The prevailing silence in the Saints' locker room at their Metairie, La., training camp was unsettling because it was so different from the cacophony of New Orleans locker rooms in the past, in which screaming voices and booming bass lines and wideout Joe Horn's every thought--volubly expressed--merged into a wicked din. Gone is the row of card and domino tables that made the room seem a low-rent casino, where one high-stakes game last year ended in a postpractice brawl between center LeCharles Bentley and tackle Victor Riley. And gone, too, coach Jim Haslett hopes, are most of the distractions he believes contributed to the team's missing the playoffs for the third straight season.
If Haslett's decision to take strict control of his locker room seems a tad harsh, good luck finding a Saints player who agrees with that assessment. Despite a roster with highlight-reel potential on both sides of the ball, the Saints have wandered in a .500 wasteland since the heady days of 2000, when new quarterback Aaron Brooks emerged to lead the team to a playoff victory over the Rams. Since then, however, Haslett has faced criticism from the media and the fans that his talented players lack discipline and fundamentals; last year, in a hailstorm of lost fumbles and missed tackles, New Orleans limped to a 1-4 start and was finished. So Haslett clamped down on the players and replaced two assistants (receivers coach Hubbard Alexander and defensive line coach Sam Clancy were fired), and essentially dared anyone to cross him.
"It gets a little tiring hearing about how loaded we are every year," Haslett says. "Last year we just weren't good enough on defense. We just couldn't tackle. So we decided in the off-season to go back to the fundamentals. There'll be a different focus, a different effort out there this year. There had better be."
Nowhere is there more urgency than on the defensive line, a big-ticket unit that includes three first-round picks, a group that was gashed for 140.1 yards a game and 4.7 yards a carry last year. Right end Darren Howard, the team's most complete defender, says the coaches didn't spare any feelings when they addressed the line's many shortcomings in the team's minicamps. "They let us know how bad we were, and they were right," Howard says. "Our technique got sloppy. We stopped doing the elementary things. So we've worked on lining up tighter, closing down gaps and tackling the way we know how."
Among the new drills instituted at training camp was a tackling exercise in which each defensive player hit an unmanned solo blocking sled, drove it back and then wrenched the apparatus over on its side. It's an ideal drill for defensive tackle Brian Young, a free-agent signee whose hyperaggressive style should mesh with the solid play of Howard and left end Charles Grant. But the key to the unit is the development of the sixth pick in last year's draft, defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan, who was terrible in '03 then reported to camp out of shape and was dropped from the starting lineup by an irate Haslett. Sullivan is needed to occupy blockers, which helps the Saints' anemic pass rush (32 sacks, of which Grant had 10). To that end New Orleans also used its first pick this year on end Will Smith from Ohio State, a speedy rush specialist who'll be used on passing downs.
The line will need more help than it's been getting from an average linebacking corps and a creaky secondary that relies on underrated cornerback Fred Thomas and hopes for one more good season from 13-year veteran corner Ashley Ambrose.
Offensively, Brooks is coming off a year that was a microcosm of the Saints' up-and-down fortunes. Despite throwing for 3,546 yards, 24 touchdowns and a league-low eight interceptions (for 16 games), he also lost a league-high 11 fumbles, several of which he simply dropped. Theories abounded--hands too wet, hands too dry, poor ball holding technique--but Brooks and Haslett chalk it up to bad luck. "Aaron is the guy here," Haslett says. "When he's going well, he's one of the best quarterbacks in football. I see him taking us where we need to go this year." --J.E.
PLAYER ON THE RISE
> Blessed with soft hands and 4.2 speed, DONTE' STALLWORTH averaged 19.4 yards a reception last season. Trouble was, he had only 25 catches, missing parts of seven games with hamstring injuries. He worked with a flexibility coach in the off-season and stretched for 20 minutes after each practice this summer. He looked dominant in camp, not at all hamstrung.
ENEMY LINES An opposing scout's view
Aaron Brooks is inconsistent--he makes a great athletic throw and then makes a boneheaded play--but they've got some serious offensive weapons. Deuce McAllister has speed and can make plays on his own.... Donte' Stallworth has unbelievable ability, though whether he'll put it all together is a question. He can run, he can change directions--he could be a star, but he's got to be more dependable. Joe Horn has some left in the tank.... On the offensive line LeCharles Bentley will be an upgrade over Jerry Fontenot at center, but Kendyl Jacox is nothing special, and Victor Riley will always have a weight issue.... Their defense is an enigma. They have a lot of potential, but who knows how they'll play? I don't know that they have a cover corner. Ashley Ambrose was a hell of a player, but at 33 how much does he have left? Fred Thomas isn't fast enough.... At linebacker Orlando Ruff and Derrick Rodgers are nothing special.... I assume they drafted Will Smith to replace Darren Howard, whom they apparently don't want to pay next year. Howard and Charles Grant are good, but Brian Young is small.
"Cover corner Ashley Ambrose was a hell of a player, but at 33 how much does he have left?"
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2003 statistics
2003 RECORD: 8-8
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
COACH: Jim Haslett; fifth season with New Orleans (34-30 in NFL)
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 172)
19 SAN FRANCISCO
26 at St. Louis
3 at Arizona
10 TAMPA BAY
24 at Oakland
31 Open date
7 at San Diego
14 KANSAS CITY
28 at Atlanta
12 at Dallas
19 at Tampa Bay
2 at Carolina
NFL rank: 20
Opponents' 2003 winning percentage: .504
Games against playoff teams: 8