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Friday, November 13, 2009
Fixing imperfections may perfect Saints

By Pat Yasinskas
ESPN.com

New Orleans Saints
With few major flaws and a favorable schedule, the New Orleans Saints have a chance at getting through the regular season undefeated.

If you walked into the New Orleans locker room after Sunday’s game against the Carolina Panthers, you’d swear the Saints had just lost.

“You can’t keep putting yourself into a hole,’’ veteran safety Darren Sharper was saying in one corner.

“We might as well just give teams 10 points before the game starts,’’ tight end Jeremy Shockey said halfway across the locker room from Sharper. “We’ve got to stop doing that.’’

Yes, we all know the Saints didn’t lose that game. They’re 8-0 and, through the first half of the season, the very best team in the NFL.

But this talk of doom also has prevailed in recent victories against Atlanta and Miami. In the wee hours Tuesday morning after a 35-27 Monday night victory against Atlanta, a cab driver was singing the blues as he pulled away from the Superdome.

“That’s too many points to give up,’’ he said. “Way too many points.’’

It’s that way wherever you go in New Orleans. Players, coaches, cab drivers, fans … they’re all pointing out flaws when their team is perfect. More than a little ironic for a team that’s spent almost its entire existence as lovable losers.

Heck, they’re even worried about Sunday’s game against the mighty St. Louis Rams.

“They have some very talented people that have played at a Pro Bowl level for several years at some key positions that we’re going to have to defend defensively,’’ defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said. “They have some really talented players.’’

Um, no, the Rams do not. They are really, really bad and so are the Buccaneers, whom the Saints play next week. Reality is the Saints already are 10-0. Their offense is on pace to be one of the best in history, their defense has undergone one of the most impressive turnarounds I’ve ever seen and the remaining schedule isn’t very difficult.

I almost want to call this bashing of the Saints by just about everyone inside the team and the team's fans laughable or some kind of out-of-control paranoia. But I can understand the paranoia. I was a fan of the Boston Red Sox long before that became trendy or good for your sanity and self-esteem.

But, after thinking about it a bit, I think what the Saints and their fans are doing is totally healthy and wise. They’re searching for perfection every week now because they want perfection at the end and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s what they should be shooting for.

They’re already halfway there.

There’s nothing wrong with dwelling on some small imperfections -- letting Carolina and Miami get off to big leads and letting Atlanta’s Michael Turner turn his season around. Those things, inconsistent play by the special teams and a few other minor details are the only true negatives you can pin on the Saints in their first half of the season.

“We keep saying, “We need to clean things up. We need to clean things up’’,’’ Shockey said. “The thing is, we haven’t done that yet, but things are still bouncing our way, unlike the past. But it’s going to come back to bite us if we don’t clean things up. We have something very special going on here. If we clean these things up, the sky is the limit.’’

Actually, the Super Bowl and maybe an undefeated season are the limits.

“We haven’t played a perfect game yet,’’ Sharper said.

The Saints did pretty much steamroll their first five opponents, never trailing a single time. And, really, can you be perfect all the time?

“I don’t think there’s ever been a perfect game,’’ Shockey said.

I don’t either. I don’t remember many details of the perfect season by the 1972 Dolphins because I was too young, but I’m sure Don Shula saw a few things along the way that weren’t perfect. The closest thing I’ve ever seen to a perfect game was the performance by Villanova in the 1985 college basketball national championship game against Georgetown.

The thing there was Villanova had to play a perfect game, just to have a chance. In relative terms, the Saints are way more talented than Villanova because they've got Drew Brees at point guard and Marques Colston's more of a banger than Ed Pinckney ever was. The Saints don’t have to be perfect, but, yes, they do have to be a little better than they’ve been -- at times -- in the last three games.

“We keep going like this and my blood pressure is going to be high,’’ Sharper said. “And the fans’ blood pressure is going to be high.’’

It’s great that the Saints have shown the leadership and the character to come back from deficits. But Sharper is right. You can’t do that every week. You need to survive some games like that, if you’re going to have a truly special season. But you also need to steamroll a bunch of your opponents and you also need to be playing your best in December, January and into February.

“Our goal is to play the perfect game,’’ Sharper said.

Not a bad goal to have. It may not be all that realistic because there are bound to be some more mistakes along the way. But I think it's a huge plus the Saints can at least see their flaws now. If they can gradually clean up their imperfections, the Saints ultimately just might have a shot at perfection.