The phone rang, and before he answered it, Michael Lewis knew what was coming. The caller ID said it all. The call was from the administrative assistant to Saints head coach Sean Payton. She said Coach wanted to see Lewis at the team's training facility. Lewis hung up the phone, and as he did he realized that his career with the Saints, his feature-length film of a career with his hometown team, was over. The beloved "Beer Man" wasn't alone. In the wake of the most successful season in team history, the Saints cut some of the most popular and productive players they've ever had. Lewis, for his part, says he harbors no malice toward his former employer. "I wasn't upset," Lewis says. "How can I be mad at this organization when they've done so much for me?" Lewis' tortuous path to the NFL is pure cinema verit
. The Kenner native played one season of high school football and didn't go to college. He bounced around a series of professional leagues including the Indoor Professional Football League, the Arena Football League and NFL Europe. During that time he worked different jobs to support his family, including a later-to-be celebrated stint as a beer truck driver. Finally, in 2001, he made his first NFL roster at the age of 29. During his six-year career with the Saints, the diminutive speedster became the team's all-time leader in punt returns and yardage. In 2002, he set a new NFL mark for combined yards on punt and kickoff returns and was named to the Pro Bowl. Ultimately, Lewis' inability to make an impact as a receiver is what led to his ouster. The Saints deemed that a player who could contribute on offense or defense as well as special teams would better occupy his roster spot. "Many guys don't get a chance to play at home," Lewis says. "I got six years put up here at home in front of the fans. But I look at it as a business. I didn't know if I was going to be here or not, but I mean, I wanted to retire as a Saint." Meanwhile, blame the Joe Horn-Saints divorce on irreconcilable differences. In March, the Saints released Horn, saying he asked to be let go after refusing to take a pay cut. Horn was slated to make $4.45 million this season and was due a $1 million roster bonus later in March. The record-setting receiver claims his compensation had nothing to do with his desire to depart. "If I felt that I was wanted here, I would have played for $2.50, with $3 million worth of incentives. It's not about the money." Horn missed eight games last season with a groin injury. He says he was healthy enough to play in the NFC Championship against the Chicago Bears. "I personally feel like, in my heart, that I wasn't in Coach Payton's plans. And he may tell you that I was, but I didn't feel that way, especially after not playing in the Chicago game." Payton disagrees. "I'm probably the most selfish person in the building," the coach says. "I want to win all these games. So there would be no reason at all if I felt like he was ready to play that I wouldn't play him." Payton says the choice to release Horn was not personal. "It became more of a business decision there. He was my kind of player. He's a guy who's tough. He's competitive." Horn is the gold standard of Saints free agent acquisitions. The four-time Pro Bowler, who came to New Orleans in 2000 from Kansas City, is the team's all-time leader in touchdown receptions, but he was plagued by injuries in his last two seasons. His production plummeted and, at 35 years old, it appeared unlikely that he would regain his past form. It didn't take long for Horn to find a new home. He signed a four-year $19 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons, the Saints fiercest divisional rival. To New Orleans fans, it was the equivalent of an obscene gesture. For years, Horn tormented the Falcons. Now he'll get his chance -- at least twice a year -- to make the Saints feel the sting of cutting him. Kicker John Carney's six-year run with the Saints came to an end even though the 43-year-old had the most accurate season of his 19-year NFL career. Last season he missed just two field goals and one extra point. He is the team's all-time leader in field goal accuracy percentage. But the Saints had concerns about Carney's leg strength, especially on kickoffs. The team signed former Cowboy Billy Cundiff in late November to provide the distance and hang time on kickoffs that Carney could not. With only 53 roster spots, two kickers are almost always one too many. So, in April, the Saints traded a sixth-round draft pick to the Miami Dolphins for kicker Olindo Mare. Two days later, Carney asked for his release. The 34-year-old Mare is the Dolphins all-time leader in field goals, scoring and field goal accuracy. The Saints are hoping last season was an aberration for Mare -- he converted just 26 of 36 field goals, making it the least accurate year of his career. The Saints also said goodbye, if only a brief one, to ebullient special teams ace Fred McAfee. The 16-year-veteran retired at the end of last season and was hired in the team's front office as director of Player Programs. He'll help rookies adjust to the NFL and aid veterans as they transition to life after football. Drafted in 1991, he's the only Saint to be on the roster for all three of the team's division titles. Don't expect to see all the number 87 and 84 jerseys disappear from the Superdome on game day this season. While players like Joe Horn and Michael Lewis may be gone, they established a connection with fans. And whether the break-up was acrimonious or amicable, it's a bond that will endure. Adam Norris is a sports anchor for WGNO-TV, ABC26 in New Orleans.
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