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After year off, Coleman has something to prove

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

METAIRIE, La. -- To find the one New Orleans Saints' defensive tackle who's been to the Pro Bowl, you need to look at the roster, instead of the practice field.

Look closely because Rod Coleman is surrounded by a bunch of other names on that roster. You see his name on there and you look out on the field for the guy who used to roll up double-digit sacks and you don't really see him yet. He's very quiet on the field, which isn't really Coleman's nature.

But talk to him and you quickly realize Coleman might still be Coleman before all is said and done. He still likes to talk and he still has that confidence that carried him through nine very productive seasons with the Oakland Raiders and Atlanta Falcons.

After a year out of football -- a year in which Coleman thought he was retired -- he still has the gift of gab. The Saints, and Coleman, are hoping he's still got the gift of being able to terrorize quarterbacks. Nobody is sure what Coleman, who turns 33 on Aug. 16, has left. But his comeback story is intriguing and it's certainly not dull. That's something Coleman has never been.

"Few players can do what I'm trying to do,'' Coleman said after Thursday afternoon's practice in temperatures above 90 degrees. "I want to be the exception to that because it seems like I've always been the exception. I came into the league and I was undersized and always had knocks against me. My whole career was all about proving people wrong, so this should be no different.''

This is really a no-lose situation. If Coleman can give the Saints, who are trying to rebuild a defense that has been putty the last two seasons, anything, he'll be happy and they'll be happy.

For now, Coleman is just happy being back on a football field. That's a location where he hasn't been for a while and, even when he was last there, he wasn't even close to happy.

Coleman's last season was 2007. It was in Atlanta, where the sky was falling. Michael Vick's legal troubles were just starting to play out. Coleman was so banged up that he played in only five games. Around him, the Falcons were crumbling. Losses were piling up and Bobby Petrino's ill-fated tenure as coach was wearing heavily on Coleman.

"I just wasn't ready to play after that because of all the stuff that happened in Atlanta, unheard of stuff with the coach quitting on you,'' Coleman said. "They hired a college guy to coach men and he just quit and left us hanging. It was just a stressful situation. A few teams called me last year, but I just didn't have it in me.''

The Falcons officially cut ties with Coleman, releasing him in February 2008, after new coach Mike Smith took over. Coleman thought that was the end and focused on spending his time on business ventures and with his sons.

"I was done,'' Coleman said. "I wanted to put my retirement papers in, but my agent told me to hold off and wait. I wasn't even watching games. I was busy with my sons and was just completely away from the game. Then around Christmas time, around playoff time, I watched a few games and I started getting the itch again.''

Was there one particular moment that brought the itch back and prompted Coleman to start working out and working toward a comeback? Not really. It's better than that.

"Just watching games did it,'' Coleman said. "Watching the interior play, it seemed like the sacks were down. Warren Sapp was gone and John Randle and all the great interior linemen. There were no more left. It was like the whole league just wanted big body guys, like it all disappeared within one year. That was part of motivation to come back and show that some guys still can make plays on the inside.''

Coleman got in touch with the Saints, who had just hired Bill Johnson as their defensive line coach. They had Sedrick Ellis and Kendrick Clancy as their starters, but not a lot beyond that, and they remembered the guy who put up 22 sacks between 2004 and 2005 and agreed to give him a shot.

It's still too early to tell if Coleman can be a starter, a situational player or even make the roster. But it's definitely worth a look.

"I think he's doing well,'' coach Sean Payton said. "He's getting in shape. He's a guy that played at a high level in Atlanta. Bill Johnson had some experience in coaching him at Atlanta and we felt like he was worth the opportunity to look at and see if he can get his body back and get in the shape we think he can. We think he still has some miles left. So far, he's been able to battle through it. I think he's handling things well. We'll get a chance to see in the preseason how he's doing."

The preseason games are going to be Coleman's real chance to see if he can still play.

"We're just trying to see what I've got left,'' Coleman said. "I mean, 10 years, it's supposed to be over. But I'm not ready for it to be over.''

It's not over yet and don't bet against Coleman because you just might lose.

"I've got to prove it to myself, the organization and the whole NFL,'' Coleman said. "Everybody's like, 'He's done. He's washed up.' My mindset is that I'm going to go out there and prove them wrong.''