Could this be the year for Saints?
The Saints could be this year's version of .500 to the Super Bowl.
Everybody pretty much knows the hope springs eternal statistics, numbers from the past half-dozen NFL seasons, a recent history coaches and general managers recite by rote to convince even the shabbiest of rosters that the playoffs are a realistic possibility at the outset of any campaign.
Over the last six years, seven of the 12 teams that advanced to the Super Bowl were at .500 or below in the season preceding their championship game appearance, and eight did not qualify for the playoffs at all. Of the past six Super Bowl champions, four failed to participate in the postseason the year before claiming the Vince Lombardi trophy, and the two others were coming off campaigns in which they had been only wild-card teams.
So the popular perception, perpetuated in part by the media's persistence in trumpeting those numbers, is that everyone opens the season a Super Bowl contender, right? Alas, even with the history of one-year turnarounds, that is hardly the reality.
In fact, the guess here is that the 2004 season probably includes fewer possibilities for Cinderella status than did the last several years. Here's why: Of the seven teams since 1998 that advanced to a Super Bowl berth after non-winning seasons, just two, New England in 2001 and St. Louis in 1999, had fewer than seven victories in the year before their championship game appearance. The five others were coming off seasons spent in the NFL's parity universe, where almost everyone balances one game on either side of the .500 ledger, with between seven and nine wins.
There were only six franchises in 2003 in the seven- to nine-victory category. That is a significant number because it represents the smallest such subset since 1992, when there also were six teams with 7-9 wins. In 2002, for instance, there were 15 teams that won 7-9 games, and the average for the past six seasons is 11.3 such teams. From 1990 to 2002, the NFL norm was 10.7 franchises with seven, eight or nine victories.
So it would seem, using just raw numbers alone, that the litany of franchises capable of being transformed from pretenders to contenders in a quantum, one-year leap, is blunted. More so than in most recent seasons, it will not be surprising if the playoff field for 2004 is not significantly different than the 2003 postseason pool.
"Everyone just assumes now, because of what teams like us did [last year], that there is going to be kind of a rags-to-riches franchise every year," said Carolina Panthers safety Mike Minter. "That might not always be the case."
Indeed, the chic choice of many pundits as the sub-.500 team from '03 that might emerge as a playoff power this year is the Jacksonville Jaguars. We can't disagree with the notion that second-year coach Jack Del Rio has the Jaguars headed in the right direction, but feel the team might still be one year away from postseason viability.
Among some of the other most-cited teams that had losing seasons a year ago and could be headed for the playoffs this time around, we can't buy into Washington (meddlesome owner), Oakland (another meddlesome owner and plenty of guys on the wrong side of 30) or Tampa Bay (whatever geezers the Raiders don't employ, the Bucs do).
Pittsburgh and Buffalo, each 6-10 in 2003, are possibilities, provided the Steelers can stop the pass and the Bills can throw the ball better than a year ago. But the team we most favor as a candidate for mediocre-to-meteoric status in 2004 is the Saints. New Orleans is a perennial underachiever that, on paper, certainly features a roster rife with talent.
Yeah, we know that quarterback Aaron Brooks played even fewer snaps in preseason (28) than his celebrated cousin, Atlanta Falcons counterpart Michael Vick (29). And the Saints will go into the season with a rookie, Courtney Watson, as the starting middle linebacker. And, sure, New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Jim Haslett would still love to pry holdout Mike McKenzie away from Green Bay to address the concerns at the cornerback position.
So, for sure, there are a zillion puzzle pieces that would have to fall into place for New Orleans to advance to Super Bowl XXXIX. But, hey, wasn't that the case for most of the surprise Super Bowl entries over the last six seasons?
No one, not even Bill Belichick, knew in 2001 that Tom Brady could step into the lineup so successfully when Drew Bledsoe went down with a chest injury that season. Fans seem to forget that it was Rodney Peete, not the ascending Jake Delhomme, who opened the '03 season as the Carolina Panthers' starting quarterback. After Trent Green went down in the '99 preseason, quarterback Kurt Warner went from stocking grocery shelves to being the NFL's top-shelf performer, the most valuable player for the season and Super Bowl. An Atlanta franchise that never has produced consecutive winning seasons rode the wave of a miracle year, and the legs of tailback Jamal Anderson, in 1998.
"Talk to people in this locker room who have played for a Super Bowl team," said Saints tailback Deuce McAllister, "and they feel like we have Super Bowl-type talent here. The key for us is going to be consistency. We can't be up one week and then down the next. We have to get to a certain level and maintain it throughout. We definitely have players."
They also have -- and, please, oblige us another dose of numerology here -- key numbers aligned on their side.
Consider this: The average number of regular-season victories by the dozen teams that played in the past six Super Bowl games is 12.5. The average victory differential for those teams, from the season preceding their Super Bowl berth to the year they earned a spot in the title game, is 4.5. So if the numbers hold true to form, it is going to take a team that had eight wins in 2003 -- and New Orleans and Cincinnati were the lone .500 franchises in the NFL last year -- to advance to Super Bowl XXXIX.
Nothing against the Bengals, but stopping the run might be a bigger deficiency for coach Marvin Lewis' team this year than playing with a starting quarterback who didn't take a single snap in 2003.
The Saints, we realize, could well be renamed the Sinners, and it would be an apt change. But they have a lot of churches in The Big Easy, and a lot of fans praying this is the year all their supplications are finally answered.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer at ESPN.com.