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CSC Interview: Jeff Duncan of the Times-Picayune, Part Two

Part two of my interview with Saints columnist Jeff Duncan can be found after the jump. We finally talk about the team, the draft and the 2009 season as well as learn a bit about Jeff's personal life. 

Thanks again to Mr. Duncan for taking the time to answer my questions. 



CSC: Let's talk about the Saints. Do you consider yourself a "fan" of the Saints? Is it difficult to remain unbiased?

JD: That’s an easy answer: no. I could care less how the Saints perform on Sundays. I know that might be difficult for people to believe but it’s true. Their performance doesn’t affect my life one way or the other. Covering the Saints is a job. Before I was on this beat, I covered LSU sports. And in between, I worked a short stint as a news reporter covering Katrina. I have no allegiance to any of the beats or sources I cover and only strive to cover the respective organizations I’m assigned to as fairly and accurately as possible. That is the responsibility of every journalist. We would be doing our readers a disservice if we covered the team from a fan’s point of view.


CSC: Where do you sit for the home games? Do you travel to all away games?

JD: I sit in the press box, which is on the club level of the Superdome, right at the 50-yard line. Our seats are among the best in the stadium. Alas, that luxury will be short-lived. The final phase of renovations at the Superdome will move the press box to the upper deck. We’ll be in the cheap seats. And, yes, I travel to every road game, as do our beat reporters and at least one photographer. Wherever the Saints go, we’re there.


CSC:  I was in London for the International Series game and had a blast. Did you enjoy it?

JD: Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. London is a remarkable city, such great history. I took off the week after the game and had a chance to explore the city. I only wish I had more time to do it. I needed a month to properly see all of the requisite sights.


CSC: Who is your favorite Saints player of all-time?

JD: Deuce McAllister and Steve Gleason were my two favorite players to cover. More than their playing skills – and they were considerable in both cases -- I admired the way they carried themselves. Both were strong leaders who related to every player in the locker room and had the respect of their peers. There’s a reason those two guys live successful lives away from football. They are highly intelligent, well-rounded people who would have been successful in whatever field they chose in life.


CSC: Who is your favorite current player?

JD: I don’t really have a favorite player on the current roster. I respect all of them for their talent and dedication to their profession.


CSC: Nicest guy, other than Deuce, on the Saints?

JD: Tough call. There are a lot of them. Billy Miller. Jon Stinchcomb. Scott Fujita. Jon Vilma. The young trio of Pierre Thomas, Lance Moore and Usama Young is on the verge of emerging into more prominent roles and all three are really good guys. Kevin Houser is a terrific guy. Ditto Glenn Pakulak – what a great story he is. Will Smith, Jahri Evans and Marques Colston are quiet, but really good guys, as well. Relatively speaking, it’s a very good locker room to deal with from a media standpoint.


CSC: Favorite Saints moment since you've been covering the team?

JD: That would undoubtedly be the re-opening of the Superdome in 2006 after Katrina. In many ways, I think that game was more important than the club’s two playoff victories. It was an emotional night and the fact that Gleason had the big play made it more special. I’ll never forget interviewing him afterward and seeing and hearing his appreciation of the moment. He realized immediately what he had done. He got it. He knew he’d done something very special.


CSC: Tell us one thing that most of us probably don't know about the Saints. 

JD: That team officials were trying harder to relocate the organization to San Antonio after Katrina than many people will ever know. Now, I don’t think they were ever really close to leaving because the NFL would have blocked the move, but there were a lot of wheels turning in that direction behind the scenes.


CSC: In your opinion, do you think the Saints organization runs a tighter ship than most other teams in the NFL in terms of media access? If so, is it because of Payton?

JD: Sean Payton’s media relations policies have been influenced greatly by Bill Parcells, meaning he allows as little access as possible. In general, I think Payton sees the media as a necessary evil, a potential obstacle in his daily quest to win games. The Saints keep access to players, coaches and other team officials to league minimums.



CSC: Now some mailbag-type questions. Who do YOU want to see the Saints draft? Is that different than who you think the Saints WILL draft?

JD: I don’t "want" the Saints to draft anyone. If I were running their team – and Saints fans should be glad that I’m not – then I would select the best pass defender or pass rusher on the board at No. 14. The Saints’ pass defense has struggled for as long as I’ve covered the team and they need to find a difference-maker on that side of the ball. They’ve neglected that side of the ball too much in recent years and have paid the price. It’s time to find a "Reggie Bush of the defense." Defensive back Malcolm Jenkins seems a perfect fit to me.


CSC: Do you think Jabari Greer, Darren Sharper and Pierson Prioleau are enough of an improvement for this secondary?

JD: No. I think they could use a rookie defensive back, particularly a cornerback with some size, to add to the mix. Jenkins would add a missing element to the defense with his size, athletic ability and instincts.


CSC: Will Dan Morgan make it through training camp?

JD: It’s way too early to answer that question. He says he’s in the best shape of his career but training camp will be the true litmus test.


CSC: Which receiver isn't on the roster week one?

JD: The Saints will keep all of their top five receivers: Colston, Moore, Henderson, Meachem and Arrington. Courtney Roby and Skyler Green will compete for return duties. One of those two will likely also make the roster. Other than those six, I don’t see another receiver making the team.


CSC: Are we going to regret the trade for Shockey?

JD: The jury is still out on this one. Shockey gets a pass on last season because of injuries and his late acquisition. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but he won’t have that excuse this year. We’ll be able to judge the deal a lot better after this season. It’s a big year for Shockey.


CSC: If you had to get rid of one, who is it: Charles Grant or Will Smith?

JD: In my opinion, Smith is the better all-around player. Not a knock on Grant, but I just think Smith is tough. I think the Saints overpaid Grant when they re-signed him but I understand why they did it.


CSC: Will Pierre Thomas be the main back this year?

JD: Yes and no. I don’t see Thomas ever becoming a true lead back like Deuce McAllister. But I do think he’ll get the bulk of the carries on offense. He’ll split backfield duties with Reggie Bush and a yet-to-be-named back the Saints acquire in either the draft or free agency. I like the way he runs.


CSC: Do the Saints have strength and conditioning problems?

JD: Not that I’m aware of. The team’s strength and conditioning program was the same one they employed in 2006 when they were relatively injury-free. If this were an issue, I think I’d have heard about it from a player by now. And I haven’t.


CSC: How much longer will Reggie Bush remain a controversial enigma?

JD: I don’t think Bush is "a controversial enigma." I think he’s a very good football player who is trying desperately to live up to unrealistic expectations placed on him out of college. I really like his competitiveness and passion for the game. He’s a breathtaking return man on punts and kickoffs and a vital weapon in the Saints’ offense. But he’s not a natural running back and it’s apparent when you watch him on film. His first instinct is to run away from color (opposing team jerseys) and I don’t see that changing at this point of his career. Running back is a brutal position in the NFL. Backs take a lot of punishment. Contact is inevitable. I’m not sure Bush is wired that way. That’s not a knock on him. It’s just not who he is. I think the Saints have figured that out now and he could be poised for a big year. But … he must be healthy. So much of his game is based on speed and elusiveness. I’m interested to see how his knee responds to a second rehabilitation from offseason surgery.


CSC: Record prediction for the 2009 Saints season?

JD: I’m not good at predictions. Nobody can accurately predict what’s going to happen during a given season. There are too many variables from year to year. But I think the Saints can compete for a playoff spot. They will be better on defense under Gregg Williams and the offense should continue to rank among the league’s best as long as Drew Brees is around. Two games to circle on their calendars are the home contests against the Giants and Cowboys, two teams that are favored to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. If the Saints fancy themselves as Super Bowl contenders we’ll find out in those two games. They could have playoff implications and the Saints get both teams in the Superdome.


CSC: Are you going to Jazzfest? Who do you want to see most?

JD: Yes. I’ll be there on Friday. I’m looking forward to seeing the Drive-By Truckers, Trombone Shorty and Tab Benoit. Unfortunately, NFL Draft duties will prevent me from attending on Saturday and Sunday.


CSC: Favorite restaurant in New Orleans ?

JD: Jacques-Imo’s has always been the reigning champ. I live in the Riverbend section of Uptown and can walk to the joint. To me, it’s the quintessential New Orleans neighborhood restaurant. I love to take visiting journalists there on the Saturday nights before home games. I bet I’ve taken scores of them there and introduced them to owner Jack Leonardi – a great New Orleans character -- and his devilishly good alligator sausage cheesecake. Life doesn’t get much better than that. Other favorites: Patois, Clancy’s, Luke, Cochon, Adolfo’s, Dick & Jenny’s, Upperline and Kyoto.


CSC: Favorite nightspot in New Orleans ?

JD: I stick to places close to home in Uptown: Cooter Brown’s for sports; Cure for cocktails; Delachaise for wine and their awesome cheese plates; and the Kingpin for everything else.


CSC: Any pets?

JD: No, but I do have a pride of feral cats living under my house. I’ve seen three generations of kitties born and raised in the shed behind my house. I know better, but I can’t take it upon myself to trap the little guys and get rid of them.


CSC: Favorite movie?

JD: I favor movies about journalism. I have three favorites: All the President’s Men, Cry Freedom and The Insider. Anyone that doubts journalism’s importance should watch those three movies, all based on true stories. I also think National Lampoon’s Animal House and Vacation are the two funniest movies of all-time.


CSC: Hobbies?

JD: I’m a big runner but I’ve slowed down considerably in my old age. And I love to fish. I tag along with Times-Pic outdoor writer Bob Marshall on trips when he’ll let me. I’ve also fished with Jim Henderson a few times. He’s an avid bass fisherman. There’s nothing he enjoys more than catching bass.


CSC: Is football your favorite sport?

JD: Basketball remains my first love, but my favorite athletes to cover are track and field competitors. As a whole, I find them the most disciplined, motivated and intelligent people I’ve covered. I have great admiration for their talent and dedication. There’s not a lot of glory in their sport. They are competing strictly for the love of it. To me, it’s sport at it’s purest. I covered the Summer Olympics in Beijing and was awed at the performances by Usain Bolt and Yelena Isinbayeva.


CSC: What team did you support when you were growing up in Kentucky ?

JD: I grew up following the Cleveland Browns and endured some of the most heartbreaking losses in NFL history with the infamous Interception, Drive and Fumble. Having experienced those losses, I can relate to the struggle of Saints fans.


CSC: Last but NOT least, the question everyone wants to know the answer you think the Saints should pick up Lito Sheppard?

JD: No. the Saints cornerback spot is solid with Tracy Porter, Jabari Greer and Randall Gay as the top three. If they add a guy like Malcolm Jenkins in the draft then it would probably rank among the better units in the NFC. They don’t need Lito Sheppard. Besides, to get him, they’d have to give something up and I’m not sure what resources the Saints have to trade for him.