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SEAN PAYTON thought long and hard about what he wanted to say to his team when he opened training camp. Many now see the Saints' run to the 2006 NFC Championship Game as a fluke after last season's return to 7--9 territory. And the NFC South will be a lot stronger because of Tampa Bay's resurgent defense and Jake Delhomme's return from injury in Carolina. The Saints coach wondered, How can we find that edge that will enable us to win the division again and return to the league's elite?
So he looked around the room and said, "Drew Brees, the Chargers gave up on you. Scott Fujita, same thing with you and the Cowboys. Hollis Thomas, the Eagles gave you away. Jeremy Shockey and Jonathan Vilma, New York teams gave up on you guys. Me? I wanted the Packers job, and they picked someone else. My point? We all have something to prove."
The first priority is to avoid last season's 0--4 start. "We spent all the energy we had getting back to 4--4, and we didn't have much left," Payton says. He told his players they had to avoid what he called "the sins of '07." Most came during that horrible first month. Brees threw one touchdown pass and nine interceptions in those first four games; the running attack, which lost Deuce McAllister to a torn left ACL in Week 3, produced only 3.4 yards a carry; and the defense gave up 30 points a game. Brees then threw 27 touchdown passes and nine interceptions in the team's 7--5 finish, but it wasn't enough to overcome that bad start.
So the Saints acquired Shockey from the Giants and Vilma from the Jets, two players happy to get out of New York. During his first two years in New Orleans, Payton didn't have a classic 4--3 middle linebacker who could make plays all over the field; Vilma, coming off knee surgery that ruined his 2007 season, is expected to fill that role. He ran freely and without pain through training camp. Shockey, who suffered a broken lower left leg in December, was the forgotten tight end while New York made its stunning Super Bowl run. Still limited in practice in Saints camp, he should be ready Week 1.
The Saints were seeking a premier cornerback in the draft, such as Troy's Leodis McKelvin, but couldn't pass on USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, who beefs up the line. So they tried to patch the leaky secondary—New Orleans allowed an NFL-high 32 touchdown passes last year—by signing free-agent corners Randall Gay, a nickelback, and Aaron Glenn, who is 36. It figures that the Saints' offense will have to score in the mid- to high 20s to give the team its best chance to win.
"We can score," says all-purpose back Reggie Bush. "We're one of the elite offenses in the league, but a turnover here or a turnover there and not being productive in the running game killed us last year. We have to get that fixed." Bush, who in his two NFL seasons hasn't shown the explosiveness that made him a Heisman Trophy winner at USC, worked regularly on squat lifts in the off-season in an attempt to improve his burst through tight holes in the line.
It's essential that the ground game produces more big plays. New Orleans can't rely on Brees alone—though it's tempting. Over the past two season he had 8,841 passing yards, 404 more than Peyton Manning and 506 more than Tom Brady.
"I feel good about this team," said Payton, who then pulled from his desk drawer a book that Brees had given him in the off-season: 212° The Extra Degree. Payton explained the message: At 211° water is hot, and at 212° it boils. Boiling water produces steam, and steam powers engines. Brees's point was, See what happens when we all work a little bit harder.
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