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Saints surrounded by high expectations

By Staff
This is the first of a three-part series previewing the New Orleans Saints' 2003 football season.
By Richard Dark / EMG staff writer
Sept. 4, 2003
NEW ORLEANS Optimism.
For most, it is simply a school of thought.
For football fans in the Gulf South, it is an emotion. For fans of the New Orleans Saints, every year it is a doctrine.
Despite the franchise having won only one playoff game in its history, when summer grinds its way through to the dog days of August, you'll be hard-pressed to find a Saints fan that won't tell you, "This is the year. This is when we go to the Superbowl."
For those multitude of faithful in East Central Mississippi that root especially heartily for names such as McAfee, McAllister, Smith and Horn, to name a few, the desire to see this team succeed on the gridiron perhaps rivals that of any average Joe walking around Canal Street. In the Magnolia State, too, the doctrine lives.
It certainly isn't lost on those who hover around the team for the purposes of recounting their day-to-day progress.
Consider a typical morning at Saints training camp.
It is a sunny early August day about 20 minutes before the start of the team's 9 a.m. practice. The practice field area is deserted except for some staff and players milling about.
Hokie Gajan, a former player and scout for the organization for the better part of the past 20 seasons, entered the booth back in 2000 to become the Saints radio color analyst, replacing area icon Archie Manning, who opted to spend more time in cities such as Oxford or Indianapolis.
The former fullback in the early days of Jim Mora sits alone, leaned back, his body touching parts of three rows on a small, random set of bleachers in the corner of the complex. He watches intently as the players file out of the locker room in the 98-degree heat index to begin warming up.
But the fans of this team are optimistic every year right about this time. What makes 2003 so different?
And what of the defense?
That porous unit that trudged through disappointment week after week in 2002, yielding an unforgivable 20 points per game, save for the fate-deciding finale against Carolina. Many place the blame for a second consecutive December capitulation squarely at their feet.
In the climate of today's NFL, they'll have to be.
In this era of free agency, there is no more "building for the future." It has evolved into a win-now-whatever-the-cost-mentality, a concept not lost on coach Jim Haslett.
Haslett had better be confident because in his fourth season, there is no doubt this is his team. Only defensive end Willie Whitehead and center Jerry Fontenot remain from the Mike Ditka era, so that, coupled with all the new bells and whistles at the team facility there are very few excuses in the top drawer.
And though one will never get the man to admit it in front of the cameras and microphones, the team's window of opportunity to win a championship other than the division, has opened.
Historically, coaching names such as Parcells, Johnson, Noll, Cowher and Dungy all were able to take their teams to dizzying heights in their fourth campaign.
The players' mindsets mirror that, as well.
For his part, Haslett can't wait for the season opener this Sunday in Seattle.
A long drawn out training camp and preseason is finally over, and although there are still many question marks surrounding this team, it is easy to see that he is as excited about what lies ahead as he has been at any point during his tenure here.

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