Work in Sports
New Orleans needs Johnson healthy again
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
THIBODAUX, La. -- Here are three Burning Questions that are still very much in the process of being answered at the New Orleans Saints' sauna-like training camp at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La. (which loosely translated from the French means: "Hot as hell.") Sports Illustrated's Don Banks checks in with them on his tour of NFL training camps:
1. Question: Is defensive end Joe Johnson healthy and ready to resume his role as the Saints' premier defensive lineman?
Answer: Not right now but the Saints certainly hope so in the very near future. No one is more essential to the success of the Saints defense this season than Johnson, who by most accounts has not endured a training camp practice session in the startling span of three years, since August 1997, in LaCrosse, Wis.
Johnson had his balky left knee scoped after the team's third minicamp this spring and has yet to take part in any first-week workouts. He's coming off a season in which he underwent a torn patella tendon in his right knee and had surgery in December to repair a disk in his back.
Johnson missed camp in 1998 due to a holdout. He missed last year's training camp due to his back injury. Some believe that Johnson just isn't too fond of football's version of boot camp and finds any way possible to save himself for the regular season.
Saints coaches are guardedly optimistic (knock on wood) that Johnson will resume workouts next week. The Saints pass rush won't be anything to fear until Johnson is again healthy and creating havoc at full speed.
2. Question: After a year spent deep in the confines of former coach Mike Ditka's doghouse, can 1996 first-round pick Alex Molden be salvaged as a starting left cornerback?
Answer: So far so good. Molden has been re-energized by the hiring of new coach Jim Haslett and his coaching staff and says he's motivated to rebound from his self-styled "season from hell.'' Molden replaces the Saints' best cover corner, Ashley Ambrose, who signed as a free agent with Atlanta.
Molden looks quick and confident so far in camp, and late in Friday's full-contact practice he broke nicely on a Jeff Blake pass and pulled down the interception.
Never as physical as Ditka wanted him to be -- but then again, who is? -- Molden was banished to the bench last season for favoring his athletic coverage style over a more aggressive, stick-your-head-in-there approach. Haslett, who was the Saints defensive coordinator the year New Orleans drafted Molden, isn't likely to force the square peg into the round hole.
With the Saints secondary representing the biggest source of concern on the roster, New Orleans needs Molden to be at his best and wind up in the pleasant surprise category this season. Otherwise a once-promising career will look like it's all but at an end.
3. Question: Is enigmatic running back Ricky Williams an older, more mature version of the distant, moody Ricky we only seemed to read and hear about in injury updates last season?
Answer: Organization-wide there is a concerted effort in Saints camp to toe the following company line: Ricky is just a spoke in the wheel this season. He's not the whole show. He has other weapons around him. He doesn't have to be the man, therefore there's less pressure and expectation being placed on his young shoulders.
Which is all well and good, and so far seems to be working. Williams is noticeably more cooperative and relaxed this season. He's more approachable, more comfortable in his surroundings and more a part of the team than he ever was in his nightmare-like rookie season. He still has a lot of making-up to do in the eyes of some, but he has taken the first steps of image rehabilitation.
Healthy so far this offseason and early in camp, Williams is getting rave reviews from his coaches for his work ethic and attitude. He's on board and part of the program and the Saints feel that rookie fourth-round fullback Terrelle Smith's blocking will help Williams' immensely.
It's far too early to draw any hard conclusions, but the re-making of Ricky seems to be on track through July. The mistakes of youth have apparently been learned from.