That's pretty good advice, thanks to play-by-play team Jim Henderson and Hokie Gajan. Henderson's an unflappable nuts-and-bolts broadcast veteran entering his 20th year in the booth, while color commentator and former running back Gajan brings his experience of playing for the Saints, and 14 years as a NFL scout. The pair has encyclopedic knowledge of the Saints franchise and an easy rapport that far surpasses the often-pedestrian work of national television commentators.
On the eve of training camp, Henderson and Gajan sat down for an interview at Mande's Restaurant in Mandeville to talk broadcasting and the 2003 New Orleans Saints.
Q: Let's get right to it: what are your predictions for the Saints record this season?
Gajan: I ain't makin' any more predictions. They always come up to bite me in the ass, and it always happens at the very end of the season.
Henderson: I'm hedging big-time. I'm saying anywhere from 6-10 to 10-6. I think they go into this year, especially on defense, with more unknowns than they've had in recent years. It's so crazy now in the NFL with teams coming out of nowhere and evaporating the next year. I think you're crazy to get yourself locked into a particular prediction this year.
Gajan: And unless you keep up with it on a daily basis like the national media guys have to, you only really know about your own little corner of the world. You sit there and go, oh, the Saints are so much improved because they've got Ashley Ambrose, they've got Tebucky Jones, you really don't know what Carolina has done or what Green Bay has done. You might read it in the paper, but you don't know who's improved or not.
Q: I'm sure you watch the other NFC South teams closely. How do you see the Saints matching up with Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Carolina?
Henderson: The thing you can say with greatest certainty is Tampa Bay won't win the Super Bowl this year. So there's one team that's out of consideration if you're thinking the Saints can go that far.
It sounds like they've got some infighting, there's some jealousies going on, and nobody repeats anymore. You're a different team every year, the teams you're playing are a different team, it's hard to handle success, and I think you can rule them out. They weren't a great team last year.
Gajan: They just had a great day (in the Super Bowl).
Henderson: And a great defense and certainly exploded on offense, which nobody expected. Especially when you look at the fact that the Saints beat them twice last year.
Gajan: And I don't think the defense they won it with last year was as good as the defense Baltimore won it with a few years ago. (Baltimore) won it with a very anemic offense, and Tampa Bay mirrors that team.
Q: What about Atlanta? Everybody's talking about the addition of Peerless Price finally giving the Falcons a receiving threat.
Henderson: The funny thing is, every time the Saints made a move offseason defensively, it was, "Well, this will give us a better chance to chase down Michael Vick," which, of course, nobody can do, unless you've got Michael Vick playing defense. And now all the Falcons are talking about is keeping him in the pocket for his health. They're going to work really hard to keep him in the pocket, and I think most teams in the NFL would be delighted if that's the case. So you're always reacting to your main rival. They're one of the Saints' main rivals, and suddenly here's a guy that they think isn't going to be in the pocket is going to stay in the pocket more. It's a constant game of cat-and-mouse and adjustments and copycatting.
Q: It's been somewhat quiet on the Jake Delhomme front in Carolina. Do you think he has a legitimate shot at unseating Rodney Peete and/or Chris Weinke and being the starter?
Gajan: A real good one. Rodney Peete performed well for them when he was in last year, but he's not the answer. Nobody knows if Jake is the answer. But one thing he has on his side, Weinke and Rodney Peete have both proven that they're only going to get you so far during the course of the season. That might be 7-9 or 6-10, whatever the case might be. So in my opinion, Jake is holding the trump card there because they don't know what they've got. Everybody's gushing about Todd Bouman, and all the great things they've seen in the couple of practices they've had. They're going to say the same thing about Jake. The difference is that Jake is truly in a quarterback battle. In New Orleans, Aaron Brooks is the guy.
Henderson: They made noises about wanting to keep Jake around, and Jake was such a great guy, but there's no way that the Saints wanted Jake Delhomme back on this team because you'd never get rid of the controversy. And the last thing Aaron needs is somebody looking over his shoulder because his confidence is so fragile anyway.
Q: You're both around the team almost every day; do you get the sense that the Saints are trying to say to Aaron, "You've got to be the leader."?
Henderson: Oh yeah. They've got such a huge investment in him. He's got such a great upside with his physical abilities; can the psychological aspect of the position catch up to it? And they've protected him so much that I don't know whether that's good or bad. He's got to get a thicker skin. He's so sensitive to criticism or any sort of blame. Part of being a quarterback in the NFL is stepping up in good times and bad, and being there to accept responsibility, and acknowledging when you've screwed up, and being tough on people when you haven't. That's the main thing Aaron faces.
Gajan: They always talk about what great leadership skills he's got and everything else. Well, if he's got 'em, why are they sending him to leadership school? I'm not saying he doesn't have qualities, but I promise you that guys like Brett Favre, Bobby Hebert, (John) Elway, (Drew) Bledsoe, all those kind of guys don't have to go to those kind of things. It's something the Saints are doing to try and enhance his performance and give him more confidence. But if the guy's got that innate ability, you don't need to send him to class.
Q: Who do you see, aside from Aaron, as the leader of the team right now? Who's the guy who's going to deliver the fiery locker room sermon when needed?
Henderson: I think on defense, it's Ashley Ambrose. I think that's one of the reasons they reacquired him, and he said this during minicamp: "I'm here when you get into that 11th week of the season, and you're beaten up, to show and stress the importance of this particular victory." I thought last year down the stretch, that was the thing that was most discouraging in those losses to the Vikings, Cincinnati especially, and Carolina. Nobody stepped up and said, "Goddamn it, we've worked all year for this. Don't take these guys lightly, we're in the playoffs with another victory! Pour yourself into this!" Instead you got the crap that went on at the end of the Cincinnati game, and the Carolina game with Bryan Cox getting in a fight before the game, and Joe Horn doing some of the stupid things he did before the game to fire himself up. I think that's one of the things they really lacked down the stretch last year, was some player in the locker room to say, "Hey, I've been through this, here's what we need to do ..." That's one of the reasons they brought Ambrose back on the team. The people they brought in last year for that veteran leadership, Bryan Cox and Jake Reed, hurt them as badly down the stretch as any two players on the team.
Gajan: There's a hell of a difference between leadership skills and shenanigans. And all that crap last year at the end was shenanigans.
Q: I hate to beat a dead horse, but I'd like to hear your take on Kyle Turley. Turley says all the players loved him and he was kind of a player's rep, while coaches and management say he was a cancer. Where's the truth lie?
Gajan: I think (what Turley said) is bullshit.
Henderson: He was tremendously unpopular on the team. And he bought into his own cultdom, his own P.R. Last year, at the end of practices in Thibodaux, he'd have boxes of T-shirts plugging his Web site, and he'd run around the field throwing these T-shirts into the stands. He was always available for the national media and national talk shows and wouldn't talk to anybody locally. He was an average player, but he bought into his own reputation. ... We saw some of the things that happened in the locker room during interviews and things like that and some of the things he did coming off the field.
Q: If the defense doesn't do what they're hoping it does this year, what's next for that unit?
Gajan: One thing I know for certain: they're much faster. Does that mean they're much better? Again, you don't know. But without question, their deficiencies on defense were speed. There's two safeties who couldn't run, Dale Carter wasn't out there for the first eight ballgames of the season. You basically had three defensive linemen in the interior that couldn't run a lick with Martin Chase, Norman Hand and Grady Jackson. Now they've improved that. Charlie Clemons could run, but he's not an inside linebacker in the NFL. Sam Mills didn't have great speed either, but he had great instincts; he knew where to be. Sedrick Hodge was really the only starting linebacker they had last year -- and of course, he was only in his second year -- but he could run, and he had some things going for him. But their real Achilles heel was right up the gut: their two defensive tackles, middle linebacker and two safeties. And all that's been addressed.
Q: Speaking of up the gut, what is (defensive lineman) Grady Jackson doing?
Henderson: Eating himself out of the NFL. Apparently after the first mini-camp, he didn't come to any of the other off-season workouts. He's never had to push himself, and he's always been able to exist, and in a way, prosper. They're asking him to push himself, and he's unwilling to do that, apparently. That defensive tackle position scares me, because Johnathan Sullivan's going to have to come on really fast, and Kenny Smith has always shown flashes, but he's never been there week in and week out. If those guys can't play that position and play it quickly, you've got a lot of problems there.
Q: I talked to Johnathan a few weeks ago during mini-camp, and he seemed a little overwhelmed by the playbook.
Gajan: Fortunately, at that position, you do need to know your playbook, but if nothing else, if you'll just play strong football, you can get by just not screwing up. For example, maybe I don't know exactly what I'm supposed to do here, but just make sure I don't get doubleteamed and washed into the middle linebacker, because now they've taken two of us out of the play.
Q: What do you think of the job (GM) Mickey Loomis has done so far?
Gajan: He's been GM just for a little over a year now, and think of everything he's had to go through: all the different players, dealing with his best friend getting fired, having to re-sign Aaron Brooks, who didn't show up from day one of training camp, getting Haslett re-signed, and what he did on draft day to move up. I think he's done a tremendous job so far.
Q: Do you think Loomis is pulling the trigger on free agents and draft decisions, or are Rick (Mueller) and Haslett more involved?
Henderson: I think there's more give-and-take between Rick Mueller and him and Haslett than there was with Randy. Randy wanted to and did control most of the shots. I think Jim's real astute in personnel, and I think he's taking a greater role in that. And Mickey admits that's not his forte because he's primarily been a salary cap guy and that sort of thing. I think the duties are shared more equally now. Mickey's just not going to overwhelm you one-on-one in the media like Randy would. Randy was very savvy and charismatic. Mickey, I think, is a little gun-shy in that regard. He's not going to tell you anything, and he's still got his guard up. He just operates in a different matter and is more low-key.
Q: Speaking of media-savvy, the players are so tightly reined-in these days. They're coached on every nuance of what to say, what not to say, who not to talk to. What's the most challenging part in doing your job and getting an accurate picture of what's going on and moving beyond the cliched soundbites?
Gajan: I don't fall into that category because I don't have to interview players. But when I hear the question asked, I know what the answer's going to be. They might use a few different words, but I know exactly what the response is going to be.
Henderson: One thing I've learned down from the years -- apart from the Hokie Gajans and the Stan Brocks and Archie Mannings that are here year after year and you develop a rapport with -- you're almost never going to get anything from a player of interest. First of all, they're pretty much isolated in their own area, and they don't understand the entire ramifications to the team. So what I think you do is you better develop good relationships with the assistant coaches, the head coach and the front office people. Because these people have something to gain from your friendship; the players really don't. Sometimes those people can get things out that can enhance their position or simply explain what's going on. Something that maybe they couldn't say themselves in print or over the air, but by giving you an understanding of what's going on, you can in a way that perhaps helps them here or elsewhere eventually. For one thing, we're getting older, and the players seem to be getting younger. They're not in town for very long; everybody seems to be moving on every three or four years. I can't tell you a player on the team besides maybe a Jerry Fontenot or an Ashley Ambrose that I really feel like I have a rapport with any longer.
Gajan: And you've got to go through so many hoops these days to get a player interviewed after practice or something. It used to be, you'd be walking off the field and there's Jim Henderson with his cameraman saying, "You got a minute?"
Henderson: It's become so much more of a corporate atmosphere in the NFL. You don't see the wild and crazy guys like the old days, and some of the shenanigans that went on. The money is so big, the image factor is so big, and the uncertainty is so great for both players and coaches now, that everybody's got their guard up. It's a different atmosphere.
Q: Jim, I saw Haslett give you a pretty good earful out at Saints headquarters last year, after Stan Brock had made some comments about Aaron Brooks' mechanics on a preseason broadcast.
Gajan: That's a typical case of how they protect Aaron in a situation like that.
Henderson: It kind of took on a life of its own. But one thing I like about Haz: I really respect him because he doesn't hold a grudge. Yeah, he'll get mad at you, and I've gotten mad at him, too, in my commentaries, and said things about him that were pretty pointed. I still regard him highly, and I think he's got great credibility. When he's pissed off at you, he'll let you know, then it's kind of forgotten. I like that. I like knowing where you stand.
When you're young in this business, you want everybody to like you, and you're so hurt if anybody gets mad at you or comes back at you over something you said. The longer you're around, you've got to realize that your total allegiance eventually is with the fan. They're the only ones that are going to keep you in business because the coaches are going to come and go. If you're straight with the fans, they're the ones that will determine if you do this job for very long. And along the way, the nature of the business is you're going to have some arguments or disagreements with players or coaches, and as you get older, you just realize that's a part of it, and you're not personally hurt when someone gets angry with you. It's just the nature of the beast.
If you totally buy into what the team says even though you're the Saints broadcasters, the fans see what's going on. And if you're out there defending Norman Hand every week, when everyone can see that he's stealing week in and week out the way he played last year, you're not going to keep any credibility with fans who truly care about the team and watch them closely.
We took a lot of shit for the Kyle Turley thing after what happened against the Jets on that Sunday night. I came out in a commentary and said, 'This guy lost the game for you. Why is everybody so crazy about what a wonderful job and what a great citizen Kyle Turley is?" He lost a game that was winnable and probably helped keep them out of the playoffs. But there's a certain segment of fans that are still pissed off that you would say something like that. They think that's exactly what we need in this football team. Well, no it isn't. You want to be smart, and you want to win the game. The whole idea is win the game.
Q: How much prep time is involved during game week for your broadcast?
Gajan: Ten minutes before the game when I get the package (laughs).
Henderson: He's totally immersed in it day in and day out. He doesn't take a single note into the broadcast booth. Now he just watches the game, which is great. He knows what he can expect from me, and I know what I can expect from him, for the most part. So he knows I'll take care of the nuts and bolts and the stats, and he has the luxury to just watch the game, which a lot of analysts don't do. They're so worried about their own facts and figures and getting in their own stuff, and they don't watch what's most important, and that's the play on the field.
My prep consists on a weekly basis: you start getting ready for the next broadcast on Wednesday. Your rhythms are pretty much like the players. Monday you're either licking your wounds or celebrating and thinking back to Sunday, and the commentary I do on Monday takes most of my efforts on Monday. Tuesday's a day off for the players, and it's essentially a day off for me. On Wednesday you start getting your packets and your information. The preparation gets more intense on Wednesday, Thursday's a very intense day -- all morning long I'm getting my reading done and working on my depth charts. Friday morning I usually finish that up, then memorize the starting lineups for offense and defense. But it never really ends, especially with the Internet now. You can get access to all the newspapers every single day, right up 'til game time.
One of the great things about my job, you can use something in a broadcast you learned 10 years ago or you can use something 10 minutes before the game goes on.
Q: Hokie, are you still seeing things like new blitz packages or alignments where you wonder, "What are they doing there?" Is the game still changing enough to surprise you?
Gajan: Everybody's got a new wrinkle every year. A couple years ago, actually a little bit longer than that, it was the zone blitz. The first time I ever saw a defensive lineman trying to cover a wide receiver, I thought, that's stupid. Why would you do that? But it's to throw the quarterback off. You bring a linebacker -- that's who the quarterback's going to be reading -- or one of the secondary guys. So now he's expecting to be able to throw the ball to a hole in the field where that guy vacated from. More times than not, the QBs know where they're going to throw the ball long before the guy gets there, but he's throwing it according to what the defense does. That area of the field is vacated, I'm throwing it to that spot, and now it's the receivers' job to get there. But by doing things like that, well, there's a defensive lineman standing there that you had absolutely no idea was going to be there.
Q: Have the Saints offensively or defensively the past few years surprised you at all?
Gajan: If they do any wrinkles, it's not something brand new, it's something that you've seen in the past. That's not to say that they're not innovative with some things that they do, but let's face it, we've only been around the West Coast offense for three years, and to a certain degree, Mike McCarthy had to spoon-feed 'em the first couple of years, because that's an adjustment to make. Now this year, we might see a hell of a lot more use of a tight end, something that they haven't had in the past. Because in year one, they had a guy that they didn't want and didn't like, and last year David Sloan was hurt all year. We'll find out this year if the tight end is an integral part of this offense.
Q: [New tight end] Ernie Conwell's numbers are solid, but not spectacular. Do you think he could be a marquis tight end?
Gajan: He gets overshadowed by Marshall Faulk, Az Hakim, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Kurt Warner.
Q: Any particular broadcast call you wish you could have back? Maybe a remark you made or a rule you flubbed?
Henderson: To me, the hardest part of a broadcast is when there's an instant replay because you're just hung out to dry for that time. You're speculating over what you're seeing, you're seeing your own replays, you're making your own guesses, and it seems interminable when you're there trying to fill that time.
Gajan: That and injuries. Bad injuries, where the guy is on the field, because there's only so much you can say. You can give a recap of the game, but when the guy's laying on the field for 20 minutes and they have to be cautious with him, you can only do so many (commercial) breaks.
Q: WWL seems to do OK with getting breaks in.
Henderson: They do a few of those (laughs). With the radio broadcast, it goes with so many breaks, it's hard to work everything in. Very seldom do you find yourself having time to fill. The time goes by fast.
Q: From a business standpoint, training camp's about to open and preseason is a few weeks away, and now the Saints are pushing for a revamped lease on the Superdome. Good P.R. move or bad P.R move on their part?
Gajan: For some reason or another, every time you think the smoke has cleared, something else rears its ugly head. Their first year they go 10-6 and win their first playoff game, two weeks later, it was, "We want a new stadium, we have to hammer out a new deal." Last year, they have a heck of a draft. A month later, they fire Randy Mueller. There always seems to be some kind of ongoing problem, if that's the right word. Every time you get that feeling of hope, something else has to come up just to balance everything out.
Henderson: Wait until people find out what they're after. I've gotten some ideas as to what they're going to expect in this extension, and I think people are going to be blown away once those numbers come up. ... Tom Benson's a businessman. The old days of being a sportsman owner in the NFL, the Wellington Maras of the old days, are long since passed. It's been ratcheted up all over the NFL, and part of it is keeping up with the Jerry Joneses of the Cowboys and people like that. But these guys are in it to make money, and Tom Benson feels like he holds most of the cards, and he probably does.
But like Hokie says, to me, that's disappointing. They're going to sell upwards of 56,000 season tickets this year -- the most ever. A lot of that is the cheaper seats, but how many people did you hear walking out of the Carolina game last year at the end of last season saying, "I'm never coming back to watch these guys"? And now they're going to sell 56,000 season tickets, to see these guys who have broken their hearts two years in a row with their late season collapse. You'd like to see that pay off.
Gajan: I'd like to put a little plug in for the Saints fans. Not that I'm trying to sound corny, but they're the most optimistic people I've ever been around. All it takes is a draft and a couple free agent signings, and their whole outlook for the season is totally different. You're going to have your fans out there that you can't make 'em happy if you hang 'em with a new rope. They're gonna bitch about everything. But the vast majority of the people are coming in with renewed hope. I've been a Saints fan since '67 myself, and every year, that optimism is high.
Henderson: You'd like to see these people rewarded. And you'd like to see the Dan Simmons and the Silky Powells of the organization rewarded for all the tough times and the hours they put in, the losing, and taking it from the fans. You'd love to see it pay off. For this town, if this team ever won the Super Bowl --
Gajan: Mardi Gras would look like a church picnic.