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Confidence still strong despite loss of talent

Several stars leaves Saints, but their remaining players aren't sweating it.

By DARRELL FRY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 6, 2002

THIBODAUX, La. -- Wide receiver Joe Horn knows all the names before you can recite them to him. Running back Ricky Williams. Defensive tackle La'Roi Glover. Offensive tackle Willie Roaf. Defensive end Joe Johnson. Linebacker Keith Mitchell. And a handful of other prominent players who left the Saints this offseason, leaving behind a younger, less experienced bunch.

Horn acknowledges those were big blows, but remains steadfastly optimistic about the Saints' fortunes this season, perhaps only because there is no other choice.

"Rick was my boy. Roaf was my boy. But they're gone now. They decided to leave," Horn said. "They didn't do (nothing) when they were here; I didn't do nothing when they were here. We lost. Got our tail whooped.

"So, we've got to do what we've got to do with the faces we've got. No excuses. No matter who you've got, you've got to roll with who you've got. And what we've got ain't bad."

That is still up for debate. With four Pro Bowl players and a 1,000-yard rusher among 17 departed free-agents this offseason, it's hard to predict how talented this team will be. Even the Saints don't know.

"It's really hard to say," rambunctious tackle Kyle Turley said. "There are so many new faces that guys are going to have to step it up and play. ... There are just so many young guys. I mean, guys are coming out of college and taking starting roles on this team this year. They are going to have to step it up big time."

Of all the personnel changes, Williams' departure may be the biggest. They are going from a proven back who has had 1,000-yard seasons the past two seasons to a young, untested second-year player in Deuce McAllister. The move has sparked considerable debate among Saints fans who wonder if the 23-year-old former Ole Miss star is ready and, more important, durable enough to be the featured back.

While becoming the most decorated player in Ole Miss history since former Saints quarterback Archie Manning, McAllister developed a reputation for being injury-prone. And at 6 feet 1 and generously listed at 221 pounds, his ability to withstand the pounding of an NFL season has been questioned by some.

McAllister has bulked up a bit and has dazzled at times in preseason and last season (16 carries for 91 yards, including a 54-yard TD run). While he may not be as durable as Williams, he's more versatile, showing speed and power and being a reliable receiver out of the backfield.

In short, he gives the Saints something they never had with Williams: a threat to take every handoff and go all the way.

"I think Deuce is a better running back than Ricky Williams. He's more elusive. He can go to the house with it. And he's got better hands than Rick," Horn said. "Rick is a hell of a downhill runner. Rick runs linebackers over. He's a powerful guy.

"But Deuce McAllister does more with the football out of the backfield. Has he done it in a game yet to prove what Rick has proven? No. But he showed it in practice; he showed it in some games he played in last year. And now he's the starter and he gets the chance to prove it against Tampa Bay (in the season-opener Sunday).

"Hopefully in another 16 weeks from now, I'll get to tell you I told you so."

The Saints, though, have too many other concerns to worry only about the running back situation. They have tried to tighten up a defense that changed coordinators (Ron Zook became the University of Florida coach) after wilting noticeably down the stretch last season, giving up 160 points in the final four games, all losses.

They have tried to iron out an offense that sometimes relied too much on quarterback Aaron Brooks and that also faded toward the end, going scoreless in its last seven quarters last season. And they have worked to weed out malcontents such as Williams (didn't along with teammates), receiver Albert Connell (accused of stealing money from a teammate) and defensive back Dale Carter (violated league's substance abuse policy) who have created distractions within the team.

They've added more speed with rookie receiver Donte Stallworth and veteran receiver Jerome Pathon, who looked on his way to a stellar season a year ago with the Colts (17 catches for 261 yards in his first two games). And they are hoping free-agent pickups such as tackles Victor Riley and Spencer Folau are as good as advertised.

"We're running the same plays; we're just changing the face of what we're doing," Brooks said. "It could be the same play, but we're going to have different personnel try to create advantages within that down."

There's a lot that has to come together for the Saints. But coach Jim Haslett maintains that the team's offseason losses aren't as damaging as people might expect.

"They look at the (big names lost), but they don't look at the history. A guy like (departed free-agent receiver) Willie Jackson has been with six teams and he was productive here (81 catches for 1,046 yards), but there's a reason he was productive here. It's probably the scheme," Haslett said. "Willie Roaf is going to be hard to replace, and he's a great player, but sometimes you've got to go with the younger guys. Deuce is going to be a good player. I think you've got to look at the big picture, not just at what they did on a one-year basis."

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