NEW ORLEANS (AP) - New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson unexpectedly fired general manager Randy Mueller and took over the job himself Thursday, citing differences in management style.
Mueller earned NFL Executive of the Year honors in 2000 for a rebuilding job that helped the team gain its first playoff victory.
"This was totally a bolt from the blue. I'm in shock,'' Mueller said.
He met Thursday morning with Benson, a day after returning from a two-day trip around Louisiana to promote Saints ticket sales.
"He asked me to resign. I refused,'' Mueller said. "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 did not rule out eventually hiring another GM. He said events leading to Mueller's release had been building because of communications problems.
"I'm more of a hands-on owner,'' Benson said. "In some cases, decisions were made without me.''
He said he was not told that running back Ricky Williams was going to be traded to the Miami Dolphins in March.
"That's totally false,'' Mueller said. "I can promise you we discussed everything with him.''
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.
Benson said the firing had nothing to do with wins and losses, the Saints dropped to 7-9 last season, nor with Mueller's having discussed a job with the Atlanta Falcons after the Super Bowl. The Falcons' general manager, Harold Richardson, resigned Thursday.
"That's coincidental,'' Benson said.
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 friend of Mueller's, stays with the team.
Mueller inherited a team with little talent and few draft picks. But he 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 tied for third in the division last season and ticket sales have been slow.
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.
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.