February 17, 2009

Saints Release McAllister; Revered RB is a Free Agent

NOPF reviews the great Saint runningback's history with the team and future in the league

The Saints have released from their roster one of the best players in franchise history.

The team snuck just under the salary cap by removing McAllister from the books, clearing just over four million of cap space. McAllister will count $3 million against the Saints in 2009. The Saints have more work to do to clear salary cap room before free agency opens and certainly before the draft in April.

But money is not the only reason why McAllister is not to wear the black and gold this offseason. Traumatic knee injuries in 2005 and 2007 ended his seasons early on, and despite valiant comebacks in 2006 and 2008, McAllister clearly had transformed from a multi-purpose weapon with power, speed and receiving prowess into a power back with guile.

McAllister frequently missed training camp practices as the Saints carefully monitored both knees and regularly drained fluid. McAllister appeared in 13 games in 2008, never breaking the 100-yard mark and registering more than 10 carries only three times. Between the soreness in his knees and head coach/offensive coordinator Sean Payton's momentum away from McAllister's style of play, McAllister's importance in the running game had slipped behind Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas.

McAllister scored six touchdowns in 2008, putting him over Dalton Hilliard's team mark and cementing his place in history with a record 55 touchdowns: 49 on the ground, five in the air and his trick play touchdown pass as a rookie in 2001, caught by WR Willie Jackson.

That pass, the first and last completion of his career, was the first touchdown play of his career on December 9, 2001. McAllister capped that victory with a 54-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

Eight years and twelve days later, in Detroit, McAllister scored what is likely his last touchdown as a Saint, from two yards out in the first quarter.

McAllister has had offseason surgery already this season and indicated in the announcement press conference that he would not pass a physical for six weeks. The arthroscopic cleanout procedure has been a staple of McAllister's medical docket for the past three and a half years.

Despite the injuries, McAllister still feels that he can contribute to an NFL team. He was productive as a Saint in 2008, averaging 3.9 yards on 107 carries and 7.1 yards on 18 receptions. He's served as a mentor to both Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas, who now look to be a dynamic duo for the 2009 Saints. Despite deep respect and an interest in McAllister remaining a Saint, his 2009 salaries as stated in his 2005 contract extension was not commensurate with his fit as a role player in the Saints' offense.

It is unlikely that the Saints bring back McAllister, but not out of the question. Both side acknowledged that a door was "left ajar" but that McAllister will likely look for a team to bring him in with a chance to start or compliment a starter.

McAllister's Catch 22 Foundation, named after his collegiate jersey number, works mainly in Louisiana and his home state Mississippi for children's causes, including outings for local youths, holiday shopping sprees, Thanksgiving dinners to poor families and the elderly. For his alma mater Ole Miss, McAllister's $1 million donation funded the construction of the football team's indoor practice facility.

After a Heisman-hopeful career at Ole Miss as a multi-threat speedster that haunted SEC teams. He played with freshman Eli Manning in 2000 when McAllister was a senior and was the only Rebel to record three seasons with at least 1,000 total yards.

His drafting by the team was improbable. The Saints had two years prior traded an entire draft class for another runningback, Ricky Williams, whom the Mike Ditka administration placed all their upon. A season into the Jim Haslett era, general manager Randy Mueller's call to draft McAllister late in the first round was gutsy and prescient: Williams' troubled future of drug suspensions, premature retirement, financial woes and Canadian league injuries lay ahead of him.

McAllister was projected as a top ten pick out of Ole Miss and happens every April, his was the stock to unpredictably plummet. Falling to the Saints with the 23rd overall pick, he provided the Saints a viable option to Ricky Williams, never a favorite of Jim Haslett. Randy Mueller also saw three the top defensive backs taken consecutively before 23 (Adam Archuleta, Nate Clements, and Will Allen), and decided not to overlook McAllister's potential.

Durability questions haunted McAllister's stock. Yet teams consistently overlooked his toughness and willingness to play through the pain, including games as a senior when he sat out an entire regulation because of an ankle injury, only to enter the game in overtime to score the game-winning touchdown against UNLV, or the gutsy performance the next week when he recorded 180 all-purpose yards, including a 57-yard touchdown run, with the same bad ankle.

The addition of a big, speedster like McAllister eventually ended the Saints career of Ricky Williams, who was traded to Randy Mueller one year later for what would become two first round picks. McAllister rushed for 1388 yards and 13 touchdowns, adding 352 yards and three touchdowns receiving, in his first year as a starter in 2002 and was a Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection. He was even better in 2003, the peak of his career when he rushed for 1641 yards and eight touchdowns, adding 516 yards receiving for a team record 2157 combined yards in a single season.

The 2004 season was disappointing for the entire team, as the Saints stumbled into December at 4-7 but finished 8-8. McAllister rushed for 440 yards in the final four games of the season as the Saints saved the job of Jim Haslett with a four game winning streak. But the disappointment of 2004 wouldn't compare to the complete collapse of the 2005 season, when Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and relocated the Saints.

McAllister suffered the first major injury of his career late in a blowout loss to the Packers, a time of the game when other starters had been pulled. A tear of the ACL in his right knee landed him on injured reserve and under the knife of Dr. James Andrews. Eventually, the 52-3 loss in Green Bay signaled the end to the Saints' season, who at the time were 2-2 and showing signs of hope for a troubled home city. The 3-13 Saints drafted Reggie Bush in April of 2006, triggering a countdown clock to McAllister's eventual withdrawal from the Saints.

Instead, in 2006, McAllister and Bush were the spark plugs to a surprisingly effective Saints offense. A successful return from a knee injury wasn't enough; McAllister powered the Saints past the Eagles in his first playoff appearance. He rushed for 143 yards, a 6.8 yard/carry average, and added 20 yards on four catches and scored the game's final two touchdowns in the third quarter including the game winner.

That 2006 divisional playoff game, despite the tragedy of 2005, is the pinnacle of McAllister's career.

But the sweetness of 2006 couldn't be retained. The Saints stumbled out of the gates in 2007 and a too-high outlet pass from a rattled Drew Brees on Monday Night against the Titans saw McAllister jump up high and come down awkwardly. Same diagnosis from Dr. Andrews, other knee. McAllister's recovery included microfracture surgery and more than one surgery and numerous drains, scopes and cleanings of both knees.

2008 was a success for McAllister and Andrews alike; though McAllister will not likely be ripping off his youthful 70+ yard touchdown runs, he remains a powerful back with great vision. He has enough agility to make a good cut behind the line and still has excellent hands.

Sean Payton hugged McAllister as on national television and Monday Night football, the runningback broke Hilliard's record with a short touchdown run. The broadcast showed an emotional Saints sideline after Deuce broke one of the loftiest records in team history.

McAllister may have to wait until near or after the draft to catch on, though a team confident of his medical status could sign him immediately. A team that missed out on its runningback in the draft may give McAllister a shot with a one-year deal, or he may have to wait until training camp when the first wave of injuries shows up in early August.

Another concern is the pending Starcaps litigation and appeal, an issue that at its worst would see McAllister ineligible to play a regular season game until Week 5 of the 2009 season. McAllister, along with starting defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith, are waiting the resolutions of their four-game suspension appeals.

In one of the coldest sports days in New Orleans history, McAllister was cut and later it was announced that the Hornets had traded beloved center Tyson Chandler in a salary dump move. But the day is not as cold for sports fans after the trade involving Chandler was rescinded.

McAllister's days as a Saint may be over, but his impact on and off the field for New Orleans have been legendary. The emotional press conference ended with Saints executive Rita Benson Leblanc giving McAllister a hug. Both Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton spoke very highly of McAllister as a player and a person.

Loomis did not overly emphasize the cost-cutting nature of the move, indicating that "it was a confluence of a lot of factors" that led to McAllister's release. McAllister admitted, tears welling but never breaking, that it was not strictly a money issue and that he had dreaded this day.

McAllister insisted that there were no ill feelings with the team and thanks the organization and the fans.

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