Team striving for better focus, playoff berth

Saints officials have put an emphasis on professionalism this summer in an effort to lose the underachiever tag.

Updated: August 14, 2004, 4:01 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

METAIRIE, La. -- Given the collective youth of the New Orleans roster, it's not likely many Saints players know much, if anything at all, about Simon and Garfunkel. What the Saints players do know, however, are the sounds of silence.

They should, since they hear them -- or, more accurately, don't hear them -- every day.

Venture into the safe haven of the Saints' locker room at their practice facility here and your conversation is certain to not be interrupted by the incessant chirp of dueling cell phones. The card games and dominoes matches in which many players used to participate between workouts? Gone. Ditto all boom boxes. Yep, in the locker room of the franchise that seems to mysteriously drop dead every year when the calendar turns to November, you could probably hear a pin drop if someone fumbled one onto the plush carpeting.

Even in the cafeteria, where ESPN was once the staple of the television monitors that are sprinkled around the room, things have changed. Now the players view videotape of that morning's practice or maybe one of last season's games.

It is all part of an emphasis on professionalism, in the truest sense of the word, by Saints management. And if the players are griping about it, they're doing so under their breath.

Darren Howard
Defensive End
New Orleans Saints
Profile
2003 SEASON STATISTICS
Tot Ast Solo FF Sack Int
29 27 2 0 5 0
"I think what [management] is saying is this: 'When you pull into that parking lot every morning, and come through those doors, this is your workplace,' " said defensive end Darren Howard, only a four-year veteran, but around here long enough to have witnessed many of the highs and lows of this uneven franchise. "I don't think it's all that bad. I mean, all they're doing is asking us to concentrate on football while we're here. You go to work for some corporation, you don't hear boom boxes blasting from every office, right? They just want us to focus on our jobs."

The new policies were enacted by coach Jim Haslett and general manager Mickey Loomis after individually meeting with every player following the 2003 season, the latest year in which the Saints' record failed to match the team's physical potential. Some veterans not only endorsed the changes but suggested a few of them.

It is a sign, albeit an unusual one and one to which the fans are not privy, that the players who have some tenure with the team are prepared to do just about anything to get over the underachiever label hung on the club. There is, for sure, playoff-caliber talent in the New Orleans locker room. Unfortunately, there are no Vince Lombardi trophies sitting in the lobby of the team's complex.

In a precinct that boasts even more taverns than churches -- no small feat, with the large number of places of worship in New Orleans -- the loyal but long-suffering fans are most accustomed to praying for the Saints on Sunday morning and then drowning their sorrows with a pitcher of Hurricanes, the city's signature potable, on Sunday night.

The irony is that, in every other NFC South camp on the ESPN.com tour, either an opposition head coach or general manager noted to us that New Orleans possesses the most talented roster in the division. The other constant, however, was that every one of those assessments ended in a "but" and then an ellipsis. The most common evaluation: "Yeah, overall, New Orleans has the best players, but …"

The unspoken conclusion, of course, is that the Saints, despite an impressive collection of skill-position players and depth on both the offensive and defensive lines, too often fail to play up to their talent level. New Orleans hasn't been to the playoffs since 2000, and the team résumé includes only five playoff berths in a 37-season history.

But it has been the past few seasons, with Loomis and Haslett having built up the roster to playoff caliber, that the failures have been most maddening.

Despite a 5-3 record in the second half of last season, and a similar mark in 2000, the widely held perception is that the Saints are a team that fades down the stretch. The truth is, the Saints are just two games under .500, at 16-18, after Nov. 1 under the fiery Haslett, a coach for whom guys seem to enjoy playing. But they are 18-12 in the first two months of the past four seasons, and the perception that New Orleans can't close the deal coming down the stretch has taken on a certain reality in these parts.

Whether or not tightening up the decorum of the locker room makes the Saints a looser bunch this November, a team that finally performs without sneaking a peek into the rear-view mirror to discern what latest disaster is about to catch it, remains to be seen. What is inarguable, though, is that the players here who have suffered through some of the late-season malaises are tired of the trademark season-ending lapses.

"That is definitely the question that you get asked the most around here," acknowledged cornerback Fred Thomas. "Hey, if I had the answer, I'd have cashed some playoff checks by now and maybe be wearing a [Super Bowl] ring. All I know is, we have to start fast, and we have to finish the same way that we start."

For tailback Deuce McAllister, the team's best player on offense and a rare combination of size and speed, the issue is a matter of consistency, something the Saints have lacked since their 2000 playoff appearance. It wouldn't be totally accurate to contend the Saints have completely squandered their talent, but they have clearly frittered away opportunities to transform themselves into an annual playoff threat.

Said McAllister, who has rushed for 3,029 yards in the two seasons since he inherited the starting job from Ricky Williams: "You talk to guys in this locker room who have been to a Super Bowl, like [free safety] Tebucky Jones or [tight end] Ernie Conwell, and they'll tell you that, talent-wise, we're right there. You look at some playoff teams and compare them to us and, from a personnel standpoint, it's not even close. But consistency, that's the thing we need to get."

All they're doing is asking us to concentrate on football while we're here. You go to work for some corporation, you don't hear boom boxes blasting from every office, right? They just want us to focus on our jobs.
DE Darren Howard, on the change in atmosphere

Now a Saints starter, after four seasons of studying New Orleans while playing for St. Louis, defensive tackle Brian Young agreed with that assessment. Signed as an unrestricted free agent, in part because Saints officials felt he would be a positive influence for younger players on and off the field, Young insisted the Rams always saw New Orleans as an aggressive and talented team that inexplicably came up short.

Howard pointed out that, since the Saints' nucleus is comprised primarily of veterans in the four- to six-year range, and few of those players have experienced consistent success, there is a natural void of take-charge guys. "We just haven't had a lot of old hands around here, you know, but the pieces seem to be falling into place now," Howard said.

Among the many puzzling elements about the Saints is that Haslett is the kind of coach, a gambler who doesn't make decisions by the book or by convention, players like. He is a fiery and emotional guy and, while not always consistent in his in-game decisions, has the kind of temperament that draws free agents to the franchise.

Outsiders seem to feel that Haslett is under pressure to win this year and that his job will be in jeopardy if the Saints aren't in the playoffs. But Loomis and owner Tom Benson are not easily given to change and the players are loyal to the Haslett cause. For such a young club, the Saints seem to realize the onus is on them more so than the coach. That may be the best sign yet that New Orleans is developing the collective maturity management is hoping for in 2004.

"Yeah, we're starting to come of age," said Thomas. "But keep that quiet, OK, because we want other teams to think we're just the same, old Saints."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

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