Deuce McAllister won't "run it up in there," my dad likes to say. Or so said an opposing coach, he claims, debating the last position for the Magnolia squad in the 1997 Mississippi-Alabama All-Star Classic. The Morton High back eventually made the team and saw the ball maybe twice amid a collection of more hyped pass-and-catch stars headlined by Romaro Miller. Miller set a Classic record by attempting 34 passes, but Mississippi lost, 10-6.
My dad's watched the Ole Miss and New Orleans Saints star with a certain degree of irony since then, and never more than Saturday night, when McAllister led the franchise's defining win over the Philadelphia Eagles by hitting it up into half the Eagle defense four yards from the end zone. He had his season-best, 143-yard rushing performance on Saturday, improbably powering a convoy of a dozen players in both uniforms—pushing, pulling, knees churning and buckling—and helmets flew free as the mob collapsed over the remainder for the touchdown.
The effort stopped the surging Philadelphia momentum cold, and turned up the delirious, frothing Superdome to unheard-of decibel levels. The move put New Orleans back within a point of the visitors, and they would overtake them for good on a different variety of McAllister run on the Saints' next possession: an open-field shimmy following a short screen pass that left Pro Bowl linebacker Jeremiah Trotter's shadow scorched into the nine-yard-line.
It was a validation of sorts for McAllister, not exactly a forgotten man on the heels of his franchise-record fourth 1,000-yard season, but far from the spotlight he once commanded. Every brand of novelty accented the season: the new coach had never been in charge of an entire team; the new quarterback (and most valuable player) was an injury risk as a free agent; the new backfield sensation was a highly sought-after first-round pick; the new clutch receiver was a final-round afterthought. Only a handful of the lineup's dozen new no-name starters had ever been in the same position elsewhere; the new-look Superdome was back in business after an excruciating year of doubt. Certainly the success wrought by such a collaboration was blessedly new for the league's most beleaguered and perpetually downtrodden franchise. Hell would freeze over before the Saints ever saw a Super Bowl, right? But one win from the sport's Holy Grail, this bunch hardly seems to qualify for the baggage that comes with its fleur de lis.
Yet it was McAllister in the season's biggest moment, charging ahead and dishing out pain in his first playoff game. An injured Joe Horn looked on as the link to the maddening mediocrity embodied by Haslett, Brooks and Stallworth, looking like a new man himself. Maybe it's in the scheme: the heady competence of Sean Payton and Drew Brees, an improved offensive line, or the number of carries picked up by Reggie Bush. Maybe the vet has worked his way back into fighting trim after missing nearly all of 2005 following his second knee surgery in as many years.
At any rate, 17 games in, McAllister is healthy and hit creases Saturday with more authority and less lumbering effort than he's flashed with any consistency since 2003. Part of the effectiveness of shaking Trotter for the go-ahead touchdown must have derived from Deuce's rolling, straight-ahead, head-of-steam mentality, one that's rarely made defenders wary of the change-of-direction he suddenly displayed in space. But ask safety Sean Considine about the steam. He was slammed to the turf without mercy by a lowered shoulder on McAllister's second carry, a 28-yard gallop that set up the Saints' initial field goal.
The best game of McAllister's sixth season couldn't have come at a better time for his team, and not only in terms of Saturday. He followed the defense (and a strange fourth-down decision to punt with under two minutes to go by Eagles coach Andy Reid) in bailing out possibly the most untimely Reggie Bush fumble in clock-killing mode. It was new, too, for Saints fans to watch a team stiffen and fight back to preserve the lead. The fans have known so much playoff heartbreak, on top of every other variety, and their delirium collapsed immediately into hushed, familiar despair as the Eagles covered Bush's gaffe. The Saints had an opportunity to wilt after fumbling away a three-point advantage with only three minutes to play. Disaster averted, there were no pitches involved as McAllister plowed ahead decisively on three carries for the icing first down.
With the vicarious hopes of an entire region at stake, it will be hard to imagine Deuce feeling much more at home—far from Mississippi, the Dome, or legitimately insane partisans cooing his name—than in the muck and mire of one of the NFL's few remaining natural grass fields, in the late January cold of the Windy City.
Interesting take on Deuce and Saints.