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pakowitz 05-05-2003 02:05 AM

Horn's no-show puts more distance in talks

By Len Pasquarelli

The New Orleans Saints wrapped up a weekend mini-camp Sunday with no sign of star wide receiver Joe Horn.


And with negotiations toward a contract extension once again stalled, there's really no idea of when they might see him back on the practice field.

Only last month, following two days of meetings between agent Ralph Vitolo and Saints officials, it appeared a new deal was imminent. But the team has finished the first of its offseason training sessions, is planning a second mini-camp in June, and the optimism that accompanied last month's contract discussions has faded.

"I would say it's fair to conclude we've taken a step backwards on the thing," said Vitolo, who said he broke off negotiations with general manager Mickey Loomis last Wednesday and hasn't heard from New Orleans officials since then. "Obviously, (Horn) wasn't at the mini-camp and he won't be at the next one, either, until the issue is resolved."

The boycott is similar to one staged by Horn last spring, when he began lamenting that he has outplayed his contract, but could grow nastier than the 2002 disagreement.

Vitolo, who has exchanged a variety of proposal designs with Loomis, probably will fly to New Orleans this week in an attempt to keep the acrimony to a minimum while also maximizing his client's earning power. But the Saints have several sticking points -- the fact Horn still has two years left on his existing contract, and that he is 31 years old, chief among them -- and there clearly are roadblocks to be navigated.

In his three seasons with the club, the seven-year pro has been a veritable pass-catching cornucopia, basically a Joe Horn of Plenty, having averaged 88.3 receptions, 1,305.7 yards and eight touchdowns. Over his first four NFL seasons, in Kansas City, he totaled 53 catches, 879 yards and seven scores. Horn has topped those numbers every year he has been in a Saints uniform.

One example of how essential Horn is to the New Orleans passing game: In 2002, the team's other two top wideouts, Jerome Pathon and Donte Stallworth, has three fewer combined catches and 195 less aggregate yards than Horn posted individually. Clearly, the guy is no ordinary Joe, and that is the message Vitolo hopes to deliver this week.

"I know and understand," Vitolo said, "they've got some concerns. But they also know the kind of player Joe has been for them. He's got good, productive seasons remaining, and him not being there doesn't help anybody. But he won't be there, and he's solid on that, until this thing is worked out."

Horn is scheduled to earn a base salary of $2.7 million for 2003, with a roster bonus of $200,000 and an offseason workout bonus of $100,000 for which he almost certainly will not meet the qualifications. In 2004, the final season of his current deal, his base salary is $2.9 million and he is due a $100,000 roster bonus.

The two sides have talked about contract extensions long and short, signing bonuses of between $5 million-$7 million, about a variety of structures that would meet the needs of Horn and of New Orleans management. The goal of Vitolo, who suggested that both his client and Saints coach Jim Haslett "share the same frustrations," is to identify and then seize some kind of middle ground.

During his absence from the mandatory weekend camp, Horn was fined, probably at the league maximum rate of $5,000 per day. But that appears to be pocket change in the fight he is waging for big bucks and, Vitolo insisted, for the kind of respect best represented by the number of zeroes in a paycheck.

New Orleans is one of the NFL's most exciting young teams, and Haslett and Loomis have parlayed trades and draft choices into a very solid roster, but one without a proven threat at Horn's level. Pathon and second-year veteran Stallworth, a first-round choice in the 2002 draft, are only as good as their habitually balky hamstrings. For his part, Horn was barely a role player before he arrived in New Orleans, and certainly the opportunity the Saints provided him boosted a previously nondescript career.

That is, in part, why Vitolo is anxious to jump-start talks again, if possible. The period between mini-camps presents a calm, of sorts, a respite for remedying grievances.

"I think we all want to avoid a storm," Vitolo said. "This is the time to try to do it."

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