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Saints set for long haul

this is a discussion within the Saints Community Forum; Saints set for long haul Even if it doesn't win it all now, New Orleans has built a good foundation. Dave Curtis | Sentinel Staff Writer August 21, 2007 JACKSON, Miss. - Sure, the Saints talked Super Bowl this summer. ...

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Old 08-21-2007, 09:45 PM   #1
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Saints set for long haul

Saints set for long haul
Even if it doesn't win it all now, New Orleans has built a good foundation.

Dave Curtis | Sentinel Staff Writer
August 21, 2007
JACKSON, Miss. - Sure, the Saints talked Super Bowl this summer. And why not? The core of last year's NFC South championship team returns, along with an intact coaching staff and a top front office. Throw in major free-agent acquisitions, and New Orleans becomes a favorite to play on sports' biggest stage for the first time.

The chatter's time frame doesn't end with next February, though. The Saints' young stars, from dazzling back Reggie Bush on offense to ferocious end Charles Grant on defense, say they want to hang here awhile and bring stability to one of the NFL's most frustrated franchises.

"In the past, this team would have players, and they would win a little," Grant said. "And then they would tear this team apart. Now, guys want to be here, and those guys are wanted here. Now I want to retire here."



Attitudes like those have grown popular among the Saints, who in two years have morphed from mess to model organization. After a 2005 season marked by Hurricane Katrina, locker-room dissension and a 3-13 record, New Orleans spent last season winning its third division title in 40 seasons.

An NFC title game loss in Chicago kept the Saints from their first Super Bowl appearance. But the improvement reinforced one of the NFL's crucial truths -- no team is more than few good decisions from the league's penthouse.

"With the draft and free agency and guys moving around, things are set up for that," veteran back Aaron Stecker said. "It's parity. And last year we were that team."

Part of 2007's challenge, though, is not getting stuck in 2006's success. Second-year Coach Sean Payton focused on that this offseason, even leading a team ceremony to bury a mock casket filled with last year's mementos.

"This is a show-me league," he said. "What happens in the prior year is not a predictor of what will happen. We've got smart enough players to understand that."

Payton's arrival provided the cornerstone for the team General Manager Mickey Loomis hoped to rebuild in time for the 2006 season. A longtime offensive coordinator, Payton replaced defensive-minded Jim Haslett. Then he watched Loomis begin to gather playmakers.

First came the signing of quarterback Drew Brees. Cast aside for younger, stronger Philip Rivers in San Diego, Brees finished second in the Most Valuable Player voting last season. In April, Loomis bookended his 2006 draft by choosing eventual starters -- Southern Cal's Bush in the first round and Hofstra wide receiver Marques Colston in the seventh.

New Orleans started 5-1, including a Monday Night Football victory against the Atlanta Falcons that re-opened the Superdome 13 months after Katrina. The Saints clinched the division after 14 games, then squeaked past a battered Eagles team in the division round to reach the conference title game.

"Most amazing thing I've ever been a part of," Stecker said. "I'll never forget last season."

Chicago's 39-14 whipping of the Saints at Soldier Field exposed some of New Orleans' flaws concealed by 10 regular-season wins. The Bears forced three turnovers, registered three sacks and scored on a safety. That made ball protection and offensive play priorities for Payton and his staff in the offseason.

Things on defense were much worse. The Bears ran for 196 yards at better than four yards per carry, dominating a Saints team that finished 23rd against the run.

"There were some games at the end where we got gashed pretty good," linebacker Scott Fujita said. "We've got a few wrinkles here, a few wrinkles there to put in. The guys are fine. The scheme is going to be better."

So will the personnel, Stecker said after a few training camp practices. Better than two-thirds of the Saints' free-agent pickups play defense, including probable starting linebacker Dhani Jones and cornerback Jason David.

David, who left the Super Bowl champion Colts, said he sees parallels between the two franchises.

"It has a lot to do with the coaching and a lot to do with the front office," he said. "Everybody is working toward the same goal. There are no egos, no head cases, no guys getting in trouble."

Even with that, a return trip to the NFL's Final Four is no sure thing. The search continues for another top receiver to replace Joe Horn (signed with Atlanta). Opponents will run at New Orleans' middle until someone in black and gold stops the run. And a first-place schedule awaits, starting with those Colts on the road in the season opener.

Still, the Saints should contend. And if they fall short, as history says they will, they finally can look to the future with some confidence.

"It's a good thing here right now," Grant said. "I think we all want to be part of this for a long time."

Dave Curtis can be reached at dcurtis@orlandosentinel.com

Saints set for long haul -- OrlandoSentinel.com

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