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WATCHING VIDEO in his office one day at training camp, coach Jim Haslett was delighted by what he saw. It had nothing to do with the Saints, though; the tape of their practice was on pause. Rather, Haslett was looking at a live webcam transmission on his laptop of his 12-year-old son, Chase, playing in a youth baseball tournament in Cooperstown, N.Y. Chase, his dad said, loves to swing for the fences. "That's all he cares about," Haslett said. "Hitting the home run."
Haslett will try the opposite approach with his team--instead of going deep, New Orleans will be grinding it out. Last year the Saints ranked 27th in rushing and 29th in time of possession, and Haslett believes improving the running game will help cover up other shortcomings. More ball control means the defense, which ranked last in the league, will be on the field less. More ball control means that Aaron Brooks, who threw 16 interceptions against 21 touchdown passes, will be under less pressure to make big plays.
Haslett made several changes to support this strategy. He hired 35-year NFL veteran Johnny Roland, a former running back and longtime assistant, to be his running backs coach and promoted offensive line assistant Jack Henry to the newly created position of associate head coach--running game coordinator. More important, Haslett rebuilt the right side of the line: In March the Saints signed free-agent Pro Bowl guard Jermane Mayberry (late of the Eagles), then on draft day moved up three spots in the first round to take Outland Trophy winner Jammal Brown, a 6'6", 316-pound tackle out of Oklahoma.
Soon after the Saints nabbed Brown, Haslett's cellphone rang. It was running back Deuce McAllister calling to thank Haslett for making that pick. "Every time an organization commits to making the offensive line better, as a running back you have to be proud and pleased," says McAllister, who signed a seven-year, $50 million extension in the off-season. "Any running back, I don't care how good he thinks he is, is only as good as the guys up front." And from what he saw in camp, McAllister is even more pleased. He called Mayberry a "sassy vet" and said of Brown, "His head is spinning [while he adjusts to the pros], but he knows what he's doing. He's definitely a power blocker."
While the ground game received most of the club's attention in the off-season, the beleaguered defense didn't get much help. The only new starter is free safety Dwight Smith, a free-agent pickup from the Bucs. Haslett figures all the reconfiguring he did during the course of last season was enough; the revamped unit just needs more time together. Four games into 2004 the Saints traded for cornerback Mike McKenzie of the Packers, and Haslett later promoted four reserves--tackle Howard Green, linebackers Colby Bockwoldt and James Allen, and corner Fakhir Brown. "You've got 10 guys back, but five of them were changed out halfway through the season," Haslett says. "And we played well down the stretch defensively."
Indeed, New Orleans finished with a four-game winning streak during which the defense gave up 15.3 points per game. In the season finale the Saints spoiled the surging Panthers' bid for a win they needed to make the playoffs. In a scheduling fluke the teams meet in Week 1 this year, meaning that Brown will make his NFL debut against Julius Peppers, arguably the best end in the league. The following week Brown gets the Giants' Michael Strahan. Quite an introduction to pro football, but Brown has already met his share of challenges. His mother, Zola, died of lupus when he was a junior in high school; that same year his daughter, Halle, was born; and he worked a night job to help support his family. After he was recruited by Oklahoma as a defensive end, Brown moved to the offensive line, where he had never played. "You can go in the corner and crumble," Brown says of dealing with adversity, "or you can put the world on your back and see what you can come up with."
In New Orleans, Brown will only have to put the running game on his back. --B.S.
The Saints got precious few momentum-changing plays out of departed strong safety Tebucky Jones (two interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles in his two seasons on the roster), but they expect much more from his replacement, free-agent acquisition Dwight Smith, who spent his first four seasons with the Buccaneers. In 2004 the quick, hard-hitting Smith forced three fumbles and intercepted three passes.
AN OPPOSING SCOUT'S VIEW