Heading into his sixth season, Jim Haslett has a better record outside the Big Easy (23–16) than he has at home (20–23).
Since the era of free agency kicked off in 1990, Haslett is one of only four NFL coaches to miss out on the playoffs four years in a row and somehow manage to keep his job.
A fraternity of one Joe Horn is the only Saint to catch 75 or more passes in five straight seasons, and he is also the only one with four 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Horn has averaged 87 catches in his five seasons in New Orleans.
Deuce running wild
With a club-high 22 rushing games for 100-plus yards, Deuce McAllister, who has 4,194 career yards in the bank, needs another 74 yards to pass George Rogers as the Saints' all-time leading rusher.
He's No. 3
With 69 consecutive starts, Aaron Brooks goes into 2005 with the third-longest streak among league quarterbacks behind Brett Favre and Peyton Manning.
No sooner had the Saints made Jammal Brown their No. 1 pick than Haslett's cell phone rang. The voice on the other end was a familiar one. "Thank you," said McAllister.
The Prophecy: "For the Saints to be successful, Aaron Brooks must shed his roller-coaster ways and become the more consistent trigger man he was when he took his team to the playoffs (in 2000)."
The Lie: "I'm convinced that the talent is in place to win the division." -- Head coach Jim Haslett
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Playoffs or bust? Those seem to be the sentiments of Jim Haslett, who went from Coach of the Year as a rookie in 2000 to coach on the hot seat for the past three seasons. “Three times we’ve been knocking on the door and couldn’t get in,” he says. “This time we plan to knock the door down.”
Why the optimism from someone who oversaw the league’s worst defense, who needed to win the last four games to finish 8–8?
“It was the way our guys hung together when everyone was saying I was not long for this world as a head coach in New Orleans,” says Haslett. “This season can’t come soon enough. The players turned it around and all of the key ones are back.”
He was talking about Deuce McAllister, who became the first Saints running back to rush for 1,000 yards three years in a row; quarterback Aaron Brooks, who threw for 21 touchdowns while completing 57 percent of his passes; wideout Joe Horn, who set club records for yardage and touchdown catches; defensive linemen Darren Howard and Charles Grant, who combined for 21.5 sacks; and cornerback Mike McKenzie, who had five interceptions in his first season in black and gold.
“We’ve got to put words into action,” says McAllister. “Sure, we’ve had the talent to make the playoffs, but we’ve found a way to let our fans down. You can’t dig yourself the kind of hole we did last year and expect to be playing in January. It’s time for everyone to step up.”
Brooks has thrown for more than 3,000 yards in each of the last four seasons. He has thrown for more than 250 yards 28 times. He has thrown for 107 touchdowns since he became a starter midway through the 2000 season. In the fourth quarter, he has led his team on 16 game-winning marches. And yet? More than anyone, Brooks, who took every snap in 2004, has drawn the ire of Saints fans for four non-playoff seasons, despite the fact the defense has been far more inconsistent over that stretch. Saints fans are confounded by a quarterback who can throw a 50-yard strike one moment and follow it by losing a fumble in a seeming state of panic. The big question this year will be how Brooks adapts to a change in offensive coordinators, from Mike McCarthy to Mike Sheppard.
The head coach sees no problem. “Aaron grew up a ton when he got us going on that late-season run,” says Haslett.
Now Haslett will see how quickly fifth-round pick Adrian McPherson will grow up as he starts a new life. He’s the kid Florida State kicked off the team in 2002 after he was charged with cashing stolen checks and allegedly being involved in a gambling ring. The Saints gambled on his “tremendous potential.”
What can you say about McAllister? He runs hard and plays hurt. Give him a sliver of daylight and cornerbacks are playing catch-up. He had five 100-yard games last year despite a severe ankle sprain.
“All things considered,” says Haslett, “he has been the most consistent player on our football team, the ultimate team man, a warrior with not a trace of ego.”
Backing up McAllister will be Antowain Smith, a member of two Patriot championship teams. He’ll take over for Aaron Stecker, who has been retained as a situational back and special teams contributor.
Everyone knows what Horn, the team’s go-to guy, can do. Last year, Saints fans discovered what a healthy Donté Stallworth, and his 4.2 speed, could do when he grabbed a career-high 58 passes in his first completely healthy season as a pro.
“Donté stretches the field; he makes life a lot easier for me,” says Horn.
It remains to be seen whether Devery Henderson makes life easier for Haslett. A second-round pick in 2004, the former LSU star made a splash in preseason with a 70-yard touchdown catch against Green Bay. But he spent the regular season as a spectator because he had trouble picking up the system and was tagged a draft bust. Haslett disagrees. “Devery has the game-breaking speed and he will be a star in this league,” he says. “The kid’s got everything.”
At tight end, Shad Meier figures to stir the pot and could wind up nudging Boo Williams or Ernie Conwell out of a starting job.
The signing of free agent Jermane Mayberry and the drafting of Oklahoma’s Jammal Brown in the first round turned out to be the biggest news of the offseason. This gives an area troubled by a ton of false-start penalties two new starting tackles and, hopefully, a more consistent ground game.
Mayberry, who spent nine seasons with the Eagles, goes to battle with a 6-foot-4, 325-pound frame, while Brown, champion of the pancake block in college, stands a shade under 6-foot-6 with a playing weight of 320 pounds. Guards Kendyl Jacox and Montrae Holland return along with center and Pro Bowl candidate LeCharles Bentley.
“It’s the best shape we’ve been in since I got here,” says Haslett, who likes the depth provided by Spencer Folau, an eight-year veteran, and Jon Stinchcomb, a second-round pick in 2003.
The talent is here to help pull the Saints out of the defensive cellar, assuming Darren Howard can have an injury-free season and take a bunch of head-hunters along for the ride. Howard and Charles Grant are imposing bookends to a front four that also features Howard Green, who became a force when he shed 15 pounds, and Brian Young, last year’s top free agent signee, at the tackles.
Will Smith, a No. 1 pick in 2004, stepped into the starting lineup when Howard was sidelined for the first two games and responded with 7.5 sacks for the season, tops for an NFC rookie. “Will Smith can push the pocket, chase ball-carriers and drop into coverage,” says defensive coordinator Rick Venturi.
Along with Smith, Willie Whitehead has proved to be a consistent force in a supporting role.
This remains a suspect area, the hope being that a little maturity will help. James Allen, a third-rounder in 2002, has come on as a 10-game starter who finished last season with a career-high 49 tackles, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Haslett is still waiting for the same progress from Colby Bockwoldt, who started the last seven games in his rookie season, and Courtney Watson, who caught fire as a starter late in the year. Haslett is looking for incoming third-round pick Alfred Fincher to battle for a starting job.
The big story in the secondary is free agent Dwight Smith moving in at free safety and Tebucky Jones moving out altogether after a disappointing two years. How good is Smith? In the minds of the Saints, good enough to land a five-year, $15 million deal. He joins strong safety Jay Bellamy, an 11-year vet who is a tackle machine.
McKenzie, who led the team with five picks and added 33 tackles and seven passes defended, and Fakhir Brown have become fixtures at the corners. “No one in the league knew who Fakhir was until we put him in there,” says Haslett of a player who started the last 10 games.
Placekicker John Carney still has life left in the leg after 15 seasons, and punter Mitch Berger returns after a trip to the Pro Bowl, earned during a season in which he led the league in net yardage.
Michael Lewis remains a serious threat on both punt and kickoff returns. He averaged 23.8 yards on 51 kickoff returns and took one back 96 yards. Lewis has company in Stecker, who had a 98-yard return of his own last year. Veteran special teamers like Fred McAfee and Mel Mitchell add spice to return and cover units.
An unexpected 4–0 finish saved Haslett’s job. It said something for a group that circled the wagons in the face of merited criticism and responded to a coach’s decision to lighten practices at a time when there was a growing chill between the coaching staff and front office. Owner Tom Benson handed Haslett a two-year contract extension. The Saints still have to prove, especially on defense, they’ve turned a corner. At least the coach has a talking point, following the strong finish.