The New Orleans Saints transformed themselves from a three-win team to one that reached the NFC championship game for the first time in the franchise's 40-year history – and in the first season after returning home following a year away because of Hurricane Katrina. This could be the year to write the fairy-tale ending.
After all, expectations never have been higher in the Big Easy. The roster is built for a sustained run; receiver Joe Horn is the only starter missing from the NFC South championship team, and coach Sean Payton, quarterback Drew Brees, running back Reggie Bush and wide receiver Marques Colston are heading into just their second seasons with the Saints.
The schedule, which includes trips to Indianapolis and Chicago, likely will be a little tougher, but the Saints figure to be better, too. Lofty expectations and the glare from a brighter national spotlight are things the Saints are going to have to get used to.
Offense: The Saints ranked No. 1 in the NFL in total offense last season, and this unit is as versatile as it is explosive. Payton calls his own plays and has one of the league's most creative offensive minds. Brees immediately took to Payton's version of the West Coast system and was aided by a wealth of weapons. Deuce McAllister is a workhorse runner.
The electric Bush is a threat as a runner and receiver. Colston is a big, physical receiver who piled up numbers after being a draft-day afterthought as a seventh-rounder out of Hostra. Payton loves to run misdirection and play-action – often with Bush and McAllister both on the field. Opposing defenses had a hard time keeping up with this unit in 2006.
Defense: The Saints had a bend-but-don't-break defense in 2006 that made huge fourth-quarter stands in some of the biggest games. But New Orleans ranked 31st in the league with just 19 takeaways and didn't force any in two playoff games. Every starter returns, but coordinator Gary Gibbs is hoping three free-agent pickups – middle linebacker Brian Simmons, cornerback Jason David and safety Kevin Kaesviharn – compete for starting jobs.
Ends Will Smith and Charles Grant are the two standout playmakers on this traditional 4-3 defense that relies on a lot of man coverage. The secondary needs to allow fewer big plays while forcing more interceptions.
QB Drew Brees: As the Saints returned to New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, Brees embraced the rebuilding community, became the new face of the team and cherished the role of locker room leader. Oh, and he was fantastic on the field.
The smart, accurate quarterback silenced any doubts about his surgically repaired shoulder by throwing for a league-high 4,418 yards to go with 26 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions. If anything, his arm looked stronger, as he regularly threw the deep ball effectively and connected on underneath routes. At 28, Brees is in his prime.
RBs Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush: The two-back system is all the rage in the NFL – and the Saints have an elite combo in McAllister and Bush.
McAllister, an every-down bulldozer before he injured his knee in 2005, still can take over games. That was evident when he ran for 143 yards in the playoff victory over the Eagles.
Bush made his biggest impact in December and January after a nagging ankle injury slowed him early. He scored nine touchdowns in the final seven games, including the playoffs, and caught a team-high 88 passes. Payton likes to keep defenses off-balance by using Bush on draws, perimeter runs and end-arounds, but Bush needs to reduce his negative plays.
DEs Will Smith and Charles Grant: Smith earned his first Pro Bowl last season after producing 10½ sacks – and it won't be his last. He has the strength and speed to overwhelm linemen as a pass rusher.
Grant is every bit the pass rusher Smith is. Grant has surprising agility for his size (6-foot-3, 290) and does a good job of penetrating the backfield to get sacks, hurry passes and force fumbles.
CBs Mike McKenzie, Fred Thomas and Jason David: McKenzie and Thomas, last year's starting corners, are capable athletes who still have the speed and the attitude to play heavy doses of man coverage. But both have been inconsistent the past two years and have allowed too many deep completions against high-powered offenses.
McKenzie, in particular, has the tools to take a big step forward. He has been a big-time playmaker before and at 31 still should have a couple of good years left in him. Thomas is coming off a rough postseason, and David is expected to replace him as the starter. Though David, 25, doesn't have ideal size (5-8, 180), he is physical and his speed will be a welcome addition to the secondary. Thomas will figure into the mix at nickel back.
VINNIE IYER'S TAKE
A one-year wonder? No way. This is a talented team that will stay in the NFC title race with Payton, Brees, Bush and a healthy dose of improved secondary play.
Prediction: 12-4 (1st in the NFC South).
Look for this team to be improved across the board. Brees and McAllister will be another year removed from their surgeries, the offensive line will benefit from a year of growth, and the defense added depth in the back seven and will have a better handle on the schemes in Year 2 of Gibbs' system. Look for Bush to have a true breakout season – and if he does, the offense figures to be as exciting as any in the NFL.
But none of that guarantees a return trip to the NFC championship game. To get back there, the Saints will need to stay healthy again and navigate through what could be a much-improved NFC South. It won't be easy, but the Saints are the best bet in the NFC to reach the Super Bowl and an even better bet to be entertaining.
Mike Triplett covers the Saints for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and Sporting News.