View Full Version : The Bourbon Street Miracle (Saints Come Back!)
11-10-2004, 08:04 PM
A Saintly Story
I love the stories here and thought I'd try my own. I've played 100's of FOF seasons and laugh that New Orleans is ALWAYS among the lowest valued clubs. So why not run them for a while?
11-10-2004, 08:06 PM
New Orleans has never been a city of normalcy or predictable patterns per the status quo. And New Orleans sports are another matter all together. The teams of that city are characterized by little success and perennial mediocrity. The Saints have been so bad recently that season ticket holders have left tickets to the next game on windshields of cars in the lot of current games. It was Saint fans who popularized the “paper bag fan” and regularly live through blackouts due to poor attendance.
So when I was approached by a pocket of wealthy friends from the East about taking an ownership stake in the Saints, my immediate reaction was “get lost.” I’d lost enough money in the stock market around the turn of the century to set back my retirement decades. At that point, they were the third least valuable franchise in the league, on the verge of bankruptcy and had a roster hobbled by a disastrous trade for the right to draft Ricky Williams who happened to be playing in Miami. The stadium was not modern and the economy was lackluster at best. Most experts agreed it was the worst economy of any NFL city and the least likely (with Arizona) to support a team five years down the road.
But my more patient (and frankly bored) friends took several weeks to lay out why the rock bottom value and bankruptcy complications presented an investment opportunity unlike any other. The value, they claimed, could only catch up to the league’s other franchises and moving the team was always an option. To sweeten the deal, they had arranged for a proven commodity to run the team as General Manager and Vice President of Operations. That individual was Bill Parcels who had recently stepped down as Head Coach of the Dallas Cowboys after a dispute with Jerry Jones over draft strategy and free agent budgets. Parcels was widely recognized as a talent evaluator par none but no longer felt the drive to step on the football field every Sunday and strategize play-by-play.
My partners put together the vast majority of the assets needed to purchase the team before talking to me and asked if I wouldn’t contribute some operational acumen and a little money to try to put some ownership in the front office and stay out of Bill’s way but keep an eye on the money. They fancied themselves too important to step away from their positions in large organizations, but thought my experience as owner of my own business would serve well in the New Orleans front office.
With some badgering and contractual wrangling, I agreed to step down as the CEO of the construction business I was running in Illinois and move to Louisiana. I leveraged myself to the hilt agreed to contribute one percent of the purchase price ($333,000,000) and serve as team President – a title far exceeding the duties outlined for the job. Bill was fine with my place in the office as long as he maintained complete control of the roster and coaching staff. I was to maximize return and coordinate the overall operations of the club. Ownership approved and the league approved the sale at the winter meeting in the spring of 2003, preserving the team from bankruptcy for one more year at least.
Then things got nuts.
11-10-2004, 08:13 PM
A Saints dynasty? I'm here!! :D
11-11-2004, 11:49 AM
Parcels made a trip back to Dallas to do some charitable work just before preseason. On the way back his car slid off the road in eastern Texas due to some light rain and oily roads. Being in a fairly remote area without good cell phone coverage, he attempted to flag down traffic and get help. A passing motorist recognized the Big Tuna and pulled over, allowing Bill to step into the car. Unfortunately that motorist happened to be a two-time felon named Tony Botna.
Botna knew that the man who had just been fronted the remaining four million dollars of his Dallas contract would not be traveling with an empty wallet. The details of the fight between the two are unclear, but Bill managed to wrestle a knife from Botna, but not before taking two serious wounds to the neck and shoulder.
Another motorist saw the scuffle and stopped, subduing Botna and using On-Star to call the police. Bill lost almost two pints of blood and was being treated for the wounds three days before our first preseason game. He had been transferred back to Dallas for treatment and called me after a long discussion with his physician.
I was still settling into my new role as head watchman for my investment partners and reviewing the entire Saints operation with some lower level office people. Things were slightly worse than we had been led to believe and Bill’s tragic events had not helped, but luckily the seasonal roster had gotten lots of Bill’s recent attention and our coach, Chris Taylor (a Parcel protégé), was a 30 veteran of the league. But when Bill called to relay the doctor’s advice, I was not excited. He had been told that his neck wound was greatly exacerbated by stress and the medical personnel attending to Bill unanimously decided the best thing for Bill was to take at least six months off for recovery and therapy. Unfortunately for me, Bill concurred.
Not wanting to appear too callous, I assured Bill that the Saints wanted what was best for him and that we would piece together a staff to take care of his planned duties and lay the rest off on coaches. He apologized and hung up. No one realized at the time that the resignation he gave me that day would be his last act in the NFL.
11-12-2004, 03:16 PM
I arranged a conference call with my partners to explain the situation and they were moderately sympathetic with our situation. They agreed that this was not a good start to their investment plans, but encouraged me that the plans did not require immediate success in the first season, but that I would have to fill in as General Manager for the season as no one would be available in the middle of a season and no one would agree to a one-year stint until Parcels returned. The GM under the last regime,Vince Hopper, had been hired by the San Diego club as Lead Scout and, frankly, was not a fan of ours since we had bought out his former bosses. About all that was left was a Marketing Director and several secretaries. The coalition basically forbid the hiring of too much help as they were currently paying $1.4 million to a man lying in a Dallas hospital bed. The pro forma budget called for a moderate profit of $8 million this year so our shoestring budget was pretty well set and unmovable.
Not wanting to sound bitter, but concerned about my level of football experience, I told the lady and gentlemen on the phone that I was in a little over my head. They said they’d provide what support they could, but that my business acumen would get me through. It rang rather shallow, but . . .
So in early August 2003, I became the Interim General Manger of the New Orleans Saints.
11-12-2004, 03:21 PM
Not knowing exactly in what manner to proceed, I did what any good executive does – take the biggest office. In a cursory look over the organization I was shocked to find how much of this sport was managed by computers. Every room in the office had several laptops, all reports were created on a computer, even the player evaluation was done by computer. This was surprising considering the raw physical nature of the sport. Luckily my computer had access to what was going on around the club and I spent hours looking through names, duties, previous results and problems on the computer.
Following that I chatted up our new Lead Scout, Jessie Choate, who had just signed a four-year contract. I told Jessie that I was going to need some help evaluating the roster, particularly the very young and very old talent. We were trying to build a winner, he agreed that he would love to help. He had taken the job because the last crew had assembled some potential and the 2003 draft was fairly fruitful he believed.
We reviewed the current roster, assembled by the lame duck group last year. Right off the bat, Jessie was troubled by our quarterback crew. All three, led by starter Aaron Brooks, had potential far above their ability, but Jessie felt that Brooks’ tendency to overlook short routes for the deep ball would keep him from being a superstar. Marketing reports indicated as much – Aaron was not very popular. To exacerbate the problem, our offensive line was not developed. Again, much potential was being counted on, but the current starters were not stellar. Veteran Jerry Fontenot at center was very solid, but a center did not define a line’s performance and he was a free agent at the end of the year. Pass rushes come from the edges and our tackles were not proven. Jessie saw great things in the future from rookies Montrae Holland at guard and Jon Stinchcomb at tackle, but the current talent level was low.
Same problem on the defensive side – rookie tackle Jonathan Sullivan would be forced to start and had potential, but there was no depth. End Darren Howard was the only hope of a pass rush and he only had two years left on his relatively inexpensive contract. Rumblings around the office were that he would be looking for a new deal in the range of $6 million per year. Things were bleak.
The whole country knew that running back Deuce McAlister was solid and developing, but there was only one undrafted free agent behind him and only one fullback on the whole roster. Wide receiver Joe Horn was the only prayer of production this year and the remaining receivers were below average at best.
The secondary had a little hope of holding back opponents with newcomers Tebucky Jones and Victor Green at safety, but Ashley Ambrose had been reacquired to start at corner and he was physical but not at all good in coverage. Veterans Dale Carter and Fred Thomas rounded out the secondary and made the average age of our starting secondary well north of 31 years. Not promising.
And linebacking, once the pride of New Orleans, was the worst group on the team. There was not a player on the roster Jessie could support whole-heartedly. Particularly, he noted, when playing behind our defensive line and in front of our secondary.
All told, we determined, things looked like 8-8 would be a successful season. The good news was that we were $17 million under the salary cap, near the top of the league. Going forward that meant that we had the right, if not the money, to sign a few decent free agents. That was if my partners agreed that I could spend their money in such a way.
11-15-2004, 11:28 AM
Mostly as a learning experience, I called Dixon Sutter, an agent for six of our players and hundreds around the league, to introduce myself and see if I could glean any secrets from him without seeming ignorant. Dixon, to my surprise, was very easy to talk to and offered me several suggestions. Dixon indicated that the free agent pool at this point was not stellar so I decided to visit with Chris Taylor about our roster. If he was happy, I was going to live with it. Bill’s partial implementation had been to build this year’s team around one-year contracts and plunge head first into next year’s free agent pool.
Chris is an all-around coach and had many opinions – good and bad – but was unwilling to take a stand on any one player without preseason game experience. He promised to be forthcoming and honest after seeing real competition.
The long and the short of the roster was that I had low quality with no direction. I decided that the only way to proceed was to do nothing and wait. Fortunately, Bill knew I would be bewildered and called the day before the first game. He had been thinking about the roster and had come to the conclusion that as President, I needed to be respected. He instructed to pick one player from any position and cut them immediately. “Don’t talk to Coach Taylor, don’t talk the agent. Just let somebody go.” This, he thought would establish before preseason who was in control and who was going to be responsible. The morale hit would affect some preseason games, but shouldn’t carry into regular season play much.
So I shut my door and pored over stats from the previous years, scouting opinions and personality profiles. I first tried to make things easier by attempting to make a trade. I had no hope of it improving the roster, but thought the blow would be less on the individual sent packing. Unfortunately, I quickly found that there wasn’t a player on our roster that any other GM in the league was willing to take. The exceptions were players that didn’t bring any assets in return and I had to make a decision.
Fourteen hours before our first preseason kickoff I picked up the phone and called Curtis Holdens’ agent Randal Dejesus. Dejesus represented just two of our players and Holden was one of four middle linebackers we were carrying on the roster. So my first official act was to send middle linebacker Curtis Holden back to his hometown in California.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t the last person I had to let go. Not even close.
11-15-2004, 12:55 PM
About twelve hours before that same kickoff, I received a phone call from the league office telling me that the Saints were in violation of Player Association contract rules and that they planned on filing a grievance if I did not correct the problem. Both the players’ rep and the league official were very stern and I was a little off guard.
Luckily I hadn’t actually been the one to break the regulation. That did not mean that the solution would be quick. All clubs have agreed to certain roster minimums and we were carrying only two running backs. The players want three active at all times so were going to have to find a running back, sign a contract, get him to New Orleans, give him a physical and suit him up by kickoff. I did not want the first story in the media about me to be that I tried to circumvent labor rules. That was only going to lead to poor attitudes for our current players and terrible attitudes for potential free agents.
Well preseason rosters are swollen with players who aren’t going to make the final 53-man so good players, particularly running backs, are not just floating around. I made several calls to other teams when Coach Taylor walked in and said to call agents instead. In a Jerry Maguire-like scene, I had my secretary dial every agent representing players on our squad and said the first one who could deliver me a back had a deal. Corey Brandon ended up being the player and he agreed to the league minimum for rookies and we got him from his hometown in North Dakota to Fargo by car, flew him through Minneapolis to New Orleans. He landed in New Orleans, got a physical in an ambulance on the way from the airport and we had pads and a jersey waiting at the Superdome when he arrived based on his scouting report’s measurements. My memory about his performance that night is vague (less than five carries), but I’ll never forget the way he arrived to our team.
11-19-2004, 11:02 AM
The day after the first game wasn’t much easier than the day of. We had gotten trounced by the Eagles 20-10 and no one looked particularly outstanding except Joe Horn. I arrived at the office about 5:00 that morning, expecting to have the place to myself. Coach Taylor had apparently slept there and Jessie was dropping a report on my desk when I walked in. The report was his opinion of our team, by position, based on the game the night before. Of the 22 starting positions, he felt fully eight of them were totally inept. That included our quarterback, wide receiver, left tackle and both outside linebackers. Things were not good.
I had no idea what to do except hold tight for a long, bumpy season and hope someone outplayed scouting expectations. I scanned the list of cuts for that week and no one was worth the trouble of bringing in. I looked hard at our roster for places talent might have been overlooked and got more discouraged. Things were not looking good.
The remaining preseason weeks were no less stressful and gave very little hope. We managed one win but got pasted by former rival, San Francisco. That’s when the local papers started getting antsy. It appeared that our honeymoon as new owners had lasted all of six weeks.
11-19-2004, 11:03 AM
My partners and I conversed on a formal basis every Wednesday at 2:00 via conference call. The Wednesday before the first game, they had none of the excitement I expected. They were flat out scared of being embarrassed. We had managed only one passing touchdown all preseason and had been outscored by more than 11 points on average. They’re previously low expectations were sinking quickly and I could tell some were having serious regrets. To tell the truth, I wasn’t having much fun either. Morale was low, the media was harping and the office was still in disarray following the ownership change and Bill’s leave of absence.
Basically, the group decided that they were looking for window dressing during the year to build some fan base so they could make a new stadium proposal look good. Not so much because they wanted a new stadium, but the league had promised them that if New Orleans refused to fund a new stadium, the league would allow us to investigate moving the team to L.A.
I was given clear instructions not to mention this to staff or players, but that all we needed was something positive to point to in the future. I was to spend as little money as possible to appear committed. Our goal was California sunshine.
11-19-2004, 12:28 PM
please don't move the Saints...
11-22-2004, 11:09 AM
The first half of the season lifted a great deal of the pressure. We actually had the first place team at the end of eight games and our power rating climbed ahead of two teams in our division. That was despite losing two offensive tackles for the season in the first five games. Aaron Brooks had played poorly, but well enough to be 0.500 at the midpoint.
However injuries were piling up and every week brought new roster moves that made consistency and evaluation difficult. After eight games I was much more confident in the office and began to formulate some definitive ideas about how we could improve in the future.
But weeks nine through sixteen brought less positives and more negatives. During our bye week, I called the coaching staff in to build them up a little and highlight what the owners saw as good signs for the future. In the middle of these discussions our Offensive Coordinator, Van Ruffin, told me that he was leaning towards signing somewhere else next year since his contract was up. I think this surprised Coach Taylor who had known Van for years and I know it surprised me. Van was considered widely to be a head coach in the making and the heir apparent to our aging Taylor.
Van’s salary was extremely competitive (third among Offensive Coordinators and more than 15 Head Coaches) so I knew money wasn’t the factor or at least the only factor. He was unwilling to discuss it further and I had to let it be.
To say the least, our Wednesday conference call with the partners was somber. Having Van on the staff was one of the key highlights of the organization when they bought the team and losing him after one season did not sit well. In the end, the group charged me – who else? – with restoring Van’s hope in the franchise and retaining him. Even, they decided, if it meant firing Chris Taylor.
11-22-2004, 11:51 AM
Our twelfth game was a very exciting road-win over heavily favored Washington. The game was in Washington and we won in overtime after being down 14-6 at the start of the fourth quarter. Watching the Sunday wrap-up on ESPN I heard something that stirred me a little until I realized the implications. Chris Berman made a brief comment about how great that game would have been in New Orleans if the team had a stadium that put the Saints’ faithful closer to the field.
The next day, a local sports reporter picked up on the idea and expanded on the need for a louder, more intimate, football-only stadium for the Saints. Three days after that, the editorial board of the paper wrote a supporting piece for a new park. All of these are great things if you’re trying to get a stadium built, but my partners wanted the voters to reject a referendum on the idea so they could move the team. The last thing we needed was support from the community six months before we even proposed the idea.
The following week we hosted division leader Tampa Bay for a national Sunday night game and the stands were full of signs voicing support for a new stadium. Sunday night games mean, of course, ESPN and signs like “Expedite Stadium Proposal Now!” and “Experience Sports Professionally New Orleans!” kept showing up on TV and the Superdome big screen. I had to laugh; things never go as planned in New Orleans.
11-22-2004, 11:58 AM
As of kickoff of our 15th game, we were technically still in playoff contention, which everyone seemed happy about. Our 7-7 record was not stellar, but represented our best hopes for the season. Due to injuries around the league, several decent players had been released to make room for fill-ins. This meant little to me since I knew I wouldn’t get any of them for more than the remainder of the season, but Bill called one day from a fishing trip in Canada.
He told me that he wanted to have a little more talent to work with when he returned and thought that at least one of the available players fit well with the team he was trying to build. More importantly, he told me that signing a player now not only gave us the rights for this season, but would make that player a restricted free agent at the end of the year, making it more difficult for others to sign him away. The guy he had his eye on was a second-year safety that Pittsburgh had just release named Chris Hope.
Hope had obvious talent and was represented by a push-over agent. Bill thought we could bring him in for the remaining two games and take a real shot at him in the offseason since Victor Green, our starting free safety, would be a free agent. I was excited and put the idea to the partners on our Wednesday call.
The response was definite, clear and unanimous. They wanted no part of it. Hope would mean a prorated portion of several hundred thousand dollars and they did NOT want to spend any more money. My explanations and pleas went nowhere and the call ended badly.
Bill called on Saturday to see why he hadn’t seen the transaction in the papers and I told him what the partners had said. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew Bill was angry. He hung up abruptly and I didn’t hear from him again. I did, however, hear from his agent.
11-23-2004, 01:53 PM
Bill had apparently called two of the partners who had been the force behind bringing him to New Orleans. He’d made the push he made to me and gotten no further with them than I had. So early Monday morning, following a nice win over Jacksonville, Bill’s agent called my cell phone and told me that the team had violated the terms of our agreement with Bill and that he felt it best that he not return the following season.
Bill claimed that ownership’s refusal to sign Chris Hope meant that we had wrested control of the roster from Bill despite our promises to the contrary when he was signed. Bill, he told me, was not angry or bitter, but felt it best that he not come back to our situation while his health was so affected by stress. Speechless, I hung up and raised several partners.
None were surprised and some, I think, were relieved. Bill’s salary was a big nut and the media draw surrounding him had been served. They did not, apparently, feel that Bill’s expertise and experience would be missed and I inquired as to why. After a long silence, one partner said, “Well, you’ve done fine this year. We’ll just remove the interim tag from your title.” How wonderful.
11-23-2004, 01:56 PM
We were ineligible for the playoffs and finished the season with a bout of influenza ripping through the team. Many players grumbled that Coach Taylor did nothing to prevent the spread and, in fact, had done nothing to prevent injuries all season long, a common criticism of his. I heard from several agents that players did not appreciate his inability or unwillingness to promote the health of his players. Many felt they could better serve their clients by encouraging them to seek other teams with better training and conditioning programs.
Additionally, Van Ruffin had maintained his wish to coach elsewhere and many offensive players had heard or perceived as much. This was unsettling to them and the word was that many free agents of ours would follow him wherever he went.
Parcells had made no indications that he intended to serve as GM and the owners had not instructed me to prepare a list of replacement candidates.
Statistically, several contributors whose contracts were up made no overtures to remain with us. Quite the opposite as Michael Lewis, a starting receiver who surprised everyone with over 700 yards receiving, wanted loads of money to stay after being signed years before without college experience.
The bottom line had not been accurately finalized, but the partnership was not excited about the early returns on the team’s financial performance even if they were pleased with the record.
The good news was that we ended up 9-7, better than one of the playoff teams. Four players ended up receiving post-season awards and the last home game had over 5,000 seats sold over the counter. Word around the league was that decent free agents saw promising things from our team and would at least consider New Orleans during free agency. Our Marketing Director thought that ticket sales would be up and that corporate luxury box sales looked promising.
Final determination of success would be based on the balance sheet and a stadium proposal. I had some projects to start.
11-23-2004, 03:06 PM
The end of a football season is just as busy as the regular season, if not more so. The number one item on my plate was a stadium proposal. The partnership decided that waiting to have a playoff team before making the proposal was no better than asking for the stadium now with all the attention it would receive.
Marketing people, league consultants and feasibility studies determined that we would need at least $250,000,000 to build a new stadium. The partners deliberated long and hard about whether and how much to contribute to that amount and decided that the $300 million plus they spent on the team was enough contribution by itself. They determined that the best course was to ask for the entire sum to be publicly financed, making the de facto decision to keep the team in New Orleans would be honest and true if the community had to pay for the whole nut.
So we worked day and night for weeks on what sort of stadium we needed, where it should be and what amenities to offer. I contacted several sports architects I knew and got lots of conceptual plans that would be affordable but attractive. Lots of the partners came to town to review plans and meet politicians. Media support continued to be strong and frequent. That was, until word got out that we were going to demand a huge stadium and weren’t contributing a dime.
About three weeks before a scheduled vote, we released plans to the media for an 80,000 seat downtown park with a retractable roof, 17,000 club seats and 300 luxury boxes. It was clearly state of the art and in tune with what other clubs were building around the league. And as expected, the public loved the building but questioned the costs and the fact that we were unwilling to contribute. I have a feeling the public gathered what was happening. They knew they had the chance to keep the Saints around or tell us to hit the road. Quickly.
11-23-2004, 05:51 PM
In addition to all this work, I was evaluating the coaching position that we had to address, namely Offensive Coordinator. I knew that the future of the club was wrapped up with Van Ruffin, but he told me he was looking for a salary three times that of our Head Coach. I was sure that would not sit well and told Chris Taylor as much.
He was hurt by what he perceived as betrayal by Van who he’d groomed to take his place. In the end, I think Van lost him by announcing his intentions early and Chris couldn’t come up with a good reason to keep him around by the time the hiring phase came around. I still wanted to keep him here, but knew he would want a monstrous raise or the top job. As I looked around the league, nobody jumped out as a more affordable Offensive Coordinator with anywhere close to the ability.
Everyone knew we needed a coaching staff in place before the draft. The partners wanted to get an exciting staff together about the time the team would be moving, but were reluctant to pay high salaries until the final product would be fielded.
Unfortunately, the quality of candidates were not as exciting and even coordinators with less ability wanted more than Ruffin or even Coach Taylor made the previous year. So we decided to offer Ruffin the job at the salary he wanted with an implication that he would be in line for the head job once Chris retired.
As teams began hiring coaches and coordinators other teams landed the guys they wanted. Van, I think, was disappointed that at first no one jumped at him and ours was the only offer on the table for a long time. When the other teams showed little interest in his services, he came back to us, hat in hand and accepted our offer. I still feel that he feels cheated somehow and would rather not be here.
That being said, I think building around his ability will serve this team well. As it turned out, only one coordinator league wide was not retained and Van’s contract was among the top ten at any position in the league. Chris Taylor was classy if not happy regarding the development. Regardless, the coaching future of the Saints was taking shape.
11-23-2004, 05:51 PM
Another big job following the season was to set ticket prices. Having just tripled our offensive coaching costs and netted only $21 million on a $330 million investment, the organization was convinced we had to up revenue numbers immediately. Our Marketing Director submitted a report that said we were third from last in terms of cost to attend a game and the other two teams were San Diego and Arizona – perennial losers. Arizona was building a new stadium and San Diego was trying to.
So we put together a few price models and decided that we had to increase ticket prices across the board, particularly in the cheap seats. That was going to make a new stadium proposal that much more difficult, but that was non negotiable. The alternative was to stay out of the free agent market all together.
We raised prices considerably but still remained competitive and third cheapest among league teams. The public had the power at that point.
Heading in to the free agency period, my suggestions that we hire a permanent GM so we could put together a team that fit a purpose rather than the one I’d pieced together to patch holes from injury. That request was firmly rebuked. In fact, the partnership group who came to New Orleans to talk to Van Ruffin promised a resolution to the issue before free agency. I pushed them and pushed them and finally they offered to double my ownership stake in the club for one dollar while increasing my pay slightly. Two percent is not much of a change from one percent, but I promised to consider the offer.
The group decided my consideration was good enough and basically took the plan to the media before I answered. I did not like the tactic, but decided that the club was too big to ignore and, more importantly, realized I was beginning to like this job.
11-24-2004, 09:19 AM
I had almost convinced myself that I wanted to stay in New Orleans when the finalized draft report came out of the scouting department. Jessie was so excited about the report that he came to see me personally to impress upon me the importance of what was in the 40 pages he held.
Jessie, at 62, was convinced that the top of this draft class was as good as any class he’d scouted. The draft always focuses on defensive linemen early and Jessie considered five of the players in the pool to be bona fide starters from day one and four of those to be All-Pro candidates. This class also was rich in offensive line talent, something that attracted me considerably.
We held the 19th selection overall and I could see solid quality in the middle first round talent. The report basically represented my decision to stay in the football management business for a while. And for the first time, I caught what veterans of the business call “the bug.” I could not wait to see what we could create.
11-29-2004, 12:03 PM
A lot of lip service around football is given to the theory that a franchise is only as good as its head coach and quarterback. No dynasties have been built without talent at both spots. To some extent I agree with this but I always wondered if the reverse weren’t true – successful football teams make good quarterbacks and coaches.
In formulating a forward strategy for the Saints, I decided that serious attention had to be paid to the quarterback position. Either we needed a QB that could carry the team to lots of victories or we needed one who could grow with the team and stay ahead of the curve. The more I looked, the more I was convinced that Aaron Brooks was not that guy.
Aaron had finished the year with a 69.2 rating, poor at best. He could avoid the rush, but was almost as inaccurate as any starter in the league. The players liked him and we had made several fourth quarter comebacks in the previous season. But closer looking showed that lots of that was Deuce McAlister and the defense. Aaron kept us in those games, but did not win them by himself. And the bottom line was that people were not lining up at the ticket window to see Aaron Brooks. To put people in the seats, particularly 80,000 of them in a new stadium (here or in L.A.), we needed something more exciting.
The trick was to convince the financially sensitive partners that we needed to drop a few million dollars on a franchise quarterback. There were two pure pocket passers in the draft and many “experts” said that one or both could go in the high first round. So to make my quarterback push, I bought plane tickets for Chris Taylor, Jessie Choate, Van Ruffin and myself and we flew to both these guys to evaluate them first hand in their environment. I wasn’t waiting for the combine and I wasn’t waiting for them to come to me. I needed to know if either one could play in the NFL. Now.
11-29-2004, 12:05 PM
The first, R.J. White, had played at West Virginia and started three years. The 23-year old was not huge, not small; not fast, not slow. He threw exceptionally well on short passes and 25 yard routes, but lacked a little poise. His paper testing went pretty well, but our psychologist had a problem with his responses to stress-testing. The most obvious quality of his was his strength. There were several offensive tackles in the draft who could not bench press as much as White and his body looked sculpted in a gray t-shirt.
He finished fifth in the Heisman voting but was hampered by poor receivers in a solid defensive conference. I liked the ability to put the ball downfield even if his accuracy was off. Coach Taylor found him easy to work with and Van Ruffin liked his understanding of the limited offense he had been exposed to. Unfortunately, we needed many more formations than he was familiar with and he threw a lot of interceptions for a short-ball passer.
The second guy we visited was even smaller and had been running an offense for four years. He was largely unheralded and came from a very small program. That offense was also limited and he had been plagued by inaccuracy, particularly for another short thrower. Jerald Drake was in his hometown in Arizona when we visited him and seemed very comfortable in his environment. We showed him some video and he picked out the coverage very quickly for a college quarterback. I was impressed by his command of football theory. But he was clearly not the physical specimen White was.
In a post-trip wrap-up, the four of us sorted through the reams of data assembled on the two young men we visited. After all the information soaked in, we decided that White, who was from North Dakota, Drake, who played at Nebraska-Omaha were not going to be enough of a draw to excite the players on our roster currently and the population base we were trying to get into our ballpark. We needed a big free agent.
11-30-2004, 05:23 PM
Predictably, the partners balked at spending what it would take to retain a big name free agent. The list of quarterbacks who had filed for free agency was fat around the average names and not very deep at the top. In fact, our scouting people felt that only two players in the pool could make an impact right away – Jeff Garcia and Peyton Manning.
I asked the coaching staff to review tape of both players and then got on the phone with both agents even though I knew Manning was going to demand $100 million and was easily the top free agent in the league. Both agreed to review the opportunity in New Orleans with their players and promised to call back. Marketing started preparing studies on the choices in front of us including the two college guys.
About 45 minutes after talking to Dixon Sutter, Manning’s agent, my secretary buzzed me to say that I had a visitor. It was Peyton.
11-30-2004, 05:30 PM
Aaron was obviously disappointed, but comforted by the knowledge that we were operating on a small budget and that no less than six teams were openly pursuing Peyton by the time negotiations started. He acted with class and dignity while politely telling us that he would prefer to be traded rather sit on the bench behind a potential Hall of Famer.
I could feel the loyalty to our program seeping out of Aaron and his agent as we moved forward with a presentation to the partners. Aaron felt more and more betrayed and less and less valued as we went along. I explained how important it was to us to win and how we wanted Aaron to be a part of our team regardless of what happened with Manning. He took it as empty rhetoric and by the time we were ready to go to the partners, he was no longer talking to anyone inside the organization. This did not help with the partners.
I heard the same basic theme from the entire time: we had alienated our starting quarterback two months before a stadium vote in the community and without having even made an offer to Manning, who, by the way, was being pursued by half a dozen teams with more pressing needs at the position and more money. I took my lumps and the blame and hoped against hope that someone in the group would see the bigger picture. It wasn’t anybody in Operations. It was Marketing.
The studies showed that we could see serious ticket sales and improve the public support for a new stadium if we signed Manning. The “local boy comes home a hero” theme could be spun into gobs of promotions, his legendary father, Archie, could be tied to the ad campaign and the long-time Saint fans who had been patient for so long would finally have something proven to be excited about. As usual numbers helped and hurt. Ticket sales for the next season were estimated at 65,000 – up over 12,000 seats. The market for Manning’s contract was expected to be over $100 million for six years. That was still over $1,400 per added seat per year. Peyton Manning would have to bring us corporate fans. Or a new stadium.
I had become so convinced about Manning that I felt the team almost had to sign him. There wasn’t a quarterback with his ability in any level of football that we would have a shot at bringing to New Orleans. The team needed an identity and he was clearly that. Our indoor, turf field supported a well-executed passing game with a true field general at the helm. And the area’s attitude towards him was as close to iconic as any player could ever be. We needed him in black and gold.
The partners, however, were mostly concerned with payback on their investment. I understood that, but I was adamant that the best way to do that was to put a successful, exciting team on the field. Hours and hours of discussion, mostly heated, did not convince them. In the end, I told them that they could forbid me from making him an offer, but I was willing to walk away. I wanted no part of an organization that wanted no part of Peyton Manning. We had to make this deal.
12-02-2004, 11:50 AM
It is more accurate to say that the ownership team did not oppose pursuing Manning than to say that they approved of that pursuit. Ownership decided that I could make an offer to Manning that was not going to hamper us going forward and that would not cripple the cap situation down the road. That meant the base salary had to be relatively level over the course of the contract and the signing bonus couldn’t be too high. Neither thing is attractive to players.
We brought Peyton in on an official visit and allowed him to meet with coaching staff and the front office personnel. Everyone was impressed to the hilt and he could not have been more encouraging. He informed us that he expected to receive five offers per week and that his idea was to average $18 million per year. He was willing to work around some of our concerns, but the overall contract was not a point to negotiate in broad amounts.
So I spent hours constructing a signing bonus and contract amount that was both fair to him and easy for us to plan around in the future. The final deal was a six-year $103.56 million dollar package with a salary that increased less than five percent per year. That meant that the cap cost today for his contract was not much less than the last year and we could evaluate the roster statically.
Dixon Sutter came to the office personally to receive the offer and glanced at the dollar amount with visible apprehension. This, he said, was less than two other offers already on the table.
12-02-2004, 11:57 AM
After dumping so much time and anguish into the offer, I knew it was all we could do. Beyond a few thousand dollars, that offer was our best one. So Dixon promised to review everything with Peyton. At the end of the first week of free agency negotiations, he called to tell me that he six other offers in hand and expected four more the next week. Peyton wanted to put the issue behind him immediately. He promised to have us an answer or our offer by 5:00 on the first Friday of negotiations.
In the mean time I had to address the remaining needs of the team without knowing about the several million dollars of Manning’s offer. We had clear needs at linebacker, tackle and defensive line depth. I had less interest and had a hard time committing myself to the offers for those positions. Luckily our staff worked hard and put a nice package together on five other free agents – safety Keion Carpenter, tight-end Jerame Tuman, defensive tackle Leonard Starks, linebacker Ian Gold and Bill Parcel’s targeted safety Chris Hope. I was reviewing those on that Friday when I realized that five o’clock had come and gone. The crushing realization that I had not heard from Peyton took my breath away. I stared out my window for several minutes before calling Sutter. He was unavailable and I left a long, rambling message on his voicemail that basically shut the door on the whole Manning issue and crushed new negotiations on free agents he represented. As I hung up the phone on my credenza, I heard my secretary drop a file on my desk. I turned to face her, hoping she hadn’t overhead the message. I wanted to tell the organization myself that he hadn’t called us. Except it wasn’t my secretary, it was Peyton Manning. And he had on a #18 New Orleans Saints jersey.
12-14-2004, 12:14 PM
The item he’d dropped on my desk was the offer we’d given Dixon and it was signed in bright red ink. He had dropped by the Equipment Manager’s office to have a number 18 jersey made up and gotten sidetracked by the crew’s enthusiasm.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said, smiling broadly.
I didn’t speak for a long time. And then I could only manage to say “thank you” a hundred times while shaking his hand. Everyone who’d seen him walk in was outside my door by then, clapping and cheering his name. Van Ruffin, in a show of joy he hadn’t displayed in months, tossed Peyton our playbook and told him to have in memorized by Monday. Chris Taylor told him to check out game film from every game last season and identify those things that would complement his game. Peyton proved my belief in his ability by tossing the book back and telling Taylor, “I got those tapes last week.”
12-14-2004, 12:15 PM
Knowing Peyton was in our camp and part of the future here, I knew that keeping Aaron Brooks around to back him up wasn’t fair to him. He had a ton of “dead” money due him in later years which made moving him a tough nut for us, but he was not going to swallow a bench role in a way that made him energized and motivated. So, in addition to evaluating free agents, I made a concerted effort to trade Brooks to any team needing quarterback help.
In the end, his value to other teams was probably less than his value to us, but we made a modest deal with the Giants using Brooks to jump nine spots in the upcoming draft. I was still convinced in the talent available in this draft and felt that their tenth position put us solidly in a position to draft a potential starter.
Over the course of the free agency period, we tried to improve the areas most hurting while retaining anybody who could contribute. Without question, the single greatest selling point for potential signees was Peyton Manning. Offensive players loved the chance to play with one of the game’s true superstars and defensive guys saw the acquisition as a commitment to winning by the organization.
After Manning, our biggest signing was John Tait, a right tackle from Kansas City. We were told that he turned down offers in the neighborhood of two million dollars more than our offer solely based on the fact that he would be protecting Manning.
The most valuable outgoing free agent for us was Victor Green, one of our two All-Pro safeties who brought a ton of stability and legitimacy to our secondary. We knew he’d get plenty of offers and at 34, he was going to be looking for upfront money and short contracts. Green was close to receiving our franchise player tag, but we had used it on Jerry Fontenot to hold down the offensive line. He had only played one year with us, but his impact on the team and defense in particular were clear to the staff. Defensive Coordinator Corey Kelly felt that he was as important to the success they’d experienced as any player.
So, with Peyton’s contract applied, I was trying to fit a veteran, All-Pro safety into a much smaller cap space. In the end, he signed with us for less money because of one single fact. We had committed, in his mind, to winning. In eight weeks of free agent negotiations, we had already become a better football team with Peyton in place.
The basic strategy after Manning, Tait and Green was to acquire as many bargains as possible. We did pick up a few higher quality player, but the majority of the other free agents were veterans who were willing to work at or near the league minimums. It was surprisingly easy to do that with the big names that came in early. A lesson I intended to remember in the future.
Most of the signings were about keeping Manning on the field (good defense) and giving him weapons to use while there (offensive skill). That included a receiver he had in Indy, Reggie Wayne and a running back, Jonathan Wells, who had started the year before for Houston. Peyton refused to meddle in our free agent strategy, but seemed pleased with each of the acquisitions. If nothing else, the team had improved in terms of hope.
12-17-2004, 09:28 AM
I was entirely unprepared for the amount of work that goes towards preparing for the college draft. Luckily, the rest of the people throughout the organization had been through it before and carried the load. Months before the draft arrived, my office had volumes and volumes of information on several hundred players. We had test results, interview transcripts, college statistics and even mock drafts from online amateurs.
The scouting combine in Indianapolis was a fascinating array of human skills and analysis. We were able to watch all players we were interested in perform 40-yard dashes, agility drills, bench press tests and skill drills. Busloads of scouts, coaches and team officials watched and more information than anyone could ever read was generated and recorded. I decided to buck customs and take a few players along with us. Peyton Manning, Deuce McAlister, Tebucky Jones and Dale Carter all made the trip. Their input was not so much technical as insightful. I liked hearing Carter and Jones point out flaws in receivers and Manning and McAlister pick out potential in offensive linemen.
As the draft preparation progressed, we identified three must-draft positions (FB, DE and CB) and five could-draft positions (QB, RB, WR, G and MLB). As the draft got closer, the free agent pool dried up in the FB and QB positions and we pushed those two more towards the must-have list. Peyton pulled me aside during a break and told me that his most productive formations in Indianapolis were often two tight-end sets with one running back. It left more downfield options for the passing game than a two-back set and was easier to disguise blocking schemes if the tight ends were threats to stay home or enter the progression. He knew that Ernie Conwell was solid but felt some concern about the depth behind him – Jerame Tuman, a free agent, and Zach Hilton, Conwell’s backup last year. I asked him to pay attention to the tight ends and feel out two or three to watch in the draft. It was this kind of input that made Manning so valuable to me.
As I sat in the stands watching workouts on the field below, two partners sauntered up the stands with grim faces and took seats next to me. I knew I was unpopular among the group for taking such a harsh stance on Manning and the contract he ended up with, but their looks belied something more drastic.
Neither spoke for a while and I continued to watch a group of tight ends show off pass blocking skills through binoculars. I finally asked if they had made the trip from Chicago to watch the Northwestern rookies or to visit with me. One grumbled something unintelligible and I dropped the glasses quickly and snapped my head around.
“Look, I did what I thought was best for team. Manning has fit in fabulously and he’s already brought the morale of the organization to incredible levels. The coaches love him and Marketing is throwing a fit. They are planning on meeting or surpassing the ticket sales this year and I think we’ve got a solid shot at the playoffs right out of the block.” I shouted more than I should have as several scouts around me glanced towards us.
“We know, Michael. We know.” Oscar Green, an even tempered soul and the largest shareholder spoke clearly and softly. He continued, “As part of year end review for the lenders, we had the franchise revalued. The free agent acquisitions alone, according to the league and auditors, have increased the value of the team by almost 50 million bucks. We came to tell you ‘good job.’ We were hoping you’d be pleased.” The pair did not end up with all good news, but that was pretty positive. There was some business about loan balances and interest rate changes, but all in all they considered the investment to be paying off. It led me to the conclusion that I might actually be able to do this.
12-18-2004, 02:14 PM
That continued until draft day. We had so much information and so many targets that my head was spinning by the time the commissioner took the podium to announce Carolina’s choice of DT Robbie Carter, a surefire superstar from Oregon. We had contingencies for our contingencies and oral assurances from several players that contract negotiations would be peaceful if we drafted them.
Peyton and the offensive staff had agreed that the rookie QB worth drafting in round four was Lee Lyons, an unheralded guy out of Northern Michigan. He had very little ability but plenty of potential, something required for a long-term backup.
After about six picks, it was clear that the mock drafts we’d completed had no resemblance to reality and that the whole day would be one reaction after another. Our target for Round One was a solid defensive end from UCLA, Carlos Kreitzer, that we felt would be available at the tenth position because teams one through nine had bigger needs at other positions. Unfortunately they didn’t agree and Jacksonville selected him at number four. Our backup plan was a guard name Dwayne McConnell, also not a big need for the teams ahead of us, and he went at number six. By the time our selection came up, we were down to our fourth backup plan and took a younger, less sure defensive end from Purdue named Charlie Sampson.
Rounds two and three saw us take a receiver and linebacker – two of our less pressing needs, but both represented great value when they came up. By our turn in Round Four, our quarterback was still on the table and no other QB’s had been chosen since the big two went early. I had noticed that quarterback was not being looked at and glanced through our list of recommendations and remarks made by the four veterans that went with me to the combine. Peyton Manning’s number one choice for a tight end, Melvin McKay, was still available despite being on our board as an early second round choice. I asked Jessie Choate to check on any rumors and he reported back immediately that there were durability concerns since McKay had played at Utah and was only 264 pounds.
“But he weighed 264 pounds and came from Utah before the draft,” I said. “Why would that information suddenly change his draft position today?”
“That’s it,” Jessie replied. “No other knocks.”
I knew that the backup QB was an important choice and a roster spot we couldn’t fill with a veteran free agent. And waiting another round for our guy was a big risk, but a solid tight end would pose a threat now. So with fear and trepidation, I filled out our selection card, telling the staff in the room, with Melvin McKay’s name.
12-18-2004, 02:16 PM
The phone rang off the hook after that, of course. Players and staff who hadn’t made the trip to New York wanted to know why we passed on our guy at the round he was slated for. I could only tell him that we saw a weapon and value and went for it. I immediately tried to trade up and get a selection before the fifth to pick up Lee Lyons, the QB, but no one was budging.
The fourth round neared an end when I saw the trend of the draft switch to a definite offensive bias. I saw a fullback and a punter go, two signs that needs had be filled and that value at important positions would be en vogue.
Sweating bullets, I tried desperately to pick up an early fifth round spot and no GM even twitched. Arizona traded their third choice in the round to Buffalo who was trying to put a successor to Drew Bledsoe in place and I knew we were doomed. The Bills had two other quarterbacks on the roster behind Drew, but both were undrafted and both had little ability. I tried to trade a package of players to Buffalo for the pick, but their phones were busy passed the point I saw the league president make the walk to the podium.
“With the third selection in the fifth round, the Buffalo Bills select . . . “ I realized my mouth was open and the words came out so slowly. “Jeff Brown, linebacker from Temple University.”
Elated, but still frantic to move up, I tried every GM ahead of me and none would move on any trade that was sensible. But the Buffalo selection was the first of a string of defensive players and only three offensive players went before our choice at 19 and all three were offensive linemen. My gamble had paid off and we chose Lee Lyons from Northern Michigan. If he was not our quarterback of the future, he was at least our quarterback of the near future.
My first draft ended up with these choices:
Round Position Name College
1 DE Charlie Sampson Purdue
2 WR Ron Phillips Boston College
3 LB Leslie Bell Colorado
4 TE Melvin McKay Utah
5 QB Lee Lyons Northern Michigan
6 CB Jack Finch Oklahoma
7 RB Troy Pearson Arkansas Tech
All in all, it was a decent choice. The last two choices were simply a matter of taking the best player available at any position we saw a roster opening. Both had been questions to be drafted at all, but we saw something worthwhile in Finch (Big 12 experience and fantastic man-to-man instincts) and small-schooled Pearson (elusiveness, tendency not to fumble and full development).
01-06-2005, 03:41 PM
With the hubbub surrounding the draft, almost everyone in the front office took a little time off to refresh. The Wednesday following the draft, I was back in Illinois visiting family when my cell phone rang. It was the partners who had obviously misinterpreted my “vacation” to mean “working but not in the office.” They were ready for their weekly conference call and eager to talk. We had reviewed the draft and they all knew where I stood and who I saw as contributors so I was unclear why we needed to have this call right then. I soon remembered.
01-06-2005, 03:41 PM
“We failed, “ Oscar said.
I was a little taken aback that they had reviewed the draft so quickly, particularly since we hadn’t even attempted contract negotiations with the rookies or brought them to New Orleans to meet each other. The media reviews gave us a solid B grade on the draft so failure was not a word I’d heard to describe it before.
“How’s that, Oscar?” I replied. Curtly.
“By more than eleven percent,” he answered.
Then I realized we weren’t talking about the draft. They had the election results from the stadium vote which I had completely forgotten about. The results weren’t really even close. The vote was 55.8% to 44.1% and more than 450,000 people turned out to cast ballots.
After all the effort and all the money spent to put a winner together, I didn’t know whether to be happy that we would be moving to L.A. or sad that this team, with Peyton triumphantly returning home, would not get more than one year to play in New Orleans.
I could be wrong, but I think the other partners felt similarly. No one was excited, no one was even pleased as they told me the details. But plans are plans and we still stood to take a solid roster to L.A. where the marketplace alone would increase the value of the team by tens of millions of dollars. So why was I disappointed?
01-07-2005, 09:34 AM
When I returned to New Orleans, I invited all seven drafted rookies in with their agents to get acquainted and begin contract talks. Six of the seven signed that week. Unfortunately, the exception was first rounder, Charlie Sampson. But we were not far off and I felt certain that we could get together on a deal. Unfortunately, his agent felt that we needed some time apart and told me I’d hear from him after training camp. That was a blow.
In the short window of free agency after the draft but before training camp, I was able to come to terms with cornerback Fred Thomas who had missed nine games the year before due to injury and still had weeks and weeks of rehab on his ACL to do before he could play. Fred was easily the best corner left in the market, but I refused to commit starting cornerback money to a player who would easily miss half the season.
In the end his agent saw it the same way and we had a long list of defensive backs on the roster. That would be a definite strong suit going in to season number two.
We also needed a fullback as ours had bolted for Buffalo in free agency (he was traded on draft day to New York to play with Aaron Brooks again). There was almost no talent left at that point so we made two offers to backups, Greg Comella and Darian Barnes. Barnes signed a two-year deal right away but Comella took some arm twisting.
We also felt that talks with Sampson’s agent had been less positive than desired and there was a horrible hole on the left side of our defensive line if he held out. In a similar situation to Fred Thomas, St. Louis had not offered a contract their defensive end Grant Wistrom, a potential All-Pro. Wistrom was told by doctors that he would miss up to 16 weeks of football which meant almost all of the regular season. But he felt he would be healthy by the playoffs (which I saw us making) and was willing to reward a team for their interest by signing a three-year deal at reduced levels. Wistrom was a natural right end which would allow us to move Darren Howard back to the left where he was most comfortable. It also gave us some insurance if Sampson missed any more time.
So I gave Wistrom a three-year offer at $3.3 million and allowed him to review it. The more I considered it, the more it made sense and it took him less than a week to realize the same thing. St. Louis had not yet called him when his agent, Ray Goad, called to accept. This team was looking solid.
01-11-2005, 03:48 PM
We got some crushing news as we rolled out of training camp. Despite all the projections and hype, we only sold 53,500 tickets. The price hikes and bad press regarding the stadium and beaten down a lot of fans who thought Peyton Manning sounded exciting.
On the other hand, the auditor’s report had a franchise value somewhere north of $400 million, which meant that we had made a $70 million paper gain in our investment. With the profit from last season, at least the banks were happy.
When the preseason magazines hit the stands, plenty of publications had us ranked above fifth in the power ratings. Computers didn’t know everything, but there was reason to be optimistic.
01-11-2005, 03:51 PM
We eased Peyton Manning in to our program during the preseason schedule. He played a couple quarters each game until the third game. He was vintage Manning but not spectacular. He gravitated towards Reggie Wayne, his teammate from the year before, for the first several series. The coaches thought this natural and did not fight it. He threw no interceptions through three games and had a solid command of the offense.
We lost time for several players with injuries and I began getting frustrated with the team’s physical preparedness. We ended up losing starting defensive tackle, Josh Williams for the entire season on a knee injury late in the last exhibition game. That meant that week one of the regular season, we were minus Wistrom, Thomas, Williams and Sedrick Hodge (OLB) on the shelf. Injuries were looking to be a problem again.
The morning after the last game Sampson’s agent called me, as promised, and told me what he needed to get his client in for practice. It was essentially the same offer I’d made to him in terms of dollars, just more up front money. We tweaked it over a few hours and had Sampson on the practice field that evening. I think Sampson drove the agent to make the deal more than the agent coming around. Players want to play and he is a player.
01-12-2005, 02:15 PM
Good dynasty, but, YOU HEARTLESS BASTARD! Saints fans support an abysmal franchise well for decades and when taxpayers won't pay 100% of a 300million dollar stadium you go along without a fight with bolting to L.A.? I hope the fans set fire to your beamer you freakin bean-counter! I would imagine that this would get as much bad publicity nation-wide as Modell leaving Cleveland did.
01-12-2005, 03:31 PM
Even the fake Saints leave town. :(
01-21-2005, 09:27 AM
Okay folks, an update is long overdue.
Notice the handle change. There was a slight computer tragedy and several FOF files are no longer available. In addition, I submitted a request to change my email address for FOFC a few days ago (my laptop was stolen so I'm abandoning lots of old accounts) and haven't gotten a reply. That means I can't post anything on the old account.
I will try to re-create something for this dynasty, but it may be lost forever.
I do have a part of the season's posts saved and could let you know how Manning does or just scrap the whole thing. Anyone care?
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