Peter King: MMQB
Saints marching on
Team forging its identity on cross-country odyssey
Posted: Monday September 19, 2005 2:26AM; Updated: Monday September 19, 2005 9:47AM
SAN ANTONIO -- I love the early game tonight. Absolutely love it. I love the pomp that surely will go with it and I love the cause. I love the chance for Meadowlanders to come up very big, which I know they will do in welcoming the Gulf Coast Orphans of the Storm when the Giants and Saints meet at the very un-Monday-night time of 7:30 p.m. ET.
San Antonio is not a usual MMQB dateline. But I was there for HBO's Inside the NFL a few days ago and was fascinated. This is what I found:
A little after 7 last Wednesday morning, Jim Haslett fiddled with his Blackberry, sitting at Gregg Popovich's old desk in his Alamodome office. The Spurs used to play here and the office is well-worn. A dry-erase board on one wall has a bunch of basketball courts and the faint markings of plays drawn up by Popovich.
"I got a nice e-mail from Tom Coughlin,'' Haslett said of the Giants coach who will be on the other sideline tonight. "'Thinking of you.' How about that? He said he thought I was doing a nice job handling things. I'll tell you what I wrote him back.''
More Blackberry fiddling. "I wrote, 'I don't know what hell is, but I think I'm close to it.'"
The Saints lead the league in one category as they head into this game: conflicted emotions. Because of the catastrophe that has left so many New Orleanians without homes and jobs, they feel like they're being selfish if they talk too loudly about a schedule that has them traveling on 13 of 16 weekends this season. Because in the end the only thing that matters is their record, Haslett feels conflicted to grouse over adjusting to his fourth set of offices in the last month.
Part of Haslett wants to get up on his soapbox and wonder about the fairness of competing against teams that have to get on an airplane seven or eight times this regular season, not 13. But the other part of him -- the part that ends up winning the battle in his head -- is the part influenced by the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, who wrote to Haslett before the first game of the season and said in an impassioned way, "This is your fate, this is your mission -- to lift the spirit of these fans.''
And so then Haslett tells his team: "Guys, you're doing nothing different than you did in high school. Dress somewhere, get on a bus, practice, get on the bus again, shower, get dressed, go home. Just because you're in the NFL doesn't change a thing. It still comes down to what you do on the field.''
"You know,'' Haslett said, "the one good thing about this is that some of our guys are really growing up. This is real life hitting them. I had a player lose five dogs because he couldn't get them out of the flood in time. I've had players not be able to find family members, players and coaches who lost houses. It's been incredibly emotional, incredibly draining.''
"Do you have much of an idea how much people around the country are taking to your team?'' I said.
"I really don't,'' he said. "I'm stuck down here in my own little world, just trying to coach this team, being there for my players.''
"You'll realize it Monday night,'' I said. "I think that crowd in the Meadowlands is going to go nuts for you guys.''
Haslett and his team are not happy about having to play only three semi-real "home'' games this year, though they understand the reason for playing four games in Baton Rouge, closer to the fan base. "We've got a civic responsibility,'' general manager Mickey Loomis said, "and we recognize that. It's important to play in Louisiana.''
Most of the players are living in apartments near The Quarry, an upscale section of San Antonio north of downtown. Owner Tom Benson was going to split about $500,000 among every employee in the organization, giving everyone a stake to go find an apartment or condo while in San Antonio for the year. But player rep Ernie Conwell told Loomis, in effect: Take the money and divvy it up among the office staff; we don't need it. Nice gesture. The lowest-paid Saint is making $255,000 this year. Certainly there are office staffers who made the move to San Antonio making $30,000.
"It was the right thing to do, the only thing to do,'' Conwell said. "A no-brainer.'' So Loomis last Monday gave every staffer, about 90 in all, a check from Benson for $4,500 for living expenses.
Interesting to note that the Saints are nine games over .500 on the road in the Haslett era, four under at home. Seeing that home teams won 58 percent of the time last year, this is obviously a weird, and maybe telling, stat.
The Saints won't say it, but it's my feeling that emotionally fragile players like QB Aaron Brooks don't respond well to hometown abuse. Brooks, for one, has had to take plenty over the last couple of years. Two years ago, the Saints needed to win the last game of the season to have a shot at the playoffs; Brooks got booed lustily in introductions and acted like he had a black cloud over his head. The Saints lost. I think this is one team that responds very well to the us-against-the-world attitude coaches use to motivate their players. The Saints enter tonight's game on a five-game winning streak dating to December -- and four of those wins have come on the road.
You hate to say it, or think it, with heavier topics on the table right now. But a win tonight, even entering a short week before playing at Minnesota on Sunday, will make the Saints a very serious playoff contender, and very, very dangerous to play. There didn't used to be Saints fans across the country. Now this team has fans from sea to shining sea.
One final note on the Saints: The players are ticked off that NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue did not visit them in the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina. NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw and NFL vice president of players and employee development Mike Haynes addressed the team in San Antonio a week after the hurricane hit, a meeting Conwell said Paul Tagliabue should have attended.
"I think the guys felt our union leader was here, and Paul should have been here to address our concerns,'' Conwell said. "Instead, we're hearing about our fate on TV.'' As for the rescheduling of games, Conwell said: "Some guys saw that as a slap in the face. I mean, give us a chance. Give us a place we can call home; don't have us on the road every week.'' Tagliabue offered to speak to the team the night before the Sept. 11 opening game in Charlotte -- 12 days after the hurricane -- but Haslett said he didn't think the players would respond well to a commissioner's address the night before a game.
Tagliabue, according to sources, was available to travel to San Antonio with Upshaw to meet with the Saints on Tuesday, Sept. 6. But a team official told the league that all the players and front-office personnel would not be available. The Saints said Wednesday would be better. Tagliabue couldn't come Wednesday. The Saints said Wednesday would be best. So the league had Haynes accompany Upshaw. Tagliabue then made the offer to speak to the team Saturday night in Charlotte before the opening game. No dice. Not the right time, Haslett said.
"I'm not here to carry Paul's water,'' Upshaw told me Friday, and then he did. "But Paul did want to come, and he did offer to come. The timing just didn't work out with the Saints. Everyone's doing so much on the fly right now. It's my job to deal with the players. It's really not a big deal.''
It is to the players. Believe me.
As far as the schedule goes, there's no question some players don't like all the road games. Most players, probably. "But,'' Upshaw said, and I concur wholeheartedly, "I told the players we can't appear we're turning our backs on the people of Louisiana. There's no way we could have scheduled all the games for San Antonio.'' Absolutely.
THE FINE FIFTEEN
1. Indianapolis (2-0). There has been a sea change on Planet NFL. The Colts have allowed one garbage-time TD in eight quarters. No one is playing better than the Indy D right now. There was a time when Peyton Manning had a 44.0 quarterback rating, the Colts would lose 38-6. Not anymore.
2. New England (1-1). Now the question is: How do the Pats bounce back against a team (Pittsburgh), that's 17-1 in its last 18 regular-season games?
3. Pittsburgh (2-0). Well, this Fast Willie Parker guy has 272 yards rushing and the season's eight days old.
4. Philadelphia (1-1). I don't care if he were playing Little Sisters of the Poor on Sunday, Donovan McNabb's five touchdown passes in three quarters with a bruised sternum is a heck of a job.
5. Kansas City (2-0). Still don't know if the men of Cunningham can keep holding the line, but they've been very good defensively through two weeks.
6. Tampa Bay (2-0). Defense and a running game, with decent special teams. Isn't that how the Giants won two Super Bowls?
7. Jacksonville (1-1). Just watch. The no-name defense will get a nickname (guess it won't be no-name then) and the Mike Petersons of the world won't be able to live in anonymity anymore.
8. Atlanta (1-1). Are we about to get on the Michael Vick see-saw again?
9. New Orleans (1-0). Saints are like Notre Dame; I didn't know whether to put them in the top 10 yet. I did because I think this is a team going back to its running roots. I like the team's chances to win with Deuce McAllister more than Aaron Brooks.
10. Carolina (1-1). How do you know what to do with all these one-win teams? I have a feeling the Panthers are the best of the bunch, but let's see if they can run the table in their four pre-bye games (Miami, Green Bay, Arizona, Detroit) -- all eminently winnable.
11. Cincinnati (2-0). Hey, did you see my buddy Cris Collinsworth sitting in the cheap seats at Paul Brown Stadium watching Carson Palmer dissect the Vikings?
12. Dallas (1-0). Maybe Joe Gibbs will shake Bill Parcells' hand after tonight's game.
13. Buffalo (1-1). This can't be true, can it? Did the Bills actually fail to get a first down in the first half? Keep the arm loose, Kelly Holcomb.
14. New York Jets (1-1). I still can't figure these guys out.
15. Chicago (1-1). Surrendering a grand total of 1.9 points per quarter.
THE AWARDS SECTION
Offensive Player of the Week
Philadelphia QB Donovan McNabb, who played despite a painful bruised sternum, had one of the best games of his life. In the first 20 minutes, he threw four touchdown passes -- 68, 6, 42 and 2 yards -- against the porous 49ers defense and added a fifth in the third quarter. Through three quarters, he had a dream stat line: 23 of 29, 342 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions. That helped the Eagles to a 42-3 win. Valiant show from the clear leader of his team.
Defensive Player of the Week
Jacksonville LB Mike Peterson. I could have easily given this as a team award to the entire Jacksonville defense. Peterson, who played for the Colts for four years before defecting to the Jags, keyed a terrific effort against an uncharacteristically confused-looking Peyton Manning. Anytime you hold the most prolific quarterback in the game to 122 yards and a sub-.500 completion percentage, you've kicked rear end and taken names. For the game, Peterson had 13 tackles, one interception and one deflected pass.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Carolina K John Kasay. His 51-yard field goal in the first half against New England gave the Panthers a 10-7 lead. His 52-yard field goal in the second half gave the Panthers a 20-7 lead -- and provided Carolina with what turned out to be the winning points. His six kickoffs, along with a solid kick-coverage team, made sure the Pats never started a drive following a kickoff beyond the New England 33. Great day for a very good, very steady veteran kicker.
Coach of the Week
Cleveland's Romeo Crennel. Talk about a perfect man for the job. He didn't make outlandish promises when he took the job with possibly the worst talent in the NFL. He just said he wouldn't take shortcuts and would be as consistent as the day is long. The most surprising thing after two weeks is the offense. Braylon Edwards gives the Browns a deep-strike guy, and Crennel is not afraid to use him. Winning at an admittedly sub-standard Green Bay is a stunning affirmation that Crennel, at least from the initial look, has this team on the right track.
Goat of the Week
Minnesota QB Daunte Culpepper. Five interceptions. Five! In the absolutely pathetic loss to the Bengals, Culpepper had his second straight rotten game, which -- probably rightfully -- is going to bring up a lot of Culpepper-is-lost-without-Randy-Moss talk. The loss of center Matt Birk for the season will turn out to be as damaging to this team as the absence of Moss.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
"They should have fined the referee. That's who they should have fined for that bad call. I do think referees should get fined, too, for making a bad call.''
-- Eagles LB Jeremiah Trotter, in the aftermath of being ejected for the season opener and getting fined.
Wrong, Mr. Trotter. And you sat in a meeting with NFL officials this summer in which the 2005 points of emphasis were discussed. In that meeting, one of the items discussed was on-field taunting, baiting and physical confrontation between teams before games. I know what happened in that meeting. Players were told there would be a zero-tolerance policy for the kind of thing that happened on the field last Monday night -- one player (Kevin Mathis) getting into an argument and a slapfight with another (Trotter). Didn't matter who started it. And then a bunch of Eagles stomped on the Falcons' midfield logo. I mean, what are these guys? Five? For a team usually as composed and relatively flatline (like its head coach), this was an egregious breach of discipline before a big game.
It also didn't matter that it was a big game, the first game of the year, a Monday nighter. As director of officiating Mike Pereira told me: "We've established that players are not allowed to berate and taunt each other before games, and certainly not get into fights on the field. If we don't act on it when it happens, what kind of teeth will our rules have?''
FACTOID THAT MAY ONLY INTEREST ME
Anyone look at the combination Saints-LSU schedule? Five games on the real grass of Tiger Stadium in the span of 14 days: LSU games on Oct. 22, 29 and Nov. 4; Saints games on Oct. 30 and Nov. 5.
AGGRAVATING/ENJOYABLE TRAVEL NOTE OF THE WEEK
This is why Americans get ticked off at air travel.
Wednesday night, United (good airline, bad night) flight from Chicago to Newark, due to leave 5 p.m., arrive in Newark around 8. They board the plane, though they're not going to leave "for a while'' due to weather on the East Coast and air-traffic delays. After an hour sitting there, passengers are told the flight won't leave for an undetermined time, and passengers can de-plane. Passengers de-plane. Re-board at 7:45. Go to the end of the runway, wait out the air-traffic control delay. Sit. And sit. Guy in the row in front of me has some Internet device. He's calling out AL East scores. Yanks at Tampa. Sox at Toronto. "Ortiz just hit a two-run homer in the eighth,'' says Internet Man. "5-3, Sox. Yanks are tied, 4-4.'' Brutally warm on the plane. It's got to be 88 degrees. "Are we at the point of cruel and inhuman punishment yet?'' I ask my neighbor.
Around 9:45, we take off. We get over Williamsport, Pa. Start circling. "We've been put on a hold,'' pilot says. Nice planning. You didn't know an hour ago planes would be stacked on top of each other? Forty minutes of circling. In turbulence. Lady a couple of rows back uses air-sickness bag. Land about 12:50. Walk in the front door at 1:45. For an hour-and-43-minute flight, it took eight hours and 15 minutes from the time I arrived at the gate to the time I stepped into the house. And I think: It would have been slightly longer, but significantly more relaxing to have driven the 780 miles than to have flown.
STAT OF THE WEEK
In 16 games last season, Daunte Culpepper threw 11 interceptions. In two games this year, he's thrown eight.
TEN THINGS I THINK I THINK
1. I think the Bill Romanowski book (written with Adam Schefter of the NFL Network, formerly of the Denver Post) is going to be a delicious read. Painful, too. That's why 60 Minutes was at Romanowski's home for a series of interviews this weekend. It's likely the show will do a piece in advance of the book's Oct. 15 publication date. (60 Minutes now has two NFL pieces in the can -- Romo and an interview with Tom Brady, which is ready to go.) In the book, I'm told Romo is going to admit taking THG, and he's going to talk about what a demi-God he thinks BALCO founder and personal supplement guru Victor Conte is. I'm also told Romanowski details in the book how he lost much of his memory and his sense of taste. But overall the book details just how driven he was to be the best football player it was possible to create.
2. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of the NFL weekend:
a. I was at Soldier Field on Sunday. I'm probably in the minority in this opinion, but I though it was an impressive venue with good sightlines and a couple of great video boards. But it still looks like a spaceship landed on the outside of the stadium.
b. Is it possible the Vikings stink? Is it possible that the Peter King-NFC Championship pick just might turn out wrong? Shocking!
c. "I trust Joe Gibbs' judgment," Jimmy Johnson said on the FOX pregame show. "[Patrick] Ramsey can't play.'' I love Jimmy, but this is a ridiculous statement. Gibbs judged before the first game that Ramsey was his best of three quarterbacks. He gives him one half, then judges he's not. What kind of judgment is that, other than knee-jerk?
d. Yes, Ran Carthon, who scored a TD for Indy, is Maurice Carthon's son.
e. Remember my friend Josh Norman, the reporter from Biloxi I wrote about last week in my Tom Benson letter? Well, he's a Giants fan. He bought three seats to Saints-Giants during the summer, when the game was in New Orleans, at a Saints ticket outlet in Mississippi. He attempted to get his money back last week and was told he'd have to go to the outlet where he purchased the seats. It doesn't exist. Not much I can do, Mr. Ticket told him. Saints PR man Greg Bensel tells me it'll be worked out. Josh will be able to get a refund or maybe tickets to a game in Baton Rouge. There are hundreds of similar stories.
f. Has anyone thrown out the first Mike Tice job-security rumor yet?
g. Patriots. Human.
h. USC. Not.
i. I like the Terrell Owens placing-the-ball-just-over-the-goal-line deal a lot better than most of his end-zone antics.
j. Drew Brees handed Denver that game. The gimme to Champ Bailey was the worst interception I've seen in years.
k. What a win by the Browns. And kudos to Trent Dilfer. Never thought I'd see him throw for 300 and pull a road upset with that bad Cleveland team, but he looked very good on the highlights I saw.
l. I think this is the best way to describe what has happened in the NFL the first two weeks: Had I been in a knockout pool, I'd have taken Minnesota over Tampa Bay for Week 1 and Green Bay over Cleveland for Week 2. And I'd have been knocked out twice. That says three things. 1) I have no idea what I'm talking about; 2) There's a good chance the Packers and Vikings are a lot worse than we thought; 3) This is really going to be a fun year.
4. I think this is what I liked about Week 2:
a. McNabb to Owens.
b. Palmer to Chad Johnson.
c. An Indianapolis defense growing up before our very eyes, with a three-headed tackle rotation (Montae Reagor, Corey Simon and Larry Tripplett) that is going to be very hard to penetrate.
d. Troy Brown. I never thought I'd see him run 71 yards again, but there he was, on the receiving end of a Tom Brady throw.
e. The leaping, juggling, falling-backward catch by the Bears' Justin Gage.
f. Kyle Orton's poise. I liked what Orton did in the rout over the Lions. Liked it a lot. Good arm, no fear.
g. Matt Hasselbeck's resilience.
h. Ray Rhodes' fortitude.
i. Chad Pennington's abuse filter.
j. Tennessee's offensive line keeping Steve McNair mostly clean against a ferocious Baltimore rush.
k. The constant reminders to contribute to hurricane relief by the networks. Keep them coming.
l. Offensive pass interference against Julius Peppers. How cool is that?
5. I think this is what I didn't like:
a. Houston's offense.
b. Minnesota's defense.
c. Anyone who thought the 49ers would make a game of it in Philadelphia.
d. How can a soul in Detroit have a scintilla of faith in Joey Harrington? Detroit's got the bye week this week, and luckily it doesn't have a home game until Oct. 9. I'd fear for the guy's safety at Ford Field if the Lions played at home next week.
e. Atlanta's inability to keep it going in a short week on the road against a decent team.
f. Minnesota's poise. Or lack thereof.
g. New England's goal-line defense.
h. The Lions' utter resignation when times got tough. Talk about a team with no faith in the quarterback.
i. Detroit's running game. I thought Kevin Jones was going to be this great back this year. The Lions have three rushing first downs in two games. THREE! Jones' longest run of 2005: 8 yards.
j. Minnesota's offensive line.
k. Brett Favre throwing an awful red-zone interception.
m. Heck, everything about Minnesota. If Zygi Wilf drove around trying to clear his head after the Vikings' ugly Week 1 loss to Tampa Bay, he's going to have to drive to the Bering Strait after what happened in Cincinnati.
6. I think Saints owner Tom Benson is so caught up in his desire for a new stadium, he's inclined to say yes to the first city, country, state or breakaway Soviet republic that will build one for him. If George Bush said today: "We're going to build a stadium as part of our efforts to get New Orleans back among the great, vibrant American cities,'' Benson would say: "Where do I sign?" The best idea Bush could have right now is to say the feds will build a stadium with one catch -- it will be constructed to be a disaster headquarters if another hurricane like Katrina strikes again.
7. I think the more I listen to Charlie Weis from afar, the more I feel I'm listening to a cross between Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. Isn't that what Weis is or at least what he's trying to be? Sure sounds like it.
8. I think if Mike Brown stays healthy and the Bears win a few games, he'll give Ed Reed a run for his money as the best safety in football. What an impactful game he played against Detroit. He's everywhere, with the quickness to cover receivers and the brutish strength to intimidate them. One thing he's going to have to curb: the helmet-to-helmet stuff. Wouldn't be surprised to see the league whack him pretty good for his hit on defenseless Marcus Pollard of Detroit.
9. I think I need to give kudos to those -- and I know I'll forget many -- who've been so generous with their money and time in the last couple of weeks for the hurricane and flood relief. Forgot to mention this last week, but I was sitting in Baltimore VP of public relations Kevin Byrne's office the day before the Ravens-Colts game when David Modell, the former owner's son, called to say he was matching the players' collected contributions of $165,000. I realize he's got more money than most of us will ever sniff, but it's a heck of a gesture anyway. The Ravens ended up giving more than $1 million between players and owners, and they're not done. ... Last week, on his day off, LaVar Arrington and wife Trisha took 150 Katrina evacuees staying at the D.C. Armory to a Wal-Mart and gave each of them a $200 gift card. ... Brett Favre sending 37 -- thirty-seven! -- tractor-trailers of aid and supplies to Mississippi. ... Tiki Barber donating a minimum of $10,000, depending on his stats tonight. ... Jets center Kevin Mawae spearheading a Saturday collection drive to load trucks on Long Island with aid for Louisiana. I know I'm a cornball and I know I'm missing hundreds of similar gestures, but I thought these efforts were notable in their spur-of-the-moment generosity.
10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:
a. Memo to the couple at O'Hare last night that was pawing each other while waiting for American Flight 1914 to Newark: Next time, get a room.
b. I don't see how the Red Sox can hold on, unless David Ortiz can pitch too.
c. College football games take too long.
d. Coffeenerdness: Fun to eat breakfast at the Sofitel Hotel in Chicago on Sunday (oatmeal with raisins and brown sugar), but the real treat was the French-press coffee. Now there's some strong coffee. The sign of good French-press is the residue it leaves in the bottom of the cup.
e. So much for Mid-American Conference rejuvenation. Michigan/Auburn/Penn State/Virginia Tech 203, Eastern Michigan/Ball State/Central Michigan/Alma Mater Ohio U. 6.
f. This just in: Randy Johnson's a baby.
g. Finally, this from ace Lions beat writer/funniest man in the NFL Mike O'Hara of the Detroit News: "Two caskets are talking. One says to the other, 'Hey, why are you coffin?'''
WHO I LIKE TONIGHT, AND I DON'T MEAN AL MICHAELS
Saints and Cowboys, in the rare Monday night twinbill.
New Orleans 23, Giants 16. Dallas 14, Washington 13.
Here's what you should know about the Saints last year. Aaron Brooks averaged 34 pass attempts per game (three more, by the way, than Peyton Manning). He had an alarmingly high 70 negative plays: 16 interceptions, 41 sacks, 13 fumbles (second in the NFL). He completed just 57 percent of his throws, with just 21 touchdowns. Too much bad. Not enough good. (For purposes of comparing, Peyton Manning had 28 negative plays last year, Brett Favre 33, Tom Brady 47, Daunte Culpepper 66. All had better completion percentages and more touchdown passes than Brooks.)
So when new offensive coordinator Mike Sheppard took over for Mike McCarthy, the mandate, at least quietly, was to make this more of a running team. Smart move. Deuce McAllister and that beefy offensive line are more suited to control a game than Brooks is. Tonight in New Jersey, I expect the Saints to try to gash the Giants with a big dose of McAllister.
Re the Boys of Cow, last week was a harbinger of good things to come -- as long as their receivers can stay upright. Loved what I saw of newcomer Patrick Crayton. I think Drew Bledsoe continues his resurgence and the Cowboys squeak one out.
RE: Peter King: MMQB
Wow. All NFC teams in the top 10?!?
I totally agree with the Benson tidbit.
How about dem stats on AB? Amazing.
It had a lot of Saints in it, so I posted it, but damn, them AB stat are alarming. I wonder who was first.
lol... It looks like you two probably won't have to prove your view about AB ever again. Just use those stats everytime. Those are some pretty ugly statistics all bunched up together.
I think they prove exactly what Whodi and I have said about AB for a long time. It's not that he can't play well at times. It's that for all the positive stats he has, he has as many negative ones as well. It paints a picture of a guy who is up and down. Who can play like a superstar one minute and a bum the next.
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