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saint5221 10-31-2003 10:17 AM

Saints not making the grade

Saints not making the grade
Nakia Hogan / The Times
Posted on October 31, 2003

The temptation is to label the New Orleans Saints as a team that is finished, having had their season ended three months before the rest of the NFL, calling it quits.

The notion is that the Saints, through eight games and half of a 16-game regular season, have wallowed in something far less than mediocrity, something, instead, known as underachieving -at best.

The Saints, a team that suggested throughout the off-season they'd display an improved product, one that would be in contention for the NFC South and perhaps an early Super Bowl candidate, now sits at a depressing 3-5, wondering what heck went wrong.

The answers are easy:

n The offense after being one of the most electrifying in the league a year ago, has sputtered, scoring at least 21 points just three times.

n The revamped defense, expected to be younger and faster, has been shaky and slow to master Rick Venturi's complicated scheme.

n A special teams unit that dominated last season has yet to score a touchdown on a return, as the opposition has routinely pinned kick returner Michael Lewis to the sideline.

n A coaching staff that prided themselves on preparation has been whipped on the chalkboard.

n A front office once considered geniuses missed on several off-season acquisitions.

n Injuries may have been the Saints' biggest nemesis through the first half, though, as starters at free safety, linebacker and defensive end all have missed an extended period of time.

"Three and five is not where we wanted to be halfway through the season, but it is something that we are going to have to deal with," Saints coach Jim Haslett said. "The most important thing is that we go down there and try to win this game. We want to get to 4-5 before the bye. When we come back, we have some teams that we played already and some teams that will directly affect how the playoffs come out like Philadelphia, Washington, and New York. Most importantly, we have to take care of business this week."

Doing so, however, has proved difficult.

Over the first half of the season, the most consistent area for the Saints has been the running game, where Pro Bowl running back Deuce McAllister has rushed for at least 100 yards in five straight games. He's also had contests where he rushed for 99 and 96 yards.

Along with McAllister's speed and power, the offensive line has performed admirably, especially right guard LeCharles Bentley and right tackle Victor Riley.

Still, the Saints' ineffectiveness in creating big plays has resulted in many opponents keeping the team from racking up points as it did last season when it led the NFC in scoring.

Although quarterback Aaron Brooks has received much of the blame, the offense's ineptitude is the result of several mental breakdowns that have plagued the team.

The Saints plan to use the second half of the season to erase those mistakes and work to position themselves for a late-season playoff push.

"Always improve, always improve," Brooks said of a Saints goal over the second half of the season. "We've got to play better. We played last game pretty well. There's always room for improvement. We got to get it back to at least .500 in the second half. The good thing is we do have time as we are approaching the second half of the season."

Meanwhile, the defense has shown flashes of improving after being riddled by Seattle, Tennessee and Indianapolis to start the season.

The Saints are banking on the return of injured linebacker Sedrick Hodge and defensive end Darren Howard to catapult the team into wins over the season half of the season.

Until then, the Saints will receive an unsatisfactory grade for the first half of the season.

"When you are on the sideline as a coach or teacher, the only satisfaction you get is when your student does everything to perfection," Haslett said. "When teachers go to the classroom and they have 15 students in their class and 14 get As, I think teachers take pride in that. When 14 get Cs and one gets an F, he or she thinks that he or she didn't do that well with the group. That is how you feel as a coach."

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