A Week with Jim Haslett
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A week with Saints coach Jim Haslett
By Vic Carucci
Jim Haslett surprised nearly everyone in 2000 when he led New Orleans to the NFC West title in his first season as the Saints' coach. He capped the season by leading the Saints to their first playoff victory and winning NFL coach of the year honors. Along the way, his team enjoyed a six-game winning streak, defeated the defending Super Bowl champion Rams in St. Louis, and posted the club's best record (10-6) in eight years.
No less impressive was how the rookie coach handled defeat, as evidenced by the Saints' response to a 38-23 loss to the Denver Broncos in week 14.
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National Editor Vic Carucci arrived in New Orleans the day after that defeat and watched how Haslett prepared for a pivotal game in San Francisco.
MONDAY, 3:05 A.M.: While the rest of the Haslett clan sleeps, Jim is up, dressed, and on his way to work. He is about an hour ahead of his normal schedule. But after being repeatedly awakened by visions of missed tackles and other mistakes in Sunday's loss to the Broncos, he decides to get an early jump on putting the pieces back together.
Beth, his wife of 12 years, appreciates the decision. It is her only hope for a few more hours of uninterrupted sleep before getting up with the couple's three children.
After his usual quick stop at a convenience store for a 16-ounce cup of coffee, Haslett proceeds down Airline Drive in his SUV and into the parking lot of Saints' headquarters in Metairie, La. Rick Venturi, the Saints' assistant head coach and defensive backs coach, pulls in right behind the boss.
3:45 A.M.: As Haslett watches every bit of videotape from the Denver game, he jots notes on a pad, grading each player's performance. He will watch the same tape two more times with his assistant coaches, the rest of whom arrive during the next couple of hours.
"They do most of the talking," Haslett says. "If I agree or disagree, I'll let them know."
Everyone agrees that poor tackling by the Saints' defense, which had established itself as one of the strongest in the league, went a long way toward allowing running back Mike Anderson to rush for 251 yards (the most ever in a game by a rookie) and four touchdowns.
9 A.M.: Offensive and defensive linemen are the first players due in for mandatory weightlifting. Haslett heads downstairs to gauge the psyche of his squad. The first thing he notices is that he can hardly hear the music from the stereo speakers. Ordinarily, the music would be blasting and the players would be cutting up. On this Monday, players barely can be heard.
"It's like there's a death in the family," Haslett says. "You've got to go through that period (of mourning)."
Besides being a self-proclaimed "detail freak," Haslett is also a neat freak. His office stays immaculate long after the cleaning crew's rounds. At home, it is not uncommon for him to vacuum the rugs several times a day.
Although Haslett has an administrative assistant, he insists on doing his own stapling and three-hole punching. He also opens his own mail, places his own phone calls, and keeps his own schedule.
An orderly row of black loose-leaf notebooks sits on a shelf behind his desk. They are only a small part of the massive collection of data from his previous NFL stops as an assistant coach. He also spent three seasons (1988-1990) as linebackers coach and defensive coordinator for the University of Buffalo and two seasons (1991-92) as defensive coordinator for the Sacramento Surge of the World League of American Football.
Haslett became a coach after nine seasons (1979-1987) as an NFL linebacker, the first eight in Buffalo and the last year with the Jets. He earned first-team all-AFC honors in 1980, along with a reputation for a hard-nosed style of play that he tries to instill in his players.
He compiled the data as an assistant with the Raiders (linebackers coach from 1993-94), Saints (linebackers coach and defensive coordinator 1995-96), and Pittsburgh Steelers (defensive coordinator from 1997-99). He kept notes on what he would do if he ever became an NFL head coach — everything from which assistants he would hire to how he would structure practice.
12:30 P.M.: All of the players and coaches gather downstairs for a team meeting. By now, Haslett has put much of his own frustration and disappointment behind him. He wants his players to do the same, so they can turn their attention to San Francisco. In November, the Saints rolled to a 31-15 home victory over the 49ers. Since then, the 49ers, behind playmaking quarterback Jeff Garcia, have won three in a row.
"This is a good football team in this room, and don't forget it," Haslett tells the players in a stern voice. "We had a bad day, but there's a reason why you won six in a row (earlier in the season), and we're still in first place in our division."
TUESDAY, 5 A.M.: This is a day off for players, but not for Haslett, who is back to his normal early morning routine. His first order of business at the Saints' complex is a workout. On alternating days, he logs 30 minutes on a stationary bike or 40 minutes of weightlifting. When he returns to his office, he has his standard breakfast of scrambled egg whites and a slice of toast.
Before the morning is out, Haslett receives some cheering up in a phone call from Monte Kiffin, defensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Kiffin coached Haslett in Buffalo, and then they coached together in New Orleans.
Kiffin reminds Haslett that in 1999, the Buccaneers won six games in a row before suffering a 45-0 December loss to the Raiders in which they allowed 262 rushing yards.
"We stunk," Kiffin says. "We couldn't tackle, we couldn't do anything. But then we regrouped, went on to win the next three (including a divisional playoff game), and went to the NFC Championship Game."
A card that Beth sent to Jim when the Saints were 1-3 in September still hangs from a cabinet behind his desk. On the front, it says: "Tough times are like speed bumps. They only slow you down a little, but they don't throw you off course." Inside, she wrote: "Nobody said it's going to be easy. But you're doing a great job and things will come together in time."
9:45 A.M.: Haslett almost never leaves the Saints' facility during work hours, but he makes an exception today for a visit to the second-grade class of his eight-year-old son, Chase. At Chase's request, running back Ricky Williams accompanies the coach.
The 20 students direct most of their questions toward Williams. After asking for his favorites in categories that are especially important to second-graders — dessert (cheesecake), candy bar (Snickers), and television show (ESPN SportsCenter) — they finally get around to a football-related question: "How come you run over people rather than run around them?"
Williams, enjoying a change of pace on his day off, smiles and tells them that's just his style.
6:05 P.M.: Haslett walks into the Saints' media workroom for his weekly call-in show on New Orleans radio station WWL. He takes a seat at the table serving as a portable studio, pulls on his headset, and begins an on-air chat with co-host Buddy Diliberto.
"It was ugly, Buddy," Haslett says of videotape from the Broncos game. "But I think our players will regroup. They're resilient."
For the rest of the hour, callers are generally upbeat and supportive. One tells Haslett he's doing a "super job." Another thanks him for "making Sundays fun again in New Orleans."
7:30 P.M.: The coaching staff has been working on the first part of the game plan all day, and will stay at it into the night. The other components will be assembled over the next two days.
Through the process, Haslett is a human Ping-Pong ball, bouncing between meetings of the offensive and defensive coaches. He barely causes a ripple as he slips in and out of meeting rooms. Tonight, the defensive staff is troubled by self-doubt that surfaced after watching the Broncos trample over its most basic schemes.
But of this much the coaches are certain: The secondary is certain to have its hands full against standout wide receivers Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens, who lack the speed of the Rams' flashy pass catchers but who can do plenty of damage with savvy routes and their larger, more powerful frames.
The staff expects every defensive back to keep an eye on Rice because of his ever-changing position on the field. Rice may have lost a step through the years, but he has lost none of his savvy. On each 49ers passing play, defenders must be aware of whether he is lined up inside or outside, the distance of his split, and his tendency to break off routes and find open spaces in the coverage that aren't supposed to be there.
WEDNESDAY, 7:45 A.M.: After returning from a 15-minute meeting to discuss the day's practice schedule with assistant coaches, trainers, and members of the equipment and video staffs, Haslett studies a copy of the Saints' roster while holding a yellow highlighter. He marks the names of 18 players with whom he or a position coach will have a one-on-one conversation by the end of the week.
"It might just be in passing while walking to or from practice, or it might be up here, in the office," Haslett says of this weekly ritual. "The most important thing is that I want all of our coaches to communicate with the players. If a guy's not playing well and you don't know why, maybe you find out there's something wrong at home."
9:15 A.M.: Haslett likes the comparison with the 1999 Buccaneers so much, he mentions it to his players in the team meeting. Then, it's on to business.
"Offense, we have to control the line of scrimmage," Haslett says. "Wide receivers are going to get bump-and-run all day; we've got to win the one-on-one battles. And the last thing, offense, we've got to put points on the board.
"On defense, we need to get turnovers and tackle. We've got to attack the line of scrimmage. We've got to play physical on the receivers. We've got to be in control on the quarterback, because we're not going to sack him. And the last thing is we've got to score on defense."
Before returning to his office, Haslett notices a broken chair in one of the players' meeting rooms. He mentions it to his administrative assistant, who promptly calls maintenance.
"You can't ask players to be perfectionists and let stuff like that go by," Haslett says.
11:30 A.M.: The Saints go through a 10-minute walk-through, an out-of-pads rehearsal for the afternoon practice. Haslett spends most of it near his young quarterback, Aaron Brooks, who has been impressive in place of injured Jeff Blake. Haslett wants to hear how Brooks calls the plays he just saw for the first time that morning and how he handles the snap count. The coach is happy, because Brooks "didn't screw up much."
12:15 P.M.: After his standard lunch of a turkey burger with light mayonnaise and a slice of cheese, Haslett gets comfortable behind his desk for a conference call with media covering the 49ers.
In answer to a question about how the Saints compare Brooks with the more highly touted members of the Quarterback Class of '99, Haslett says, "I had him rated up there right in the middle of those (six) guys (selected in the first two rounds). He was a little bit smaller — skinnier, I should say — than most of them, but he had the same type of qualities."
1:30 P.M.: Practice isn't moving quite as rapidly as Haslett would like, but that often happens on Wednesday when the players are digesting new material.
Still, Haslett is all smiles as he leaves the field. He jokes with a couple of players in the locker room, then starts his regular midweek briefing of local media with a humorous imitation of a radio reporter who always shows up late.
5 P.M: Haslett makes his usual dinner-time telephone call to his wife.
"How are the kids?" he asks.
"They're doing good," Beth says.
"Did school go okay?"
"It went real well … except Chase had to spend two minutes in time out."
"What did he do?"
"One little boy was throwing ham from his sandwich, so Chase started throwing his, too."
"That's your son. He's just like you."
"I love you."
THURSDAY, 7:20 A.M.: Haslett darts downstairs for his usual 30-minute Thursday morning meeting with the trainers. After that, he spends another 30 minutes meeting with the equipment staff. Mostly, the "detail freak" goes over the itinerary for the trip, making sure that everything is in place to move people and equipment in and out of San Francisco as quickly and smoothly as possible. But he also wants to check the pulse of the squad.
"The trainers and equipment people are around the players more than anybody, so they know what's going on around the team," Haslett says.
8 A.M.: After returning to his office, Haslett checks the laptop computer behind him for a weekend weather forecast for San Francisco. It says rain is moving into the Bay Area, along with strong winds.
Haslett is not pleased. "We're used to playing in a dome, so those kind of conditions are different for us," he says.
1:30 P.M. Haslett notices more excitement and energy in practice than he saw Wednesday. He is particularly impressed with how well Brooks runs a two-minute drill to set up a hypothetical game-winning field goal. However, some fixes are needed in how the linebackers call for movement by the defensive line according to the offensive formation.
FRIDAY: For most NFL coaches, this is the shortest and lightest day of game preparation. Workaholic tendencies notwithstanding, Haslett is no exception.
Because the Saints are preparing for a road game, the offense practices under the din of eardrum-splitting crowd noise from a giant $10,000 speaker the club purchased before the season. "I think it's an even bigger key now because we've got a young quarterback," Haslett says.
3:45 P.M. As he always does on Friday, Haslett picks up Chase and 10-year-old Kelsey at school to join Beth and four-year-old Elizabeth at a restaurant for dinner. On this Friday, the family celebrates Jim's 45th birthday, which is actually Saturday.
"I bow down to any head coach's wife who has been through this," says Beth, who is a bit frazzled from trying to organize the team Christmas party that is a week away. "And we're on the good (winning) end. I can't imagine what it would be like at the other end."
SATURDAY, 12:30 P.M.: After meetings and a light, 45-minute practice, Haslett meets the rest of the team at the airport to board a charter flight to San Francisco.
That night at the team hotel, Haslett sits down with his offensive coordinator, Mike McCarthy, to share a list of 19 plays that were executed well during practice. Haslett wants to see that they are included among the first two sets of 15 plays McCarthy scripts for Sunday's game.
"It's mostly new stuff," Haslett says. "For instance, the 49ers play a lot of man-to-man coverage, and we've got some pick plays that I think will work pretty well."
SUNDAY: There was never a time, before any of the Saints' previous 13 games, when Haslett made the declaration to himself, or anyone else, "We're ready to play."
Each game is a mysterious journey into the unknown, and game 14 will be no different from any that preceded.
"I never know when we're ready," Haslett says, with a bemused smile. "I can remember when we were playing San Diego in the second week of the season, and about fifteen minutes before the game, after the players came in after warm-ups, we were trying to install a new defense in case the Chargers came out with five wides.
"They never did."
Today, there is no hurried scramble to change strategy. There is no need.
Even after falling behind 7-0 on San Francisco's first possession, and 14-3 in the second quarter, the Saints hang together on a day when they might have wilted.
Brooks engineers a fourth-quarter touchdown drive as if he were running a two-minute drill in practice. After 12 plays and 68 yards, the Saints own a 31-27 victory. And Haslett is able to relax. Last week's loss to Denver is a distant memory.
Republished from the September-October issue of NFL Insider Magazine.
A weekly call-in show is just one of Jim Haslett's many appointments.
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