Now or never............
ItÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s now or never for Haslett, Saints
By MIKE DETILLIER
In the months after the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ second straight late-season slide, I couldnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t do a local or national talk show -- or even go to a grocery store -- and not be asked about what will happen this season to the boys in black and gold.
For the past two years, when December came around, the Saints deflated faster than Enron stock. In games past Dec. 1, the Saints had a combined 4-7 in 2001 and 2002.
Saints coach Jim Haslett had many excuses for the late-season swoon -- rainy training camp days in Thibodaux, a lack of team chemistry, no proven team leaders, players with bad attitudes on the team, and ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¦ well, you know the rest of the story.
The bottom line is that the problem is on his shoulders. DonÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t blame the weather, bad attitudes or team chemistry. Like former President Harry S Truman once said, the buck stops here.
For Haslett and his coaching staff, the personnel problems lie with them.
Good coaches donÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t have their teams collapse when everything is on the line. Deep down inside, Haslett knows his coaching staff has been out-executed and-out coached in December each of the past two seasons.
Talent wins in the NFL, so I will give Haslett a mulligan here. There are personnel concerns on every club, and I give Haslett full credit for taking a team with not much talent from the Mike Ditka era and turning it into a playoff contender.
But this is HaslettÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s team now, and there are no more excuses.
Haslett has rebuilt New Orleans into a club thatÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s offensively jam-packed, one that will take 35-34 wins just as happily as they would 17-14 wins.
Even though Haslett is a former NFL player and defensive coach, he knows he must win with his personnel strengths. A high-powered offense and game-changing special teams are the strengths of this team in 2003, and they probably will be again in 2004.
Haslett has tried to rebuild his defense mainly through the draft, and now those young pups must turn into full-grown dogs. Haslett and his defensive coaches must turn seven early-round draft choices -- Charles Grant, Darren Howard, Kenny Smith, Johnathan Sullivan, James Allen, Sedrick Hodge and Mel Mitchell -- into productive starters.
ItÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s great to talk about potential. but potential means you havenÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t done anything yet. Production and big plays win games in the NFL.
The veteran additions of Tebucky Jones, Ashley Ambrose, Derrick Rodgers, Orlando Ruff and Henry Ford will help this team out. But the success on defense in 2003 will all depend on those seven draft choices taken in the Haslett era.
If the defense falters this year, Haslett will have no room for excuses. These are HaslettÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s draft choices and veteran free-agent acquisitions. The inclement weather he has complained about will be tempered by a new-state-of-the-art, air-conditioned indoor-practice facility in Metairie.
I wonder what he will say now if his team swoons again in December.
On offense, the Saints have the makings of one of the most explosive in the NFL. ItÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s the best New Orleans has ever seen.
Deuce McAlister, Joe Horn, DontÃƒÂƒÃ‚Â© Stallworth, Jerome Pathon and Michael Lewis, along with new tight end Ernie Conwell, are playmakers. They can put the ball in the end zone many, many times this year.
The key is the continual development of quarterback Aaron Brooks. When healthy, Brooks is one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the league (on the lower part of the top 10, but still in that elite number).
But now is BrooksÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ time to step up and be a leader.
Every top quarterback has that task. Winning games, especially late, are the tests that quarterbacks go through each and every season.
We have all seen the late-game heroics of players like Brett Favre, Steve Young, Troy Aikman, Kurt Warner, Steve McNair and Joe Montana. Nothing makes potential players into stars like winning crucial games late, and that is what Aaron Brooks has to do to become the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ leader.
People have criticized his smiling, laid-back demeanor and his donÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t- rock-the-boat attitude, but all that will be forgotten if Brooks puts touchdowns on the board and pulls the Saints out of the fire.
To me, the issues are now set aside. Haslett must now play in the NFL with the hand he has dealt himself.
The Saints are a very talented offensive club with a host of playmakers and a special-teams unit that is the envy of 31 other clubs.
The big question mark will again be how well the defense can play and just how improved it is from 2002.
This is a season New Orleans should make a strong run for the NFC South title. I am NOT talking Super Bowl, but realistically this team can WIN the NFC South Division.
Past history has shown that Super Bowl champions, like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, have tripped up a bit under the heavy burden of carrying that Super Bowl title. Already, cracks in the Bucs offense have started to get Jon Gruden a bit antsy and you get the feeling the Bucs focus and intensity wonÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t be the same in 2003.
The Atlanta Falcons, like the Saints, are a talented offensive club led by Michael Vick, but I wonder if defensive coordinator Wade Phillips can work miracles again by working with less-than-top-flight talent on his side of the ball.
In my opinion, the scariest club in the NFC is the Carolina Panthers. They have a defense that within a year that will equal or better the Bucs. Carolina also has an offense, with former Saints quarterback Jake Delhomme and halfback Stephen Davis, that will be much better than last season.
The Panthers are still young, though, and they may not realize just how good they really are.
So this is the New Orleans SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ best opportunity to win a division title.
DonÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t get overboard, but this is a very good club -- one that should vie for the NFC South Division title. I just hope you get used to watching 34-30 games, because I have a feeling you will watch quite a few of those contests this fall.
Just remember, when selecting the Saints, one thing is almost certain this year -- picking the games over on the point spread.
Mike Detillier is an NFL analyst based in Raceland.
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