- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 12, 2002

New Orleans is America's strangest city. Built on land below sea level that floods with regularity, the city with French roots and Spanish architecture is full of churches as well as take-out alcoholic beverages and strippers in clubs who can be seen from the street.

New Orleans' football team is just as schizophrenic. It took the Saints 21 years to finish with a winning record and 13 more to win a playoff game (in 2000, coach Jim Haslett's debut season). But just when they seemed to be a rising power, the Saints reverted to their pathetic past. New Orleans lost its last four games of 2001 by a cumulative 160-52 to finish 7-9.

In response, owner Tom Benson fired general manager Randy Mueller, the consensus executive of the year in 2000. Haslett dispatched nine starters, including moody halfback Ricky Williams, for whom predecessor Mike Ditka had traded all of New Orleans' 1999 draft picks. Seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle Willie Roaf was also dealt, and star defensive linemen Joe Johnson and La'Roi Glover weren't re-signed. Receiver Albert Connell, accused of stealing money from top draft choice Deuce McAlister, was cut.

"We weeded out some people who weren't our type of players," Haslett said. "We ended up getting better character and better players. The guys have one thing in mind, and that's winning. The whole concept of the football team is much better."

Haslett believed that the Saints left last year behind with a 3-1 preseason in which the starters played well. Maybe so, but New Orleans' early schedule was daunting: 2001 playoff qualifiers Tampa Bay, Green Bay, Chicago and Pittsburgh, with only Detroit as a breather. Naturally, the Saints are 4-1, losing only to the lowly Lions, coming into tomorrow's game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field.

"We know we can play with any team," said linebacker Darrin Smith, who started on two Super Bowl champions with Dallas. "When you start feeling that way, you're going to feel like a playoff caliber team. But our mindset is we have to prove it on the field. The memory of last year is a bad one. We don't want to fall into that trap again."

The Saints aren't playing their usual strong defense, ranking 23rd overall and 27th against the pass. However, their offense is the most explosive in franchise history. New Orleans has scored at least 21 points in each game, and its 28.6-point average projects to a franchise-record 458. The Saints also are averaging 340 yards, which projects to 5,437, second most in team history.

Aaron Brooks, the only quarterback to pass for at least 3,500 yards and run for 350 last season, has 10 touchdown passes this year, second in the NFC.

"Aaron has improved his command of the huddle, his command of the team, the way he runs the offense, his knowledge," Haslett said of the 26-year-old second-year starter who was voted captain by his teammates after ending a protracted contract battle in August. "And Aaron has all the physical tools. He's going to get better and better."

Brooks benefited from the signing of former Indianapolis wideout Jerome Pathon and the selection of ex-Tennessee standout Donte Stallworth, who have four touchdowns each. Their speed has lessened the double coverage on No.1 receiver Joe Horn (32 catches) and prevented defenses from devoting more bodies to stopping McAlister.

"Teams have to respect the way that Donte and Jerome can stretch the field," McAlister said. "That definitely opens up the running game."

The 6-foot-1, 221-pound McAlister, quicker and a better receiver than the bullish Williams, leads the conference with 461 rushing yards and 606 yards from scrimmage.

"Deuce is deceivingly fast for a big guy," Haslett said. "He's doing a heck of a job finding the holes."

With only four of their final 11 foes owning winning records, the NFC South leaders have a chance of returning to the playoffs for the second time in Haslett's three seasons. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, 56 of the 69 teams that have started 4-1 since the playoffs were expanded to 12 qualifiers in 1990 have reached postseason.

And the future is equally bright with center Jerry Fontenot the only regular over 30 and Pro Bowl safety Sammy Knight and Pathon the only free agents-to-be among the starters.

As they say in New Orleans, laissez les temps roulez (let the good times roll).

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