As Bill Belichick, Dick Vermeil, Bill Parcells and -- in his own way -- Steve Spurrier have shown, there is no substitute in the NFL for great coaching. But there has to be something to be said for tremendous talent, right? And the Saints have more of that than any other team in this division.
Of course, that's arguably been the case for the past few years, and all New Orleans has to show for it is a slight upgrade from "perennial loser" to "perennial underachiever." But as investment firms and Viagra ads remind us, past performance does not ensure future results.
Coach Jim Haslett certainly hopes that's the case.
"I think the guys feel good about themselves," Haslett said. "What they did down the stretch last year, the way we finished 7-4, the way we played defense in the end. We have been consistent with our offense the last four years. We are in the top 10 and our running has been consistent, so I think those guys know that if we keep up with it and stay healthy that we will do fine." People who want to sound knowledgeable about football (or simply know their John Madden sound bites) like to say that games are won and lost "in the trenches." And that's where one finds two reasons to like the Saints, as both the offensive and defensive lines are talented and deep. In addition, the players for whom the offensive line blocks figure to form one of the league's more high-flying units.
Running back Deuce McAllister is a sign that things may finally be going New Orleans's way. The Saints rolled the dice in 2002 when they traded away an established star in Ricky Williams and promoted McAllister, who was considered an injury risk and had barely seen the field as a rookie. A gamble like that would have blown up in the face of the old "Ain'ts," but while Williams is answering his true calling as a wealthy beach bum, McAllister has emerged as one of the NFL's elite backs.
Aaron Brooks may have looked too good when he seized the quarterback job midway through the 2000 season and led New Orleans to its first playoff win. He has shown maddening inconsistency since but appeared to take a step forward last season, when he posted a 59.1 completion percentage, throwing 24 touchdowns against eight interceptions. Now if only Brooks can stop fumbling -- and get over a strained quadriceps -- he can put to full use an explosive wideout tandem of Joe Horn and Donte Stallworth. Stallworth has struggled to stay off the injured list his first two years but, on the field, has at times looked positively unstoppable. The defensive line not only should, but must play well, as it has the burden of covering up for the shortcomings of the linebackers (inexperience) and defensive backs (average talent). Defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan was somewhat of a disappointment last year, so the team brought in high-energy veteran Brian Young to play alongside, and hopefully light a fire under him. The ends, Charles Grant and Darren Howard, hardly need help, but the team couldn't pass over Will Smith in the draft and the former Buckeye has looked good in camp.
Haslett has earned praise for combining a no-nonsense approach with an ability to relate to players, but the team has hovered around .500 the past three seasons. It must have been gratifying to see his team play well down the stretch last year, but that came after a 1-4 start. Haslett won't have any excuses if his talented squad doesn't play that way the whole season.
Best Hands: In only four years with the team, Joe Horn -- always willing to herald himself, particularly by cell phone -- has the three highest totals in single-season receiving yardage.
Worst Hands: Selected No. 7 overall in the 1975 draft, Larry Burton spent three unproductive seasons in New Orleans and was out of the league two years later.
Grading This Year's WRs: If Horn and Donte Stallworth stay healthy, the supporting cast will be irrelevant.
WRs grade: B