JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -A life-size cardboard cutout of Deuce McAllister wearing a chef's outfit showed up this week on the Millsaps College campus, where the New Orleans Saints are holding training camp.
The Saints' star running back was showing off a new sandwich he helped create (grilled chicken with melted cheese and a honey-mustard Creole sauce) for a local restaurant chain with a name - McAlister's Deli - much like his but for one letter.
It was the latest example of how McAllister, beloved in the region since he starred at Ole Miss nearly a decade ago, is extending his roots even farther with yet another business venture. There are car dealerships, a historic hotel renovation in downtown Jackson, his Catch 22 charitable foundation, and soon, his own McAlister's Deli franchises.
Now if only he can extend his playing days with the Saints.
``I'm familiar with the region. I played college ball here, I'm from here, and then I was fortunate and blessed enough to be able to play professionally for the Saints,'' McAllister said.
``But when it comes down to it, you have to weigh how productive the player is on the field. If I'm not making enough plays for this team that really warrant what the contract says I should be making, then obviously what their move has to be is release, restructure or move on.''
McAllister, 28, is still in his prime and already is the Saints' career rushing leader with 5,586 yards and 44 touchdowns. Whether he's the best running back on the team has been a matter of debate since Reggie Bush arrived last year.
The Saints want to keep both. How long they'll be able to afford both is another matter.
Defensive end Charles Grant got a large raise this year and Pro Bowl defensive end Will Smith likely will be seeking a major and expensive extension after this season.
McAllister is in the third year of an eight-year contract worth up to $50.1 million. It was a deal meant for a single, featured back and signed the season before the Saints unexpectedly wound up being able to pick Bush second overall in the 2006 draft.
But while Bush was an unproven rookie, the Saints couldn't simply jettison McAllister, who they had essentially declared their franchise player only two years ago and who is enormously popular.
Head coach Sean Payton designed an offense that would employ both running backs and often use Bush as a receiver and kick returner, ensuring that the newest star still had plenty of ways to help the Saints win even if McAllister got most of the runs.
The Saints ended up with a league-leading offense and a berth in the franchise's first NFC championship game.
During the 2006 regular season, McAllister ran for 1,057 yards, while Bush rushed for 565 yards and gained 729 yards receiving.
McAllister and Bush were the top two Saints in touchdowns, with McAllister scoring 13 and Bush 11.
Their ability to ruin opponents in tandem was evident in a 27-24 playoff victory over Philadelphia, when they combined for 195 yards rushing and accounted for all three Saints touchdowns.
Expect more of the same for this season, at least.
While the salary cap complicates a team's ability to retain good players, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said McAllister's contract ``was as much about his leadership and the kind of guy he is as it was him being an elite player.''
``I'm just really proud of him, we all are, in the way he handled himself when you bring a young guy in who's got a lot of notoriety,'' Loomis said. ``I think at some level the rest of your team is looking to see the way Deuce reacts, and the way he handled himself spoke volumes to our team that if Deuce is going to put the team first, then I certainly better.
``Just watch and see. We're going to keep players that we think can help us win and Deuce is certainly one of those guys. We expect he will be for a long time to come.''
Whatever the Saints decide, McAllister said he won't take it personally. He understands business as well as most, he said, because of his own off-the-field ventures.
He also seems to get along with Bush rather well. They never have a negative word to say about one another publicly and they've spent time together in the offseason, even taking a trip to San Antonio to see an NBA finals game.
``Reggie's a good guy. I call him a kid because I'm a little older, but he's a good guy,'' McAllister said. ``He means well. He's a tremendous talent as far as on he field, so you know, any little knowledge that I can give him to try to help his game on that field, I'm going to try to do so.''
McAllister won't rule out restructuring his contract if his production drops off. And since NFL contracts are not guaranteed, the Saints might be able to placate McAllister by offering more guaranteed money and incentive bonuses in exchange for a lower overall salary.
And if the Saints continue to show promise of challenging for Super Bowls, McAllister said it might be a mistake to unload him if he's still playing well.
``Probably the thing that's sad when you think about sports is when you think about how the Lakers broke up,'' McAllister said. ``You look at so many teams that had an opportunity to make a run for a long time, but for some odd reason, whether it was relationships off the court or whether it was financial, you see that team break up when they're on a true run.''

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