Saints close book on disappointing season
By Stephanie Sigafoos, NFL Contributing Editor
(Sports Network) - The New Orleans Saints brought down the curtain on a bitterly disappointing campaign Sunday afternoon, their dwindling hopes of making a postseason appearance swept away in a 33-25 loss to Chicago.
Just 343 days earlier, the Saints had dropped the NFC Championship game to the Bears, but entered this season brimming with optimism as a popular pick to advance to Super Bowl XLII.
Certainly, nobody had visions of the 7-9 record that followed.
"As we head into this offseason, we've got a lot of work to do. A lot of work" said Saints head coach Sean Payton. "It's an irony that the season ended here."
The club needed a victory combined with losses by Washington and Minnesota to earn the final Wild Card playoff spot. What it got instead was a showcase of mediocrity and a repeat of problems that read like a storybook of the last 16 weeks: shoddy tackling, costly turnovers, big plays that burned the defense and swollen offensive numbers with very little to show in return.
Consider, for example, that the Saints out-gained the Bears by 138 yards, had 15 more first downs, out-rushed the Bears 105 to 96, and outpassed Chicago by 129 yards.
None of it mattered in the long run, with rookie running back Pierre Thomas the lone bright spot for the club. Thomas became the first player in Saints history to run for 100 yards (20 carries, 105 yards) with a 100-yard receiving day (12 catches, 121 yards and one touchdown). His 226 yards from scrimmage also ranked third-best in club history.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
For a team carrying the label of "Super Bowl contender" into the season, everything looked on par for a spectacular jaunt to the playoffs. Nearly all of the starters were back, and the Saints believed they had strengthened their defense with the signing of free agent cornerback Jason David.
But even the best laid plans can go amiss.
New Orleans dug itself an 0-4 hole, and racked by injuries, never fully recovered. The biggest blow came with the loss of Deuce McAllister, and after taking over as the featured back, Reggie Bush failed to break the 100-yard mark in any game, then missed the last four of the campaign with a partially torn knee ligament.
The team was also hurt by an inconsistent offense which turned the ball over 30 times (12 fumbles, 18 interceptions), and a defense that simply couldn't get it together, yielding 100 rushing yards and 245 passing yards per game.
The secondary was particularly dreadful, allowing 32 touchdown passes (tied for Detroit for worst in the league). The Saints also gave up 15 plays of 40 or more yards, which is tied for a league-worst with Baltimore.
NO NEED TO UPGRADE
Brees finished with 4,423 yards and 28 TDs on the season. He set three team records (touchdown passes, completion percentage and yards in a season), and tied another club mark with 60 pass attempts versus Chicago.
Second-year receiver Marques Colston was also a stalwart, with 98 catches for 1,202 yards and 11 touchdowns, while veteran players such as Aaron Stecker and David Patten also turned in solid performances.
DRAFT DAY COMING UP
Based on their 7-9 record and a tie-breaker which looks at the strength of a team's schedule, the Saints will have the 10th overall pick in April's NFL Draft.
2008 will mark the 17th time in club history that New Orleans has picked in the top 10. It has used the 10th overall pick twice in club history.
Payton made it clear that the biggest offseason priority will be improving the defense, but it's possible the Saints could also look for another capable receiver to complement Brees.
Last year's fist-round selection, receiver Robert Meachem out of Tennessee, never dressed for a single game.
LOOKING AHEAD TO 2008
The Saints 2008 regular-season opponents have been determined, based upon the team's third-place finish in the NFC South.
Using a scheduling formula implemented in 2002, the Saints will play home and away against their three division opponents, four teams from another division within the conference on a rotating three-year cycle, four teams from a division in the other conference on a rotating four-year cycle, and two intraconference games based on the prior year's standings.
The official schedule, with playing dates and times, will be formally announced in the spring.
The Saints will host the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers at the Superdome.
On the road, New Orleans travels to Atlanta, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Chicago, Detroit, Washington, Denver and Kansas City.