Saints looking to run over foes
The Saints' massive O-line is a primary reason the club has decided to emphasize a power-running game this year.
METAIRIE, La. -- In a far corner of the New Orleans Saints' locker room, just to the side of the stall occupied by left offensive tackle Wayne Gandy, a soft, leather rocker/recliner sits rather incongruously. When the 12-year veteran signed as an unrestricted free agent in 2003, he purchased the recliner so that he could bag the occasional nap between practices or simply rest his weary bones following a long and arduous day.
|Inside Saints camp|
What's led to the secondary's improvement? Why is RB Deuce McAllister so happy? Those are just a couple of the things Len Pasquarelli touches on in his observations from Saints camp.
• Inside Saints camp
Although, given the purported events of the offseason, Gandy wondered if the franchise still wanted him around.
While team officials disagree with the contention, agent Neil Schwartz feels the Saints tried to force his client to accept a salary reduction from his scheduled $5.25 million. And according to Schwartz, team officials sought to have Gandy attend the offseason sessions he regularly skips, because they felt they were important to team unity. All this despite the fact Gandy is a veteran who has organized team outings, promoted camaraderie and played at a level that earned him blocking grades of 93 percent or higher in all but one of 16 games last season.
|“||I'm convinced that this year, we're going to do more than just pay lip service to the running game. I think the commitment really is there. People see how we won last [December], when it all came together for us. We had the kind of consistency that we lacked in the past.”|
|—RB Deuce McAllister|
Gandy received the support of teammates and a particularly strong public endorsement from quarterback Aaron Brooks, and his contract remains unchanged. But what became moot has now been transformed into motivation for Gandy, a quiet but well-spoken man who is proud of the résumé he has compiled in 168 career starts.
"It was a little bit of a slap in the face," Gandy said earlier this week after a sweltering practice session. "But you know what? It's not a sore point anymore with me. I'm just using it as motivation. Sometimes a little more motivation does a man good. And they've given me that little bit more, that's all. But then, I think everyone in this room is pretty motivated this year."
Nothing will drive a team quite so much as potential unfulfilled, and the Saints, who have not been to the playoffs for four straight seasons, rate as one of the NFL's most notorious underachieving squads in that stretch. Management has tried just about every tack here and the results keep coming up the same. A year ago when we visited, the front office had initiated a set of rules that precluded players from having food or cell phones in the locker room. The changes hardly promulgated success as New Orleans lost eight of its first dozen outings.
One veteran noted this week that, having run out of ideas for new rules, management has assumed a new approach. Said that veteran: "They've kind of appealed to our pride and, so far, it's working. Bottom line, we're tired of losing around here."
Certainly there is a palpable resolve among the New Orleans offensive linemen, a group of behemoth road-graders (actually a body type in which Gandy, even at 308 pounds, is a tad out of place) capable of creating an eclipse, either individually or collectively. There is, after all, a new offensive design for 2005, one mandated by coach Jim Haslett, whose devious plan is to essentially bludgeon defenses into submission, with star tailback Deuce McAllister the battering ram running behind one of the NFL's biggest lines.
It is the formula Haslett used late last season, when the Saints won their last four games, and the December 2004 blueprint has carried over. That is good news for McAllister and also for a line that loves to run-block.
|Fantasy focus: Aaron Brooks|
Every year, Brooks' final numbers look good. But he is simply inconsistent, and unless you are playing Rotisserie football instead of head-to-head, you simply can't depend on him. Brooks can deliver terrific numbers on occasion, but he's often frustrating and disappointing.
This season, the Saints have streamlined their playbook, and Brooks could become more reliable as he becomes increasingly creative and aggressive. He should also have better protection from an improved offensive line, and if Deuce McAllister can stay healthy, he'll take even more pressure off Brooks. But it could be now or never for the New Orleans QB. If he doesn't deliver this year, fantasy owners might never be able to trust him.
For the Saints, that means sticking the ball in McAllister's hands 20-25 times a game and letting him find the creases carved out by the collection of mastodons in front of him. The top six linemen on the team -- Gandy, left guard Kendyl Jacox, center LeCharles Bentley, right guard Jermane Mayberry, rookie right tackle Jammal Brown and Montrae Holland, who could yet reclaim the starting job he had in 2004 -- average 6-foot-3, 319 pounds. And we're guessing by the girth witnessed at Tuesday's practices, the individual weights are a bit understated.
Haslett has made it clear that his goal is to knock defenders off the ball, to apply brute force when necessary, and to get McAllister back into the 1,500-yard area. In his office, Haslett several months ago outlined his goals for transforming an offense he felt threw too often under previous coordinator Mike McCarthy. Those reminders have been there the entire offseason: no negative plays, quick counts, making the run and pass plays look similar.
The goal, by streamlining the offense, is to eliminate mistakes. And an ancillary benefit New Orleans hopes to elicit from the new offensive design is keeping its defense off the field. In 2004, opponents enjoyed a nearly four-minute time of possession advantage on the Saints. If the New Orleans offense can simply control the ball a couple minutes more every game, it should naturally help promote defensive improvement.
During an interview, Haslett rifles through his play script from an earlier camp practice, seeking out a few snaps representative of what he wants in 2005. Not surprisingly, two of the plays are runs, with a fullback as the lead blocker, and the third is a deep pass set up by a run. One underpublicized key is second-year fullback Mike Karney, the designated escort for McAllister on his forays into the line. When the Saints lost fullback Terrelle Smith in free agency last spring, the reaction was pretty much a collective yawn. But Smith was one of the NFL's best lead blockers and his departure took the offense in a direction Haslett didn't necessarily favor. Bigger and more experienced now, Karney is going to have a significant role in 2005.
Still, the primary focus will be on the line, and the Saints assured in the offseason they would have the kind of blockers needed to succeed in the revamped offense. The club signed Mayberry, a solid starter for the Philadelphia Eagles, as a free agent and the plan was to play him at right tackle. But when Brown was chosen in the first round to play right tackle, it enabled the Saints to bump Mayberry to right guard, one of the four spots at which he had started during his Eagles tenure.
Bentley is an emerging star at center, a position that generally receives no notice, and could be the next veteran to secure a long-term contract extension. Jacox and Holland are similar players, and no matter who wins the left guard spot, the position is well manned. The suspicion is the coaches prefer Holland, but because of weight issues, demoted him to the second unit in an effort to light a fire under him.
"The onus is definitely on us," said Gandy, arguably the least physical of the starters, but a polished and proven technician. "I think our mind-set going in is that we can run the ball at anyone and dictate the tempo to any defense. So far, with the commitment that we've seen [in camp], I don't see any reason we can't do it."
Or any reason Gandy will be ready to retire to his recliner.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .