After an off-season of speculation about whether or not the Saints would bring back Deuce McAllister after two knee operations, the team and its franchise leader in rushing are looking to return to 2006's playoff form.
McAllister restructured his contract in the offseason, reaching a deal in which the Saints don't have to pay him a $1 million roster bonus, but he has a chance to earn that money in performance incentives.
The financial incentives seem almost superfluous after last year's disappointing 7-9 record in a season in which McAllister was placed on the injured reserve after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the third game of the season. Hopefully, Deuce's return this year will mark a return to the spotlight for the Saints and the city of New Orleans which, after hosting the BCS National Championship game and watching the upstart Hornets push the defending NBA champion Spurs to seven games, is getting accustomed to post-season fireworks.
Looking back on his career, though, it's easy to see that Deuce McAllister means much more to the Saints and the city of New Orleans than being able to gain 3 to 4 yards on a consistent basis. Here are some highlights:
Deuce Breaks Loose " After a surprise 2000 season when the Saints made the playoffs and dispatched the defending NFC Champion Rams in the first round, the drafting of one Dulymus Jenod 'Deuce" McAllister with the 23rd overall pick was almost an afterthought. So, too, was his first season in which he gained just 91 yards. But in retrospect, it seems all too fitting that it wasn't until his second year in the league that McAllister busted loose for his first of three-straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons. His production made him the Saints all-time leading rusher in just four seasons, eclipsing what former rushing leader Dalton Hilliard accomplished in seven.
A Season Lost " The Saints spent the 2005 season displaced, like many other New Orleanians, after Hurricane Katrina. Splitting time between the Alamo Dome in San Antonio and Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, the Saints also felt the effects, pulling down a forgettable 3-13 record. Watching on the sidelines for much of that season was McAllister, who experienced an ACL tear in his right knee during a 52-3 loss to the Green Bay Packers. McAllister watched with other Saints fans as his team won just one of its last 11 games and headed into the offseason with an uncertain future.
Return To Glory " Back in New Orleans with rookie head coach Sean Payton and veteran quarterback Drew Brees at the helm, the Saints became the feel-good story of the 2006 NFL season. While much of the focus was still on the city's recovery effort and that year's draft pick, Reggie Bush, it was McAllister who quietly pounded his way to his fourth 1,000-yard rushing season in five years. And while many remember Bush waving back at the Bears' defense in the NFC Championship game, it was McAllister's consecutive rushing touchdowns and a season-high 143 yards in the NFC Divisional game against the Philadelphia Eagles a week earlier that put the Saints one game from the Super Bowl.
Another Season Lost " 2007 was a major letdown for the Saints organization, its players and its fans. After an improbable trip to the NFC Championship game a season earlier, the Saints started 0-5 and limped to a 7-9 record. A big part of last season's failure can be attributed to once again losing McAllister to a knee injury. There were many reasons that the Saints didn't live up to their performance in 2006 " shoddy offensive line, porous defense and a stagnant offense " but Saints fans would be remiss if they forgot that their team has always reached .500 when McAllister runs for at least 1,000 yards in a season.
What Lies Ahead " The Saints renegotiating their contract with McAllister and turning what once was bonus money into incentives may seem like the team has lost confidence in its two-time pro-bowler. Upon closer inspection, however, it seems that the Saints may be putting higher hopes than ever on McAllister. During the offseason, the Saints signed just one running back, undrafted free agent Lynell Hamilton of San Diego State. Unless the team has some surprise moves up its sleeve between now and the season opener, it seems like this season's backfield will look much like it did in the last two seasons when McAllister was healthy.
Just how good will the Saints rushing attack be this season? Reggie Bush has yet to prove he can be the same type of explosive player he was in college. Although Bush's production actually improved slightly after McAllister's injury, last year proved that for the team to succeed, the Saints need both McAllister and Bush to perform effectively. After all, it's McAllister's methodical 4-yard gains that open up defenses for Bush's highlight-reel catch and runs.
With the team investing heavily in the defensive side of the ball, the Saints' success once again seems to rest on McAllister's shoulders. He's held the weight before, now it's time to see if he can do it again.