With the final whistle of Thibodaux, the Saints completed a public showcase of their new team. The Saints have added tremendous depth on the offensive line, intriguing youth at the skill positions, and potent bulk on defense.
But into the fire the Saints front office added one key element, found in every successful team. Veteran experience has been brought on board, a time-honored mixture of football savvy and locker room leadership.
Linebacker Bryan Cox and receiver Jake Reed are two of the oldest active players in the league at their positions, and are known for their effectiveness in bolstering locker room morale and playing field intensity. Cox is known more for his fiery attitude and "motivational" demeanor on the sidelines and in the locker room. His ability to be an extra coach on the field comes in addition to his penchant for big hits and strong run defense. Despite a broken leg and a dozen years in the league, Cox can still play and is the top backup to Charlie Clemons at middle linebacker.
"He's been doing it everyday," Jim Haslett said of the former Pro Bowler and key leader on the 2001 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. "He loves to practice. He loves to play the game. He's fun to be around. He really is a joy. I can't imagine when he was younger. He must have been rip-roaring. He is fun to be around. I will say that."
And despite a broken leg in 2001, Haslett has said that he is not worried about Cox's ability to perform on the field, and has brushed aside suggestions that Cox is too old to contribute.
"He's not the fastest guy in the world," Haslett admits, "but he's so smart and intelligent that he makes up for it in different ways. He knows how to play angles. He's very intelligent."
Jake Reed is less flashy but is a solid locker room presence. In his eleven seasons in the NFL, Reed was part of some of the most potent offenses of the 90s with the Minnesota Vikings. He will be able to help the team this year on the field, but also in the future. Reed's skills as a possession receiver are being passed along to rookie Donte Stallworth and other young receivers.
"Jake's done a good job," Jim Haslett has said. "Jake's a true professional, he's smart, he knows the offense. He's done a heck of a job. Jake is a guy that is here for a number of reasons. One, he's still a good football player and he can bring some leadership and really help Donte and some of these guys with the transition from college to the pros."
Ken Irvin, David Sloan, Bubba Miller, and Terry Allen are other free agents the team has added with more than six years of experience. The key to these additions is that in addition to veteran maturity and experience, these players are also quality football players capable of playing at a high level in the league.
Allen, with 13 years in the pro game now, is a remarkable athlete who is a great example for younger players with his durability and relentlessness. Even in this training camp, Allen has practiced through a bruised knee, a sore hamstring and a broken finger.
"Terry's old enough that players don't remember when he got hurt," reminds Haslett. "He's been through three major knee operations and he's a guy that's closing in on ten thousand yards rushing, so I think he brings leadership. The players like being around him. He's still got great work ethic."
The Saints added to the experience already on the roster, not the least of which is linebacker Darrin Smith, who has started at inside and outside linebacker for the Saints since joining the team in training camp 2000.
"Darrin Smith has been in the league 11 years now," replied Haslett when asked about the veteran. "He's got a couple of Super Bowl rings. He knows how to play the game. He is getting up there in age a little bit, but he still has a lot of years left. We brought James Allen in to learn off him and maybe some day to take that spot. Right now Darrin is in great shape and he is doing a heck of a job. I think James can learn a lot from him."
The veterans have performed well. In fact, Haslett gave the option of sitting out some workouts to the more aged players on the roster. Except for 14-year veteran Jerry Fontenot, anchor of the offensive line, the veteran players like Cox, Reed, Smith and Allen have not been regularly opting out of two-a-days.
In addition to players, the Saints added some real experience in the coaching staff. Mike Riley, Mike Sheppard, and newly-promoted Rick Venturi are fine coaches who bring more wisdom to the coaching staff. They join a group of coaches headed by a first-time head coach Jim Haslett, featuring a first-time offensive coordinator in Mike McCarthy.
Venturi is especially valuable to the staff, bringing two decades of experience and an entirely new defense to the table.
"Rick is probably the best coach that I've ever been around," remarked Haslett of his defensive coordinator. "Obviously, we're good friends besides that. He's a great coach. He's got a great relationship with the players. He's hard on them, but they really respect him and what he does with the team. He's coached every position. He knows football. He's smart enough to know that he can put a lot of stuff in, but he's also smart enough to realize what we can't run because of what the other team is doing."
A solid talent evaluation staff and a load of experience in the coaching staff can claim responsibility for an impressive crop of draft picks and undrafted free agents. While much praise has been deservedly given to all nine picks, a hungry class of undrafted free agents has made their mark. OL P.J. Alexander, LB Travis Carroll, and RB Ricky Williams have drawn attention to themselves this offseason and are making strides up the depth charts. Williams has been limited by a hamstring injury, but if healthy could fill the team's third down scat back role.
Despite infusions of both youngsters and veterans, the team has reportedly been having fun in camp.
"Yeah, I like our camp. I like the makeup of our football team," Jim Haslett mused Sunday night. "Our guys are really working hard. This is the time of camp where everybody is antsy to get out and complain about every little thing. The guys have really done a good job and stuck together."
There have been no incidents of hazing. Few fights. Some hard hitting, but few injuries. There are some lingering hamstring conditions out there (Terry Allen, Donte Stallworth), but the Saints weren't struck by any major injuries during camp. With two weeks of preseason to go before the season starts, the Saints are relatively healthy and had virtually complete attendance and participation in their final practice on Wednesday night.
"I thought camp has gone well so far," Haslett said this week. "Guys are crisp. Things are moving well. We've moved the ball on offense and stopped people on defense. Hopefully when the season comes, we'll stay healthy."
Jim Haslett and his crew now revert to closed practice sessions (open only to the media) at the Saints' headquarters in Metairie. The fun of the crowd will be gone, but the head coach is happy enough with his team.
"I love this team. I'm enjoying myself. They take coaching. They take criticism. They take the good and the bad. They weed it out. I think if we do all the right things and this team sticks together, then I think that we can win some games."
One can't help but to agree.
by William Assaf, NewOrleansProFootball.com Feature Writer