NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints unexpectedly fired general manager Randy Mueller, who was the 2000 NFL Executive of the Year for helping the franchise get its first playoff victory.
Team owner Tom Benson took over Mueller's duties.
The Saints said Mueller was "released from his contract so he can pursue another position that reflects his style of management."
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.
Mueller inherited a team with little talent and few draft picks, 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, GM 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 picks 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.