Free safety Tebucky Jones became fond of the Big Easy long before he arrived in a trade with the Patriots in April. His attachment to the city began in 1996, his junior year at Syracuse, when the Orangemen traveled to New Orleans and whipped Tulane. In '98, his rookie season with New England, the Patriots defeated the Saints in the Superdome. Then came Super Bowl XXXVI, in which the Pats shocked the Rams and won their first world championship—in New Orleans. So when Jones talks about his new hometown, he says, "I didn't come here to start losing."
It's that attitude that has the Saints excited about the sixth-year veteran. He has a touch of cockiness, but not enough to rub people the wrong way. He also has exceptional size for a safety (6'2", 218 pounds), decent speed and the smarts that come from handling the complex schemes of New England coach Bill Belichick. In short, Jones is the type of player New Orleans had to have. The Saints gave up 20 or more points in all but one game last season, primarily because the defense lacked the speed to handle three- and four-receiver formations and mobile quarterbacks.
Jones, a punishing tackier, was setting the tone for the secondary in the first few weeks of training camp. "He's shown his leadership by the way he directs people," says defensive coordinator Rick Venturi. "That's exactly what I want. I don't believe that people lead by talking in the locker room. Tebucky's a director, not a philosopher."
The Saints traded third- and seventh-round picks in this year's draft, along with a fourth-rounder in 2004, to acquire Jones. They also added outside linebacker Derrick Rodgers in a trade with the Dolphins, signed free-agent cornerback Ashley Ambrose and moved up from 17th to sixth in the draft to select defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan out of Georgia. The defense will open the season with at least four new starters, and as many as seven newcomers may see significant playing time. "Our biggest concern was finding a way to deal with all the mobile quarterbacks we face this season," says coach Jim Haslett. "We play Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb, Kordell Stewart and Michael Vick. We had a hard time last year dealing with quarterback scrambles, screen plays and spread offenses. Hopefully that won't happen again."
Jones is convinced it won't. "We're there speedwise," he says. "If a player catches the ball in the middle of the field in practice, we have six or seven guys flying to him."
Talent alone won't be enough. The Saints also need staying power. In 2001 they combusted in the midst of a playoff run and lost their final four games. Last season they were 9-4 and then finished with losses to the Vikings, the Bengals and the Panthers. "It's gotten so bad that when I brag to my friends about how good we are, they tell me we're only good early in the year," says cornerback Fred Thomas. That was especially true last season, when execution, not effort, ruined the Saints. "The bottom line is, we didn't play well on either side of the ball to get into the playoffs," says middle linebacker Darrin Smith. "I'm sure there will be a lot of emphasis on that toward the end of this year. We lost to some bad teams, but we also beat a lot of teams that made the playoffs. We beat the Super Bowl champion [ Tampa Bay] twice."
The Saints' defensive players are eager to create the same type of chemistry that propelled the Bucs to a title. They often gathered in the off-season to watch film and organized barbecues after workouts. Jones missed those functions—he was moving his family to New Orleans—but he believes that time together like that is invaluable. "If we're going to be successful, we need to believe in each other when we line up," he says. "We have to know people will make mistakes, and we have to play through them. We can't let little things grind us up inside. I tell these guys all the time that we have far too much talent. There's no way we shouldn't be playing in the Super Bowl."
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