January 2, 2005

Embrace the Mediocrity: 2004 Year in Review

Saints Find Measure of Maturity... Too Late

Congratulations to Jim Haslett. He finally found some combination of recklessness, abandon, passion and luck to squeeze some consistency out of his football team. It's taken him five seasons to do it, but he deserves some measure of credit.

I'm not the first to point out that the Saints four-game winning streak came against three losing teams and a fourth team's backup squad. And the Saints didn't really look all that great, until January 2 in Carolina when they played with the intensity and talent level that had been expected all season long, especially led by a coach like Jim Haslett who himself played with the type of controlled fury that is necessary to dominate.

I'm also not the first to say that I would have preferred that Haslett be fired (and Philly OC Brad Childress hired forthwith). But after seeing this team finally finding something to fight about, for once, and giving itself something positive to carry into the offseason, I would vote for Haslett to keep his job one more year.

Not that it was ever in doubt, however. $6 million in buyouts doesn't "fall from the sky," apparently. But at least Haslett has justified it.

It is so good to see this team moving in the right direction, that Haslett has earned it.

The only thing that is going to break this team out of their four-year stupor of mediocrity, it will be the type of fire and inspiration this team has displayed in the past four games. If it doesn't carry over to next season, look for more of the same. This coaching staff has learned some things, about practice schedules, dealing with the media, handling player misbehavior, and distribution and dispensation of what a less tactful observer might call BS. Next year, as was this past season, should be a do or die campaign for Jim Haslett's staff.


Defensive MVP's: Mike McKenzie and Fahkir Brown. McKenzie overcame his trade-forcing phantom hamstring in time to spark the Saints' revival. Well worth a second round pick, especially considering this administration's luck with second round selections. Meanwhile Brown, who may not have had a fair shot in training camp at the starting job he eventually was forced into, is the cornerback of Jim Haslett's dreams. Tough, active in run support, and a good open field tackler. Brown doesn't have the job wrapped up for next season, but will be right there in the middle of it in training camp. Except this time, with nine 2004 starts under his belt, the Grambling product will be given a fair shot at the starting job. That Brown also pulled double duty on special teams duty made his season all the more impressive. His interception of Daunte Culpepper in the end zone after Randy Moss fell down was a tremendous over the shoulder catch.

Oh, and one more thing, the Saints' tremendous trio of defensive ends can thank McKenzie and Brown for at least half their collective 28 sacks. Although the trio will be short lived - Darren Howard will price himself into free agency - it was nice while it lasted. Just ask Jake Delhomme.

Offensive MVP: Joe Horn. No doubt about it. Deuce McAllister may be the focus of the game plan, but Joe Horn is what makes it all happen. His 2004 season was the best for a receiver in franchise history, and while Eric Martin still holds the career longevity records, Horn has solidified his status as the best receiver in Saints history. Without a doubt. If he wants and if his knee allows, he can have every record in the pass catching category within two years. If he doesn't retire as a Saint one day, it will be a travesty.

Special Teams MVP: Mitch Berger. Pro Bowl nomination aside, he was a force to be reckoned with in the battle for field position. He could make the Superdome crowd Ooo and Aaah with a mortar shot that would send the opposing returner back pedaling wildly. He could pin Dante Hall in a corner. He could drop a punt inside the five yard line into the waiting arms of Michael Lewis or Brown. When he came to New Orleans he had been tarred across the NFL as a powerful but erratic punter.

Rookie of the Year: Will Smith. Although Colby Bockwoldt surprised us more with his Vick-chasing speed and Haslett-like style, the Saints' first round pick was a playmaker from day one. Led the team with six forced fumbles. Seven sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, 33 tackles, two passes defensed. He took his licks early, getting shut out by Seattle's Walter Jones in game one, failing to fall on a critical fumble against Tampa Bay, and a couple costly roughing the passer penalties. But he was a force against San Francisco, in both games against Tampa Bay including when he knocked out Chris Simms, and the Saints were 5-1 when Smith forced a fumble. With Howard expected to leave for the rich waters of free agency, Smith is expected to be the full time starter across from Charles Grant in 2005.

Newcomer of the Year: Mike McKenzie played only half a season and led the team with five interceptions, making a handful of excellent plays every game. The former Packer, who was had for a second round pick and reserve QB J.T. O'Sullivan, fired up his teammates, whether it was from the sidelines in street clothes with towel in hand during his first weekend as a Saint (a victory over Kansas City) or against Dallas when he turned a questionable penalty into a rally point for the defense. His preference for man-to-man coverage inspired the defensive revolution that Rick Venturi orchestrated and that allowed this team to recover some respect out of this season. He has an impending contract battle, but his 2004 performance was one of the big reasons for this team's late playoff push.

by William Assaf, exclusive to NOPF

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