Commentary

Scary Saints still working out bugs

With every outing and regardless of opponent, New Orleans quieting skeptics

Originally Published: September 20, 2009
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- It would be easy to be skeptical about the New Orleans Saints' 2-0 start.

After all, they've beaten one opponent that didn't win a game last season (the Detroit Lions). They just defeated another one that had lost its starting quarterback to an injury (the Philadelphia Eagles). But let's also get one thing straight before we start finding reasons to belittle the Saints: They already seem like a team that will be extremely dangerous by season's end.

The Saints didn't merely thump the host Eagles during their 48-22 win at Lincoln Financial Field. They also served notice that this could be the year during which they start living up to those expectations that have followed them since their miraculous run to the NFC Championship Game in the 2006 season. They produced big plays on offense, defense and even on the same special-teams units that had been so problematic in that season-opening win over Detroit.

And when a team seems this good in all three phases of the game, it's hard to dispute its potential.

What the Saints have to prove now is that all this promise isn't going to be wasted. For a team that has gone 15-17 over the past two seasons, the Saints clearly understand the importance of that thinking.

"We have wallowed around at 8-8 and 7-9 since that NFC Championship Game," said right tackle Jonathan Stinchcomb. "And that has left a bad taste in our mouths. But we also don't want to make the same mistakes that we've made in the past. We feel like we're a special team and we shouldn't be hanging around .500."

The Saints clearly had the right perspective after Sunday's game. Yes, they were thrilled to have a huge victory on the road against a championship-caliber team, even though Eagles starting quarterback Donovan McNabb was sidelined with a fractured rib. But the Saints also realize they have 14 games left to play. All they've done is put themselves in position to keep rolling.

Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees' offense remains prolific. He threw for 311 of the Saints' 421 total yards and also added three touchdowns. In fact, it was apparent Philadelphia was in for a huge day when Brees led New Orleans on an eight-play, 74-yard scoring drive to open the game.

"He's a star, and it seemed like we were a step behind him [all day]," Eagles cornerback Joselio Hanson said of Brees. "He got the ball off quick and he knew where he was going with it. That's what great quarterbacks do."

By the time Brees hit receiver Marques Colston for a 14-yard touchdown pass to conclude that possession, it seemed as if the Saints possibly might score whenever they wanted.

What's even scarier is that Brees believes the Saints could be better still offensively. They are averaging 46.5 points and 515 total yards through two games, and Brees still is wincing at all the missed opportunities that will show up in next week's film study. But he does admit there is a different vibe about these current Saints. He could feel it throughout the offseason, and their confidence has only grown as the regular season has started.

When Brees reflected on that 2006 season -- one that was largely fueled by the emotions still lingering from the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina -- he saw a Saints team that still was searching for its identity at this point in the season.

Now he sees a team that views itself as exceptional.

"You could see [excitement] with the moves during the offseason and [the hiring of defensive coordinator] Gregg Williams," Brees said.

"You saw the way the team came together during the OTAs. We see the window of opportunity we have here. And the confidence is definitely there."

Much of that confidence derives from the continuity of the team under head coach Sean Payton's four-year tenure. These players were there when New Orleans rolled into the playoffs, and they remembered how bad it felt to fall short of expectations in the two seasons that followed. There's a bonding that can occur with that kind of frustration. A sense of urgency can blossom from such experiences as well.

What you also see in this year's Saints is a better overall team.

The running game that had been inconsistent now has stabilized with Mike Bell (who sprained a knee in Sunday's game) and the presence of Pierre Thomas (who just recovered from a preseason knee injury of his own).

Even though the notoriously porous defense gave up 463 yards to Philadelphia, it did produce three interceptions. One of those was a third-quarter interception by outside linebacker Scott Shanle that set up a score, and another was a fourth-quarter pick that free safety Darren Sharper returned 97 yards for a touchdown.

Those are the kinds of plays that can create even more confidence. Remember, this was the kind of contest the Saints had become notorious for blowing in the past. Sure, they might have scored enough points to be competitive. But somewhere along the line, they would have made the kind of error that would have proved costly in the end.

That didn't happen Sunday. On this afternoon, it was Saints rookie cornerback Malcolm Jenkins changing the game when he forced Eagles kick returner Ellis Hobbs into a fumble of the second-half kickoff that safety Chris Reis recovered on the Eagles' 22-yard line. It was Brees leading the Saints to a late score in the second quarter to give New Orleans a 17-13 lead at halftime. And it was Colston and tight end Jeremy Shockey displaying the kind of chemistry with Brees that will frustrate opponents in coming weeks.

The Saints have matured.

As Payton said, "We have a chance to be better than the other teams we've had here. Now our approach to the next few weeks is to just get better."

Payton repeated what most coaches usually say after NFL victories. The only thing that makes his comments different is how scary the Saints will look once they actually do improve.

Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.