Saints searching for ways to avoid December collapse
By Len Pasquarelli
METAIRIE, La. -- Just like the suffocating humidity that has blanketed the Bayou country for this and most recent weeks, and regularly skyrocketed the heat index into the 110- to 115-degree range, The Question hangs ponderously over the New Orleans Saints.
As is the case with the weather, those New Orleans players who have experienced the meltdown of the past two seasons have grown both wary and weary of addressing The Question during training camp. They can't do much about it, at least for now, just as they certainly can't control the steamy conditions which have settled in here like some visiting second-cousin who has outlived his welcome but won't take a hint.
Jim Haslett is entering his fourth season as the Saints head coach.
But, oh, they know The Question is out there, superceding all else, pervading every move made in camp, even as they toil toward some answers.
Sometimes, when there is a pink elephant parked in the middle of the room, polite folks simply ignore it. But when it comes to The Question, well, political correctness, all sense of civility and every shred of empathy seems to disappear.
Even on those occasions when fans or friends don't raise the issue, the players know they want to dredge it up. Four veterans to whom we spoke said it is not something discussed daily in the locker room, but that there is the gnawing reality that the failures of the last two years can't be easily dismissed.
"I mean, I have close friends all over the league, guy like (Chicago defensive end) Phillip Daniels, who hits me with it every single time I speak with him on the phone," said New Orleans starting cornerback Fred Thomas. "There aren't too many conversations we have where he doesn't, at some point get around to saying something like, 'So what did happen to you guys the last couple years, man?' I guess people can't help themselves if they're talking about us. You hear it all the time. And when you don't, well, you're still conscious of it. It's like a song that just keeps playing over and over and over again."
If set to music, however, all the queries about the sudden nosedive the Saints experienced in December of the 2001 and 2002 campaigns would be one of those baleful dirges that mark the funeral processions which snake through New Orleans' narrow streets, and not one of the exhilarating Zydeco tunes that spill out from the city's favorite watering holes.
So until the Saints players can begin expunging the memories of the collapses, stretches in which New Orleans lost seven of 11 contests after the calendar flipped to December, they live with the ignominy of it all.
And, inside, they die with it a little, too.
In 2001, New Orleans was 7-5 at the season's three-quarter pole, poised for a playoff berth, and then dropped four straight outings. The average margin in those games was an incredible 27 points and the Saints surrendered a mean of 40 points. Three defeats came at the Superdome, where the franchise's characteristically raucous denizens usually make it one of the league's most challenging venues for visitors.
Last year, the tragic December trend continued, with the Saints dropping the final three games of the season, all of them to franchises with losing records, completely scuttling an impressive 7-2 start which included victories over Green Bay, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay.
In fact, the Saints swept the divisional series from the Bucs, but lost twice to Atlanta and then dropped a 10-6 game at home to the Panthers in a regular-season finale New Orleans needed to win to squeeze into the playoffs.
Nearly seven months later there are a few players, like Thomas, who don't mind talking about the late season fiascos, because the seven-year veteran insisted he uses the horrid remembrances as a motivational tool. There are other veterans of the collapse, however, who would just as soon chug-a-lug a gallon of Tabasco sauce as ruminate over the way in which the past two seasons concluded.
And, really, who can blame them?
New Orleans, after all, should be a playoff team. General manager Mickey Loomis and coach Jim Haslett have done a very nice job assembling a young, talented and exciting roster. Especially on offense, the Saints have playmakers at every skill position. After an offseason spent addressing the defense, that unit seems considerably upgraded. Off the field, the salary cap issues that hamstrung the franchise only two or three years ago have been adroitly resolved.
But throughout The Big Easy, where the fans are skeptical after what transpired the last couple seasons, there is lingering concern. And if the Saints head into December again with a productive stretch run needed for a playoff spot, in a city where most most of the edifices are either churches or taverns, fans will either invoke intervention from some Supreme Deity or imbibe until last call on Bourbon Street.
For the players, it is time to stop making excuses, and to start making amends.
"I guess if we knew what had caused it the first time around, we would have (addressed) it last year," said defensive end Willie Whitehead. "You can beat yourself up if you sit around and think too much about it. I mean, it'll drive you crazy, you know? So the best thing to do is to not let it happen again. That's what we're trying to do."
But how, exactly, to do it? Especially when no one seems able to pinpoint precisely what precipitated the slides of the past.
Forget the notion, ballyhooed by some national media, that the Saints simply quit on their head coach the last two years. Unless we missed something, Haslett commands respect and seems a good guy for whom to play. One team official opined that the young Saints team, having dispatched of so many tough opponents early in 2002, grew overconfident and let up against lesser foes.
There are, not surprisingly, no lack of theories, and Haslett has explored many of them with some of his head coaching peers. Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher suggested that he get his players off their feet more in camp. The players said that has happened, that the training camp workouts haven't been much reduced, but lauded the new indoor facility that allows some respite from the afternoon and evening heat.
The football palace, jointly funded by the state of Louisiana and by Saints owner Tom Benson, is one of the finest in the league. It was a primary reason New Orleans was able to bring camp back home, instead of convening it again in Thibodeaux, La., where the heat index was the only thing in town bigger than the mosquitoes.
Players no longer need worry
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