Saints Alive New Orleans moved to the top of the NFC with its third consecutive victory over a Super Bowl contender

September 29, 2002

Early last week New Orleans Saints fullback Terrelle Smith spent a
few minutes chatting on the phone with a certain dreadlocked,
absent-minded, Bob Marley fan who has quickly become the most
popular athlete in Miami. Besides catching up on their personal
lives, Smith and Ricky Williams talked briefly about the Saints,
the team with which Williams spent three star-crossed seasons
before he was traded to the Dolphins last March. Williams told
Smith how impressed he was with his successor, second-year
running back Deuce McAllister. He congratulated Smith on the
Saints' fast start. And before hanging up, he made a suggestion
that left his former lead blocker chuckling: "Why don't you come
over here and play with us?" Williams asked, as if all his pal
had to do was give two weeks' notice, line up a moving company
and skip off to South Florida.

Life may be pretty good for Williams, who leads the NFL in
rushing for 3-0 Miami, but any Saints player would be crazy to
want out of the Big Easy these days. After a 29-23 victory over
the Chicago Bears on Sunday in Champaign, Ill., New Orleans is
3-0. And when you consider that the other two wins came against
the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Green Bay Packers, who, like the
Bears, have serious Super Bowl aspirations, it's no stretch to
say that the Saints are as hot as any team in the NFL.

On Sunday they showed their resilience. They won despite
committing turnovers on three of their first four possessions,
mistakes that helped put them in a 20-0 hole in the second
quarter. Instead of rolling over, though, the Saints clawed their
way back, and rookie wideout Donte' Stallworth's 29-yard
touchdown reception from Aaron Brooks put them ahead with 1:11
remaining. Then, in the waning seconds, strong safety Sammy
Knight sealed the victory by intercepting Jim Miller near the
goal line.

It was the kind of victory that offers solid evidence that these
are not the same Saints who were plagued by inconsistency and a
lack of focus last year, a 7-9 season that ended with a four-game
losing streak, during which they were outscored 160-52. New
Orleans is winning with an offense that features fleet playmakers
and has the versatility to confound any defense. Operating behind
a restructured line that allowed Chicago only one sack, Brooks
can make plays with his feet (he scored on a seven-yard touchdown
run after sidestepping Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher and
vaulting over two Bears at the goal line) and his arm (he
completed 22 of 34 passes for 233 yards and three touchdowns).
Because the Saints aren't asking him to carry too much of the
load, Brooks is already a better player than he was last year,
according to offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy: The fourth-year
quarterback has completed almost 60% of his passes and thrown for
seven touchdowns.

But Brooks doesn't have to win games by himself anymore. He's
getting plenty of help from wideout Joe Horn, who's been to the
Pro Bowl the past two seasons, and Stallworth, who has caught a
touchdown pass in each of his first three NFL games. Jerome
Pathon, a free-agent pickup formerly with the Indianapolis Colts,
made his second scoring catch of the year on Sunday. Then there's
McAllister, whose breakaway speed and soft hands add a dimension
that the Saints' offense never had with Williams. That added
downfield threat means McCarthy can create matchup headaches for
lumbering linebackers. And with more than 100 yards rushing in
each of the first two games, McAllister has already shown that
he's a better inside runner than his critics thought he would be.

As flashy as they've become on offense, however, the Saints have
also regained the work ethic of the blue-collar team that won the
NFC West title in 2000 and the first playoff game in franchise
history. What a difference a year makes. Last season the Saints
made enough headlines off the field for a week's worth of Jerry
Springer shows. Wideout Albert Connell allegedly stole $4,363
from McAllister's locker and car and was released last February.
Rumors spread publicly about a supposed affair between Horn and
the wife of tackle Willie Roaf. (Horn and Roaf, who in March was
traded to the Kansas City Chiefs, denied that there was any truth
to the stories.) The enigmatic Williams and coach Jim Haslett
didn't get along. "The players didn't trust the coaches, the
coaches didn't trust the players, and the players didn't trust
each other," recalls quarterback Jeff Blake, now a reserve with
the Baltimore Ravens.

So it came as no surprise when New Orleans made sweeping changes
in the off-season. It acquired veteran free agents known for
their leadership, including linebacker Bryan Cox and tight end
David Sloan. It bid farewell to popular but expensive Pro Bowl
players like Roaf and defensive linemen Joe Johnson and La'Roi
Glover, turning to younger, more cap-friendly talent. Even
general manager Randy Mueller, who had helped draw up the new
blueprint, was shown the door. Owner Tom Benson shocked the
organization by firing Mueller in May, saying he wanted "a
different management style" and that Muller had done a poor job
of communicating with him.

The shakeup had an undeniable impact. Several players say they
had to work harder last off-season, their third under Haslett,
than they ever had before. "Every practice and workout was like
game day," Smith says. "We were all out there thinking that if we
did one thing wrong, we would be the next person out the door. It
seemed like guys were getting cut every day."

Haslett downplays the housecleaning, saying he saw flaws in the
team after the title season, but dismissed them because of the
Saints' sudden success. "We thought we were better than we were
back then," he says. "We played hard and did some good things,
and when you go 10-6, you start thinking this guy isn't that bad
or that guy needs one more shot. We moved a year too late, but
this team has far more talent than the 2000 team."

The Saints don't expect to hit the skids the way they did a year
ago. They talk glowingly about improved leadership and chemistry.
Left tackle Kyle Turley sees the benefit of so many new players
trying to make names for themselves. "We have guys who are more
accountable," he says. They also have a powerful confidence--the
belief that they will find ways to win games regardless of the
circumstances.

"Something is wrong if that team doesn't make the playoffs,"
Bears free safety Mike Brown said, as he headed out of the locker
room on Sunday, "because they have all the pieces any team
needs."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS DEUCE ON THE LOOSE With his breakaway speed and receiving skills, McAllister is making it easy for Saints fans to say, "Ricky who?"

"Every practice and workout was like game day. We were thinking
that if we did one thing wrong, we would be the next person out
the door." running the show Brooks, who threw for three scores
and ran for a fourth against Chicago, now has options galore.

"We thought we were better than we were," Haslett says of the
title season. "This team has far more talent than the 2000 team."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)