Armstrong is gone, having signed a free-agent deal with the Raiders, but 10 of 11 starters return on defense. (Outside linebacker Robert Jones was a salary-cap casualty.) That's where the big-money contracts are; seven starters are signed through at least 2003. The defense got a breather last year when the running game came alive, thanks to Saints castoff Lamar Smith, who ran for a career-high 1,139 yards.
With the running game in good hands, all eyes will be on quarterback Jay Fiedler. The right-handed Fiedler took some heat last season for the six interceptions he threw in the playoffs, but he was gutting it out with a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder plus nerve damage in his neck, which affected his throwing. He also had missed practically the whole preseason while recuperating from hip surgery.
"Right now it's a totally different feeling," Fiedler says. "I'm healthy. I've had a complete training camp. Last year I was thinking about getting well. Some of the throws I made then...well, I wouldn't make them now. I wasn't getting out of the pocket enough when I had to. All those are excuses, though, and now there aren't any"
"That's the key, staying healthy," says Gardener, who spent the off-season working with a back rehab specialist. "We have the talent. It's just a matter of getting our people on the field every week."
Maybe then Gardener will finally get the recognition he deserves.
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