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Season brings renewed hope for Saints fans
Wednesday August 06, 2003
When Alexander Pope took pen in hand and strung these words together back in the 18th century -- "Hope springs eternal in the human breast" -- he had no idea he was talking about Saints fans, circa 2003.
Eight months ago, you might remember, our professional football heroes took a dive off the high board, giving life to a bloody December during in which they went from a "can't-miss-the-playoffs" 9-4 to a "sure-enough-we-can" 9-7
Well, as we speak, fleur-de-lis zealots are closing in on that magic number -- 53,312 -- which happens to be the season-ticket record for the Saints in the Superdome.
How do you explain it?
Alexander Pope did that a long time ago.
Just look at Saturday's dress rehearsal in Lafayette, one that, amazingly, drew a crowd of 18,000 that paid up to $20 to watch a mini-scrimmage dominated by the defense. "We did an outstanding job of tackling," said Coach Jim Haslett, hardly the case in 2002 that found the Saints close to the cellar in points and yardage allowed, a deadly parlay.
Were some fans embracing this as a quick turnaround?
Of course. Actually, it happens every year. It's now happening all over the NFL map, from the champion Bucs in Tampa to the lowly Bengals in Cincinnati.
The truth is, at this juncture, a member of Charlie's Marching Saints may have as good a handle on the 2003 Saints as Haslett. All anyone can do is guess.
Remember this. Haslett, whose team swept the Super Bowl champions, is still trying to figure out what went wrong in December, just as Al Davis is trying to fathom what happened to his Oakland Raiders on Super Bowl Sunday.
That's what makes it all so fascinating.
Isn't that right, Rick Mueller?
Three years ago, the Director of Player Personnel joined a team headed by his brother, Randy, with a single mission: To clear up the mess created by Mike Ditka.
As Rick Mueller goes into his fourth season, you can count him among the optimists.
"I really believe this is the best group of players since I've been here," he said. Only two names, both free agents, remain from the Ditka era, center Jerry Fontenot and defensive lineman Willie Whitehead.
As Mueller addressed what he feels was "positive revamping" on defense, he went right to a familiar but young face, Mel Mitchell, and a new one, Tebucky Jones.
Mitchell, a fifth-round draft choice in 2002, is expected to start at strong safety. Jones, acquired in a trade with the Patriots, will take over at free safety.
Mueller's thoughts echoed what Haslett has been saying. More speed at both positions. "Mel's speed will enable him to play closer to the line when necessary," Mueller said. "Tebucky has the speed to cover the slot receiver, something we've been missing."
But that's only part of the story. Left unsaid in both cases is something that takes you back to the "Ricky Williams only" draft of 1999 and how it helped compound the rebuilding process. Sure, Williams was a valuable commodity, worth several high picks. However, there was only one reason the Saints gave up their third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth- and seventh-round picks in '99: Ditka opened his big mouth.
"I'll give up all our picks for Ricky," he announced weeks before the draft. On draft day, the Redskins were happy to take him up on that.
Raising the question: How valuable can those picks in rounds three-through-seven be?
Begin by examining the Saints new safety combo. Mitchell was a No. 5, who matured like many No. 5s, starting on special teams while waiting for his shot. As for Jones, his trade involved a No. 3, No. 4 and No. 7. The point: You can use mid- to late-round picks to take a player or package them to make a trade.
Remember? The Saints sent the Packers a No. 3 for Aaron Brooks. This year they could have two No. 3s -- Sedrick Hodge and James Allen -- starting at linebacker.
The Saints will start a No. 4, Terrelle Smith, at fullback. This year they could have running back Curtis Keaton, acquired for a No. 4 in a trade with the Bengals, playing backup to Deuce McAllister. "No one in the building is higher on Curtis than me," Mueller said.
Meanwhile, the coaches remain high on the future of cornerback Keyuo Craver, a No. 4 last year. And, at the moment, the reports are better on this year's No. 4, offensive guard Montrae Holland, than they are on this year's No. 2, offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb.
Finally, you have Kevin Houser, a No. 7 pick in 2000, enjoying NFL life as a long snapper on punts and placekicks. Long snappers have cost some coaches their jobs. Houser is one of the best in the league.
So yes, Mueller will tell you, "this is the era of free agency, but the draft is the lifeblood of a franchise."
He's waiting to see how linebacker Cie Grant develops, once this year's No. 3 shakes an injury. And he's wondering if the last two picks, wide receivers Kareem Kelly (No. 6) and Talman Gardner (No. 7), could one day be catching passes from Brooks.
"Aaron Brooks for a No. 3," said Mueller. "That wasn't bad, was it?"
Hope springs eternal. Right?
. . . . . . .
Peter Finney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3405.
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