New Orleans running back George Rogers pointed across the practice field at the old quarterback in gym shorts.
"Look at him," he said, referring to the Saints' Ken Stabler. "Can you believe the guy? He's the oldest one on the team. I watched him play in the Super Bowl when I was just a boy. And I'll be dogged if he doesn't act as young as me."
Watching Stabler drop five quick steps behind his offensive line and throw the ball deep into the end zone to a wide receiver, Rogers shook his head and says, "The man, I tell you, the man doesn't need to work out. Just look at that arm. Look at how he pinpoints the ball. It looks like a bullet when it's coming at you. He's got it. The man's still got it. Yes, he does."
Rogers admits he feels bad, kind of guilty, not practicing while all the other guys are out there pushing hard. "Hey, during the strike, Stabler didn't work out that much, but that's for the best," said Rogers, bothered by a bruised left shoulder. "That's okay with me. If it's okay with Snake, it's okay with me."
Rogers remembers the fall days in South Carolina, where he still makes his home in the offseason, and a battered vinyl recliner, positioned only inches away from the television set. "I used to love to watch him. What am I saying? I still do."
Rogers curled a hand weight with great difficulty, but chuckled, thinking fondly of the old quarterback with the gray beard and long silver hair, that, curling behind the helmet, flashes in the sun. "He's 36, I think. But he looks all right. My little brother, he loves Snake, too. He says Snake can do anything. Look at him." He pointed again across the turf.
Stabler, who has led the once-lowly Saints, a 4-12 team last year, to three straight victories and a three-way tie for second place in the NFC, is happy and at home in New Orleans. He has completed 54 of 82 passes for 651 yards and four touchdowns, with only three interceptions.
The bad days are behind him, he said after practice, pointing at the horizon in the direction of the Superdome, where 3-1 New Orleans will play host to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday. Let bygones be bygones, he said. So what if the Saints picked him up for the $100 waiver price Aug. 24, halfway through training camp?
"I've always been off the beaten path, but what's done is done," he said. "I got involved with people because people were always prying around in my personal life. That's nobody's business but my own. Nobody's.
"And I don't want to talk about anything but how things are going now. That's what counts. That's the story. I've been criticized so much over the years. I thought about giving it up before, but not now. I'm really almost relieved to be here.
"I don't know how many years I have left, but I know things couldn't have worked out better for me. I enjoy playing here. I enjoy the city and all the guys. There's no pressure. And Bum (Coach Bum Phillips) treats everybody the same, from the water boy to the janitor to the superstars and the coaches. We're just one big happy family.
"We've pulled off a 180-degree turnaround out here," he went on. "People are coming from all over to find out what's going on. I don't know if I'm qualified to say what turns a program around. But they've brought in Bum and Bum surrounds himself with people. He wants good people both on and off the field, and gets them. They're also easy to get along with. We're happy in the dressing room, at the training table, on the field, everywhere.
"My role is very easy. I know what I have to do. The philosophy of the coaches is a lot like mine. They give me the freedom to do what I want to do. We're very compatible . . . We're a pretty good ball club; just ask any team we've played."
After last week's 21-14 loss to New Orleans, San Francisco cornerback Eric Wright said, "As a team, they remind me very much of how we were last year. You can tell they want it real bad, and they've learned what it takes to win. If they keep playing the way they are, it will be hard to stop them."
Ronnie Lott, another 49er defensive back, said he knew who was responsible for the Saints' turnaround: "Kenny Stabler is just special. He's a competitor and a real winner. I've watched him since I was little, and he never ceases to amaze me. His presence on the field has to impress you."
So, too, does the presence of Leon Gray, the 10-year offensive tackle traded to the Saints from Houston for quarterback Archie Manning. He stays late this day at the Saints' training facility to pump some iron.
"I suppose I relaxed a little too much over the break," he said, lifting his jersey and patting his belly. "I shouldn't have done that, but what the heck, I like being an example to the young players here. It makes me proud that they look up to me and the other older players, like Kenny. Did you know this is the first time in the history of the club that we've won three straight? I'm just proud. Very, very proud."
Gray said, "Kenny is like an old vintage. He's come in here and displayed a lot of leadership and poise. He's really something for the younger boys to look up to. One good thing about Stabler is that he's been around the league so long he knows how to win and what it takes to win. His experience is invaluable."
Gray pointed to a young man bouncing a basketball from his head to his knees and elbows and back to his head again. "That's Morton Anderson, one of our kickers. He played soccer, that's why he can do that." First-year running back Hokie Gajan joins Anderson under the basketball goal, screwed into a sidewall of the outdoor weight area, and challenges him to a game of "H-O-R-S-E."
"I remember when they couldn't get out of here fast enough," a local sportswriter said. "You could never really talk to them. You had to chase them around. Now, you can't get them to leave. Wonder why?"
Stabler knows why: "Everything's starting to pay off. Our offensive line hasn't allowed a sack in two games. Our whole defense is doing a great job. We have a good blend; a good mixture of rookies and veterans. It's a nice marriage. We have all the ingredients it takes to win. And we all want to play. You can see that in the way we took a stand during the strike. You really want to play football here. You just do."
Out of the quarterback's hearing, Gajan said, in a near-whisper. "There's something about him, about Snake. You look him in the eyes, there in the huddle, and you can feel the confidence. He's so relaxed. And he knows how to take pressure so well, you feel you can, too. It sort of sweeps over everybody. It has a great effect. It's the same with Leon Gray. They're not cheerleaders; they don't have to be. But the confidence is visible and it makes us all excited. It makes us want to win."