The Saints have a new ad campaign this season: "This year, we're
made of Iron." The season-ticket application comes with the tag
line, "Wimps need not apply." All this flapdoodle is due to the
hiring of Iron Mike Ditka as coach. During his Hall of Fame
playing career and Super Bowl-winning coaching stint with the
Bears, the glowering Ditka was the embodiment of all that is
good and right about the machismo of pro football. The man had
an aura, and the Saints are more than happy to have exhumed it.
But amid all the hype, it is instructive that the banner
headline across the top of the front page of the New Orleans
Times-Picayune the day after Ditka was hired quoted the new
coach: you won't be embarrassed watching these guys play. Even
the most over-the-top marketing blitz can't obscure the sorry
history of the 'Aints and the low self-esteem of their fans.
This is, after all, the only NFL team (aside from the newly
incarnated Baltimore Ravens) never to have won a playoff game, a
franchise so woebegone as to make brown-paper-bag headwear chic
in the Superdome.
Aside from Ditka, most of the preseason talk in the Big Easy has
centered over center, on the quarterback position. After months
of promising an open competition for the job, Ditka had a
revelation while on a religious retreat in May and decided to
cut his incumbent, Jim Everett. The Saints then installed as the
starter ex-Redskin Heath Shuler, for whom they had traded in
April. The third pick in the 1994 draft, Shuler has not
delivered on his promise. He didn't throw a pass the entire 1996
season and hasn't started a game since Dec. 17, 1995.
Perhaps reflecting their lack of confidence in Shuler, the
Saints burned their '97 fourth-round pick on Heisman Trophy
winner Danny Weurffel of Florida, a gutty player to be sure, but
lightly regarded as a pro prospect.
Further complicating the status of the passing game is the
decision to cut the Saints' two leading receivers from last
season, Michael Haynes and Torrance Small, mostly for salary cap
reasons. They will be replaced by blue-light-special free agents
Andre Hastings and Randal Hill, as well as Daryl Hobbs, acquired
in a trade with the Raiders. Those moves are a wash, at best,
but the aerial attack should benefit from the return of tight
end Irv Smith, slowed last year by a knee injury, and the
arrival of fourth-round wideout Keith Poole, a potential sleeper
from Arizona State.
There is tremendous pressure on the passing game to succeed,
because the Saints are, in the words of Ditka's predecessor, Jim
Mora, "absolutely terrible running the football." Mario Bates
and Ray Zellars have hardly been stars, but third-round pick
Troy Davis, second to Weurffel in the Heisman balloting, could
The offensive line should be solid with All-Pro left tackle
William Roaf and the 10th pick in the '97 draft, Chris Naeole--a
bulldozing right guard from Colorado. Says Roaf, "We didn't have
a lot of success running the ball because our attitude wasn't
right. We have to have a more aggressive approach."
So too does the defense. There is some talent here, and Ditka
hopes to exploit it with an attacking 4-3 scheme. The line is
solid, especially on the right side with tackle Wayne Martin and
end Joe Johnson. Run-stopper Darren Mickell will move from left
end to left tackle; his old spot is likely to be filled by
hard-charging if undersized rookie Jared Tomich from Nebraska.
The linebackers have the potential to be an explosive unit,
particularly with fast and nasty Mark Fields playing on the weak
side. The Saints are counting on Renaldo Turnbull, who is moving
from defensive end to backup strongside linebacker, to be more
of a force from sideline to sideline. He has had just 13 1/2
sacks and 52 tackles over the last two years.
The secondary will be tested often, with two talented
youngsters, left corner Alex Molden and free safety Je'Rod
Cherry, stepping into the starting lineup alongside a pair of
reliable vets, Eric Allen and Anthony Newman.
Whether or not it will show markedly on the field, the Saints
are being recast in Ditka's image. He hasn't been shy about
clearing out the deadwood veterans, and in the first draft of
the Ditka era the Saints plucked big-name solid citizens from
"Our goal is to win," says Ditka. "It's not to win later. It's
to win now. I want to create a greater sense of pride in what
this organization is all about." Right now the Saints are all
about Mike Ditka. That makes for a good ad campaign, if not, at
the moment, a very good football team.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Roaf will be one of the few bright spots as Ditka's Saints try to make a push. [William Roaf]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Record: 3-13 (fifth in NFC West)
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 81.8 (30) 181.1 (25) 262.9 (29)
DEFENSE 129.8 (27) 177.1 (3) 306.9 (13)
Of the 27 current NFL teams that were in existence before
1990--this includes all but the Jaguars, the Panthers and the
Ravens (the former Cleveland Browns, who became a new franchise
when they moved to Baltimore)--the Saints are the only club that
has not had a single-season 1,000-yard rusher in this decade.
New Orleans's last 1,000-yard back was Dalton Hilliard in 1989.
George Rogers holds the team record of 4,267 rushing yards, the
lowest total atop the record book for any current franchise
aside from the three mentioned above.
Lowest Totals for Franchise-Leading Rushers (excluding Jaguars,
Panthers and Ravens)
Current franchise name Debut Career rushing leader Yds.
New Orleans Saints 1967 George Rogers, 1981-84 4,267
Kansas City Chiefs 1960 Christian Okoye, 1987-92 4,897
San Diego Chargers 1960 Paul Lowe, 1960-68 4,963
New England Patriots 1960 Sam Cunningham, 1973-79,'81-82 5,453
Indianapolis Colts 1953 Lydell Mitchell, 1972-77 5,487
PLAYER TO WATCH
Improved play by the offensive line will be a key in Mike
Ditka's ball-control offense, which is why the Saints took 6'3",
313-pound right guard Chris Naeole with their first pick in the
'97 draft. Naeole, who blew open holes at Colorado for 1994
Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam, brings a reputation as a
powerful run blocker, and he will have the chance to prove it as
he steps straight into the starting lineup.
PROJECTED LINEUP With 1996 Statistics
Head Coach: Mike Ditka
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Heath Shuler**[A] 161[*] 125 att. 66 comp. 52.8%
745 yds. 3 TDs 7 int. 55.6 rtg.
RB Mario Bates 111[*] 164 att. 584 yds. 3.6 avg.
13 rec. 44 yds. 3.4 avg. 4 TDs
FB Ray Zellars 159[*] 120 att. 475 yds. 4.0 avg.
9 rec. 45 yds. 5.0 avg. 4 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Andre Hastings[A] 90[*] 72 rec. 739 yds. 6 TDs
WR Randal Hill[A] 139[*] 21 rec. 409 yds. 4 TDs
WR Daryl Hobbs[A] 240[*] 44 rec. 423 yds. 3 TDs
TE Irv Smith 199[*] 15 rec. 144 yds. 0 TDs
PK Doug Brien 238[*] 18/18 XPs 21/25 FGs 81 pts.
KR Troy Davis (R)[A] 55[*] 4 ret. 29.5 avg. 0 TDs
PR Terry Guess 378[*] 1 ret. 7.0 avg. 0 TDs
LT William Roaf 6'5" 300 lbs. 13 games 13 starts
LG Ed King 6'4" 300 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Jerry Fontenot[A] 6'3" 285 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Chris Naeole(R)[A] 6'3" 313 lbs. 11 games 11 starts
RT Clarence Jones 6'6" 280 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE Jared Tomich (R)[A] 41 tackles 5 sacks
LT Darren Mickell 33 tackles 3 sacks
RT Wayne Martin 88 tackles 11 sacks
RE Joe Johnson 60 tackles 7 1/2 sacks
OLB Richard Harvey 44 tackles 2 sacks
MLB Winfred Tubbs 112 tackles 1 int.
OLB Mark Fields 107 tackles 2 sacks
CB Eric Allen 51 tackles 1 int.
SS Anthony Newman 81 tackles 3 int.
FS Je'Rod Cherry 8 tackles 0 int.
CB Alex Molden 21 tackles 2 int.
P Mark Royals[A] 69 punts 43.8 avg.
[A] New Acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)
[*]*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 165)
** 1995 Statistics