Hot in December
Saints want to be hot in December, not September
June 10, 2003 Print it
If history is the best way to predict the future, then later this year the Saints will collapse like a human pyramid with 330-pound Grady Jackson as the top man.
It happened in 2001, when they lost their last four to spoil a 7-5 start. And it happened last season, when they began 7-2 but lost five of their last seven.
The Saints are not going to build their pyramid the same way this year, however. Coach Jim Haslett has spent quite a bit of time this offseason researching the Saints' December disappointments and has come up with some potential solutions.
He compared notes with coaches who have had similar problems -- Miami's Dave Wannstedt and San Diego's Marty Schottenheimer -- and sought the counsel of Titans coach Jeff Fisher and former Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin. Fisher, based on his experiences in Houston, led Haslett to believe the Gulf heat was draining the Saints to the point where they had nothing left when the games meant the most. When Haslett looked inside the Saints locker room, there was more evidence.
The aforementioned Jackson is symbolic of his team's rise and fall during 2002. Through the first six games, the defensive tackle was as hot as a mouthful of Tabasco. But when the season was on the line, he was as soft as bread pudding.
"I know without a doubt we're one of the hardest-working teams in the NFL," Saints Pro Bowl wide receiver Joe Horn says. "I heard talk around the locker room that some guys said they were physically burned out and tired the last four games of the season. I was tired, and my legs were sore the last four weeks. That's the heat. I ***** to Haslett every day about running us too much, just to get something started. But when I get up Sunday morning, it doesn't matter. I can't make excuses."
Haslett points out the window from the office of public relations director Greg Bensel toward the frame of a huge building under construction. "I don't know how we ever got by without that," he says.
"That" is the Saints' first indoor practice facility, scheduled to be ready by training camp. "Have you ever been here in September?" Haslett says. "It's so hot I've had guys pass out in stretch."
Haslett's plan is to practice indoors two out of three days during the season when the temperatures are high. The Saints also will hold every late afternoon practice during training camp indoors.
There is no question the Saints should benefit from an indoor facility. But the Bucs do not have one, and the Florida heat did not wither their hands to the point where Super Bowl rings were sliding off. So the hum of an air conditioning unit will not cure all that has plagued the Saints.
Before the 2001 season, Haslett cut back on the amount of hitting the Saints did, from twice a week to once. Still, it's not as if injuries have been a problem. Last season, only one player was placed on injured reserve (cornerback Michael Hawthorne), though quarterback Aaron Brooks and running back Deuce McAllister were beat up down the stretch.
In his last four games of both 2001 and 2002, Brooks had a combined 58.6 passer rating. In the first 12 games of both seasons combined, his passer rating was 84.6. The Saints will have no chance late this season if Brooks goes haywire again.
What happens to Brooks late in the season? "Teams make adjustments," he says while sitting on a bench after a passing camp practice. "They won't continue to allow you to do the things you've been doing all year. This is the NFL. Overall team production dropped. We had a lot of drops, missed blocks, protection problems, the defense didn't do as well. It all goes back on the quarterback, but I don't feel I need to change or do anything different."
Brooks is a fine quarterback. But he is young, barely 27. "He needs to step up and play better down the stretch," Haslett says. "He has to get tougher and be more of a leader. And he's getting a lot better in those areas."
While the rest of society tries to keep their kids from growing up too fast, the Saints have talked about how to get Brooks to mature faster. Every day, a Saints assistant coach places in Brooks' locker a motivational message, such as: "Be the first one on the practice field," or "Sit at the front of the bus."
General manager of football operations Mickey Loomis came up with the idea that Brooks, the team's other quarterbacks and a few other players attend a two-day leadership seminar along with Haslett and key members of the organization. Former Bills quarterback Frank Reich is one of the speakers. The Saints also are trying to bring in a retired quarterback of Hall of Fame caliber to mentor Brooks.
The Saints are young at almost every position. That was part of the thinking in acquiring veterans Ernie Conwell, Tebucky Jones and Wayne Gandy. The first two have Super Bowl rings with the Rams and Patriots, respectively, and the third started for the Steelers in an AFC championship game. All three understand how to win in the final weeks of the regular season -- and beyond.
As much as any team, the Saints need direction at that time of year.
Senior writer Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Sporting News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hot in December
I think it\'s pretty weak to. Sometimes it\'s easier to make excuses than to look in the mirror.
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