The bitter end........
Coach Jim Haslett says he saw progress in the Saints' 8-8 season, and what the team lacks is not talent but continuity, which he says is what it takes to become a playoff contender in the NFL.
Tuesday December 30, 2003
By Jeff Duncan
Before meeting with reporters for his annual year-in-review press conference, Saints coach Jim Haslett stopped by Owner Tom Benson's office for advice.
"He said, 'What are you going to tell 'em?' I asked him, 'What do you want me to tell 'em?' He said, 'Tell 'em we're moving forward, everything's great. We're going to look at the whole process and move on.' "
Haslett would like nothing more than to move forward. A day after completing his fourth season with an 8-8 record, Haslett used words such as "difficult" and "disappointing" to describe a season in which the Saints started 1-4 and never recovered to improve above .500.
New Orleans missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season, joining Arizona, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Detroit, Jacksonville, San Diego and Washington as NFL franchises that have not made the postseason during the same stretch.
"Anytime you don't make the playoffs it's disappointing," Haslett said. "There were positives. It's nice to end on a winning note. But it's always a negative when you don't make the postseason."
The decline from 2002 was only one game -- 9-7 to 8-8 -- but for the second straight year the biggest problem was a lot of little things. Attention to detail was a season-long problem. The Saints lost a league-high 20 fumbles. The receiving corps struggled with dropped balls, especially early in the season. The defense missed tackles. And the Saints perpetually were hurt by pre-snap penalties.
Haslett blamed many of the problems on an influx of new starters and the inexperience of several players in key positions.
"We've got a lot of young guys, a lot of young guys that don't know what it takes yet to win in the league," Haslett said. "Until our team understands that NFL games come down to four or five plays a game, we'll continue to be where we're at."
Veteran left tackle Wayne Gandy called it "Football IQ," and he said the Saints are lacking.
"It's just like the military," Gandy said. "It doesn't seem like getting up and making your bed with a six-inch tuck is (important), but they're trying to instill something. When you are in that foxhole, the bullet is going to miss you by 6 inches."
Gandy pointed to his head.
"It has to start in here," he said. "It's no longer in the feet. It's no longer in the muscles. It's in the brain. Knowing is half the battle. The football IQ has to go up. I don't think some of these people understand, that everything they want -- the fame, the fortune, the accolades -- it comes with winning just as much as it does individual achievement."
Many of the mental breakdowns and mistakes occurred during the team's crippling 1-4 start. General Manager Mickey Loomis said he plans to re-evaluate the team's approach to the preseason after watching the Saints stumble out of gate in non-competitive losses against playoff-bound opponents such as Seattle, Tennessee and Indianapolis.
The Saints came into 2003 expecting to ride their explosive offense while a young defense matured. Instead, the offense was mistake-prone and the defense was decimated by injuries.
Thirty-six different players started games for the Saints this year, mainly due to injuries, and the defense absorbed most of the damage. Defensive regulars missed 44 starts because of injuries. The Saints started 12 different starting lineups on that side of the ball.
The attrition limited Venturi's game plans and forced a more conservative strategy. And that might have contributed to the defense's main weakness -- a lack of big plays.
"It's been a very hard season, an extremely hard season," defensive coordinator Rick Venturi said. "We kind of got behind the eight ball early. It's hard when you're battling every day when you know there is very little margin for error."
As the unit gained healthy starters in the second half of the season, the Saints caused more turnovers -- 18 in the second half of the year after just nine in the first half
"Rick did a great job this season," Haslett said. "I think our coaching staff does a great job dealing with the adversity part, dealing with injuries, making up for it. We lost our No. 1 defensive player (Darren Howard) in the first game. . . . That's probably the most difficult thing, but everybody in the league has the same problem. It's a hard game. It's a game, you're going to have to expect (injuries). You have to deal with it."
Like it has the past few seasons, the Saints' run defense was a major weakness. New Orleans ranked 27th (of 32 teams) in the NFL in rushing defense and opponents' ball carriers averaged 4.7 yards a carry, the fifth-highest total any defense allowed.
"Years ago we had Darren Howard at one end, La'Roi (Glover) and Joe Johnson, a pretty good defensive line, No. 1 in the league in sacks," Haslett said. "In a span of a month, we lost La'Roi and Joe Johnson, and then all of a sudden you're minus Darren Howard and you replace them with two juniors (Charles Grant and Johnathan Sullivan) and it's going to take time for them to come along. I think Charles Grant and Sullivan are going to be good players. You just replaced two Pro Bowlers with two juniors coming out of college. It's not going to happen overnight. Those guys need to grow up. This is a big offseason for them and for this football team, because that's the group that really needs to take off this offseason."
But Haslett said he saw improvement in several areas.
Overall, the Saints defense ranked eighth in the league in pass defense and No. 18 overall, an improvement from No. 27 in 2002.
Most important, the defense allowed 62 fewer points than a year ago, allowing just 326, good for 14th in the league. After surrendering 20 or more points to 15 of 16 opponents in 2002, the Saints held seven of their last eight 2003 opponents to 20 or fewer points.
"Rick's done a good job," Haslett said. "When you hold teams to 20 points in this league you have a chance to win most games."
Scoring drops off
The offense's problems were not injury-related. Six regulars started all 16 games. Three others started 13 games or more.
The offense suffered from self-inflicted wounds. Penalties, turnovers, dropped passes and blown assignments continually stalled drives or squandered scoring chances. As a result, scoring declined nearly a touchdown per game, from a club-record 432 points in 2002 (27 points a game) to 340 this season (21.2).
Part of the problem was the Saints had fewer chances for easy scores. In 2002, the offense was set up with good field position because of Michael Lewis' stellar returns on kicks and punts and an opportunistic defense that produced 20 interceptions and 18 fumbles.
"We're No. 11 in the league in offense, No. 3 in third-down efficiency, No. 3 in red zone (efficiency)," Haslett said. "Our problem is that we didn't score the amount of points we scored the year before. . . . (wide receiver) DontÃƒÂƒÃ‚Â© (Stallworth) had eight touchdowns and now he had three and Michael had four and he's got one and John (Carney) missed eight field goals, that's (the difference) right there. We're a big-play offense. We can run the ball and do some good things, but we need to have DontÃƒÂƒÃ‚Â©, Jerome (Pathon) and Joe (Horn) on the field."
The problems overshadowed the progress of several players, starting with Pro Bowl running back Deuce McAllister.
McAllister started all 16 games and rushed for a career-high 1,641 yards, the second highest season total in Saints history. He added 516 yards on a career-high 68 receptions to finish with 2,157 yards to finish fourth in the NFL.
Quarterback Aaron Brooks improved in nearly all areas. His passer efficiency rating went from 80.1 to a career-high 88.8. His completion percentage went from 53.6 to 59.1. And he threw a league-low eight interceptions.
Brooks, however, took a step backward in one critical area and it proved costly. He lost a league-high 11 fumbles. In two of the Saints' losses -- Indianapolis and Tampa Bay -- he lost four turnovers.
"You take away the fumbles and everything else was outstanding," Haslett said. "But the fumbles killed us."
Last offseason, the Saints signed nine free agents, but Haslett said this team needs more stability than new blood.
"I think that we're at that point where we don't need to make a lot of roster changes," Haslett said. "I think we need continuity. I think the amount has been a little more than we've wanted the last couple of years. I think we're much better off than we have been."
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