With everyone seemingly so divided as to whether the Saints will make the playoffs -- or even crack the .500 barrier -- this season, it's important to take a look at the deciding factors on either side of the equation. One thing is certain: It won't be easy.
Five Reasons They Will:
1. Jim Haslett's adjusting his offseason priorities. Common logic would dictate that, faced with the worst defense in the NFL, the former defensive coordinator would focus all of his energies (free agency, the draft, trades) on that side of the ball. That's what wins champions, right? Well, so does an offense that can stay on the field, so Haslett simplified the offensive scheme for quarterback Aaron Brooks, beefed up the offensive line with an Outland Trophy-winning draft pick (Jammal Brown) and a Pro Bowl free agent (Jermane Mayberry). Haslett didn't ignore the defense, either, picking up safeties through free agency (Dwight Smith) and the draft (Josh Bullocks). Nice balance.
2. Aaron Brooks. With Mike McCarthy and his West Coast headache of a playbook gone, a beefed-up offensive line, and the emergence of Donte Stallworth and hopefully Devery Henderson, Brooks could finally blossom into a Pro Bowl quarterback this season. All the tools (at least on offense) are in place for Brooks to put it all together. It's really just up to him, and frankly, it's just a matter of not fumbling.
3. Deuce McAllister. A little bit in the same way Brooks underachieves despite phenomenal skills, McAllister, too, could be so much better than he is, and this year he should be. Again, the improved line will do him good. The only risks are a.) McAllister's conditioning, which until he proves otherwise is a question mark, and b.) Haslett's determination to rely more on the running game to take the pressure off Brooks.
4. Momentum. One of the oddest things about the preseason prognosticators is how they seemingly have used the Saints' four-game win streak at the end of last season against them.
5. Colby Bockwoldt, Alfred Fincher and Courtney Watson. Lost in all the bitching and moaning about the Saints' defense was the late-season emergence of these linebackers, who along with the new blood in the secondary represent the key to the defense's success. The opponents will run, run, run all day on the Saints -- this we know -- and if these three can completely come out from under the radar and grow, the defense can build on that momentum.
Five Reasons They Won't:
1. Jim Haslett. Say what you will about Haslett, who going into last year may have benefited from the perception that he was coaching for a Looney Tunes owner in Tom Benson and without his running partner Randy Mueller as the GM filling in the personnel gaps. But as you'll read in the survey of preseason magazines, the growing perception is that he's inconsistent and undisciplined -- just like the team he coaches. Make no mistake: There's fire in Haslett's belly, and he's no dummy. But with all those penalties, blown assignments and .500-like records, the notion that a team is a reflection of its coach isn't so overly simplistic, after all.
2. Aaron Brooks. Until he proves otherwise, Brooks will be another one of those two-steps-forward/one-step-back-type quarterbacks. The same guy who can crank a 60-yard touchdown pass or take off on a 40-yard run is the same guy who throws into double coverage and fumbles with no one around! He's a brain fart waiting to happen.
3. Defense, defense, defense. While Haslett deserves credit for seeking balance in this year's offseason moves, knowing that the offense needed patchwork as well as the defense, he still went against the obvious. When your defense is dead-last in the NFL, and your offense is inconsistent but still threatening, is it really the time for balance? Last year's improved play had a lot to do with the defense's emergence, but when this season starts, everything starts from scratch, and this unit needed a lot more help than a free agent here and a draft pick there.
4. The NFC South. This is the division that spawns Super Bowl contenders -- all except for New Orleans. Does anyone really believe that Carolina and Tampa Bay will stay down for that long? Many believe that those two teams made more dramatic improvements than New Orleans, and as long as Michael Vick is walking down Peachtree Street, the Falcons are legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
5. Tom Benson. We may never know just how good Jim Haslett is as a head coach, but how can you judge any coach or team with an owner who constantly seems to undercut not only your team but your fan base? Benson's negotiating stance with the state on trying to keep the team in New Orleans is just the latest eyebrow-raiser from a man who (before that) also fired Randy Mueller, one of the hottest GMs in the league for not being "communicative" enough. Now that's rich!
- Michael C. Hebert
- If Deuce McAllister can handle Jim Haslett's plan to simplify the passing scheme and rely more on the running game, the Saints offense will be even deadlier this season.