There was no dramatic comeback by Carolina that December afternoon in the Dome, but the Panthers' 10-6 win kept the Saints out of the playoffs. For Howard, it rekindled a familiar empty feeling. This time he vowed to use the experience as a motivational tool, as his next-door neighbor in the Saints locker room quickly discovered.
"He looked me in the eye and said, 'Hey look, we gotta bring it next year, 15 sacks each,'" says fellow Saints defensive end Charles Grant. "I like that. I like a guy that's going to put all the weight on his shoulders. And he has faith in me -- I can see it in his eyes."
Howard and Grant enter this season as the bookends to what the Saints believe will be a quicker, more athletic defense. Howard enters his fourth season in the NFL as the Saints' starting right defensive end. For Grant, who was the Saints' No. 1 draft pick in 2002, his second season will have him starting as the left defensive end. The 15-sacks-each goal seems lofty after the two combined for 15 sacks last season. "I think we both knew deep down inside that we could have done better than that," says Grant. "We were supposed to do better than that."
While their goals may be the same, their offseason approaches have been different. Grant spent several weeks working out with his former college teammates at the University of Georgia. Like Grant, many of them are now in the NFL. Working out together at Georgia offered them motivation and a chance to share knowledge while being surrounded with what Grant refers to as "the youngness."
Another motivation for Grant this season has nothing to do with conditioning or football. In April, his aunt Tamekia Stromer was killed when she crashed Grant's recently purchased four-wheeler in his hometown of Colquitt, Ga. Having dealt with the shooting death of his brother at an early age, Grant is using both as an inspiration. "My treat to her and my little brother this season is to make it to the Pro Bowl. I gotta get 15 sacks," says Grant.
It's also been a different approach to the offseason for Howard, mainly because of the new addition to the strength and conditioning staff, Jerry Palmieri from Jacksonville, Fla. "He's a little militant," says Howard, "but his techniques and things he's added to our program have helped us out, especially for the d-line. The take-offs, getting off the ball, and getting out of your stance real quick ... it's been real good."
Another difference for Howard has been his health. Minor ankle surgery in January paled in comparison to two surgeries on his right shoulder following the 2001 season. "I haven't felt this good since my rookie year. I'm ready to go."
Optimism is commonplace this time of year in the NFL, but Grant and Howard sound like they're on a mission. "Tell the world, 'Look out for the Saints, we're coming.' We're underrated but we're going to run some people over and shock a lot of people," says Howard.
"I know the fans in New Orleans are thinking it's about time for us to take them to the Super Bowl," Grant says. "Hopefully at the end of this season, we're going to wind up in Houston, Texas, about five or six hours from our city and go rock that little town over there -- in the Super Bowl," says Grant.
Fifteen sacks each will be a nice start.