New Orleans Saints General Manger Mickey Loomis: ‘We’re right on the cusp’

Posted by Mike Triplett, The Times-Picayune January 10, 2009 10:52PM

Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis speaks often about the Saints’ “window of opportunity” to contend for a championship with Drew Brees as their quarterback.

That window grew another year smaller in 2008, when the Saints squandered Brees’ best season by finishing 8-8 and out of the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

Loomis said the .500 finish was a “huge disappointment,” especially considering the team’s lofty expectations. But in a wide-ranging interview with The Times-Picayune last week, he said there is still plenty of reason for optimism heading into 2009.

Loomis spoke before the Saints announced the firing of defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs, though clearly that’s one area in which the Saints feel they can make a significant improvement. He also said he expects a much greater impact from several core players who were hampered by injuries, such as defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant, receiver Marques Colston, tight end Jeremy Shockey and tailback Reggie Bush.

Although the Saints have just four picks in April’s draft because of previous trades, Loomis suggested that the team’s 2009 “rookie class” will include players such as cornerback Tracy Porter, receiver Adrian Arrington and defensive tackle DeMario Pressley, all of whom had their actual rookie seasons cut short by injury.

Other new building blocks emerged in 2008, such as receiver Lance Moore, tailback Pierre Thomas and guard Carl Nicks.

And best of all, Loomis reiterated, the team still has Brees, who firmly established himself as one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks.

“There’s some signs. There’s some good things there,” Loomis said. “You know, we all tend to look at an 8-8 season and say, ‘Woe is me.’ And I’m more inclined to look at, OK, what were the reasons behind the 8-8? And hey, I need to take some responsibility. You know, if we’d have had John Carney as our kicker, we might have won two of those games. Then we’d be talking about a whole different dynamic here. That was not a good move on my part (releasing Carney in 2007). That’s my responsibility, along with some other ones.

“But there’s a lot of really good things to look back upon and say, ‘Hey, we’re right there. We’re right on the cusp. And I wouldn’t say that we can point to one thing and say, ‘This is the reason we’re not 8-8 or 10-6 or 11-5.’ And frankly, I think anyone who witnessed our games would say at Carolina and at Atlanta were the only two games where we really got beat. The other games, we had opportunities to win.

“So that’s what we’re looking at, saying, ‘What can we do to push us from .¤.¤. to nudge us from 8-8 to a playoff team?’¤”

Loomis, who is heading into his eighth season as the Saints’ general manager, quietly signed a contract extension at some point in the past year. The Saints didn’t release information regarding his contract status — at Loomis’ request, because he prefers to keep that information private. But the team likely locked him up into the future around the same time it signed Coach Sean Payton to a five-year deal in early September.

When asked what gives him the confidence that the Payton “era” will turn out differently than the previous regime — during which the Saints never capitalized on their early promise under Coach Jim Haslett — Loomis said:

“I believe this coach, and this quarterback — and we wouldn’t have this quarterback without this coach — will win a championship for the Saints. I believe that. I think he’s the right guy at the right time with the right team. Period.

“We’ve got some work to do here, as a whole, to get over the hump. Not just coaching, not just players, not just the personnel department. But I believe we’re on the cusp of that.”

Complicating matters, Loomis revealed, is that the Saints will be more confined by the salary cap than they have been in the recent past.

Loomis said the Saints have the means to re-sign all of their own free agents if they choose to do so — unrestricted free agents Jonathan Vilma, Jon Stinchcomb and Devery Henderson and restricted free agents Moore and Jahri Evans are the most prominent names.

But he said the Saints won’t be able to make a splash in free agency unless they sacrifice elsewhere.

“We’ve been one of the higher-paying teams the last couple years, so that’s catching up to us,” Loomis said, pointing out the big-money deals doled out to Brees, Smith, Grant and top-10 draft picks Bush and Sedrick Ellis. “So we’re not going to have the ability cap-wise to go out and make a significant one-guy, big-time deal and still have the ability to sign our own unrestricted free agents.

“We have to pay attention to the resources. I think this is different than maybe the past four, five years. We’re going to have some cap pressure on our team.”

Loomis said all teams will face new limitations on how they can structure contracts because of the possibility of an uncapped year in 2010, meaning it will be harder to backload contracts for future years. And he said the Saints lost some of the surplus they could have carried from this year because of the money they had to spend on injury replacements.

Technically, the Saints are over the projected $123 million cap figure for 2009 at this point, though teams’ cap numbers are fluid and can be altered significantly by releasing players or restructuring their deals.

Although Loomis didn’t specify any such players by name, some likely candidates for release or restructure based on their scheduled salaries include tailback Deuce McAllister, receiver David Patten, guard Jamar Nesbit, defensive tackle Brian Young and cornerback Mike McKenzie, depending on his health.

Loomis acknowledged that the Saints have an important decision to make with McAllister, one of the most popular players in franchise history who is due to earn $5.3 million in salary and bonuses this year.

“It’s something we have to review, no question. It’s not a given that he’s going to be here, and it’s not a given that he’s not. But we need to evaluate it,” said Loomis, who said the Saints intend to make a decision before the start of free agency in late February so McAllister isn’t left in limbo.

“We’re going to be very respectful to his wishes. He’s going to be part of the process,” Loomis said of McAllister, who played a limited role in 2008 after two major knee surgeries. “The first step is to get a real good medical evaluation. Then after we get that, let’s review where we’re at, where he’s at and his contract and what his entire circumstance means to our team.”

Among other topics Loomis discussed:

He said there is “no question we need to play better defense” and said improving that side of the ball is one of the key issues the Saints are evaluating right now. He said that evaluation is difficult because the Saints lost so many key players to injuries, including Grant, McKenzie, Porter and Smith, who played through the pain of a “significant” groin injury.

“It was just a lot of shuffling in and out on defense. And we’ve got to factor that in,” Loomis said. “For example, (free agent newcomer) Bobby McCray was expected to be our third-down edge rusher, and he got thrust into an every-down role. And he did some good things for us. But we’re not getting that specialty pass rusher. You know, all those pieces are connected.”

He said the Saints are interested in signing Vilma to a long-term contract extension after his first year in New Orleans was such a success. But they won’t pursue any agreements before the start of free agency because of a contingency in the deal they made with the New York Jets when they traded for Vilma last year. It’s not clear if the Saints would be allowed to place the franchise tag on Vilma under the parameters of the trade, but Loomis suggested the Saints aren’t interested in doing that anyway.

Loomis didn’t let the offense off the hook, pointing out that it failed to convert some key third downs in several losses and that the unit failed to either close out some close games or come from behind to win them.

“Our offense wasn’t infallible, despite the fact that it was No. 1 in the league,” said Loomis, who said he is looking forward to the healthy returns of Shockey, Bush and Colston.

“Marques is a big part of our offense,” Loomis said. “He’s a big part of our third-down conversions. He’s a big part of our red-zone offense. He brings a lot of things to the table other than just having 90 receptions for over 1,000 yards, which is our expectation for him at the start of the season.”

Loomis said he still feels good about the Shockey trade, in which the Saints sent their 2009 second- and fifth-round draft picks to the New York Giants. Shockey’s season was plagued by a sports hernia injury, but he still has three years remaining on his contract at a reasonable salary.

“Whether that’s a good deal or not will be determined over the next three or four years, his total performance,” Loomis said. “But he had (50 catches and 483 yards in 12 games). If you drafted a tight end in the second round that had those numbers and impacted the game like he did, you’d feel pretty good about it. So I feel pretty good about that trade at this point. But again, whether that’s a good deal or not a good deal remains to be seen.”

Loomis said the Saints will strive for a better run-pass balance on offense, though he said that can sometimes be affected by the health of the tailbacks and the situation of the game. “Look,” he said, “We understand that running the ball and stopping the run are important elements of winning football. Sean certainly understands that. And so it will be reviewed, we’ll talk about it. And I felt like the last half of the season, the last six games, we did a better job of that. We did a much better job.”

He said Thomas, who emerged as a go-to guy late in the season, has the talent to be a starting tailback in the NFL, though the question will be, “Can he hold up over an entire season?”

“I don’t have an answer to that, but you wouldn’t have an answer to that for a rookie either,” Loomis said. “You have to go through a season of doing that before you know. But he’s talented enough, and we got a lot of production from Pierre, as evidenced by his yards per carry. And he was one of the league leaders in fewest stuffs (being tackled for a loss).”

He said he is not frustrated by the lack of draft picks, because he has high hopes for the players the Saints acquired with those picks (Shockey, Vilma and Arrington). The Saints are slated to have the 14th pick in the first round, two fourth-round picks and a seventh-rounder. He said it’s “way too early” to decide if they want to trade down to acquire more picks.

“We’ve got a lot of work to see how this draft shapes up, what kind of players are available, what’s our ability to move backward or move forward,” Loomis said. “Look, we’ve done everything, moved back, moved up, traded picks for players, moved for players. And I think we’ve had a pretty good rate of success. So we’re pretty open-minded about that, but we don’t have any preconceived plan.”

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