Humility can be a powerful motivator.
A knee injury forced Saints running back Reggie Bush to miss the final four games of 2007, a season that was, by almost any measure, a major letdown for Bush and the Saints.
The former Heisman Trophy winner struggled to showcase his spectacular abilities consistently; he had fewer touchdowns and catches and more fumbles than in his rookie season. The travails of his first two professional seasons prompted a reflective Bush to reverse field in 2008. He spent much of the off-season working out with his teammates and analyzing game films at the team's Metairie facility and less time reveling in his celebrity status in his native Southern California.
"I feel like I'm taking a whole different approach this year," Bush says. "In every aspect of my life I'm just trying to cut everything down, cut a lot of stuff out, cut a lot of people out, just focus on football."
Bush isn't the only Saint seeking redemption. The team, fresh off a storybook 2006 season in which it advanced to its first NFC Championship game, turned in a pedestrian 7-9 campaign in 2007, missing the playoffs and leaving many to wonder if the Sean Payton-led Saints were a genuine NFC power or just a poseur.
The 2008 Saints feature a potentially potent offense that is a near-carbon copy of last season's, a retooled defense that was statistically one of the poorest in the NFL and a third-year head coach who needs another playoff run to make sure the reservoir of goodwill built up in his rookie season doesn't evaporate.
"The busy off-season, to me, illustrated that some changes needed to be made, and our team went out and addressed the needs," says quarterback Drew Brees. "Last season is long gone, it's all about what lies in front of us right now."
As long as the Saints have a healthy Brees behind center, they always have a chance to pile up prodigious yardage and point totals. Last season Brees amassed 440 completions for 4,423 yards and 28 touchdowns, all of which were career bests. His 18 interceptions also were a personal high nine of them coming in an atrocious 0-4 start, during which nobody wearing black and gold seemed to do anything right.
Brees has a more decorated understudy this season. The Saints cut ties with back-up Jamie Martin and signed Mark Brunell. The 37-year-old left-hander was a three-time Pro Bowl selection with the Jaguars and spent the last three seasons with the Redskins.
All of the same targets are back in Brees' arsenal of receivers. Headlining the group is Marques Colston, who, despite being left out of the Pro Bowl, has accumulated more receptions in his first two NFL seasons than any player in history.
The former seventh-round pick from Hofstra is a rare jewel, a strapping 6-foot-4 receiver with Velcro hands who plays the game's flashiest position with a quiet confidence and an unassuming disposition. He led the Saints with 98 receptions for 1,202 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.
'Marques is a big part of what we do and I have a great relationship with him," Brees says. "The last two years he's made a lot of great plays and he has continued to develop. I think he plays a big role, so we will continue to work on the things together that make it where it's just like ESP out there with he and I."
Sufficiently pleased with the performance of their complementary receivers, the Saints re-signed free agents Devery Henderson, Terrance Copper and David Patten, who experienced something of a New Orleans renaissance, making 54 catches in his 11th season.
The unknown commodity is Robert Meachem, who spent his entire rookie season on the active roster but did not suit up for a single game. The quixotic former University of Tennessee star underwent knee surgery last June, which initially was expected to sideline him for a few weeks but instead hampered him for the entire season. Fans were exasperated that, Sunday after Sunday, Meachem's game-day attire often varied very little from their own.
At tight end, the Saints re-signed their top two pass-catchers. Veterans Eric Johnson (48 receptions) and Billy Miller (27 receptions) should provide Brees with reliable receivers in the middle of the field.
The running game will undoubtedly benefit from the return of a healthy Mark Campbell. A back injury kept the hulking tight end off the field for all of 2007, and his run-blocking skills were sorely missed.
In 2007, Brees threw the ball 652 times more than any quarterback in NFL history. That statistic underscored both the anemic nature of the Saints' running attack last year and the team's disproportionate reliance on the pass.
Going forward, not much has changed: The fortunes of the Saints' ground game are inextricably linked to Deuce McAllister's knees.
The team's all-time leading rusher is attempting to come back from the second torn anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, of his distinguished career. He suffered the most recent injury in week three of last season, necessitating season-ending surgery on his left knee as well as microfracture surgery on his right knee to repair cartilage from an old injury. McAllister remains the only proven running back on the Saints roster. Without him, the team's running game is inconsistent and, occasionally, nonexistent.
The Saints are hopeful the 29-year-old will be able to return to top form, but team officials view his situation cautiously. In the off-season, the team restructured McAllister's contract, reducing his base salary and converting some of it into performance-based incentives.
"The one thing I can take a little comfort in is I've done it before, knowing what I can't do and what I have to do, it sorts of helps me as far as the rehab is concerned," McAllister says. "I just try to stay focused and each day get a little bit stronger and do something different than the day before, and in the end I know it will work out."
If McAllister's comeback is unsuccessful, the Saints will have to fill the void with players who are more specialists than every-down backs.
The team is hopeful the "08 Reggie Bush is a vintage that will mature to the point that it finally draws rave reviews.
The former first-round draft pick averaged just 3.7 yards per carry last season and scored only six touchdowns. His longest run of the season was 22 yards. There's little question Bush has failed to meet the lofty expectations set forth by his coaches, the fans and himself.
He can be an electrifying open-field runner and an elusive punt returner, but he has yet to demonstrate that he can reliably pick up tough yards as a running back. Asking him to become the Saints' offensive locomotive, a la Deuce McAllister, would seem to be wholly unrealistic.
Pierre Thomas finished his rookie season with a flourish. The former undrafted free agent from Illinois dazzled in the Saints regular season finale, a loss to the Chicago Bears, in which he became the first player in franchise history to surpass 100 yards rushing and receiving in the same game.
Veteran Aaron Stecker also has proven himself to be a capable back-up runner, an excellent receiver and a special-teams standout. If McAllister is healthy, however, Stecker and Thomas could have a hard time making more than cameo appearances.
With one exception, the Saints return the entire offensive line that allowed 16 quarterback sacks, the fewest in the NFL. Tackles Jammal Brown and Jon Stinchcomb and guards Jahri Evans and Jamar Nesbit make up a nucleus that is entering its third season together.
The only defection was well-regarded center Jeff Faine, a free agent who signed a blockbuster $37.5 million contract with divisional rival Tampa Bay. Jonathan Goodwin, Faine's understudy for the past two seasons, will take his place.
The defensive side of the ball is a definite fixer-upper. The Saints ranked 26th of 32 NFL teams in total defense. They were particularly porous against the pass, and only one NFL defense allowed more big plays (20 yards or more).
On an optimistic note, the Saints have more depth and talent on the defensive line than they have had in years.
In June, defensive end Will Smith signed a six-year, $70-million contract that makes him the third-highest-paid player at his position in the league. Smith, a former first-round draft pick from Ohio State, is the team's best pass rusher. He has tallied 33.5 sacks in four years.
Charles Grant holds down the other defensive end position, but his production has dropped dramatically in recent years. In 2007, he recorded just two-and-a-half sacks. Entering his seventh season with the Saints, Grant needs to return to the form that once made him one of the league's rising defensive stars.
One of the Saints' more intriguing off-season additions is defensive end Bobby McCray, who signed as a free agent after spending the last four seasons with the Jaguars. McCray is a talented pass rusher who had 10 sacks in 2006.
In the first round of this year's draft, the Saints traded up from the 10th overall pick to the seventh to select USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis. The team hopes Ellis will make fans forget the ignominious maneuver of 2003 when New Orleans traded up in the first round to land defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan. Sullivan's legacy can best be summed up using three of the seven deadly sins his sloth and gluttony earned the wrath of fans and coaches and an early exit out of the league. Ellis appears to be much better equipped to succeed in the pros. At 6-foot-1, 305 pounds, he has the size to clog running lanes and the mobility to pursue ball carriers.
New defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, who recruited Ellis out of high school when Orgeron was an assistant at USC, offers an enthusiastic endorsement. "He's very explosive," Orgeron says. "He is an outstanding pass rusher and a very hard worker. He has quickness, great burst off the football, and he's very tough. We feel that he will be a great guy in our locker room. He'll help make the Saints a better football team. He is an outstanding young man."
Ellis will be part of an interior line rotation that includes veterans Brian Young and Hollis Thomas.
Perhaps the best addition to the Saints defense came via a trade with the New York Jets. Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma arrived in New Orleans in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick. If healthy, he has the potential to become the franchise's finest playmaker at that position in more than a decade.
The speedy Vilma was the 2004 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and a 2005 Pro Bowl selection whose value diminished in recent years because of injury and circumstance.
He missed the last nine weeks of the 2007 season with a knee injury, and he languished in the Jets system when they changed to a 3-4 scheme two years ago. Vilma should flourish in the Saints 4-3 alignment, which is what the Jets used during his first two seasons.
'No matter what I did in the past, I still have to prove myself all over again here," Vilma says. "It helps that I showed I can do it two years ago but I still have to prove it this year."
Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle will round out the Saints starting set of linebackers.
Elsewhere on defense, the secondary was the team's primary weakness in 2007. The Saints ranked 30th in pass defense. It's not immediately clear if the defensive backfield is any better this year.
The Saints added cornerbacks Randall Gay and Aaron Glenn in the off-season. Gay, who played at LSU, had three interceptions with the Patriots last season but hasn't started more than three games in the past three seasons. The 36-year-old Glenn, who has played for four different NFL teams, hasn't been a full-time starter since 2004.
Jason David, who struggled mightily in man-to-man coverage during his first season as a Saint; rookie Tracy Porter, a second-round pick from Indiana; second-year player Usama Young and veteran Jason Craft will engage in a Darwinian struggle for playing time.
The team's best cornerback, Mike McKenzie, is trying to return from a torn ACL, which he sustained in week 16. Because it happened so late in the year, his status for the beginning of the season is uncertain.
Third-year pro Roman Harper is penciled in as a starter at strong safety. Returners Josh Bullocks and Kevin Kaesviharn will battle for the free safety job.
The Saints re-signed kicker Martin Gramatica, who joined the Saints late last season and made every kick he attempted. In training camp, he'll compete against rookie Taylor Mehlhaff, a Luger-legged lefty taken in the sixth round of this year's draft. He went to college at the Unversity of Wisconsin.
Of the Saints' 16 regular season games in 2008, five are against teams that made the playoffs last year. Tampa Bay is the only divisional opponent team that qualified for the postseason in 2007.
While the balance of power in the NFC South annually experiences seismic shifts, the Saints' schedule appears to be favorable enough for them to contend for a division title. For the second straight year, the NFL will play a regular season game in London. This season the Saints and San Diego Chargers will wave the American football flag in the soccer-besotted United Kingdom on Oct. 26.
A trans-Atlantic trip could prove to be disruptive enough during the regular season; the match-up also counts as a Saints home game. Although Wembley Stadium is one of the pre-eminent entertainment venues on the planet, it's safe to say the Saints won't derive the same home-field advantage there as they would in the Superdome.
The Saints could stand to benefit from an emerging theme. Last year in the NFL's first regular season foray into the United Kingdom, the New York Giants beat the Miami Dolphins and went on to win the Super Bowl. The Saints, who have never advanced past the conference championship, hope their London excursion won't be their only trip into foreign territory this season.
- Michael C. Hebert
- Former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush missed the final four games of the 2007 season with a knee injury, but his second pro season had already been disappointing, with only six touchdowns to his credit and an average of only 3.7 yards per carry.
- Michael C. Hebert
- The 2007 season was one of career highs for quarterback Drew Brees, who amassed 440 completions for 4,423 yards and 28 touchdowns. He also threw 18 interceptions. 'Last season is long gone, it's all about what lies in front of us right now,' he says.
- Michael C. Hebert
- In his third year as head coach, Sean Payton aims to bring his team up from its 7-9 2007 record to something closer to the Saints' 2006 storybook season.
- Michael C. Hebert
- Wide receiver Marques Colston has accumulated more receptions in his first two NFL seasons than any player in history. Last season he led the Saints with 98 receptions for 1,202 yards and 11 touchdowns.
- Michael C. Hebert
- Defensive end Will Smith is the Saints' best pass rusher, tallying 33.5 sacks in four years. He recently signed a six-year, $70 million contract, which makes him the third-highest-paid player at his position in the league.
- Michael C. Hebert
- The Saints obtained middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, the 2004 NFL Rookie of the Year and a 2005 Pro Bowl selection, from the Jets in a trade for a fourth-round draft pick. He has the potential to become the franchise's finest playmaker at that position in more than a decade if he can stay healthy.