After accepting the New Orleans job Haslett eschewed four- and five-year offers from owner Tom Benson and signed a three-year deal. It appeared that the gamble might pay off in the form of a lucrative contract extension following Haslett's rookie campaign, in which the Saints, who had gone 3-13 in '99, finished 10-6 despite injuries to five key players, including Williams and quarterback Jeff Blake. But Benson, who had given Ditka a three-year, $7.5 million extension as a reward for a 6-10 season in '97, made no such gesture to Haslett, whose 2001 salary of $850,000 makes him the league's lowest-paid coach. Now Haslett faces the prospect of free agency following the 2002 season, and there is speculation that he will bolt for greener pastures. ( Benson declined to comment on the matter until after the season.)
So, while Haslett commands a smaller fortune than less accomplished pro coaches like the Cleveland Browns' Butch Davis ($3.3 million per year) and the Detroit Lions' Marty Mornhinweg ($1.4 million) and is not even the highest-paid football coach in Louisiana—LSU's Nick Saban ($1.5 million) holds that distinction—his job status has not generated the same national interest as that of Oakland coach Jon Gruden, whose below-market deal also expires after next season. Like Gruden, Haslett has been contacted in recent weeks by at least two major colleges that were considering changing coaches. "You can't worry about that stuff," Haslett says. "All you can do is try to win games, and that takes care of everything."
Still, New Orleans has been a disappointment this season. The Saints and their fans had high expectations after last December's playoff triumph over the reigning Super Bowl-champion St. Louis Rams, but the team has been maddeningly inconsistent. One setback was particularly galling. Trailing the New York Jets by seven points with 1:41 remaining, the Saints were on the march when New York safety Damien Robinson grabbed the face mask of quarterback Aaron Brooks, who had run for a first down at the Jets' three-yard line, and twisted it violently. Turley, incensed, went after Robinson, grabbed his helmet and hurled it toward the sideline, punctuating the throw with an obscene gesture. The resulting penalties moved New Orleans back to the 20-yard line, and it failed to score.
Haslett hadn't stopped seeming at 1 a.m. when an apologetic Turley called him at home, and he didn't calm down until two hours later, when he viewed a replay of the incident and saw the severity of Robinson's transgression. The next morning Haslett recounted the chain of events to his players, at one point saying, "Last night I couldn't sleep. I wanted to kill Kyle." Later he told reporters he had contemplated cutting Turley before seeing the replay. Instead the Saints fined Turley $25,000 and ordered him to attend anger-management classes. Still, the incident left emotional scars.
"It was confusing to have a coach say he thought about cutting me, but I chalk that up to emotion," says Turley, who wonders whether Haslett's uncertain future has affected his behavior this season. "I think he says things sometimes that he doesn't really want to, because he gets ahead of himself. One great thing about last year was that you knew he had your back. But this year the expectations and pressures are different. Too many coaches can let that affect their personalities, and if they're not careful, they start worrying more about their jobs than they do about their teams."
Other Saints disagree with Turley's implication that Haslett has not remained loyal to them. "Expectations are so high this year, I don't think anyone could stay the same," Williams says. "It's harder to coach when you're on the top, and even going back to last year, we've been a team that does well as underdogs but falters when people expect us to win. I can see why Kyle is frustrated, and Haz and I clashed at the beginning, too. But the bottom line is, he puts the team first, and as a player you have to respect that. He definitely has our backs."
Don't get the impression that a rift exists between Haslett and Turley. Shortly before halftime of New Orleans' 34-20 victory over the Indianapolis Colts last month, officials infuriated Haslett by placing an extra second on the game clock, permitting Indy to kick a field goal as the second quarter expired. When Haslett accosted the referee and vented his anger, Turley cracked up fans behind the Saints bench by pointing at his coach and yelling, "I might have to bring him along to anger-management class."
"Send in the damn rookie," Haslett told his secretary on a Thursday evening in November. In an instant, linebacker Sedrick Hodge entered the coach's office and attempted to explain why he wanted to skip out on a live radio appearance at a French Quarter restaurant that night. "Our meeting ran long, and by the time I go home and change clothes, it'll be too late," said Hodge, who was wearing a T-shirt and shorts.
"Sedrick, it's a radio show," Haslett replied. "It doesn't matter what the f—-you wear." After a pause he added, "Look, I don't like doing my radio show either. If you want to say no when they ask you to do it, that's fine. But once you say yes, you've got to honor your commitment."
Hodge nodded, left the room and headed downtown. "This is the crap I do every day," Haslett said, shaking his head.