- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2006

The New Orleans Saints began this season as football’s feel-good team, but after six weeks have turned into something much more serious.

The Saints by Week 3 had matched their victory total from last season, a run capped with a 23-3 rout of the NFC South rival Atlanta Falcons at the raucous re-opening of the Superdome on Sept. 25.

They received a more down-to-earth affirmation on Sunday with a 27-24 victory over the powerful Philadelphia Eagles that upped the Saints’ record to 5-1.

“I think we’re kind of finding our identity as a team,” said running back Reggie Bush, the second pick in April’s draft. “We’re showing people how much fun we have and what these guys are all about.”

Few of the players — with the exception of Bush, backfield mate Deuce McAllister, quarterback Drew Brees and receiver Joe “What Cell phone?” Horn — are well known, even in New Orleans.

More than half the team’s current players never appeared on the Saints’ 53-man roster before this season. Likewise, also new are Sean Payton — the first of the 15 head coaches in franchise history to have a winning record after three games — and all 15 of his assistants.

The Saints made the playoffs in 2000 under rookie coach Jim Haslett and averaged an 8-8 record over the next four years. They certainly needed a fresh start, however, after the Katrina-ravaged 3-13 disaster that was their 2005 season.

“Coach Payton is doing a great job of how he prepares us to get ready,” Horn said. “[Under Haslett] we didn’t prepare as if we were playing on Sunday. That wasn’t Coach Haslett’s fault. He could start practice over 20 times. You can’t teach courage, man. When you don’t have 100 percent of a team buying into whatever a coach is offering, you’re going to lose.”

The Saints certainly could’ve lost to the Eagles. They surrendered 21 unanswered points to tie the score in the fourth quarter, but Brees marched them 72 yards in 16 plays over 8:26 to set up John Carney’s last-second game-winning field goal.

“It was really an opportunity for us to step up on offense,” McAllister said. “We knew we had to go out and make plays. One thing we didn’t want to do is give them the opportunity to win at the end.”

Edge no prophet — Edgerrin James didn’t seem too worried by his lack of production — seven carries for 1 yard — heading into the Arizona Cardinals’ preseason finale.

“I’ve been proving people wrong for so long it’s boring,” said James, in his first season with Arizona. “I look for challenges, for things people say I can’t do.”

Like turn around the long-lamentable Cardinals?

James’ pathetic 55 yards on 36 carries in Monday’s loss to the Bears dropped the four-time Pro Bowl pick’s average a carry to 2.7.

But then Arizona is where Emmitt Smith, who averaged 4.2 yards for 13 years in for the Cowboys, averaged 3.2 a carry. But Smith, at least, had an excuse: He was at the end of his career. James just turned 28.

That’s what friends are for? — Cardinals coach Dennis Green was a consistent winner with the Vikings, compiling a 97-62 record and taking his team to the playoffs eight times from 1992 to 2001. Ravens coach Brian Billick served on Green’s staff for the first six of those postseasons, four as offensive coordinator.

Both coaches should be ashamed of their behavior this week.

Green unleashed a memorable tirade after the Cardinals pulled off one of the biggest chokes in NFL history, turning a 23-3 lead into an inexplicable 24-23 defeat.

Green fired offensive coordinator Keith Rowen, his assistant in Minnesota and Arizona for five years, the next day even though the Cardinals rank 10th in passing and 13th in scoring with rookie Matt Leinart now starting at quarterback.

Billick didn’t yell or storm out of a press conference. He instead fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel on Tuesday with the 4-2 Ravens leading the AFC North.

Certainly, the Ravens’ attack, ranked 28th, should be better. But Billick, proud to be called an offensive genius in Minnesota in 1998, has canned two offensive coordinators in less than two years.

With four of the Ravens’ next five games against winning teams, it’s Billick’s job that is now on the line. Rightly so. But he shouldn’t have thrown his best friend overboard first.

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