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Building a better Saint

Second-year coach Jim Haslett has his surprising playoff team believing it can win.

By ERNEST HOOPER

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 27, 2000


It began among the moss-laden oaks and plantation-style homes of Thibodaux, La.

Down near Bayou Lafourche, first-year New Orleans Saints coach Jim Haslett began planting seeds of confidence. In an area known for sugar cane, Haslett was cultivating something different.

A new type of Saint.

"It started with a belief that we can be successful," defensive tackle La'Roi Glover said. "It started with the motivation to go out to practice and work hard every day, believing in your teammates, believing in your own abilities and buying into a scheme and a system, and then going out on the field and executing."

During those sweltering days on the Nicholls State campus, Haslett instilled in the Saints a degree of strength unknown to recent New Orleans teams. No one was sure if the players truly would believe in Haslett's teachings, or if the coach would be just another music man full of empty promises.

"We said when we first got the job here that you have to build through stages," said Haslett, whose no-nonsense approach reflects his Pittsburgh roots. "One was learning how to win games, then how to manage a football team, and then once you had success, how do you handle success. And we've kind of grown that way all along."

Oh, and how they've grown. Haslett, 45, has harvested the fifth playoff team in the 31-year history of the franchise. One season after the Saints went 3-13 and then underwent a complete housecleaning, New Orleans won the NFC West title under Haslett, who spent the past three seasons as the Steelers' defensive coordinator.

The worst-to-first march can be attributed to many factors, including the roster overhaul that changed 31 of the 53 players; the infusion of offensive skill players; the emergence of second-year running back Ricky Williams; and the increased intensity of the defense.

Yet, Haslett's ability to motivate has to be one of the biggest factors. The former Buffalo linebacker (1979-87) has the Saints playing with a swagger and enjoying the NFL pressures that seemed like a burden in the past. Most of all, he has them believing.

"When we're out there in warmups, he says, 'Act like you belong there,' " linebacker Keith Mitchell said. " 'When the music is playing, jam to it and have some fun. Don't be all tight. You know it's a big game, but you've got to have fun at the same time. You can't be all tense and tight.' "

The attitude enhancement flourished as New Orleans began winning, and it also helped the team deal with a series of critical injuries. New Orleans was besieged in the preseason when tight end Cam Cleeland went down for the year, and it continued during the playoff run with Williams (Week 11) and quarterback Jeff Blake (Week 13) suffering season-ending injuries.

The naysayers wrote off New Orleans, especially after Blake went down against Oakland and the Raiders won. But Glover said the Saints never lost faith.

"We knew no one would believe in us except the guys in the locker room, and that hasn't changed since I've been a part of this organization," Glover said. "We're just going to keep doing the things that got us here, keep grinding, keep believing in ourselves and continue to play hard."

In large part, the Saints have remain undaunted. Second-year quarterback Aaron Brooks has filled in admirably for Blake, and Terry Allen, Chad Morton and Jerald Moore have taken up the slack at running back. New Orleans went 3-2 after the Oakland loss, including a victory over defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis at the TransWorld Dome.

The Rams avenged that loss at the Superdome in the season finale Sunday. The teams face off again Saturday in New Orleans. "I think our guys thrive on being the underdog and taking the challenge of the opportunity to overcome a lot of those things," Haslett said. "That is kind of how I live. In the beginning of the year, I was sitting there and the media predicts you are going to win four games, two games, three games, six games.

"I kept all of those things, and I love them."

Haslett's actions during games have had as much influence on his team as what he has done on the practice field. The Saints' 31-28 come-from-behind win against San Francisco in Week 15 was a perfect example. With three minutes remaining, New Orleans was trailing 27-24 and facing fourth and 4 from it 38-yard line. The conservative call was to punt, hope for a defensive stand and get the ball in better position.

Haslett decided to go for it. Brooks made a mad 10-yard scramble en route to engineering the winning touchdown drive.

It has been that way all season. In the victory over the Rams, Haslett opened with an onside kick, converted fourth and 13 from the Saints 45 and tried a fake punt.

"They had their safety, their No. 1 defense out there, and we try to go for it (with a fake) on fourth and 4," Mitchell said. "They stopped us, but the calls were just coming and coming. Haslett, I believe, calls plays like a linebacker. You don't think; you just react.

"I like that. If we're going to go down, we're going to go down blazing with everything we've got."

Will New Orleans go down Saturday? The Rams are a six-point favorite and beat the Saints on Sunday with the help of 220 yards rushing from Marshall Faulk. New Orleans has never won a post-season game. One of the league's feel-good stories may end on a sour note.

Still, Haslett is as confident as ever.

"We didn't play well in two phases (Sunday), and we were still in the game," Haslett said. "As bad as we played on both sides of the ball, we still were in the game. I don't think we can play that bad again. If we play better, who knows what will happen.

"It's a great challenge and a great opportunity for our organization. If you want a chance to move on, why not do it against the best. And I think (the Rams are) the best in the NFC."

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