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BOB RYAN

To him, they're not the Aints

FOXBOROUGH -- If this is Wednesday, it must be Heap Praise On The Other Team Day.

This week's installment features the New Orleans Saints, and now it's time to ask Coach Bill for a look at his team's next foe.

''Two words describe just about everybody on the team: big and fast."

''They have very good skill people. They run the ball well. The quarterback is athletic. They have speed. They have big-play people."

''The defensive line is as good and as deep as any in the league."

''It's a fast secondary. They do a great job jamming receivers. It's a good secondary. They've got some really good players back there."

''It's an extremely good offensive line. They just roll 'em out there. They play 'em all, and they're all good."

''There isn't anybody out there that has not had problems protecting [the passer] against this team. That goes back several years."

''They have a very good kicking game."

''The receivers all block well. I'm very impressed with their receivers. [Joe] Horn, [Donte'] Stallworth, [Az-Zahir] Hakim, and [Devery] Henderson's made some big plays for them."

''They can match up man to man with any team in the league. They're big, they're fast, they don't shy away."

He's not done. The worst is yet to come.

''This is a team that plays well on the road. They have a lot of mental toughness. They're a resilient team, and they're a good team. I think [New Orleans coach] Jim [Haslett] has more wins in his career on the road than at home. Not a lot of people can say that."

And, finally . . .

''They could easily have five or six wins. That's the kind of team they are."

Just to make sure, I checked the standings. The New Orleans Saints are 2-7.

The New Orleans Saints, who, if we are to believe Coach Bill, are in possession of as good and deep a defensive line as anyone in the league; who have as good and deep an offensive line as any team in the league; who have a great secondary, who have great receivers, who have a great kicking game; who, in Aaron Brooks, have an athletic quarterback; and who are even better as a rule on the road than they are at home; are 2-7. If all the aforementioned is true, they are giving new meaning to the concept of underachievement.

Of course, there is one other thing that should be noted about the New Orleans Saints, and that is the simple fact that they are orphans. They do not have a true home field, (or city, for that matter) and they are the only team in the league that has been forced to play a game in another team's stadium and have it designated as a ''home" game. Even Coach Bill is up on the situation. He came out of the bunker long enough one day to get himself up to snuff on the subject of Hurricane Katrina, and he is therefore conversant with its effect on the Saints.

''They're in an unfortunate and unique situation down there," Coach Bill acknowledges.

What are the Patriots to do? They've got to play this fearsome Saints team having lost yet another starter, and an especially important one at that. Dan Koppen has become a valuable asset at the center position, but he now has a separated left shoulder and is lost for the season. For the Patriots and Coach Bill, the hits just keep on coming.

But things could be worse, right? The two-time defending, three-out-of-four champs may only be 5-4, but Dame Fortune has placed them in the company of, well, stiffs (not that Coach Bill would ever acknowledge such). The AFC East, once formidable, has become one of the NFL's charity wards. The J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets are crippled, disheartened, and B-A-D, Bad, Bad, Bad. Neither the Dolphins nor Bills are ready for prime time. The Patriots are in first place and can control their destiny. A 9-7 record will win this division, and, even in their diminished state, the Patriots have a remaining schedule that could conceivably yield an 11-5, or, more likely, a 10-6. In sports these days, it's all about context. Someone had to win the National League West. Someone has to win the Big 12 North. And someone has to represent the AFC East once the playoffs come.

If you or I were in charge, we'd be thrilled to know that, though we're 5-4, we're so lucky to be in this particular division this particular year. We could be 5-4, and someone else could be 7-1 or 8-0, and we'd be in trouble. We'd have a harder time preparing for what lies ahead if we knew how hopeless it all was. So we'd have an easier time preparing for what lies ahead knowing that we'd caught that break. It would make a definite difference in our daily outlook. To you and me, that's like, pretty obvious, right?

Oh, here's a shock. Coach Bill doesn't see it that way.

''I don't care what the other 31 teams are doing -- other than the one we're playing," he fumes. ''It's where we are, and where our opponent is for that week . . . All you can do is control your situation, which is right in front of you, your game, and how you match up against that opponent."

Coach, we know all that. But that's not the issue. The issue is that you could be 5-4 and out of it, but you're 5-4 and still alive. That doesn't make you feel better?

''The rest of it, to me, is irrelevant," Coach Bill says. ''I'm not saying that doesn't occur. But I try, I would say, less than 1/10th of 1 percent of whatever -- however small I can make it . . . There are seven games left to go in the season. Nobody's clinched anything in the NFL, have they? I mean, I missed it if they did . . . You look at teams with certain records now, and at the end of the year they'll be something else. They won't correlate. I promise you that, they won't correlate.

''You can't so anything about the ones you've won or lost, you can't do anything about anyone else's record, and you certainly can't do anything about however many games come after the one you play. You deal with them as they come. That's the way I look at it. I might be screwed up. I probably am. But that's the way I see it."

Forgive him if he's a bit edgy. He does have limited time to prepare the Patriots for the greatest 2-7 team of all time.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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