METAIRIE, La. – Jon Stinchcomb threw a block before a certain question had even rolled off a visitor's tongue.
The New Orleans Saints offensive tackle leaned into his locker at the team's practice facility and smirked. Only a year ago, people stood in this very locker room and asked him how his offensive unit was going to pull itself out of the NFC South basement and whether it could answer the same quarterbacking questions that had dogged this franchise seemingly forever. Frankly, some of those insinuations were insulting. Now, a visitor wants to know if this same Saints offense can become one of the best offenses in league history.
Stinchcomb could only raise his eyebrow and chuckle.
"Let's go earn it," he said. "Let's get out there and play some regular-season football before we start talking about historic offenses. We had a good year last year, but man, we haven't even played in one regular season game yet."
Stinchcomb did allow this much: "Yeah, I think this offense can get a lot better. But let's wait and see what that means."
When it comes to shifts of expectation, the NFL is a seismic league. And if you're looking for the biggest mover over the span of 12 months, the Saints qualify. Even with the additions of quarterback Drew Brees and running back Reggie Bush, nobody was totally sold on this team heading into last season. The collective world ran a finger down the roster and rolled out questions with ease. Would Brees' arm hold up? Could Bush and Deuce McAllister coexist? And who the hell was Marques Colston?
Now the argument is whether that quartet is the best set of skill position players in the NFC. And factoring in growth and some of the offseason additions, it's not unrealistic to think this might be an offense poised to make a huge scoring leap. Consider that the Saints offense, No. 1 in the NFL in yardage (391.5 per game) last season, returns 10 starters and added the likes of once-prolific tight end Eric Johnson and deep threat David Patten. Two of their most potent weapons, Colston and Bush, are further ahead in their development. And coach Sean Payton has seen Brees develop a mastery of a scheme he was still learning last season.
But what might truly translate into points is New Orleans' turnover margin. The Saints were fifth in the league in scoring in 2006 with 413 points, despite tying for the second-fewest takeaways in the NFL (19).
"If you asked if there was some meat left on the bone last season and where we could improve, that was one area that we really focused on and talked about quite a bit," Payton said. "Our players know about that."
And for all the champagne toasts of 2006, all was not perfect for the Saints offense. Brees threw 11 interceptions and had eight fumbles (only three lost), Colston had a blazing hot start but, slowed by injury, managed two touchdowns in his final six games. Bush mustered only 3.6 yards per carry.
"There are some areas on offense we feel we have to improve on, too," Payton said. "The red zone is an area we've worked on hard this offseason. You hope that with some of the young players that the curve goes forward and upwards. I know that Drew is further along in this system than he was at this time (last year). He wasn't even 100-percent healthy probably until the first week or two of the regular season."
But harvesting the fruits of Brees' improvements will depend on health. Despite the first-team offense moving flawlessly under his direction (Brees has completed 19 of 26 passes with no interceptions in the preseason), both Colston and Devery Henderson have missed practice time with injuries. And starting left tackle Jammal Brown is dealing with a sprained knee that could cause him to miss the beginning of the regular season.
"We're so much further along than we were at this time last season, but we've got to get on the field," Colston said. "Some of us guys that were in our first year last season, Reggie and myself, we know what's going on in the offense. And then you add in the additions, and that makes it all the better."
In fact, the Saints are so deep that wide receiver and first-round pick Robert Meachem will struggle just to get playing time. Colston and Henderson are firmly established as the top two receivers, Bush will get his share of catches out of the backfield and of all the free-agent signings, Johnson might be the most intriguing.
Johnson appeared to be on his way to stardom in 2004 when he notched 82 catches for the San Francisco 49ers, only to be sidelined all of 2005 with a foot injury. He became the odd man out last season with the drafting of Vernon Davis and the development of Frank Gore as San Francisco's offensive centerpiece. But Johnson still has the ability to make big contributions on passing downs, and should allow the Saints the ability to trot out a variety of flexible packages with Bush, McAllister, Colston, Henderson and Patten.
"I think (the offense) can get exponentially better," Brees said. "Not necessarily yards or anything like that. There are only so many yards you can get in a game. But efficiency and obviously scoring points, that's your main objective – who cares about the other stuff?"
Added McAllister, "How great we are doesn't really mean anything if you're not winning Super Bowls. That's the thing about Torry (Holt) and that Rams offense when it was in its heyday. They were winning a Super Bowl and doing new things every week."
Now the Saints appear to have that same potential. But like the Rams after their Super Bowl win following the 1999 season, the Saints no longer have the element of surprise. That went out the window with last season's explosion. What were lingering questions one year ago have ballooned into unyielding expectations.
Rather than wondering about the reliability of Drew Brees' repaired throwing shoulder, pundits debate whether this is the year he will ascend into the ranks of elite quarterbacks such as the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning and New England Patriots' Tom Brady. Rather than ask if McAllister and Bush can work in the same backfield, this season's speculation centers around the potentially prolific production of the duo. And Colston has gone from an unknown to a player who will consistently see defenses game-plan for him.
"A year ago, we caught everybody," said Henderson, who led the NFL last season with a 23.3 yards per catch average. "We snuck up on people. Guys made plays and surprised everybody. That won't happen again. The secret is out. We won't be sneaking up on anyone this year."
"But you know what? I think it's a good thing people are thinking so highly of us. And if we keep working hard, why can't we be one of the greatest offenses? We have the guys to do it, and we have the leadership at every position. Why not us?"