
**TOUGH START:** The Saints are coming off their first game of the season in Seattle, where the Seahawks spanked them 27-10. New Orleans turned the ball over four times and had 114 penalty yards. Leading the Saints on offense was Stallworth, who recorded eight catches for 101 yards. Bellamy and Hodge tied for the team lead with 8 tackles each.
If the Saints can't get a win this Sunday, fans in Cajun country might as well start making plans for vacation in January. The Saints' schedule doesn't offer any "easy wins." They have yet to play the Buccaneers, Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons, Tennessee Titans, New York Giants or the Indianapolis Colts. Over half of their remaining games will be against 2002 playoff teams.
Not only will this Sunday's game against the Texans be critical for New Orleans' post-season hopes, but there is extra pressure to produce because it's their home-opener. Already down one game in the hole, the Saints will be ready for battle come Sunday.