Early last week New Orleans Saints fullback Terrelle Smith spent a few minutes chatting on the phone with a certain dreadlocked, absent-minded, Bob Marley fan who has quickly become the most popular athlete in Miami. Besides catching up on their personal lives, Smith and Ricky Williams talked briefly about the Saints, the team with which Williams spent three star-crossed seasons before he was traded to the Dolphins last March. Williams told Smith how impressed he was with his successor, second-year running back Deuce McAllister. He congratulated Smith on the Saints' fast start. And before hanging up, he made a suggestion that left his former lead blocker chuckling: "Why don't you come over here and play with us?" Williams asked, as if all his pal had to do was give two weeks' notice, line up a moving company and skip off to South Florida.
Life may be pretty good for Williams, who leads the NFL in rushing for 3-0 Miami, but any Saints player would be crazy to want out of the Big Easy these days. After a 29-23 victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday in Champaign, Ill., New Orleans is 3-0. And when you consider that the other two wins came against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Green Bay Packers, who, like the Bears, have serious Super Bowl aspirations, it's no stretch to say that the Saints are as hot as any team in the NFL.
On Sunday they showed their resilience. They won despite committing turnovers on three of their first four possessions, mistakes that helped put them in a 20-0 hole in the second quarter. Instead of rolling over, though, the Saints clawed their way back, and rookie wideout Donte' Stallworth's 29-yard touchdown reception from Aaron Brooks put them ahead with 1:11 remaining. Then, in the waning seconds, strong safety Sammy Knight sealed the victory by intercepting Jim Miller near the goal line.
It was the kind of victory that offers solid evidence that these are not the same Saints who were plagued by inconsistency and a lack of focus last year, a 7-9 season that ended with a four-game losing streak, during which they were outscored 160-52. New Orleans is winning with an offense that features fleet playmakers and has the versatility to confound any defense. Operating behind a restructured line that allowed Chicago only one sack, Brooks can make plays with his feet (he scored on a seven-yard touchdown run after sidestepping Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher and vaulting over two Bears at the goal line) and his arm (he completed 22 of 34 passes for 233 yards and three touchdowns). Because the Saints aren't asking him to carry too much of the load, Brooks is already a better player than he was last year, according to offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy: The fourth-year quarterback has completed almost 60% of his passes and thrown for seven touchdowns.
But Brooks doesn't have to win games by himself anymore. He's getting plenty of help from wideout Joe Horn, who's been to the Pro Bowl the past two seasons, and Stallworth, who has caught a touchdown pass in each of his first three NFL games. Jerome Pathon, a free-agent pickup formerly with the Indianapolis Colts, made his second scoring catch of the year on Sunday. Then there's McAllister, whose breakaway speed and soft hands add a dimension that the Saints' offense never had with Williams. That added downfield threat means McCarthy can create matchup headaches for lumbering linebackers. And with more than 100 yards rushing in each of the first two games, McAllister has already shown that he's a better inside runner than his critics thought he would be.
As flashy as they've become on offense, however, the Saints have also regained the work ethic of the blue-collar team that won the NFC West title in 2000 and the first playoff game in franchise history. What a difference a year makes. Last season the Saints made enough headlines off the field for a week's worth of Jerry Springer shows. Wideout Albert Connell allegedly stole $4,363 from McAllister's locker and car and was released last February. Rumors spread publicly about a supposed affair between Horn and the wife of tackle Willie Roaf. (Horn and Roaf, who in March was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs, denied that there was any truth to the stories.) The enigmatic Williams and coach Jim Haslett didn't get along. "The players didn't trust the coaches, the coaches didn't trust the players, and the players didn't trust each other," recalls quarterback Jeff Blake, now a reserve with the Baltimore Ravens.
So it came as no surprise when New Orleans made sweeping changes in the offseason. It acquired veteran free agents known for their leadership, including linebacker Bryan Cox and tight end David Sloan. It bid farewell to popular but expensive Pro Bowl players like Roaf and defensive linemen Joe Johnson and La'Roi Glover, turning to younger, more cap-friendly talent. Even general manager Randy Mueller, who had helped draw up the new blueprint, was shown the door. Owner Tom Benson shocked the organization by firing Mueller in May, saying he wanted "a different management style" and that Muller had done a poor job of communicating with him.
The shakeup had an undeniable impact. Several players say they had to work harder last off-season, their third under Haslett, than they ever had before. "Every practice and workout was like game day," Smith says. "We were all out there thinking that if we did one thing wrong, we would be the next person out the door. It seemed like guys were getting cut every day."
Haslett downplays the house-cleaning, saying he saw flaws in the team after the title season, but dismissed them because of the Saints' sudden success. "We thought we were better than we were back then," he says. "We played hard and did some good things, and when you go 10-6, you start thinking this guy isn't that bad or that guy needs one more shot. We moved a year too late, but this team has far more talent than the 2000 team."
The Saints don't expect to hit the skids the way they did a year ago. They talk glowingly about improved leadership and chemistry. Left tackle Kyle Turley sees the benefit of so many new players trying to make names for themselves. "We have guys who are more accountable," he says. They also have a powerful confidence—the belief that they will find ways to win games regardless of the circumstances.