METAIRIE, La. -- As New Orleans Saints running back Dulymus McAllister -- yeah, you know him as Deuce -- sat at his locker, stripping away his pads after a hot, trying practice Tuesday, he fought to find the right words to describe the reason for the team's inconsistency the past few years.
|Deuce McAllister is among the NFL's running back elite, even if many don't know it.(Getty Images)|
Youth in the NFL can be both good and bad. Young players are athletic and spry, but they also have a tendency to break down at key points, which is what McAllister said has happened to his team the past couple of seasons. They haven't yet learned how to win.
"It's time that this group puts that all behind us," said McAllister. "The core group has matured together. We've been here for three or four years. The only excuse we have now is if we have major, major injuries. Other than that, it's our time."
Since making the playoffs in 2000, the Saints have been a big tease. They've looked great one week, but awful the next. They've started well, but folded late, leading to talk they didn't have what it takes to be a playoff team.
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DT Howard Green
With Jonathan Sullivan struggling to get in shape, the Saints are talking up defensive tackle Howard Green. He is a 315-pound player who was cut by the Texans twice in 2002 and by the Ravens that same year before landing with the Saints in 2003. Green played four games for the Saints in limited action last year, but he is now working with the first unit. Even when Sullivan gets his job back -- and he will -- the Saints coaches expect Green to be in the rotation at defensive tackle.
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They went 7-9 in 2001, 9-7 in 2002 and 8-8 last season. In those first two years, they folded up in the final four games, going a combined 1-7. Last season they opened 1-5 and then scrambled to get to .500.
It's that up-and-down ride that has many saying they have underachieved. The reality is that youth has kept this team down, and it's made it tough to get a read on the Saints, even heading into the 2004 season.
"It's because we've been so young," said Saints coach Jim Haslett. "That's not the case anymore. You're going to have growing pains when you have so many young players."
The offense appears ready to be one of the best in the league, and if some key defensive players step up, the Saints will make a strong push in the NFC South, perhaps even to the point where they can become the third consecutive team from that division to get to the Super Bowl. If Carolina can go from worst to first, why not consider the Saints this year?
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Keep an eye on this team.
"As talented as we are this year, it's going to be hard for us not to get credit," said quarterback Aaron Brooks. "We have plenty of talent, especially on offense. This is our best group on offense."
It starts with McAllister.
Entering his fourth season, McAllister is a big, bruising runner at 230 pounds, but he also has the big-play speed. In an era when most consider Kansas City's Priest Holmes, Baltimore's Jamal Lewis, San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson or Washington's Clinton Portis the best backs in the league, McAllister quietly has put up some huge numbers.
McAllister rushed for 1,641 yards and had nine consecutive 100-yard games to earn his second consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl. He also became the first Saints player to get 2,000 yards from scrimmage when he totaled 2,157, putting to rest any reservations the Saints had about trading Ricky Williams -- if they had even a smidge of any.
Despite those impressive numbers, McAllister doesn't get his due. He is a rare breed, a load to tackle who can also rip off the long runs, tying for the league lead last year with 16 carries of 20 yards or longer.
Asked if he's the new breed of back, those powerful guys who still have the speed to take it 70 yards, McAllister laughed. "I hope not," he said. "If I am, there's going to be a lot of trouble for defensive teams."
Meaning: One of me is enough for them to handle.
McAllister was fourth in the league in rushing last season, and also caught 69 passes. He has three consecutive games where he had 190 yards or more of total offense, tying a league record.
So why is it that he isn't considered among the three or four best runners?
"It's playing in New Orleans," said Brooks. "There's no way a guy his caliber shouldn't be getting the props he deserves. He is driven. He wants to be great. There's something inside of him. I can't exactly say what it is, though. But it's there. Deuce is the quietest, humblest, most productive back I've seen."
It takes a lot to rile up McAllister, who is easy-going and quiet. But Brooks remembers a game against Baltimore two years ago that told him a lot about his running back.
The Ravens, with the fierce, hard-hitting Ray Lewis-led defense, got after McAllister a bit too much after one of his runs.
"Deuce came back and told me they had just woke up a sleeping giant," said Brooks. "That got him going."
McAllister finished with 127 yards and three touchdowns that day.
"I may not get the respect until after I'm retired," said McAllister. "They look at it and say, 'Deuce made the Hall of Fame, he made the Pro Bowl for eight years. He must have been a heck of a player.' But it really doesn't matter. I want to win a Super Bowl. That's my ultimate goal.
"I may not be known as the best back now, but in five or six years, people will know Deuce in that regard. I want to be a top five player every year. My goal is to get 15-20 MVP votes one or two years and then be able to win it."
To do that, the Saints have to win. Now. They know it. Haslett knows it. And their fans know it.
This is a big year for this team. If they don't make the playoffs, there's talk Haslett could be in trouble, although owner Tom Benson is firmly in his corner.
The players are well aware of what people are saying about their staff.
"I think the pressure is on the coaches," said Brooks. "As players we don't feel that. You can't put that type of pressure on yourself. We just have to go out and play."
Haslett isn't fazed about that pressure talk.
"I have too many other things to worry about," he said.
Offense shouldn't be one of them. This unit should be explosive with McAllister running and Brooks playing behind a deep, talented line throwing to an outstanding group of skill people. Receivers Joe Horn and Donte' Stallworth along with tight ends Boo Williams and Ernie Conwell give Brooks plenty of weapons.
Conwell, who played for the dynamic Rams' offenses when they went to two Super Bowls and won one, said this group has a chance to be that type of an offense. That's saying something.
Which means it's all on the defense. As a former NFL linebacker, Haslett has focused a lot of attention the past two years on improving that side of the ball. The front seven, led by a deep line, should be among the better groups in the league.
The main concern is in the secondary, especially on the corner. Fred Thomas is a quality player, but the other side is a question mark. The Saints have made strong overtures to trade for Green Bay corner Mike McKenzie, but the Packers have balked at their offer of a second-round pick. If the Saints toss in a player or two, the deal still might get done.
The Saints finished 18th in the league in defense last year, giving up 5.2 yards per play. If they can move into the top 10, and cut the yardage per play down to about 4.5, they have a chance to be a deep playoff team.
For now, they are flying under the radar. Most preseason prognosticators have them down near the bottom of the division. Haslett likes it that way. He doesn't want any unwanted attention -- for now.
"I know what we can do if we're hitting on all cylinders," he said. "But I like the fact that nobody is talking us up."
The players don't.
"It's hard to overcome the bad history of this team," said Brooks. "That's why we don't get any credit. People want to pick us apart just because we're the New Orleans Saints. As talented as we are, people still can't get past that we're the Saints, even though we've taken this franchise up a notch."
They aren't the Aints anymore, but until they make noise in the playoffs, they will always be viewed in a negative light.
McAllister is hell bent on changing that.
"We know to get the attention we have to win," said McAllister. "And now is the time. We have the talent, but not just talent wins games. We have to become a team. That's where we're at right now, growing together. We've all matured and we know what it takes. Now it's time to go out and do it."