- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2007

The NFL’s feel-good story of 2006 has become the flop of 2007.

The New Orleans Saints were everyone’s darlings last year, symbolizing their city’s hoped-for recovery from Hurricane Katrina with a surprising run to the NFC Championship game. A popular pick to win the Super Bowl this season, they are off to an ugly 0-2 start.

New Orleans opened the season with a crushing loss to defending champion Indianapolis 41-10. New Orleans native Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne embarrassed cornerback Jason David, a former teammate.

With 10 days to rebound and prepare for NFC South rival Tampa Bay, New Orleans responded with an equally embarrassing performance, falling behind the punchless Buccaneers 28-0 before losing 31-14. Joey Galloway burned the secondary for touchdowns of 24 and 69 yards.

The defense already has given up five touchdown catches and 11 plays of at least 24 yards. On the other side of the ball, Drew Brees, the NFL’s top quarterback in his first season with the Saints last year, has one touchdown, three interceptions and a 66.4 passer rating.

“We had one of the top offenses in the league last year, and to see them not scoring a whole lot of points is definitely surprising,” said Redskins safety Omar Stoutmire, who started nine games for the Saints a year ago. “There were a lot of deep balls last year, and obviously that’s still going on. We’ll have to see if they get it fixed. A lot of things went right last year, but we still had a pretty good team.”

The Saints return to the Superdome on Monday night for their first regular-season home game since they edged Philadelphia in January to reach their first NFC Championship game. With Tennessee in town, ESPN will go wild with the Reggie Bush-Vince Young angle (Young led Texas past Bush and Southern Cal in the 2006 Rose Bowl). But the bigger story is whether the Saints were one-year wonders riding an emotional wave that superseded a lousy defense.

“No one thought we’d be in this situation, but it’s not panic mode yet,” one Saints player said after Wednesday’s team meeting. “Guys talked about how we need to get the hunger back that we had last year. Tampa Bay flat outplayed us from play one. We missed a lot of tackles.”

True, but the defense doesn’t have any coveted players other than ends Charles Grant and Will Smith. Neither has a sack yet, nor does the team. Bush is still more gadget than mainstay. Marques Colston is averaging roughly half his 14.8 yards a catch of last year. Neither Bush nor Deuce McAllister has scored. Veteran kicker Olindo Mare has missed two of three field goal tries.

Still, in an NFC South that includes 1-1 Tampa Bay, which can’t run and no longer has a fearsome defense; 1-1 Carolina, which collapsed in its home opener against Houston; and woeful Atlanta (0-2), New Orleans might come out on top.

Expecting much more than that, let alone a title, is wishful thinking.

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