On the seventh day he erupted. All last week New Orleans Saints
coach Mike Ditka tried to pass himself off as a changed man,
insisting that his team's 0-2 record and sloppy play would not
trigger his legendary temper. The New Orleans players bought it,
too, many of them going so far as to describe their coach as
"mellow." Never mind that Mellow Mike wasn't sleeping more than
a few hours a night and was, by his own admission, putting more
pressure on himself than he did during his Hall of Fame playing
career and his 11 raucous seasons as coach of the Chicago Bears.
The Saints figured they would do well enough in Sunday's game
against the San Francisco 49ers at 3Com Park to keep Ditka
Then the NFL's worst team did the football equivalent of
spitting in Zeus's face. New Orleans played one of the most
abysmal games in its undistinguished history, turning the ball
over eight times in a 33-7 loss to San Francisco in front of
61,838 appreciative 49ers fans. The Saints' first-half
performance alone--five turnovers, 23 points allowed, none
scored, only one offensive snap in Niners territory (which ended
in an interception)--was so reprehensible that it would have
made stone-faced special agent Dana Scully blow her top.
Ditka's volcanic halftime explosion was one of the most forceful
of his career. Think of Mount Olympus pulling a Mount Saint
Helens. Many Saints said they had never seen anything like it.
In the locker room Ditka ranted. He raved. He cursed. He kicked
things. He slammed his fist into lockers. He went from one
player to another, questioning each one's manhood, challenging
him to respond. One did: Cornerback Eric Allen, a 10-year
veteran, talked back to the coach. Ditka didn't like it and
expressed his displeasure--loudly. The confrontation escalated.
Players stepped between the two men to restore some semblance of
order. One angry player hurled a garbage can across the room.
"[Ditka] was looking for a player to come back at him so he
could get a charge out of the team," Allen speculated later. "He
knew I'd respond, so he went after me."
Ditka also singled out quarterback Heath Shuler, whose 5-for-11,
66-yard, three-interception first half reduced his league-worst
passer rating to 24.1. Midway through the second quarter, Shuler
had completed more passes to San Francisco cornerback Rod
Woodson--two--than to his own receivers. "I hope you'll be
comfortable on the bench," Ditka curtly told Shuler at halftime.
In came rookie Danny Wuerffel, who proceeded to throw three
interceptions in the second half.
New Orleans doesn't have a quarterback controversy; it has a
leadership crisis. After the game Ditka laid into his players
again, this time at medium volume. He was practically whispering
by the time he met reporters, his face as red as the 49ers'
jerseys. "It's disheartening, it's embarrassing and I
apologize," Ditka said. "I apologize to our fans. I think we're
a better football team than this, but those are just words. If
you can't back 'em up, what's the point of saying them?"
It's too early to tell whether Ditka will be good for the
Saints, the only current NFL team never to have won a playoff
game. What has become obvious is that the Saints are about the
worst thing imaginable for Ditka, who nine years ago suffered a
heart attack while coaching the Bears.
New Orleans is still reeling from the disaster of last season:
The Saints started 2-6, and then Jim Mora, their coach for 10
1/2 seasons, threw a Ditkaesque tantrum (he even overturned a
laundry hamper) and resigned. Interim coach Rick Venturi
presided over the team's final eight games, seven of which it
lost. Then Ditka came to town preaching personal responsibility
and love of the game, and the players took to him immediately.
They regard him as a sincere, no-nonsense boss who has earned
the right to impose his standard of excellence. But there's a
huge gap between accepting those standards and measuring up to
them. In dropping one-sided games to the St. Louis Rams, the San
Diego Chargers and San Francisco, Ditka's Saints have revealed
themselves to be pro football's most egregious sinners.
New Orleans already has 19 turnovers, one more than the
Washington Redskins had in the entire '96 season. The Saints are
on pace to surrender the football 101 times on the year, and if
they reach even half that total, you can bet that jobs also will
be surrendered. Ditka might even walk away. After ending a
four-year hiatus from football to accept the Saints job in
January, Ditka must be thinking, I gave up a life of golf,
speaking engagements, network commentary and gin rummy for this?
"This is horrible, pathetic," Allen said after Sunday's game.
"It's much more depressing than last year or the year before.
We've been feeling so good about the situation, and you wonder,
How can this happen? It seems impossible. If we don't get it
together, things could get ugly. Instead of people playing to
win or to please the coach, we could have people playing to save
The Saints aren't the league's most talented team, but they
shouldn't be this pitiful. The optimism inspired by their 3-1
preseason has eroded, though the players' faith in Ditka remains
solid. "I promise you Ditka hasn't done a thing wrong,"
linebacker Winfred Tubbs said. "I hate to put a man of his
stature in this situation, because it makes him look so bad.
Talentwise and coachingwise, we're probably one of the best
teams around. But right now we're playing like the worst team in
the league. No wonder he got mad."
In retrospect, the Saints should have seen Ditka's blowup
coming. If he really had mellowed, then what were players to
make of the coach's behavior when the Kansas City Chiefs visited
the Saints' training camp in La Crosse, Wis., for two days of
joint workouts in late July? When a K.C. player clipped a New
Orleans coverage man during a punt-return drill, Ditka walked
over and chewed the Chief out, right in front of God, Kansas
City coach Marty Schottenheimer and everyone else. Later Ditka
got into it with Chiefs cornerback Mark McMillian, who was
bitter about having been cut by the Saints in June. After
McMillian mouthed off to Ditka across the practice field, Allen
says, Ditka called him a "little pissant."
Sitting in his office at the Saints' Metairie, La., facility
last Thursday, Ditka acknowledged that his behavior might have
put Schottenheimer in an awkward position. "Look, I know there's
protocol involved, and I'm not supposed to say anything to a guy
on another team," Ditka said. "But the guy clipped one of my
players, and that was flagrant, ridiculous. Whether or not his
coaches are going to correct him, I'm not going to have it.
Look, I'm all for the toughness that people like Coach Lombardi
and Coach Landry stood for. But don't be juvenile. Show some
respect for the game."
Ditka has tried to tread on higher ground, reminding his players
that the physical prime of one's life passes quickly and that
the opportunity to play pro football should be appreciated and
seized. He's a levelheaded lecturer, but he's still a hothead at
heart. The day after the Saints lost their season opener, 38-24
to the Rams, Ditka gathered his players for a film-review
session and said, "If you have thin skin, leave now." Then he
cued up the first play and started ripping.
"If you looked bad on a play," Tubbs says of the session, "you
either hoped he didn't see it or you hoped he was so mad at
someone else that he didn't spend much time on you."
The next Sunday, as the Saints were dropping their home opener
to the Chargers, 20-6, Ditka unloaded on offensive coordinator
Danny Abramowicz as they paced the Superdome sidelines. While
taping his weekly television show before a live audience last
Thursday night, Ditka stared into the camera and said, "You want
to make a quarterback controversy? Fine. You want Jim Everett
back? Fine. All I'm saying is, Heath Shuler is going to be the
quarterback....Nobody's going to curse me and nobody's going to
boo him enough to make me make the change."
"Another golden Ditka moment," said Stephanie Couret, the show's
producer: Of the more than 100 people in the studio audience,
she was the only one smiling.
Clearly the strain of losing was getting to Ditka. "It's a lot
more pressure than I thought it would be," he admitted earlier
Thursday. "I don't know that I've ever been more tired in my
life. I can't sleep, and I'm in a constant state of mental
fatigue. This never happened to me in my worst days in Chicago."
Ditka must be wondering at what point embarrassment overtakes
the thrill of the challenge. "We were pretty sick last year, and
he has killed off a lot of the bacteria," fullback Ray Zellars
said on Sunday. "But we have a lot of work to do."
"We have to totally regroup," Tubbs added. "We almost have to
start all over again."
It's a daunting job, and the mellower version of Ditka wasn't
the man for it.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER The Art of Deflection The Saints' Randal Hill was set to catch this pass when 49er Merton Hanks disarmingly tipped away the ball (page 28). [T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER When Shuler was being sacked, here by Ken Norton Jr. (51) and Junior Bryant, at least he wasn't being intercepted. [Heath Shuler lying on ground after being tackled by Ken Norton Jr. and Junior Bryant]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PETER READ MILLER (2) Woodson picked off Wuerffel in the third quarter (opposite), then was intercepted by the quarterback. [Rod Woodson catching football; Danny Wuerffel tackling Rod Woodson]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN IACONO Watching Troy Davis (opposite) and other Saints get nailed by the Niners gave Ditka lots to chew on. [San Francisco 49ers player tackling Troy Davis; Mike Ditka chewing his fingers]