Almost seven months ago, when New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton still was on the cusp of the 2007 season, he stood against a wall in the team's practice facility and made what would be a prophetic remark.
"You can't get ahead of yourselves," Payton said, mulling over expectations that he would field a Super Bowl-caliber team. "A lot can go wrong. For 31 teams every year – every team, really – something goes wrong in a big way. The one that's there at the end, they are usually the ones that adjust the best to (failing) along the way."
What Payton didn't know at the time was that nearly everything would go wrong for the Saints. Some of it would be corrected, and some of it would only get worse. But ultimately, the team that had so much going for it entering the 2007 season would depart as one of the bigger disappointments.
Now a little more than a month before the draft, the Saints roster has come to epitomize what can go wrong. They now field a pair of linebackers picked up this month – Jonathan Vilma and Dan Morgan – who have seen stellar careers derailed by injury. There is wideout Robert Meachem, the only first-round pick from the 2007 draft who didn't play a single regular-season down last season, and quarterback Drew Brees, who threw a career-high 18 interceptions last season. And then there are the two franchise running backs, Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister, both climbing back from season-ending injuries.
In truth, few teams disappointed like the 2007 edition of the Saints, which not only failed to push for an NFC championship but also didn't come anywhere close to fielding what was expected to be one of the most dynamic offenses of this decade. And that only made last season's defensive shortcomings seem more desperate – from the highly publicized failings of cornerback Jason David to a mediocre group of linebackers and a talent-laden defensive line that fell flat.
Now few teams carry more talent into the 2008 season, with questions still looming over much of the roster. That's a natural orientation when you fail to live up to massive expectations and then aggressively retool in the offseason with players who have so much to prove. Other than losing center Jeff Faine, the Saints have had a potential-packed March, adding Vilma and Morgan along with cornerback Randall Gay and defensive end Bobby McCray and veteran quarterback Mark Brunell.
Vilma and Morgan have Pro Bowl skills that have been derailed by injury, while McCray and Gay have shown flashes of being above-average starters at their positions. And Brunell is what every team needs these days – a solid veteran quarterback who can fill in and keep a team afloat for a game or two. After a season of disappointment, those five players, along with the healthy return of Bush, McAllister and Meachem, once again have delivered the elixir of hope, particularly on a defense that suddenly has some potent – albeit damaged – weapons.
"Improving the defense sounds good, but we're not just trying to improve," Vilma said. "We're trying to improve to where we win games. It doesn't matter how well you improve if you're not winning games. … We're (trying to improve) to the point we're winning games, we're winning divisions, we're getting to the playoffs and winning Super Bowls.
"We've got to win with the defense. So that's what we're going to do."
That should sound like a familiar message from a franchise that has been struggling over the last several seasons to find some defensive consistency. It clearly didn't have it last year, when an influx of injury and underachieving made the Saints defense one of the league's biggest disappointments. And some of the numbers were jarring: Six losses in which opponents scored 31 points or more, a pass rush that featured one player who finished with more sacks than safety Roman Harper's four (Will Smith had seven) and a passing defense that finished 30th in the league.
All of which helped deliver a tremendous letdown one year after the Saints charged to the NFC championship game in 2006. Much of that crash was initiated by an offense that never came close to reaching its own expectations. The unit that had carried the Saints two years ago suffered some astonishing struggles early in 2007. Brees particularly struggled, throwing one touchdown against nine interceptions in an 0-4 start that ultimately would doom the team.
But the failures truly were across the board. The offensive line didn't protect Brees as well as it had a year before. The wideouts – chiefly Marques Colston and Devery Henderson – made fewer big plays downfield. McAllister missed the season's final 13 games with a knee injury. And Bush was utterly ineffective as a centerpiece back, averaging 3.7 yards per carry before missing the season's final four games with a partially torn posterior cruciate ligament.
Now the backfield has become a focal point in the offseason, with McAllister's rehab being the primary concern.
"Once training camp opens, I think I'll be right at 11 months (since surgery)," he said. "That's plenty of time (rehabbing) as far as the injury is concerned."
Meanwhile, Bush has vowed a more dedicated offseason, hoping to reach the plateau of stardom that has eluded him outside of the marketing world and celebrity pages. That likely is a reflection of the coaching staff, which hasn't hid its expectations about Bush dedicating himself to improving.
"I've had plenty of time to reflect," Bush said. "I missed the last four games and that really hurt me. I've never had to miss any games before. So that really hurt. I had a lot of time to think and just go through what approach I want to take this year and how I want to go about this year and getting to that elite level of athletes.
"I feel like I'm taking a whole different approach this year. Just in how I go about my business and my life – just cutting a lot of stuff out of my life and singling everything down to just very simple (things). Even as football goes. In every aspect of my life, I'm just trying to cut everything down, cut a lot of stuff out, cut a lot of people out and just focus on football."
Whether Bush lives up to the otherworldly hype in his third season remains to be seen. But the Saints' defensive additions could create more offensive opportunities simply with the influx of playmakers. McCray, who notched 10 sacks two years ago, could be a very valuable pickup as a situational pass rusher who could complement Will Smith and Charles Grant. Gay gives the secondary another solid coverage corner to go along with the inconsistent pairing of Mike McKenzie and Jason David. And Morgan, if healthy (however unlikely in the long term), adds a massive amount of talent to the linebacking corps.
But the coup of the offseason remains Vilma, who once was considered the league's next budding defensive superstar from the University of Miami. And not just any Miami star. Indeed, he was expected to be the next thread in a tapestry of elite talent that included Warren Sapp, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. But being forced to play in the New York Jets' 3-4 defensive scheme the last two seasons didn't suit his style of play, and a knee injury cut his season to seven games last year.
Now Vilma returns to his more natural middle linebacker spot in a 4-3 alignment, he has an opportunity to rekindle the tackling machine that notched 169 stops in 2005 as one of the league' best young linebackers. Barring complications with his knee, that is.
"I'll say I'm right where I need to be right now," Vilma said. "It's been progressing very well. I haven't had any setbacks – knock on wood. The injury itself … put in simpler terms, it was a piece of dead bone in my knee, which for whatever reason decided to pop out last year. I ended up having to plug that hole back in. That's what is taking the time right now, letting the bone heal and not pushing it too hard.
And his return to the 4-3?
"No matter what I did in the past, I still have to come here and I still have to prove myself all over again," Vilma said. "It helps obviously that I showed I can do it back then two years ago. But I still have to do it again this year and the years to come."
For New Orleans, it's a tantalizing thought. But there are nearly six months left before the regular season arrives, and plenty can go wrong in that span. As Payton might say, it's how this team adjusts to last season's failures that matters most.