JACKSON, Miss. -- Without Mike McKenzie on the field, the New Orleans Saints' defense takes on a different look.
Forget the long dreadlocks flopping from the back of his helmet. It's his ability to cover receivers 1-on-1, which frees up teammates for other assignments and gives defensive coaches a little less to worry about.
"That's what top cornerbacks do. They make everybody else's job easy. They make the coaches' jobs easy and make the other players around them better," Saints secondary coach Dennis Allen said. "Mike's a real good 1-on-1 cover guy. He's one of the upper echelon corners in this league. He's big. He can run, get his hands on guys. He's just a good all around football player."
McKenzie was cleared to practice on Monday for the first time since tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus late last season.
"I'm doing really well. I could have easily been cleared before," McKenzie said. "I'm so far ahead of schedule but I'm just kind of going on the cautious side instead of being real aggressive."
Even as the Saints struggled on defense last season, with the secondary taking a lot of the heat, McKenzie enjoyed one of the best years of his career.
His three interceptions led the team and he tied a franchise record by returning two of them for touchdowns. He set a career mark for interception return yards with 161. He also led the Saints 17 passes defended and his 63 tackles were his most since 2002, when he was playing for Green Bay.
He did all that in barely more than 14 games. Then, during the opening series of the Saints' second-to-last game of the season, McKenzie was involved in a mad scramble for a fumble by Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb near the Saints' end zone. McKenzie got to the ball first, but landed awkwardly as he tried to fall on it and the ball squirted away. McKenzie quickly got up to give chase, but then went down on both knees in the back of the end zone.
While the Saints prepared for their regular season finale in Chicago the following week, McKenzie headed to Birmingham, Ala., for reconstructive surgery by Dr. James Andrews, who is known for his work involving athletes.
When McKenzie arrived, he was greeted by Saints running back Deuce McAllister, whose second ACL tear in three seasons had occurred several months earlier. McAllister had remained in Birmingham for several months after his operation, as would McKenzie, for rehabilitation under Andrews' watch.
"It's good to have someone who's been through it and kind of knows what to expect," McKenzie said.
McKenzie asserts that his recovery has far outpaced what trainers expected. Barring another unforeseen injury in training camp, he expects to be ready for the Saints' regular opener on Sept. 7 against Tampa Bay in the Louisiana Superdome.
"The concern for me was doing too much, too early, and possibly having a setback," McKenzie said. "Dr. Andrews was worried I might get tangled up with someone, but that's a part of football and can happen at any time."
Head coach Sean Payton said he intends to limit McKenzie's training, perhaps allowing him to practice only once a day, similar to what he's done with McAllister and newly acquired tight end Jeremy Shockey, who broke his leg last December. The Saints are practicing twice a day during most of training camp.
McKenzie's return will be a boost not only to his teammates, but also to the regions' fans, who've increasingly warmed to the star cornerback as he has worked to expand his community service efforts.
McKenzie, who grew up in Miami's inner city, was the Saints' Man of the Year last season for his charity work. His time in the trainers' room with McAllister gave both players a chance to talk about their desire to help the region recover form Hurricane Katrina, and they ended up participating together, along with defensive end Will Smith, in a July 4th event in which they handed out free food and personal care items to needy families.
"In New Orleans, with everything that's happened in the past, it's real easy for me to get involved and kind of gravitate toward people in the community," McKenzie said. "We have so many guys on our team that make a concerted effort to get involved and give back, so for me that's kind of a natural deal."
At 32, McKenzie has been playing in the NFL for a decade now. Life after football is getting closer, but he should be well prepared. During the offseason, he attended the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Business School for the NFL's Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program.
Just don't mistake McKenzie's growing interest in business for a subtle admission that his injury and his age have caused him to lose a step.
"There's always exceptions to the rule," McKenzie said. "It's all about the individual and how the individual is taking care of his body and how he works. It's easy to just say once a guy's a certain age he's done, but obviously there's a lot of great guys who play for a lot of years."
McKenzie intends to be one of them.
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press