He's exceedingly polite, rarely speaks above a whisper and readily admits that when the sun comes up, he'd rather be relaxing with rod and reel than heading home from a big night in the Big Easy. So when Deuce McAllister says, softly, "You're talking about a guy who's 6'1", 230 pounds, who runs a 4.3 40 and has a lot of talent around him, so, yeah, I'd expect some pretty astonishing numbers from him," it's a little startling when you realize that he's talking about himself.
"Deuce knows we're counting on him, and it's his time to shine," quarterback Aaron Brooks says of the second-year tailback out of Ole Miss. Apart from his physical gifts, McAllister's one-of-the-guys persona is a big reason why this year he is New Orleans's featured back and Ricky Williams is playing in Miami.
Tired of Williams's unpredictable behavior, the Saints shipped their former franchise tailback to the Dolphins in the off-season for three draft picks, thus gaining some picks to offset the eight they gave up for the right to select Williams with the fifth choice in 1999. The trade will prove prescient, however, only if McAllister can avoid the injuries that plagued him in his rookie season and match or exceed Williams's impressive numbers of a year ago: 1,245 yards and six touchdowns rushing and 60 catches for 511 yards. Given McAllister's output—16 carries for 91 yards and 15 catches for 166 yards while making four starts—it's a big gamble for a team that fell from 10-6 and a playoff win in 2000 to 7-9 last year, including a season-ending, four-game losing streak in which New Orleans was outscored 160-52.
"We think Deuce is ready to step into the role, or we wouldn't have made the move," coach Jim Haslett says.
"No knock on Ricky, but Deuce gives us more effort out there," Brooks says. "He's more agile, not just a pounder like Ricky. Deuce is a playmaker."
Brooks is particularly impressed with McAllister's receiving skills, which will allow Haslett and offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy to use him as a Marshall Faulk-type double threat, even lining him up at wideout on occasion. "If I have half the career that Marshall's had," McAllister says, "I'll have been a success."
His teammates and coaches, however, would be just as happy if McAllister exhibits two of Faulk's qualities that largely go unappreciated—toughness and durability. "In college Deuce was such a good athlete that he never had to work that hard, and maybe last year he didn't understand the day-in, day-out pounding he'd be taking," Haslett says, "but he dedicated himself in the off-season, added 12 pounds of muscle, and it shows."
"He's been flying into the hole, hitting it hard," said left tackle Kyle Turley of McAllister's performance in camp. "If Deuce keeps this up, we're going to score a lot of points." Meanwhile, the addition of blazing rookie wideout Dont� Stallworth, a first-round pick out of Tennessee, and steady free-agent tight end David Sloan will further improve an offense that returns receiver Joe Horn (177 catches and 17 touchdowns in the last two years combined) and Brooks, who set a club record with 4,190 yards of total offense in 2001.
The picture is less rosy on defense, where the Saints must overcome the free-agency losses of tackle La'Roi Glover (to the Cowboys) and end Joe Johnson ( Packers). Emerging strong safety Sammy Knight will have to build upon his Pro Bowl season (120 tackles, six interceptions) and provide leadership to a secondary already reeling from the indefinite, alcohol-related suspension of cornerback Dale Carter, a free-agent pickup.
More difficult for the team, perhaps, will be reconciling itself to the sudden early-May firing of popular general manager Randy Mueller, who oversaw the overhaul of the woeful 3-13 team of 1999. Add longtime tackle Willie Roaf, who after a spate of bizarre late-season antics signed with the Chiefs, to the list of high-profile departures, and it becomes clear that New Orleans is a team at a crossroads.