Expectations were high for the budding juggernaut that thrilled fans with tough defense and a big-play offense.
The luster of that great 2000 season wore off when the team went 7-9, 9-7 and 8-8 the following three seasons. Great starts were followed by inexplicably terrible endings in each season, resulting in missed playoff opportunities and angst among the Saint faithful.
If you’re looking for the coach on the hottest seat in the NFL, look no further than head Haslett. The former linebacker has assembled a great staff, plenty of playmakers on offense, and a talented defensive line Yet each year they are, by many accounts, the NFL’s number-one underachievers.
Franchise stability is also in question as the Saints are fighting with the city over improvements to the Superdome to help generate revenue and there is a possibility within the next few years they could be looking to move.
Offense: Much of Haslett’s future rests in the hands of QB Aaron Brooks. Brooks has the talent and abilities to rank at or near the top of the league’s quarterbacks, but he has yet to put it all together. In 2003 he improved his touchdowns to interceptions ratio to 3:1, the best of his career. That improvement was offset by 11 lost fumbles - many times he wouldn’t even be hit and the ball would drop out of his hands.
Last year Brooks completed 59.1% of his passes (by far the best of his career) for 3,546 yards, 24 TDs and eight interceptions. He has a big arm, good feet, and the ability to turn small gains into game-breakers with his scrambling ability. He still needs to be more accurate as many times wideouts had to stop or dive for balls that could have gone for longer gains if they were placed correctly. He also must take care of the ball better. If Brooks can do that, he has a chance to enter elite status.
When Brooks drops back to pass he has two talented and precocious wideouts to throw to. Joe Horn is a feared playermaker in the league. His hands and route-running are excellent and while he is best at beating the cornerback deep, he also doesn’t hesitate to go across the middle. In 2003 Horn caught 78 balls for 973 yards and 10 TD’s. Horn’s biggest problem is his attitude, but he has a great work ethic and an excellent rapport with Brooks.
Dante Stallworth is the WR opposite Horn and he is one of the fastest players in the NFL. Stallworth has been a disappointment in his three seasons, but Haslett and offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy think 2004 could be his breakout season. He struggled with injuries in 2003 and he was forced to miss most or all of seven games. When he did play he showed the game-breaking ability that made him an early first rounder in 2002, by averaging 19.4 yards per reception.
The acquisition of WR Devrey Henderson promises to add even more speed to the mix, while veterans Jerome Pathon and Michael Lewis provide quality depth and good route-running ability. Lewis is also the top punt and kickoff returner and is a threat to go the distance anytime he has his hands on the ball in the open field.
TE Boo Williams and Ernie Conwell who caught a combined 67 passes for 726 yards and seven TD’s add two more targets for Brooks in the short zones and the flats. Williams has really started to come on and is a sleeper pick to have a Pro Bowl season.
At running back, the Saints have one of the league’s most complete backs in Deuce McAllister. All McAllister did in 2003 was rush for a career-high 1,641 yards and eight TD’s. He is also a receiving threat, finishing second on the team with 69 receptions for another 516 yards. He does need to work on taking care of the ball more, but he is a bruiser with speed.
During the offseason the Saints picked up inexpensive RB Aaron Stecker in free agency. Stecker will spell McAllister at times, but when it comes to pounding the ball, McAllister will get the call every time.
Up front the Saints will have a different look. Pro Bowl OL LeCharles Bentley is a rising star who will move over from guard to take over the pivot. He is still recovering from offseason knee-surgery, but he is expected to be 100% by camp. The guards will be second-year player Montrae Holland and six-year veteran Kendyl Jacox. Both are superb at pulling and trapping and they are the catalysts for the Saints’ power-running game. The tackles are 11-year veteran Wayne Gandy and seventh-year pro Victory Riley. Riley is athletic and great run-blocker, but he makes some mental errors. Gandy is an excellent pass-blocker who still has some life left in his 33 year-old legs.
The Saint offense can be explosive, but many times they have killed themselves with costly turnovers and pre-snap penalties. If they can cut down on these mental errors, look for the Saints to challenge teams all over the field.
Defense: It all starts up front for the Saints. Defensive coordinator Rick Venturi is blessed with athletic big men along the front four who are best at attacking the line of scrimmage.
DT’s Jonathan Sullivan and Brian Young are the run-stuffers in the middle. They can take up blockers along the line and also provide some pressure from the inside. Any sort of push by them is just icing on the cake, as the outside rushers are who the Saints depend on to get pressure on the quarterback.
DE Charles Grant had a great sophomore season, registering 61 tackles, 10 sacks, four forced fumbles and seven passes defensed. Four-year veteran Darren Howard added five sacks and while he was solid, the Saints are looking for more production from the strongside defensive end position. Rookie DE Will Smith inexplicably fell to the Saints in the latter part of the first round in February and he is expected to push Howard for playing time sooner rather than later.
At linebacker the Saints have little star-power and they hope to get a push up front allowing these players to flow to the ball instead of taking on blockers. Five-year vet Orlando Ruff, second-year man Cie Grant, and rookie Courtney Watson will vie for the starting spot in the middle. Watson is quick, has a nose for the ball and his instincts for the position are second to none. Ruff has the size but lacks the speed to track plays down. Grant is a great athlete, but may be too small to play the middle. Watson is the wildcard. If he can come in and learn the defense quickly, you may see him starting come September 12th.
On the outside, LB Sedrick Hodge has not played up to expectations and he will be challenged in camp by James Allen. Allen is physical and strong at the point of attack. Hodge is better in coverage and may see time as the nickel linebacker. On the weak-side Derrick Rodgers was solid, but didn’t make many plays. He played well down the stretch last season and coaches hope that with one season in the system under his belt, he will be able to make more things happen.
Expensive and underachieving CB Dale Carter has departed and the Saints couldn’t be happier. Fred Thomas finished second on the team in tackles (not a good sign for a defense) with 86 and he led the Saints with 22 passes defensed and four INTs. He gets the most out of his 5’9” frame, but he is best suited as the nickel corner. Ashley Ambrose and fifth-year man Jason Craft will battle it out on the other side. Ambrose is smart, but he has lost a step. Craft should win the starting job and Ambrose will likely play the slot when they go to nickel.
SS Jay Bellamy led the Saints with 94 tackles and also had three INTs. He plays the run better than the pass and he struggles to make plays in space. Look for Mel Mitchell, who was lost for the entire season to a knee-injury, to challenge Bellamy during camp. Mitchell is a great athlete and he has size of a linebacker, but also enough speed to cover backs and wideouts in the short zones.
FS Tebucky Jones was a huge disappointment after being acquired as a free agent in 2003. He struggled to wrap up when he needed to make a play and he didn’t make many plays as it was. Haslett and Venturi hope that an offseason of drills on tackling and technique will help him have a bounce back season in 2004.
The defense of the Saints will be aggressive with their blitz packages. They hope to cover for the lack of playmakers in the secondary by getting a good rush on the quarterback. Look for Grant to have a breakout season and for Watson to see lots time in the middle at linebacker.
The last time the Seahawks and Saints met: It was the opening weekend of the 2003 season and the sun shone through broken clouds at Seahawks Stadium. Fans had failed to sellout the stadium as many took a cautious approach to the season before them.
The 2002 season saw the Seahawks rank last in the NFL in rushing defense and fans were worried that Jim Haslett and his playmakers on offense would bring destruction down on the reshaped defense. The opposite was true as the Hawks held the men from the “Big Easy” to 10 points and caused three fumbles and one interception.
New Orleans kicker John Carney started off the scoring, kicking a 33 yarder for the only points in the first quarter. Then the Seattle offense went to work.
In the second quarter, the Hawks scored three touchdowns. RB Shaun Alexander went over from one yard out. QB Matt Hasselbeck threaded the needle to WR Koren Robinson and he bounced off two Saints defenders and ran it in for a 35 yard touchdown. Alexander capped off the first half scoring, catching a 10 yard touchdown pass. The Hawks headed into the locker room ahead 21-3.
The second half had little in the way of highlights. Rookie K Josh Brown hit a pair of field goals from 25 and 37 yards out and Saint QB Aaron Brooks hit WR Joe Horn with a two-yard TD pass.
Rookie S Ken Hamlin got his career off to an intimidating start when he leveled WR Donte Stallworth on a slant pattern. Hamlin knocked himself silly, but Stallworth’s helmet and the ball flew in opposite directions. A collective “oooohhhh” reverberated off the stadium rafters and thus the tone for 2003 was set.
On the day Hasselbeck was an efficient 12 of 23 for 137 yards and two TDs. Alexander had 108 yards rushing and one TD. For New Orleans, Brooks threw for 257 yards with one TD and one INT. Stallworth had a great day catching eight passes for 101 yards. RB Deuce McAllister ran for 99 tough yards on 22 carries.
Opening weekend was a catalyst to the first perfect home record in Seahawks history as the Hawks went on to go 8-0 at home and 10-6 overall.
2004 Projection: The Saints have the talent and the coaching to make a run at the playoffs. Haslett is a disciplinarian, but the players consider him fair and they like playing for him. He is emotional and his attitude permeates this team.
If Brooks and McAllister can protect the ball and the line gels like they hope it does this team could be dangerous on offense. On defense, it all depends on the front four. If they can consistently get pressure on the opposing quarterback this defense will cause a lot of turnovers and put the team in prime positions to score. If not, they may be looking at their fourth straight season out of the playoffs.
If that happens you could be looking at a prime job opportunity for a new coach.
Look for the Saints to be much improved and push the other teams in the tough NFC South. I see the Saints going 9-7 or 10-6 and possibly sneaking into the playoffs as a wild-card.
.NET Reporter Scott Eklund writes for Seahawks.NET every week. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.