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On Sunday, the Saints became one of just two NFL teams in the past four years to average more than 400 yards of offense for a season. But the Saints' regular-season record and postseason plans were very different from those of their counterparts, the 2007 AFC champion New England Patriots.

On Monday, in his final news conference of the 2008 season, Saints Coach Sean Payton responded to the common criticisms of his top-ranked offense, including a lackluster running game and failed short-yardage pickups.

Payton made it clear that the offensive philosophy in New Orleans might undergo minor adjustments and slight personnel modifications but will not change.

"We want to have balance, and I can understand the criticism," Payton said. "I think it gets back to winning and losing Football games. But we're talking about an offense that, in a lot of areas, almost more than half the areas, is first in the league. Scoring is the No. 1 objective, I think, and we finished at the top of the league in that area, at the top of the league in third downs, at the top of league in total offense."

As the Saints look to 2009, defense is likely to be the greatest area of change for the team, and rightfully so. But a big offseason question for the Saints' offense involves the running game, which ranked 28th in the NFL with 99.6 yards per game.

The two NFC South teams that earned playoff berths, the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers, finished second and third, respectively, in the league in rushing.

"I think the toughness in a team, defensively and offensively, is critical to winning," Payton said. "Now, do we need to rethink how we're going to play offensive Football here? No, I don't think so. I think we've got to do what's best and suits our personnel."

Pierre Thomas began to prove his worth as an every-down running back toward the end of this season, and next year he is expected to be alongside Reggie Bush, who missed six games this year with left knee problems.

The Saints' third option, though, looks to be on his way out. Deuce McAllister, 30, has four years left on his contract, and Payton steered clear Monday of commenting on McAllister's situation, even telling reporters that information about players' contracts and futures "is privy to you when we feel like we want to give it to you and not before then." But McAllister's recent knee problems and the numbers in his contract mean that he might have played his final game for the Saints.

The question then becomes whether the Saints will spend money on a bigger, more physical running back, perhaps for short-yardage situations.

"I think that as the season finished this year, we began to feel real confident in Pierre's ability to get that yard," Payton said. "If you looked at his numbers, he was pretty effective in short-yardage situations. But that being said, I think we'll always look closely at, hey, improving our power running game and being more physical. I think we've got the potential up front to be pretty good with the offensive line that's certainly done a good job in protection. And when we've asked them to run it, they've responded well."

New Orleans' offensive line gave up a franchise-low 13 sacks this season, third-best in the league, and Payton increasingly complimented the group toward the end of the season.

Jahri Evans, the starting right guard, and Zach Strief, a backup tackle who started one game this season, are restricted free agents, and there is no reason to think that they won't be back in 2009. The only unrestricted free agent on the line is starting right tackle Jon Stinchcomb, one of the clear leaders of a group that is always described within the locker room as tight-knit.

"My wife and I have had a great experience here," Stinchcomb said recently. "I hope it's not over. But I'm only half of that equation."

At receiver, the Saints have to hold on to restricted free agent Lance Moore, who is coming off the best season of his career. He led the team in catches (79), receiving yards (928) and touchdowns (10).

"It just kind of so happened to work out that it's good timing," Moore said about his success coinciding with the end of his contract. "It's unfortunate that we had to have injuries and things like that for me to be able to get a chance to actually play and actually put up numbers. But everything happens for a reason, and I feel like I'm where I need to be right now."

Devery Henderson, who was second on the team in receiving yards (793), is an unrestricted free agent. If he comes back to the Saints, he could face competition in training camp from Robert Meachem, who Payton compared Monday to Henderson, and from Adrian Arrington, who was on injured reserve for his first NFL season.

But whatever moves the Saints make in the offseason, the core of New Orleans' offense -- in personnel and strategy -- looks to remain largely the same.

"There will be some things each year that are different, and the key is taking a long, hard look at ourselves and how we can improve," Payton said recently. "But I think, by and large, starting with Drew (Brees) and a lot of those guys up front, there's going to be a lot of carryover."

ETC.: Payton said that Bush had arthroscopic knee surgery within the past few weeks and he was walking around using crutches at the Saints' facility Monday.

Payton also said that defensive end Jeff Charleston is expected to have surgery on the hand he broke during Sunday's game against the Panthers, and about four players, including Evans and possibly receiver Marques Colston, will have "minor" arthroscopic surgeries within the next 10 days.

-- The Saints held a meeting that included all players except cornerback Aaron Glenn, who was excused because his wife is pregnant, according to Payton.

-- Tight end Jeremy Shockey announced he would participate in the team's offseason workout program, something he said he had not done in five or six years.

. . . . . . .

Teddy Kider can be reached at tkider@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3409.

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: December 30, 2008

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