It would constitute an act of professional suicide for a coach
or an organization to admit that mediocrity has its advantages.
But the hard truth is, it does.
Take for example the plight of the New Orleans Saints. Unlike
the Dallases and San Franciscos of the world, run-of-the-mill
New Orleans doesn't labor under any great expectations. On the
heels of two straight 7-9 seasons, .500 begins to look good. But
at least the Saints' pedestrian play has provided them with a
last-place schedule in 1996, the envy of every team.
Even though the Saints finished in a dead heat with Carolina and
St. Louis for third place in the NFC West last year, NFL rules
determined that, for scheduling purposes, New Orleans finished
last in the division. The strike-shortened 1987 season was the
last time the team was the beneficiary of a fifth-place slate,
having finished 7-9 in '86. In '87 the Saints finished 12-3 and
qualified for the playoffs for the first time in the franchise's
history. But if they are to make hay while the karmic sun
shines, they'll have to make some real-world improvements.
Last year New Orleans rushers averaged all of 86.9 yards per
game (about enough for a single scoring drive), third worst in
the NFL. Not surprisingly, on draft day the Saints wanted to
move up in the first round to select Michigan's brawny back Tim
Biakabutuka. But trade offers were spurned by the Patriots and
the Panthers, and Carolina selected Biakabutuka at No. 8. Then
New Orleans, with the 11th pick, unexpectedly passed on tailback
Eddie George and drafted Oregon cornerback Alex Molden. Memo to
Mario Bates, the team's leading rusher last year: Do not
interpret the Saints' draft-day inaction as a glowing vote of
confidence. "Bates has potential," says coach Jim Mora. "But
potential means you haven't done it yet."
"We have a lot of respect for Mario," adds running backs coach
Dave Atkins, who just happens to be Bates's second cousin. "But
there's no reason our back shouldn't have 1,100 or 1,200 yards
if we run the ball enough. I want Mario to rush for 1,300
yards." If Bates does, the third-year back would become the
team's first 1,000-yard rusher since Dalton Hilliard gained
1,262 in 1989.
In the three seasons from 1991 to '93, the Saints' defense was
ranked among the league's top seven units, twice finishing as
the NFL's second-best squad. Yet over the last two years, New
Orleans dismantled its defense and plummeted in league defensive
rankings (25th in 1994, 22nd in '95). "It doesn't take a rocket
scientist to figure it out," says general manager Bill Kuharich.
"We had all of our double-digit victory seasons with a good
With that in mind, the Saints signed cornerback Mark McMillian
to a three-year, $5.2 million deal in March. The 5'7", 148-pound
McMillian joins former Eagles teammates and fellow free agents
Eric Allen and Greg Jackson in the defensive backfield. New
Orleans added a pair of defensive ends, former Chief Darren
Mickell and ex-Ram Fred Stokes, to help the pass rush. The team
also used its first three draft picks on defensive
players--Molden, defensive back Je'Rod Cherry and end Brady
Smith. "Molden and Cherry are the two guys in the draft that I
personally wanted," says Mora. "I thought it was a pipe dream."
The Saints still face at least one unsolved mystery, namely, who
will catch quarterback Jim Everett's passes in 1996? Last year
Everett turned in the third-best passer rating of his 10-year
career (87.0), but his two leading receivers, wideout Quinn
Early and tight end Wesley Walls, will be running pass routes in
other cities this year. Michael Haynes, Torrance Small and Lee
DeRamus will fill in for Early, who jumped to Buffalo. The team
is hopeful that fourth-year player Irv Smith and free-agent
signee Paul Green (23 starts in three seasons with Seattle) can
replace Walls, who passed on a three-year, $4 million offer to
stay in New Orleans to sign the very same deal with Carolina.
"New Orleans matched the money, but what New Orleans couldn't
match was the opportunity to maximize my potential," says Walls
of his move to the second-year expansion club. "They're talking
Super Bowl [in Carolina], and I haven't heard that in a while."
Actually, there will be talk of the Super Bowl in New Orleans
this season: The city hosts football's world championship on
Jan. 26. But any Saints players at the Superdome that day will
be there for pleasure, not business. Having one's name inscribed
on the Lombardi Trophy is not one of the advantages of mediocrity.
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON The Saints are praying this will be the year that Bates fulfills his promise. [Mario Bates]
BY THE NUMBERS
1995 Yards per Game (NFL rank in parentheses)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 86.9 (28) 236.8 (10) 323.6 (19)
DEFENSE 114.9 (21) 232.7 (22) 347.6 (22)
The Patience of the Saints
With the retirement of Don Shula, Jim Mora (who has never won a
playoff game, much less a Super Bowl) is now the NFL coach with
the longest tenure in his current job. In fact, of the 113
managers and head coaches in the four major pro sports, only the
Los Angeles Dodgers' Tommy Lasorda (hired Sept. 29, 1976) and
the Pittsburgh Pirates' Jim Leyland (Nov. 20, 1985) have been at
their jobs longer.
Current NFL Coaches with the Longest Tenures
Date hired Regular-season Postseason NFL
record record titles
Saints Jan. 28, 1986 91-68 (.572) 0-4 0
Bills Nov. 3, 1986 96-54 (.640) 11-7 0
Lions Nov. 14, 1988 61-56 (.521) 1-4 0
Chiefs Jan. 24, 1989 72-39-1(.647) 3-6 0
49ers Jan. 26, 1989 86-26 (.768) 9-4 2
PLAYER TO WATCH
If New Orleans's offense is to enjoy any measure of success this
season, tight end Irv Smith will need to deliver on his
first-round potential. The 6'3", 246-pound Smith, who was the
20th overall pick in the 1993 draft, was third on the team in
receptions last year. Now that the Saints' top two pass catchers
from '95 have departed, the former Notre Dame All-America must
fill the gaps in the receiving corps.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
Head coach: Jim Mora
QB Jim Everett 567 att. 345 comp. 60.8%
3,970 yds. 26 TDs 14 int. 87.0 rtg.
RB Mario Bates 244 att. 951 yds. 7 TDs
FB Lorenzo Neal 5 att. 3 yds. 0 TDs
TE Irv Smith 45 rec. 466 yds. 3 TDs
WR Michael Haynes 41 rec. 597 yds. 4 TDs
WR Torrance Small 38 rec. 461 yds. 5 TDs
WR Lee DeRamus 6 rec. 76 yds. 0 TDs
LT William Roaf 6'5" 300 lbs.
LG Jim Dombrowski 6'5" 300 lbs.
C Andy McCollum 6'4" 295 lbs.
RG Mike Verstegen 6'6" 311 lbs.
RT Clarence Jones[*] 6'6" 280 lbs.
PK Doug Brien 35/35 XPs 19/29 FGs
LE Darren Mickell[*] 5 1/2 sacks 1 fum. rec.
LT Wayne Martin 13 sacks 1 fum. rec.
RT Joe Johnson 5 1/2 sacks 0 fum. rec.
RE Renaldo Turnbull 7 sacks 2 fum. rec.
OLB Rufus Porter 3 sacks 0 int.
MLB Winfred Tubbs 1 sack 1 int.
OLB Mark Fields 1 sack 0 int.
CB Eric Allen 2 int. 0 sacks
SS Je'Rod Cherry (R)[*] 1 int. 0 sacks
FS Greg Jackson[*] 1 int. 0 sacks
CB Mark McMillian[*] 3 int. 0 sacks
P Klaus Wilmsmeyer 73 punts 40.6 avg.
PR Tyrone Hughes 28 ret. 9.4 avg.
KR Tyrone Hughes 66 ret. 24.5 avg.
[*] New acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)