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What if Deuce McAllister had stayed healthy with the Saints?

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McAllister got his ring, but what would the Saints look like today if he’d been able to stay healthy past 2005?

NFL: International Series-NFL on Regent Street Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Deuce McAllister had a successful career with the New Orleans Saints. He’s one of the most beloved Saints of all time, playing in eight seasons, rushing for over 1,000 yards in half of those seasons, and he was effectively an honorary member of the Saints’ 2009-10 Super Bowl team (complete with a ring). In addition to all of this, in his post-Saints career he’s been inducted into the Saints’ Hall of Fame, is a strong candidate to join the Ring of Honor in the future, and he is a color commentator for the Saints WWL.

With all of that being said, in spite of a successful career, it’s worth examining what McAllister’s career could have been had it not been riddled with injuries, starting with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in 2005 that put him on IR after just five games.

For starters, it’s worth addressing that the length of McAllister’s career may not have been altered much had he stayed healthy. McAllister joined the Saints in 2001 at the age of 23, playing until he was 30. 30 tends to be a death knell for the running back career, so the biggest difference for McAllister likely would have been in career numbers.

As it stands, McAllister is already a record-holder for the Saints in rushing attempts and rushing yards (1,429 and 6,096, respectively). Mark Ingram had already surpassed his 49 touchdowns with No. 50 before leaving for the Ravens, and he likely would have passed McAllister in yards by Week 2 last season, but his departure has kept McAllister’s records intact.

We’re going to assume that pre-2005 McAllister’s career would be unaltered. Ricky Williams would still be getting the bulk of the team’s carries in McAllister’s rookie year before joining the Dolphins in 2002, thus kicking off three straight 1,000-plus yard seasons for McAllister.

2005

Prior the ‘05 season, McAllister signed a massive 8-year contract worth $50.05 million.

In 2005, before his knee injury, McAllister was off to a rocky start. He was averaging just 3.6 yards per carry on 93 carries to start the year. These types of slow starts weren’t unheard of, of course, but even so after three straight seasons with heavy mileage it was disconcerting. Then, in Week 5 against the Packers, McAllister suffered a torn ligament in his knee.

The Saints were coming off of two 8-8 seasons, but without McAllister in the fold, they would go 3-13. The Saints were 18th in the league in rushing with 1,688 yards. Without McAllister to support Aaron Brooks, he threw 17 interceptions to 13 touchdowns in 13 games, before being benched for Todd Bouman in the final three games of the season.

Antowain Smith and Aaron Stecker shouldered the load running the ball for the Saints, but after the abysmal season, the Saints went on to clean house and take a chance on an injured Drew Brees and a first-time head coach in Sean Payton.

So, the biggest question that this raises is: If McAllister plays all of ‘05, do the Saints still have the second-worst record in the NFL? Do they go on to not only fire Jim Haslett for Payton, but also bring in a new quarterback and draft Reggie Bush?

For the sake of not getting too deep into the butterfly effect too early, let’s say it does play out the same way. After all, the Saints were a lowly 28th in defense, and the absence of one man doesn’t make a team.

2006

After getting reconstructive surgery in his knee, 2006 was a return to form for McAllister and, more importantly, it was a Renaissance year for the Saints as an organization Payton and Brees stormed onto the scene, with Domecoming being the Saints’ announcement that they were a force to be reckoned with.

In 2006, McAllister rushed for 1,074 yards on 244 carries, notching 10 touchdowns along the way. Brees threw for 4,418 yards, but McAllister’s defining moment of the season came in the Divisional Round against the Eagles. He had 143 yards on 21 carries, including the game-sealing first down on third-and-1 in the Saints’ own territory. It was one of the best games of McAllister’s career, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The Saints would go on to lose to the Bears in the conference championship, but they looked set to contend for a long time.

2007

‘07 was the true beginning of the end for McAllister. He and Reggie Bush were pegged as the Saints’ backfield for the foreseeable future. However, just three games into the season, he tore his left ACL, opposite from the knee injury he’d suffered a few seasons prior. McAllister’s injury opened the door for 23-year-old rookie Pierre Thomas, who made the most of every touch he got. Stecker was still on the roster, but at 32 his best years were behind him.

Thomas immediately made an impression in the passing game, averaging 8.9 yards per catch. he also averaged nearly five yards per carry. While Bush continued to find his footing on the ground, Thomas made himself into a reliable option. Although he had just 52 carries, it got his foot in the door.

2008

Although he was able to stay healthy most of this season, it was clear that McAllister had lost a step. He wasn’t able to get back to the four yards per carry threshold, and Thomas had become a reliable running option. McAllister finished with just over 100 carries on the season, and the Saints cut him before the 2009 Super Bowl season due to cap problems.

Saints’ history would look completely different with a healthy McAllister. With healthy knees, McAllister is almost certainly a part of the Saints’ 2009 Super Bowl run and beyond. With that in mind, the Saints don’t trade up in 2011 to get Ingram, the guy who would go on to challenge McAllister’s team records, and the Saints would roll with McAllister as a bell-cow.

With McAllister as a bell-cow, the Saints wouldn’t have gone to the running back by committee system we’ve come to know, and the Saints’ approach to drafting linemen over skill positions is affected as well.

However, the single biggest influence McAllister’s injury exerted is after that 2005 season. When McAllister was healthy, the Saints hovered around a .500 team. His injury forced the team to take action, and it brought in the Payton-Brees duo. It’s impossible to know whether this happens independent of McAllister, but it’s very likely that a six or seven-win season doesn’t result in such drastic action.

McAllister is one of the most beloved players in franchise history, and deservedly so. With Ingram in Baltimore, his franchise records will stand for a long time depending on how the Alvin Kamara situation shakes out. McAllister was there for the turnaround, and he deserves his Super Bowl ring.

A healthy McAllister, however, has a chance to break 10,000 yards. We only saw glimpses of what he could have been, especially surrounded by real, playoff-level talent. Bad luck shortened his career, but thankfully he’s still a part of the organization. When he is enshrined into the Saints’ Ring of Honor, McAllister will undoubtedly have earned it. But when it happens, it will be hard not to question what could have been.


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