Heading into the 2000 season, the New Orleans Saints had spent a total of 33 years trying to find the right ingredients to win in the post-season. While the franchise was able to field All-Pro players, Pro Bowlers and the like, they couldn’t quite get the recipe right and come up with a win in the playoffs. On December 30, 2000, the Saints finally served their fans with the first post-season win in franchise history.
The chef was Randy Mueller.
Life of a Saint: Randy Mueller
In 1978, a young Randy Mueller was playing quarterback in high school for the Saint Maries Lumberjacks. Like many other high school football players, he had NFL aspirations. That summer, an opportunity would present itself to get his first taste of what the NFL could offer. Agreeing to make the new hour or so commute down ID-5 West, the 17-year old junior jumped on the chance to be a ball boy with the Seattle Seahawks during training camp in Cheney, Washington. It would turn out to be a great decision for Mueller.
Not long after, Mueller was faced with another big decision to make, college. Mueller chose Linfield College for a few reasons. “I chose that school because they chose me. I had never heard of Linfield College. When I got the job as a ball boy with the Seahawks, I was going into my junior year of high school. It was a year later that Linfield recruited me. They have a well-respected program that has, over the course of time, got 60-something years in a row of winning records. I was actually signed up to go to a different college, Pacific University in Forest Grove (Oregon). Linfield recruited me and changed my mind, and the rest is history. I went there and was fortunate enough to lead them to a championship my senior year”, Mueller recalled.
Mueller’s strategy, even at an early age, was to simply outwork his peers. Mueller explained, “I think I’ve always been a little bit driven, probably anal, when it comes to that. During my childhood, I didn’t have a lot of time with friends or messing around.” He continued, “My dad was a very hard working, blue-collar guy. I guess I was lucky enough to get that gene in me. I knew I wasn’t the most talented, but I pride myself on outworking most of them. I was always driven, and it’s done well for me throughout my professional adult life.”
Despite the early successes, Mueller remained humble. Regarding that NAIA Division II Championship, Mueller shared, “I was just fortunate to be the one at the controls. I think they could have won it with just about anybody. That’s how good of a team we were.”
Mueller Finds a Home in Seattle
Having the exposure to an NFL franchise at a young age gave Mueller perspective on what it took to make it in the NFL: both on the player side as well as management. Mueller knew which path made the most sense for him. “I had worked five summers for the Seahawks by that time and I knew there wasn’t much use for a 5’11” quarterback in the NFL. Playing in Canada would have been something I would have considered. But the Seahawks offered me a full-time job before I even graduated. So, I graduated from Linfield and moved to Seattle the next day and took that full-time job with them within the scouting department”, Mueller offered.
Over the course of the next 17 years, Randy Mueller would work his way up through the Seattle in what Mueller himself describes as “going from ball boy to boss”. Mueller spent his first seven years as a Pro Personnel Assistant, worked his way up to Pro Personnel Director for another five years and eventually VP of Football Operations for his final five years in Seattle.
As for how he was able to achieve such an atypical rise through the organization, Mueller said, “. The landscape of the league changed during that time in that free agency became a thing and the salary cap became a thing. So, when I’m working my way up through the Seahawks, these things equaled the playing field for experienced personnel people. So, the Ron Wolf’s and George Young’s of the world had the exact same amount of experience dealing with the salary cap as I did. It didn’t really matter how old you were. We were all starting from scratch. I just jumped in with that new landscape and just ran with it.”
Benson Peels Mueller Away from Seattle
In Mueller’s final season in Seattle in 1999, the Seahawks would end up 9-7, winning the AFC West. So why would he then leave a franchise he had spent more than 20 years working with? And why would he choose to go to a New Orleans Saints team that was fresh off a 3-13 season under Mike Ditka in 1999? Mueller explained, “Seattle was all we knew. It was the only place I had ever been. I was born and raised in the northwest. I just felt like it was time in my life. I think I was 37 or 38 at the time. My wife and I talked about it and decided if we were ever going to do something different, this would be it. I’ll be honest, Mr. Benson recruited me hard and it just made sense. We were just looking for a change. It was a great move for us professionally and personally. We loved our time in New Orleans, so it ended up working out well.”
Mueller wasted no time once in New Orleans, and quickly began assembling the 2000 New Orleans Saints. His first move was bringing in Head Coach Jim Haslett. On the field, Mueller bolstered the roster by bringing in the likes of Jeff Blake, Jake Reed, Joe Horn, Norman Hand, Fred Thomas and many others. The immediate urgency for a change in culture was well received by the existing nucleus of the Saints. “I think it was received very well. We had Willie Roaf and Joe Johnson and some more veteran guys that were holdovers. They really wanted to win bad and they were willing to do anything. Between myself and Jim Haslett, we kind of gave them a little different style of leadership than what they had. We gave them a little more defined direction. We added a bunch of guys that first year. To Jim’s credit more than mine, I think he and our new coaching staff did a great job of bringing everybody together. It paid dividends that very first year. But we had veterans there that jumped on board and we couldn’t have done it without that.”
The seemingly impossible feat was only made more impressive when you consider the lack of players coming in through the draft. Mueller stated, “We didn’t have any draft picks either. My first year there was after the Ricky Williams stuff and they had given away all the draft picks.”
Mueller and the Saints would take that 3-13 team of a year ago and turn it into a division champion at 10-6. And while New Orleans was buzzing with excitement, their past post-season failures still lurked as the franchise sat at 0-4 in their limited playoff history. But Randy Mueller and the Saints of 2000 were not interested in those statistics and were out to write their own history. The Saints would go on to win their first ever playoff game, defeating a Los Angeles Rams team that had just won the Super Bowl 11 months prior.
Randy Mueller would win the NFL Executive of the Year award in 2000 because of his immediate success in New Orleans. “I would say it was the best time of my professional career to date. It was a great year and the people of New Orleans made it that way. They accepted me for some unknown reason. A kid from the northwest really had no business being in New Orleans but welcomed me and my family, Jim and Jim’s family and that made it awesome. We had a great year. Everybody involved, to this day, has that year as one of their career highlights. It was definitely one of mine.“
Struggles in 2001
The Saints would go through a series of troubles in the 2001 season. Mueller mentioned, “I remember we had some issues in our locker room. We had some injuries as well. It was kind of a culmination The good storm was the year before. This was the bad storm, which happens in the NFL. You definitely have to overcome adversity, but you also have to learn to deal with prosperity. I don’t think we did a great job of dealing with that prosperity. It wasn’t where we wanted to be. But we were very positive that we could right the ship again the following year. We were happy to have that year over. The last four games are what kind of undid us.”
While the majority of the issues that took place during that season would be in the locker room, Mueller, Benson and the rest of the front office were well aware of what was going on. “Usually those issues find their way up. My style is to know what’s going on and have a relationship with the players. I want to be involved in that. We had several things come up that year that were challenging for us to overcome. I thought we had set ourselves up for the following year so that those personalities and those people, we had moved on.”
The list of players the Saints had moved on from was highlighted by back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher, Ricky Williams. While there were rumors at the time that Mueller had dealt the running back without first consulting Tom Benson, he was quick to set the record straight. “Totally false. Tom knew everything. Tom treated me like a son. He was in the loop on everything we ever did. I had heard that rumor at one point after I had left that they might not have known. That’s not true at all. He knew everything we were doing. Tom was in the office every day. My job was to keep him in the loop and he definitely knew that. That had no bearing on anything that came up after that, at least not that I’m aware of.”
Following the 2001 season, Mueller was offered a contract extension as he was entering the third year of his original 3-year deal. Shortly after the offer, Mueller was blindsided by Saints’ ownership when Tom Benson asked him to resign. Mueller recalled, “No, it wasn’t mutual at all. He had offered me a contract extension two week after the draft. I had signed a three-year deal when I got there, and I was entering the last year of my contract. He wanted to extend, and I was happy to talk about it. He had made me an offer and two weeks later, out of the blue, he asked me to resign. It wasn’t mutual. I loved it there. My family loved it there. I was totally shocked by the change of events and everybody in the organization was as well. Tom had treated me really good up until that point. I had no issue with him at all.” He then continued, “He did not give me any indication why. He just said that we needed a different management style. I have no idea what he meant by that.
I just gathered my stuff and was gone a few hours later. I think I was just as shocked as everybody else. To go from Executive of the Year and really having them on the right track to dismissal. I would like to say it was knee-jerk, but there was nothing to knee-jerk about.”
More Opportunities Find Mueller
Immediately after parting ways with the Saints, Randy Mueller found himself with a different type of opportunity. ESPN was looking for an NFL analyst and Mueller was up for the job. “I wanted to work, and the ESPN deal came up fairly quick. We had moved back to the northwest and ESPN reached out to me. I did the tv and radio for them for three years. I think I told somebody the other day, it might have been the best job I ever had. It was awesome”, Mueller shared. And while Mueller remained heavily involved in the game, Mueller would find his way back to the NFL.
“I was only 42-years old. I wasn’t ready to walk away from the NFL. I had my 20 years in by then, but I always knew I would come back to the NFL if I could. I actually had a chance a year earlier to go back to Seattle, but it just wasn’t the right time and place for me. So, when Nick Saban came calling a year after, it made more sense for me”, Mueller recalled. Mueller would end up spending three years with the Miami Dolphins as their General Manager. He followed that with an 11-year stop in San Diego as the Chargers’ Senior Executive for Football Operations.
Immediately after, Mueller would become Director of Pro Personnel with the Salt Lake Stallions of the then startup league, Alliance of American Football (2018-2019). With the league recently going bankrupt, Mueller began looking for, and quickly found, another opportunity to do what he does best.
Mueller recently accepted a role as the Director of Pro Personnel with the Houston Roughnecks of the renewed XFL. As for what to expect from the reboot of the league, Mueller offered, “I don’t recall all of the past, but I know the one year the XFL existed, it seemed a little gimmicky. Also, the quality of play wasn’t the best. This, and I’m just comparing to where we are now, this is real football. It’s quality football with quality coaches and players. I think we’ve got, and I can only speak for Houston, the best players that aren’t in the NFL are here. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the people we’ve been able to put together and build this team here in Houston. I’m looking forward to it, seeing what it’s all about next week, playing in our first game.”
In true Randy Mueller fashion, that first game he referred to turned out to be a convincing opening day 37-17 victory over the LA Wildcats, thanks in part to the talented roster he was able to put together.
If the past is any indicator, Mueller will continue to find all the right ingredients and cook up something special this season in Houston.