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JOESAM2002 12-30-2003 09:18 AM

Players lament season........

Players lament season that should have been

N.O. says despite unlucky breaks, some ingredient was missing

Tuesday December 30, 2003

By Brian Allee-Walsh
Staff writer

Saints players cleaned out their lockers Monday and quietly slipped into the offseason, knowing their performance wasn't worthy of a postseason berth.

Some tried to put a positive spin on an 8-8 season, pointing to a fumble here, a missed extra-point attempt there and several erroneous calls by officials.

Others reflected objectively on what otherwise was a mediocre season.

"We've got to be more professional across the board," said Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks, who completed the season without throwing an interception in his last 232 passes. "I didn't think we were professional enough, coming to work and doing our jobs. Not just on Sundays, every day.

"We've got to get to a certain few guys. Everyone is responsible for himself. I won't say it was a problem. We just need to be professional and leave it at that."

Brooks declined to elaborate.

"Chemistry and professionalism are what get teams into the postseason," he said. "Look at the teams in there now. You see a lot of professionalism, you see a lot of discipline, you see good chemistry. I'm not saying we don't have those things, I don't think we have enough of it."

Veteran left tackle Wayne Gandy said not enough players see the "big picture" of a 16-game schedule and don't fully comprehend what it means to play in the postseason.

"People need to lock in and understand that it's a long journey," Gandy said. "Some of it can be attributed to a lack of experience. But a lot of it is, how bad do you want to be playing next week? If you get there, you can never see not going again.

"That's one of the things that has to be infused around here. There has to be enough guys in the locker room who've been there before, guys who sit around and talk to the other guys about the experience."

Saints wide receiver Joe Horn said the current roster has what it takes to reach the playoffs next year, provided team officials properly tweak the product in the coming months.

"All I know is with the talent we have here, this is embarrassing," said Horn, who missed Sunday's 13-7 victory against Dallas with a sprained left shoulder. "With the players that we have in this locker room, we're definitely playoff contenders. Our 8-8 record doesn't show that.

"But I'm willing to stick my neck out and say this: I guarantee we will make the playoffs next year. I guarantee it."

The Saints' 2004 schedule features three divisional champions -- Kansas City (13-3), St. Louis (12-4) and Carolina (11-5) -- and three other playoff teams -- Seattle (10-6), Denver (10-6) and Dallas (10-6).

Additionally, the 2004 schedule includes San Francisco (7-9), Tampa Bay (7-9), Minnesota (9-7) and Atlanta (5-11), which hopes to keep Michael Vick healthy all season. Arizona (4-12), Oakland (4-12) and San Diego (4-12) round out the 16-game slate.

"A lot of things happened to us this year," Horn said. "Our receivers were in a little slump, Aaron was in a little slump and the defense was in a slump. That all works hand-in-hand. I can't speak on the coaches. They do their thing upstairs, we do our thing down here."

Defensive end Darren Howard chose to reflect on how the Saints finished (7-4 in their last 11 games) rather than how they started (1-4).

"We got a lot of talent here," said Howard, who missed eight games with a broken right wrist but still managed to get five sacks. "We really don't know how to use it yet.

"It's like when you've never shot a gun before and you don't know what you're doing. You know you got some power in your hands, but you don't know if you're going to hit anything. You're just shooting it. That's pretty much where we are now. We got a lot of weapons, and we just ain't using them right."

NOTES: The Saints will pick 18th in the first round of the NFL draft on April 24-25. They finished tied with Cincinnati at 8-8 but the Bengals will pick 17th based on an easier strength of schedule.

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