<span>The New Orleans Saints players went through a normal practice today before departing on a three-day weekend during the team's bye week.
The Saints' bye, which falls directly in the middle of their 16-game schedule, provides many players on the team an opportunity to rest up for the second half of their season, which begins on Sunday, November 9 when they travel to Atlanta to face the Falcons in a key NFC South showdown. The team will reconvene on Monday for practice, meetings and strength-and-conditioning sessions and will then continue on normal game preparations for the Falcons.
Head Coach Sean Payton addressed the immediate future of the Saints by stating, "We had set high goals. Fortunately for us we have a lot of football left, but we're going to have to play more consistently. I think anyone would see that. We're not going to be able to win one week and lose the next week. If we do that, we're on pace to be right at 8-8."
The third year head coach, who already owns the fourth most victories (22) in team history, pointed to certain areas that he feels need to be corrected as the team prepares for the second half of the season.
"We're going to have to play better football the second half of the season and in all areas," Payton said. "Not just on defense ore the kicking game, but on offense, too. There were in this first half of the season, opportunities that I look back on offense and we have to be real critical of ourselves with a lot of specifics, four-minute offense and being able to close out a game. Even the other night (against San Diego) we had a chance to get one first down and take a knee. That's something that we're going to spend some more time on and get better with, but fortunately we're at a halfway point and not at the three-quarter pole. We're at the final stretch right now."
Payton also took a realistic and grounded approach to the team's at times turbulent roster juggling that has largely focused around a rash of injuries that has cost the team the services of such key contributors such as WR Marques Colston, TE Jeremy Shockey, WR David Patten, C Jonathan Goodwin, LB Scott Fujita, DT Sedrick Ellis and RB Reggie Bush to name but a few over the first half of the season.
"The only thing I can control is our roster and our team right now," he said. "I don't deal with it as being in limbo. I mean that week-by-week approach is how we look at our roster and we prepare to win a game with who's up and who's potentially inactive. All of the other things will take care of themselves."
Payton has never once used the injuries as an excuse for various spurts of inconsistencies that have irritated both he and the coaching staff at key junctures in games. Instead Payton has elected to simply prepare the team for circumstances that are within their control.
"We understand that in this league that nobody really cares (about injuries or unexpected de-activations for various reasons)," Payton said. "I say that not in a negative way, but nobody wants to hear about your pains. I think our players know that."
"What we can control each week is how we prepare for a game. I thought last week (against San Diego) with all the other things going on in regards to the trip we took, we had really good focus as a team. I thought we were good the night before and the day before the game and I felt confident that they were prepared to play a good game against a good team. Myself and my staff need to find a better way of getting that team that focused and prepared mentally and physically each week in the next eight weeks and not look past the next game, which for us is Atlanta, keeping the focus on the very short term basis."
That approach, Payton feels, is the best method the Saints can implement heading into the final two months of the regular season. "Then we can count them up down the road," he said. " It's getting to the point with injuries and other potential losses, we have to be able to handle that stuff and not let it negatively affect our team."
Payton did allow a rare look back at some missed opportunities in the first half of the 2008 season that he intends to use as instructional advice for the team in the coming weeks.
"We had our opportunities, but the bottom line is that we didn't get the plays we needed at Washington we needed to win. We weren't able to finish the game at Denver. We weren't able to finish the game at home here against Minnesota," he said. "That's what it is. I think the worst thing we can do is bury our heads in the sand and say that everything's going to be all right in the second half of the season. I think we need to work on improving and have an opportunity to improve in a lot of little areas and think about how we can best do that as coaches."
Payton was asked if he would agree with a member of the media's statement that QB Drew Brees and MLB Jonathan Vilma were the team's first half of the season's most consistent performers on their respective sides of the football. "Those guys have played well but I think it's better to talk about that kind of stuff at the end of the year rather than in midstream," Payton said. "Hopefully we can get ourselves back in this thing and be more consistent. That's where we're are, really."
Despite owning the top-ranked offense in the NFL, Payton was quick to point out that the onus for success down the stretch run falls on each member of the team, regardless of where they stand on the depth chart or their offensive, defensive or special teams positional title.
"Collectively we have to play better as a team," Payton said. "That being said, part of that is defense, but part of it is on us offensively being able to close some games out and help complement each other. One of the things that we have to do a good job with, and it starts with me and our coaching staff, is to constantly looking at our game plan as to how we're going to complement each other each week. I think that we have to be better as a team, rather than just in one area."