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Inside the NFL | Sam Farmer / ON THE NFL

Saints Rebuild, Reap Reward

October 26, 2002|Sam Farmer

Ricky Williams? Gone. Pro Bowl tackle Willie Roaf? Gone.

Pro Bowl defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, Pro Bowl defensive end Joe Johnson, Pro Bowl linebacker Keith Mitchell? Gone, gone, gone.

It isn't so astounding that the New Orleans Saints are 6-1. What's astounding is how they got to be 6-1. After an epic collapse at the end of last season, they got rid of several of their best players the way someone would part out a totaled hot rod.

"As players, we were thinking, 'What the heck is going on?' " said center Jerry Fontenot, who has been with the Saints since 1997, longer than anyone else on the roster. "It's not our job to make any personnel decisions, but we just figured, well, they must have something in mind."

Turns out, they did. General Manager Randy Mueller, who himself made it only until May, then was fired, and Coach Jim Haslett cleaned house after an embarrassing finish to the 2001 season and did a remarkable job rebuilding the team through free agency and the draft.

The Saints traded Williams to Miami on draft day, promoting second-year running back Deuce McAllister, even though he was largely untested. They drafted scorching-fast receiver Donte Stallworth, who scored touchdowns in his first four games before suffering a hamstring injury. They moved Kyle Turley from right to left tackle and gave him the responsibility of protecting the blind side of Aaron Brooks. They signed defensive tackle Grady Jackson, who has jaw-dropping quickness for a 330-pound man. They kept mercurial receiver Michael Lewis, the former beer truck driver who two weeks ago returned a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns.

But mostly, Haslett & Co. built their team around players with character, crucial for an organization that basically quit in the last three games of last season -- losing to Tampa Bay, Washington and San Francisco by a combined score of 136-21.

"We had guys, in a way, that just quit on the team," McAllister said. "We had guys that didn't want to be here, and our main focus was to get the guys out of here who didn't want to be here.

"Obviously, we felt like we weren't headed in the right direction as an organization and some changes had to be made."

So far, following the blueprint has worked beautifully. Not only have the Saints emerged as one of the best teams in the league, they have beaten the Buccaneers, Redskins and 49ers, their three tormentors at the end of last season.

"That bitter taste hasn't left anyone's mouth," Fontenot said. "Don't think for a second that that's not a motivating force. No one wants to get back to that feeling we had."

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Roski Ready and Willing

In the effort to bring the NFL back to Los Angeles, no one has invested more -- emotionally or financially -- than real estate magnate Ed Roski, who spent millions to promote the Coliseum when L.A. was outbid by Houston and was a principal in the South Park coalition.

All the setbacks haven't soured him on the goal.

The man Forbes magazine lists as the 239th-richest American, with an estimated net worth of $950 million, gets up early each Sunday morning, goes for a run, then, like any regular Joe, plops in front of the TV, grabs the remote and watches football all day.

"I'd like to get back involved with anything that we could do to bring an NFL team back to Los Angeles," Roski said this week. "It's a complicated process in California, not just in L.A."

Roski is quick to point out that L.A. isn't the only California city that faces major hurdles in getting a football stadium built. Just look at the state's three NFL franchises -- in San Diego, San Francisco and Oakland -- each of which wants a new stadium or out of its lease.

Roski believes in an L.A. solution that's unpopular with many league executives and team owners.

"I think the Coliseum is an excellent option," he said. "I wouldn't have spent my time and money there if I didn't. Although I don't want to think about how much I spent on that now. One of those bad dreams."

Another South Park coalition member, Casey Wasserman, has made it clear he has no interest in spending a dime to promote the Coliseum. And, besides building a Carson sports complex that will serve as the summer home of the San Diego Chargers, Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz has no interest in stepping back into the NFL quicksand.

But Roski is ready and willing to give it another go. He favors the Coliseum, hasn't given much thought to the Rose Bowl, and is always open to the thought of a third site -- as long as the city is ready to make one concerted push behind a single project.

"If I could figure a way to do it at my house, I'd do it at my house," he said. "All of us really want to see a team back here. We have some constraints we have to live with, but let's just do it. Let's get going."

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Cool and Limpid Green (Bay) Eyes

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