That type of drive and determination is what made Saints officials draft McAllister with their No. 1 pick in 2001, despite having marquis running back Ricky Williams on the roster. At the time, drafting McAllister was viewed as a somewhat risky proposition, as the Ole Miss running back and Morton, Miss., native battled injuries his final two seasons in college. And why would the Saints draft another running back when Williams had just rushed for 1,000 yards in 2000?
But drafting McAllister -- and later receiving two first-round draft picks by trading Williams to the Miami Dolphins -- is looking like one of the shrewdest football moves in the club's history. In McAllister, the Saints finally have a franchise running back -- and one that's a serious threat in the passing game, too. And personality-wise, the workmanlike, reserved demeanor of McAllister is a welcome change from Williams' penchant for drama and eccentricity off the field.
With quarterback Aaron Brooks and the ever-loquacious wide receiver Joe Horn usually receiving the lion's share of media attention focused on the Saints, McAllister has been able to keep a relatively low profile. He doesn't shun interviews, but has rarely offered much beyond the standard pre-game and post-game predictable sound bites.
Gambit Weekly wanted to talk football with McAllister away from the regimented environment of Saints training camp, so we caught up with McAllister in his former Mississippi stomping grounds. McAllister was recently in Jackson, Miss., for an appearance at the Jackson Zoo benefiting Big Brothers and Big Sisters, as well as children aided by McAllister's own charitable foundation, Catch 22. After a full afternoon at the zoo and late lunch at a Jackson pizzeria, McAllister sat down for a lengthy interview at his cousin's house, while ESPN's SportsCenter flickered on the big-screen TV in the background.
Q: How does your ankle feel? How would you compare that injury to other injuries you've suffered, such as your shoulder or hamstring injuries?
A: It feels fine. Probably the biggest thing I have trouble with sometimes is not wearing my orthodics, and when I work out on hard surfaces or different surfaces, then I may get some trouble with shin splints, because I've always had shin splints.
A hamstring, especially when you come close to pulling it, you're basically limited, because you can't do anything. When I hurt my shoulder my junior year, I could play with it, but any type of pain on it, you may need to try and shoot up or try and put some type of protective covering on the shoulder as well. Only one time did I take a needle or shot in the direct spot of the injury. Other than that, I've never done that before, and I wasn't going to do it on the ankle as well, because you're taking a risk of not being able to play anymore, because you don't know what type of injury or what type of damage is done, because it's numb, you don't feel anything.
Q: But you felt like you could play through the pain and be productive?
A: I knew I could be productive, and go out there and help my team. The week I didn't play against Cleveland, I knew if I could go in there, I could have played and contributed.
Q: What do you think the Saints need the most going into this season?
A: Be hungry. We need to be hungry and go out and try to put up better numbers, in each guy's position. Our goal should be every player should want to make the Pro Bowl.
Q: Did you get a sense last year that since the team had such a strong start, some of that hunger went away? Did complacency sink in?
A: I don't think complacency sunk in. We would have preferred to have our off week at the beginning of the year. Because once we hit that off week, it was like we never really got on the same page. The continuity wasn't there, and it just didn't click for us like it did early in the year.
Q: How has the NFL lived up to your dreams or thoughts of what it would be like coming out of Old Miss?
A: As far as playing against the best athletes and the best guys in college playing in the SEC, we played against some of the best athletes already. Now it's every Sunday, you're playing against some of the best talent in the world. Probably the biggest thing I notice about -- and that's any professional sport -- is the business side of it. It's unfortunate, but that's a part of it.
Q: It's so much harder to keep a core of talented players, and in the Saints' case, it seems that there is a young nucleus with you and guys like Aaron, Donté Stallworth, Charles Grant, etc. Do you feel like you've got solid rock to build on?
A: I definitely think the biggest deal is that every team has a window of opportunity that they have to try and win the championship, or else they have to unleash that core. Right now, on offense and defense, I think we're building a core unit of guys to enter that window. Last year, we had a prime opportunity for it, and we didn't get the job done. We were raw and young in some areas, but as far as being able to score points and being able to produce on offense, we did a great job. At times, (the offense) didn't put our defense in great positions, but regardless of the situation ... each team has to make it before the coach is fired or you have an exit of so many players that it won't be possible.
This is only my second year as a starter. A.B. (Brooks), this is his fourth year as a starter, third year as a full starter, this will be Joe's fourth year, and (Jerome Pathon's) second. So as far as your skill people are concerned, they are all relatively young. As far as the offensive line, I feel great about them. They're a very talented group. Jerry (Fontenot), knock on wood, is the old head, but he's still experienced and he's still talented, and I'm glad that the organization got his deal done. Because with him in the middle, I feel comfortable, and I know without a doubt that I can average over a 100 yards easy per game.
Q: If Jerry hadn't have come back, the whole line would have been reshuffled, but with him under center and Wayne Gandy replacing Kyle Turley at left tackle, it could be a seamless transition.
A: That makes it important for me as a running back. Because I don't have to worry about this guy picking up his block and being afraid. Now I can work the secondary. Now my eyes go directly to the secondary, because now I know the linebackers are picked up. I have all the confidence in the world in the tight ends -- Boo Williams, David Sloan, Ernie Conwell and Walter Rasby -- I have confidence in those guys, too. Having played with Ernie and Walt just in the spring, seeing what they do, especially in the weight room and how they picked it up, I feel confident with them. And then with Terrelle Smith, the fullback, I have no worries right there.
Q: Do you think Terrelle is one of the more underrated fullbacks in the league?
A: If he was out on the field more, he would get more recognition. But our offense we run, with the three-receiver sets, he doesn't get as much recognition as he should. But he's one of the best pure fullbacks. He's not one of those guys that can carry the ball five or 10 times a game for you, and he's not a guy that can catch five or 10 passes a game. But as far as pure blocking, he's one of the best in the league.
Q: One of the issues that keeps coming up about the Saints is leadership -- or a lack of it. You seem to lead by example -- you work hard, but you're more laid-back and not real vocal. Is that an accurate description?
A: It's odd, because if you look at it, what's your job? To go out and play ball, and have fun and enjoy it. So it's entertainment in a way to the fans, but my job is to go out, compete, have fun, and enjoy what I'm doing. Why should I need somebody to holler and yell and fuss at me to do my job? It's really on the player, on whether or not leadership, quote unquote, is needed. If you just go out and do your job, then it comes easy to everybody else. Some guys may need you to holler and yell and tell you what needs to be done, but if you know you need to do your job, then why is it not getting done?
Q: Even if you don't need anybody to holler and yell at you, can you holler at a teammate if necessary?
A: If need be, yes, I can. But I'm not that type of guy or player. And at times it helps to hear a coach holler and yell at me. But if that's all he's gonna be doing, he's coming at me the wrong way, because that makes it so ineffective it's just going to go in one ear and out the other.
Q: There was one instance last year, after the Cincinnati game, where you seemed to call out the offensive line in a post-game interview. Were you trying to send a message?
A: That was the one game we played that I don't think we came to play in. Not one or two players, but collectively as a group. Because if you go back and look at that film, Cincinnati did a pretty good job of game planning and scheming us as an offense, but when you look at it from a performance standpoint, it wasn't there. Our defense played well, enough for us to win. And we're talking out of eight-nine drives, we don't sustain a drive -- just a simple drive -- the whole game. And it's like everybody's leaning on somebody else.
One guy takes a play off, two guys take a play off, and then it's time to punt. And there were a few games, and you can ask some of the coaches, if I don't play well, I admit it. I'll tell you. Chicago: terrible, crap. I played like crap. Couldn't get into the game, couldn't get into the rhythm of the game, and I told Jim and Mike after the game that I didn't have it, even though we won. I'm not particularly concerned with numbers or how many yards I got, but I just didn't play well.
Q: This is the third year of Mike McCarthy's offense, and the whole core of the offensive unit should know it inside and out. Do you see the offense opening it up more, or being able to do more?
A: Simple is better. He's simplified it as far as what he put into the offense. Going into a game, there are 200 plays that you have to know -- 200 main plays. That's a lot, even for an old team. So one thing he did was he had a collected group of plays and simplified it to maybe 50-75 plays that we were going to be good at. It wasn't that we couldn't pull from those 200 main plays, but they just weren't any of our primary plays. Now if we need the play to go to and it's not one of the main plays, then obviously we can still do something.
Q: When the Saints drafted you, you said that you knew Ricky Williams was the No. 1 running back, but you also said you wanted to win the job.
A: Exactly. I wanted the opportunity to go out and play, and show them that I could play in this league. I knew I wasn't going to sit there and moan and complain and be a career second-string guy, but a guy that has all the talent, and then could do the things in the classroom and enough in practice to show that I could be a featured back. And you look, it's like the quarterback, you see your second-string quarterback, he might hang around for five or six years until he really understands that offense, and from then on, he's a Brett Favre or Steve Young. Once they got an opportunity, look at them now.
Q: Was there any point in your first season where you got some signals that you could eventually be the featured back?
A: During the first year, no. I wasn't involved enough in the offense. Two games down the stretch, I didn't even play. So it was surprising, but I knew eventually it was going to happen. Why would you draft me as your first-round pick and not even give me an opportunity after four years?
Q: Running back is certainly one of the most brutal positions to play, as far as the pounding your body takes --
A: And the offensive and defensive lines.
Q: The average NFL career lasts three and a half years. Are you aware how --
A: I'm very aware of that. If you're a grinder, a big-body pounder like Jerome Bettis, Ron Dayne, Eddie George, T.J. Duckett, Ricky (Williams) or LaDamian Tomlinson, he's not a pounder, but he gets so many carries that it wears on your body. Your slashers -- Marshall Faulk, Priest Holmes, Fred Taylor -- can last a little bit longer. If you're a running back that can split out in the slot and catch the ball, you can last even longer. If you can return kicks, you can last longer. too -- Brian Mitchell, he played running back before he went to strictly returns. Dave Meggett was another third-down back and a returner that played 12, 13 years just because of his style.
Q: Marshall Faulk certainly fit the description of a guy who can run and line up in the slot. Did you model your game on any players like him?
A: It fits me. My running style, you try and take a little bit from so many guys and throw it into my game as well. But I'm more of a slasher. If you remember Marcus Allen, Marcus Allen never really got hit. If you hit him, he was always to the side, or he would bounce off. I'm more of a glider like Marcus as far as the contact and the physical nature of the game.
Q: Do you have a specific regimen you use -- diet, weights, etc. -- to try and --
A: Nah (laughs). Not yet. I'm only 24. I got up to about 247 pounds, right now I'm about 237, 236; I know I'll lose five pounds just because of camp. But I want to stay around that 230, 235 area. I haven't had a problem with weight before. I don't have any special diet yet. I'm going to try and do some different things as far as eating. Because sometimes I didn't even eat breakfast before a game, only just some bacon or something. So in talking to different nutrition people, they were telling me, I don't know how you played, because I was truly playing on an empty stomach. I wasn't thinking about it, it was just what I felt normal doing.
Q: If you had a chance to be Coach Haslett and make up game plans, what would you want to see from the Saints this year?
A: I would be aggressive on defense. Sometimes your personnel may limit you to a degree, but my style, I'm more of an aggressive style of player. I wouldn't do much to change the kicking game or special teams. Then I'd try and be diverse on offense. I would pass more than run, just because of the talent. I would start out making teams adjust to my style of play, whether it was just me as a running back, or my offensive personnel. Offensive linemen, they want to run block most of the time, but we have too much talent on the outside, and there's no way you can tell me a team has a third corner as best as our No. 3 receiver. And if that's the case, how will they match up? Will they go with a safety on me if I split out wide? Then when you throw in Ernie Conwell or David Sloan, are they going to put a linebacker or another safety on 'em? The options are unlimited.
Q: Every new free agent-signee with the Saints that I've talked to says this is the most explosive and talented offense they've been involved with.
A: Most teams have one guy that if he touches the ball, realistically, he could score. The Rams in their heyday -- Holt, Bruce, Marshall, Hakim -- most teams couldn't add up to 'em, and Ernie (Conwell) was the wild card. Now we sort of have that same thing, and we just have to go out and prove it. Because they've won a championship, and we haven't won anything. We haven't even won the division. Now we have to prove it, but everything's in place.
Q: Are expectations higher this year because of what happened at the end of last season?
A: I wouldn't say expectations are higher; maybe from around the league and from the fans, just because of the talent that we have. It doesn't matter what happened last year. That's where the hunger comes in.
Q: If you could just say one thing to Aaron Brooks, as far as what you hope for him this season, what would you say?
A: Let me help you. You're going to help me, now let me help you.
Q: Is Mike (McCarthy) still calling all the plays, or does Aaron have the ability to audible?
A: Aaron might have the ability to check, but Mike calls the plays.
Q: One of your most impressive runs last year was in the Atlanta game, when you broke a couple tackles from the 15-yard-line and then plowed over a Falcons defender for a touchdown.
A: I was thinking, I will not be denied. I will not be denied. My biggest thing is, I love playing Atlanta because of the rivalry. My deal is, I love playing the good teams in the NFL, especially your rivalry games. You can always look for me to play well in the big games. The bigger the game, the bigger the stage, the bigger I'm going to perform. My biggest thing was I just thought, I've got to get in the end zone.
Q: That play, and your running toward the end of the season, seemed like a statement from you that you could be a power runner, too.
A: That's where you get the respect of the players out there playing. You may not get the respect of the reporters until they actually see it. If you go back and look at some tape from college, same style. The big runs make the camera, but you don't hear about the runs for 6, 7, 8 yards. But I'm a guy, I want to run downhill. I can run side-to-side, but I want to get straightforward, because I know if I can break a tackle or make a guy miss, I have the speed and the ability to turn it into a 40-, 50-, 60-yard run. I would prefer to be a pounder, but I don't want to deliver most of the blows.
The biggest improvement I want to make is in the passing game and pass protection.
Q: You took some heat for missing a key blitz pickup during that final Carolina game.
A: I never had to do pass blocking at Ole Miss in passing situations. I was trying to get out and get the ball as one of the primary receivers. Now, I may not even be getting out, or I'm the fourth option. If you go back and look at the tape, the one game I played the worst in as far as picking up the blitz was Carolina, and that was the last game of the year. So that's why the word went around, if you blitz him, you got me. Well, bring it (this year).
Q: What are your personal goals for this season?
A: Have a better year than last year. For me personally, I don't really give my numbers out, but I have set goals. They're better than last year's numbers. I was just scratching the surface last year, honestly. One of my goals -- and I will, this is not really a number -- is that I'll be in the top three in the league as far as running backs are concerned. I will be there.