|Thursday, May 9
Updated: May 10, 9:42 AM ET
Mueller was NFL executive of the year in 2000
NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson unexpectedly fired general manager Randy Mueller, blaming differences in management style with the man who earned NFL Executive of the Year honors in 2000 for helping the franchise to its first playoff victory.
Benson said Thursday he would take over Mueller's duties for the time being, but did not rule out filling the position with someone else later.
Benson said events leading to Mueller's release had been building, but Mueller, reached by telephone, said his dismissal came as a surprise.
"This was totally a bolt from the blue. I'm in shock," said Mueller, who had returned the night before from a two-day trip around Louisiana to promote Saints ticket sales.
Mueller said Benson's lawyers had contacted him just last week to discuss contract renewal.
"The discussions were always about extending the contract. He always made that clear that was what he wanted to do," Mueller said.
Everything changed in a Thursday morning meeting, Mueller said. "He asked me to resign. I refused. I didn't want to leave here. I had hoped to make New Orleans my home for the rest of my career. When I refused, he fired me."
Benson told reporters he had communication problems with Mueller.
"I'm more of a hands-on owner. In some cases, decisions were made without me," Benson said at an afternoon news conference.
He gave few details but did say he had not been informed when Mueller traded starting running back Ricky Williams to Miami in March.
"That's totally false," Mueller said. "I can promise you we discussed everything with him."
Benson said the firing had nothing to do with victories and defeats nor with Mueller's having discussed a job with the Falcons earlier this year. The Falcons' general manager, Harold Richardson, resigned Thursday. "That's coincidental," Benson said. Mueller said he had not heard about the Richardson resignation.
Mueller joined New Orleans in January 2000, when the team revamped its staff after going 3-13 in 1999, and he soon hired head coach Jim Haslett.
Benson said he hopes Haslett, a longtime friend of Mueller, stays with the team.
Mueller inherited a team with little talent and few draft choices, thanks in large part to the deal for Ricky Williams. But Mueller rebuilt the roster with productive free agents and shrewd trades, including acquiring quarterback Aaron Brooks from Green Bay.
The Saints rebounded to go 10-6 in the 2000 regular season, finishing atop the NFC West, and beat reigning Super Bowl champion St. Louis in a first-round playoff game.
But New Orleans dropped to 7-9 last season, tying for third in the division. The disappointing season was followed by slow season ticket sales -- the Saints recently said they had sold only 25,000 season tickets for the coming season, the fewest in the team's 35-year history.
Despite the Saints' drop last season, Benson had given no indication that he was dissatisfied with Mueller.
The Atlanta Falcons received permission to talk with Mueller during Super Bowl week. At the time, Benson said he planned to offer contract extensions to Mueller and Haslett, who each has one year remaining on an original three-year deal.
Mueller was to be paid $650,000 this season, one of the lowest salaries in the league for a top executive. Haslett, the second lowest paid NFL coach, is scheduled to make a base salary of $900,000 next season.
Mueller's hiring two years ago came as part of sweeping changes after the Saints fired coach Mike Ditka, general manager Bill Kuharich and others.
Mueller came to the Saints from the Seattle Seahawks, where he built a reputation as a savvy evaluator of talent after becoming the team's vice president of football operations in 1995.
Among Mueller's Seattle highlights was a 1997 deal that sent struggling quarterback Rick Mirer to the Chicago Bears for a pair of first round-draft choices that were used to select two starters -- cornerback Shawn Springs and tackle Walter Jones.
Mueller, a native of St. Maries, Idaho, was promoted to Seattle's pro personnel director in 1990 and remained in that position for five years.
Mueller and Haslett became friends when Mueller's brother, Rick, and Haslett were assistant coaches for the World League's Sacramento Surge in the early 1990s.