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JOESAM2002 08-17-2004 07:23 PM

Sounds like Jeff Duncan's been reading B&G.Net..
Saints corners playing with motivation
Group lacking big names focuses on converting doubters
Tuesday, August 17, 2004
By Jeff Duncan
Staff writer
Pen in hand, Fred Thomas sat in the Philadelphia Eagles offices and looked up as the towering presence of Eagles coach Andy Reid stared down at him.

A four-year contract offer was lying on the desk.

"Go ahead, sign it," Reid said.

The pressure mounted. Thomas tried to stall. He was awaiting a call from his agent, Jimmy Sexton, who was in negotiations with the Saints on a similar proposal. When Saints officials agreed to match the four-year, $14 million deal, Sexton called Thomas and advised him to bolt the facility as quickly as possible.

"It was like being in a cellar where nobody would let you out," Thomas said recently, when recalling that March evening. "You get that phone call and your agent says, 'Get out of there,' and you've got this big guy standing over you, saying 'Where're you going?' All you can think about is getting out of that building.

"The pressure was like a ton of bricks. I didn't realize the guy (Reid) was that big. It was like a ball and chain."

Thomas' decision seemed dubious at the time. He turned down a chance to start for a team that had gone to three consecutive NFC Championship games and is considered one of the favorites to advance to the Super Bowl this season.

For the Saints, the decision was critical. Thomas' return, coupled with Fakhir Brown's re-signing, solidified the club's cornerback position.

"Their signings were huge," defensive coordinator Rick Venturi said. "We had a lot of faith in those guys. (Their signings) were more important than going out and getting anybody."

Many of the Saints' frustrated fans didn't agree. They clamored for the club to sign a big-name free agent or select a cornerback in the first round of the April draft.

"That's OK," Thomas said. "We're just guys out there that don't have the big names, and fans want to see those big names, the Champ Baileys and all those guys, come in here just so they can say they have a big-name guy."

Saints officials, however, are solidly behind their four corners: Thomas, Brown, Ashley Ambrose and Jason Craft, who was acquired in an April trade with Jacksonville.

Still, there are plenty of doubters who remain unsold on the Saints' secondary.

The proponents point out the Saints finished No. 8 in the NFL in pass defense last season.

The skeptics claim those stats are skewed by a schedule padded with five contests against backup or rookie quarterbacks and a low number of pass attempts. Only five teams had fewer passes attempted against them the Saints' 485 attempts.

The proponents point out that the Saints allowed only two pass plays of 40 or more yards, second fewest in the NFL last season.

The skeptics note that the six times they faced top-10 rated passing offenses, the opposing quarterbacks combined to throw 14 touchdowns with only three interceptions and compiled passer efficiency ratings of 103.85.

"That does nothing but serve to motivate these guys," cornerbacks coach Greg Brown said. "They don't have any egos. The genuinely like each other. It's one of the most unique things I've been around in coaching."

Thomas acknowledged that he's heard the whispers and the disrespect.

"We're playing with a chip on our shoulders," Thomas said. "Listening to people doubting us, that's my chip. We try to go out there and prove people wrong.

"Of course, we've got a lot of pressure on us. We've got to step up there and do some things. But I like that. I like when people put that on our shoulders."

They earned mixed reviews for their performance in the preseason opener against the New York Jets on Friday night. They allowed three consecutive completions to Chad Pennington, then Ashley Ambrose was called for a 20-yard interference that gave the Jets first-and-goal from the 8-yard line.

From there, they stiffened. Thomas and Brown made consecutive break-ups on fade patterns in the end zone. The Jets were forced to settle for a field goal.

"I thought we were real solid," Venturi said. "They contested every throw and we fought to the death in the red zone. Fred and Fakhir made two really good plays on that first drive. It was a good, solid first start for us."

Good and solid are adjectives often used to describe the Saints corners. So, too, are interchangeable, versatile and dependable.

A week into training camp, Saints coach Jim Haslett asked each of his defensive assistants to list the top four cornerbacks in order, one to four. All but two of the lists were different.

"They'll all compete, and they're all capable," Venturi said. "And we're going to have to play all four of them because some of the teams we play early like Seattle and St. Louis are going to be in four wides (receivers) a lot."

Currently, Thomas and Ambrose are listed as the starters, with Brown at the nickel-back spot and Craft manning the dime position. That could change, though, before the season opener. Saints coach Jim Haslett said the competition at the two starting spots is too close to call.

"We feel like any of the four of us can get the job done," Brown said. "It will work out just fine whoever starts. The guys that we have in the secondary, there's no hate amongst each other. We just want to win."

Venturi is eager to see how the cornerbacks respond to their next challenge. Quarterback Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers' No. 4-ranked offense are on deck in Saturday's preseason exhibition at Lambeau Field.

"Green Bay is certainly a step up in class for us," Venturi said. "Green Bay is really a unique offense, and playing them in Lambeau is an exciting challenge. We need to just take this one step at a time."

BlackandBlue 08-18-2004 08:50 AM

Sounds like Jeff Duncan's been reading B&G.Net..
Good read. I don\'t think there has been anyone that has questioned the play of Thomas, especially after Friday night. He made a few plays that I really didn\'t think he could make. I had no idea he was that close to signing a deal with the Eagles.

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