Four years ago, New Orleans coach Jim Haslett transformed a woeful Saints team into a legitimate playoff contender.
His first three years with the Saints were successful on a number of levels. His 26 regular-season victories ranked second in club history through three years, trailing only Jim Mora’s 29 wins from 1986-88.
However, in each of the last two seasons, the Saints seemed on a sure path to the playoffs, only to slump late in the season and wind up out of the postseason.
Last year, New Orleans lost five of its last seven games, including three straight to end the season.
“Last year was disappointing for all of us,” Haslett said. “We analyzed everything and looked at why it happened. It really boils down to not making enough plays.”
Though New Orleans was the NFC’s highest-scoring team with 432 points, the defense struggled mightily last season. The Saints gave up 20 or more points in every game except the finale, a 10-6 home loss to Carolina.
Along with needing more speed, the Saints wanted less bulk on defense. The trio of Norman Hand, Grady Jackson and Martin Chase, known as the “Heavy Lunch Bunch,” had trouble stopping the run up the middle.
Hand and Chase are gone this season, Jackson is slimmed down, and the defense is faster and more athletic.
“We are a fast football team,” Haslett said. “We are a talented football team. We are a young football team. I think it comes down to how fast we mature.”
Haslett is also concerned about injuries.
New Orleans will be without starting safety Mel Mitchell, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason finale. Also missing will be linebacker Derrick Rodgers, who was suspended by the NFL for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
The Seahawks’ offense looks to start out the way it finished the 2002 campaign, averaging a whopping 476 yards over the final six games.
The key will be the continued development of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
Hasselbeck was the NFL’s top passer over the final six weeks of the season, posting two 400-yard passing performances and throwing for 2,152 yards—more than any other quarterback during that span.
“Maybe one of the reasons I’ve had some success is because I haven’t tried to think big picture,” he said. “I’m more focused on one play at a time, just moving the chains. I just started looking at small things.”
Seattle coach Mike Holmgren groomed Joe Montana and Steve Young during his days in San Francisco and, later, Brett Favre in Green Bay. It would be premature to lump Hasselbeck in the same group, but Holmgren is enthused about his signal-caller’s season-ending surge.
“I had to strangle them all a little bit, but at some point the lights go on and you get a chance to be a really good player,” Holmgren said. “He says, ‘OK, this is a good system. If I do this, this and this, I can get it to work for me.”’
2002 STANDINGS: Saints - 3rd place, NFC South. Seahawks - 3rd place, NFC West.
2002 SAINTS LEADERS: Offense - Aaron Brooks, 3,572 passing yards and 27 passing TDs; Deuce McAllister, 1,388 rushing yards and 13 rushing TDs; Joe Horn, 88 receptions and 1,312 receiving yards; Donte’ Stallworth, 8 receiving TDs. Defense - Knight, 80 tackles; Darren Howard, 8 sacks; Knight and Fred Thomas, 5 INTs.
2002 SEAHAWKS LEADERS: Offense - Hasselbeck, 3,075 passing yards and 15 passing TDs; Shaun Alexander, 1,175 rushing yards and 16 rushing TDs; Koren Robinson, 78 receptions, 1,240 receiving yards and 5 receiving TDs. Defense - Reggie Tongue, 77 tackles and 5 INTs; John Randle, 7 sacks.
2002 SAINTS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 110.4 yards per game (17th in NFL); Passing Offense - 214.9 ypg (16th); Total Offense - 325.3 ypg (19th). Rushing Defense - 124.4 ypg (19th); Passing Defense - 237.8 ypg (27th); Total Defense - 362.3 ypg (27th).
2002 SEAHAWKS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 108.8 ypg (20th); Passing Offense - 254.9 ypg (3rd); Total Offense - 363.6 ypg (7th). Rushing Defense - 152.6 ypg (32nd); Passing Defense - 213.2 ypg (18th); Total Defense - 365.8 ypg (28th).
LAST MEETING: Sept. 17, 2000; Seahawks, 20-10. At Seattle, the Seahawks outscored the Saints 10-0 in the fourth quarter, and RB Ricky Watters posted his 31st career 100-yard rushing game.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Saints - The Saints have won three of the last four meetings with the Seahawks. … New Orleans is 16-8 on the road the past three seasons. … CB Ambrose has started 112 consecutive games since 1996 and has posted 36 career interceptions and two TDs. Seahawks - Seattle is 7-20 record in season openers, a record that includes a 2-10 mark in season openers at home. … CB Marcus Trufant will become just the third rookie to start the season opener at the position after Shawn Springs suffered a broken bone in his shoulder at Denver in the preseason finale. … WR Robinson’s 15.9 yard per catch average ranked fourth in the NFL among receivers with at least 60 receptions.
2002 ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Saints - 5-3 on the road; Seahawks - 3-5 at home.
INJURIES: Saints - OUT: LB Cie Grant (knee). DOUBTFUL: DT Henry Ford (ankle). QUESTIONABLE: DE Howard (knee); DE Charles Grant (calf); CB Michael Hawthorne (shoulder); TE Walter Rasby (calf). PROBABLE: T P.J. Alexander (shoulder); S Steve Gleason (knee/shoulder); LB Roger Knight (hip); WR Stallworth (hamstring). Seahawks - OUT: S Terreal Bierria (shoulder); TE Ryan Hannam (knee); LB Isaiah Kacyvenski (ankle); CB Springs (shoulder). DOUBTFUL: LB Orlando Huff (knee).