The easy way out would be to predict doom for the team that has
hitched its wagon to quarterback Billy Joe Hobert. Having been
released by the Bills last season after admitting that he'd gone
into a game without bothering to do his homework, Hobert was
signed by the Saints, whom he led to victory in two of their
last four games. In New Orleans this constitutes heroism.
But a fortnight immersed in the slop pail of mediocrity that is
this division (one team excepted) has left us weary of leveling
criticism. So we vowed, during a visit to the Saints training
camp in La Crosse, Wis., that if we had nothing nice to
say--other than to point out that if ex-Seahawk Lamar Smith
fails to goose his new team's ground game, Saints fans can break
out the grocery bags they wore over their heads in the bad old
days--we would say nothing at all. In that case meet Kendall
Gammon, long-snapper extraordinaire. Gammon has produced his own
instructional video, Snap Right, and is widely regarded, in
long-snapping circles, as one of the best in the business. "The
guy's automatic," says punter Mark Royals, whose 45.9-yard
average led the league last season. Between these two and kicker
Doug Brien, who made all his extra points and all but four of
his 27 field goal attempts, including three game-winners, the
Saints have some crack special teams.
Brien was in a position to win those games with his leg because,
after a tentative start, the Swamp Dog attack of defensive
coordinator Zaven Yaralian came on strong, leading the league in
sacks (59) and finishing fourth in total D. That's not easy to
do when your team's offense--we aren't being critical here, just
stating a fact--had the most three-and-outs in the NFL. "We
don't get down on the O," says outside linebacker Mark Fields.
"We like being on the field."
Fields, who in his fourth year stands on the cusp of
superstardom, will need to put up big numbers this season to
offset the loss of middle linebacker Winfred Tubbs, who signed
with the 49ers after making 160 tackles in '97. No problem, says
Fields, "I've got a few things going for me." To wit: He is 6'2"
and 244 pounds, dashes a 4.55 40 and last year chased down
speedy Rams wideout Isaac Bruce from behind to prevent an
80-yard TD run. So swift is Fields that Saints coaches have no
qualms about putting him in pass coverage on slot receivers.
"He's so fast he can run in the wrong direction, adjust and
still make the play," says middle linebacker Brian Jones, who
moves into the starting lineup. Before blowing out his knee in
camp a year ago, Jones was pushing Tubbs for his job. Saints
coaches are confident he'll be just fine.
Yaralian's fondness for the blitz results in chronic loneliness
for his cornerbacks, who are often left in man-to-man coverage.
So it will be interesting to see how former 49er Tyronne
Drakeford performs. Drakeford is a jamming, aggressive player of
the sort coach Mike Ditka prefers. The problem with Drakeford's
style is that receivers sometimes elude those jams and burn him:
He had more than his share of bad days with the Niners.
Classy, relentless Wayne Martin gives opposing offenses bad
days. Martin had 34 1/2 sacks in his last three seasons and may
be the NFL's most underrated defensive lineman. He and linemate
Joe Johnson combine to create much mayhem in the trenches. The
problem is that at press time Johnson was a huffy holdout,
having told the Saints he was insulted by their offer of $21
million for five years. Replied team president Bill Kuharich, "I
wish someone would insult me like that." Good one, Bill, but it
won't be so funny if you have to go into the season with a
yawning breach in your front four.
Kuharich took heat for not shopping for a starting quarterback
in the off-season. But how tough will it be to hand the ball to
Smith, whom the Saints feel will be a perfect fit in Ditka's
smashmouth running scheme?
Even if Hobert or his backups, Heath Shuler and Danny Wuerffel,
could throw a decent deep ball, it wouldn't matter: They lack a
speed receiver to run under it. The absence of a blazer on the
Saints receiving corps was underscored early on the morning of
Aug. 2, when wideout Keith Poole was arrested after allegedly
hitting a man with whom he'd had words on the hip with an
eight-iron. When the Saints scheduled a press conference three
days later, there was speculation that it would be to announce
that Poole had signed with Callaway.
The big news, instead, was that Ditka, who last season
questioned whether he was the right guy for his job, had been
signed through 2002. Who knows how good New Orleans' offense
could be by then? All we know--again, we aren't being critical
here, just stating fact--is that right now it could hardly be
any worse. --A.M.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER SIC 'EM The jolting Johnson (94) exemplifies the Swamp Dogs' rabid penchant for hounding opposing quarterbacks. [Joe Johnson in game]
B/W PHOTO: LAYNE KENNEDY Fields [Mark Fields]
Sept. 6 at St. Louis
20 OPEN DATE
27 at Indianapolis
Oct. 4 NEW ENGLAND
11 SAN FRANCISCO
18 at Atlanta
25 TAMPA BAY
Nov. 1 at Carolina
8 at Minnesota
15 ST. LOUIS
22 at San Francisco
29 at Miami
Dec. 6 DALLAS
20 at Arizona
1997 Record 6-10 (4th in NFC West) NFL rank
(rush/pass/total): offense 27/27/30; defense 14/6/4
1998 Schedule strength NFL rank: 25 (tie) Opponents' 1997
winning percentage: .473 Games against playoff teams: 6
Few positions in professional sports require thicker skin than
quarterback for a Mike Ditka-coached team. Seventeen men have
started a game at quarterback for Ditka, but only the seven
below have won as many as two starts for Iron Mike. The other
quarterbacks who have started for Ditka, with their won-lost
records, are: Bob Avellini (0-3), Steve Bradley (0-1), Vince
Evans (1-2), Doug Flutie (1-0), Will Furrer (0-1), Greg Landry
(1-0), Rusty Lisch (0-1), Doug Nussmeier (0-1), Peter Tom Willis
(0-2) and Danny Wuerffel (0-2).
team W L Att. Comp. Pct. Yds. TDs Int. Rtg.
Bears 46 15 1,513 874 57.8 11,203 67 56 80.4
Bears 28 22 1,434 823 57.4 9,565 43 45 74.6
Bears 21 10 915 454 49.6 6,247 33 47 62.5
Bears 6 5 249 140 56.2 1,823 6 9 72.4
Saints 4 5 203 106 52.2 1,288 2 14 46.6
Billy Joe Hobert,
Saints 2 2 131 61 46.6 891 6 8 59.0
Bears 2 0 52 28 53.8 343 4 1 92.1
The top priority of general manager Bill Kuharich is to extend
the contract of weakside linebacker Mark Fields before Fields
becomes an unrestricted free agent next February. Fields had 108
tackles and eight sacks last season, and his agility has won
over coach Mike Ditka. "I've never seen a guy move any better
than Fields," says Ditka, who coached All-Pro linebackers Mike
Singletary, Wilber Marshall and Otis Wilson in Chicago.... Over
the past two seasons the Saints are 1-15 against teams in the
NFC West.... Lamar Smith comes to New Orleans without the
pressure of having large cleats to fill. No Saints runner has
gained more than 1,000 yards since Dalton Hilliard did so in 1989.
Projected Lineup With 1997 statistics
Coach: Mike Ditka
Second season with Saints (112-72 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Billy Joe Hobert 197[PVR*] 161 att. 78 comp.
48.4% 1,024 yds. 6 TDs 10 int. 55.5 rtg.
RB Lamar Smith[N] 65[PVR*] 91 att. 392 yds. 4.3 avg.
23 rec. 183 yds. 8.0 avg. 2 TDs
FB Ray Zellars 162[PVR*] 156 att. 552 yds. 3.5 avg.
31 rec. 263 yds. 8.5 avg. 4 TDs
RB Troy Davis 228[PVR*] 75 att. 271 yds. 3.6 avg.
13 rec. 85 yds. 6.5 avg. 0 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Andre Hastings 86[PVR*] 48 rec. 722 yds. 5 TDs
WR Sean Dawkins[N] 159[PVR*] 68 rec. 804 yds. 2 TDs
WR Keith Poole 277[PVR*] 4 rec. 98 yds. 2 TDs
TE Cam Cleeland[N](R) 204[PVR*] 19 rec. 276 yds. 2 TDs
K Doug Brien 107[PVR*] 22/22 XPs 23/27 FGs 91 pts.
PR Andre Hastings 86[PVR*] 1 ret. -2.0 avg. 0 TDs
KR Qadry Ismail[N] 279[PVR*] 8 ret. 20.8 avg. 0 TDs
LT William Roaf 6'5" 300 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Isaac Davis 6'3" 320 lbs. 15 games 14 starts
C Andy McCollum 6'4" 295 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Chris Naeole 6'3" 313 lbs. 4 games 0 starts
RT Kyle Turley[N](R) 6'5" 307 lbs. 12 games 12 starts
LE Brady Smith 30 tackles 5 sacks
LT Wayne Martin 63 tackles 10 1/2 sacks
RT La'Roi Glover 33 tackles 6 1/2 sacks
RE Joe Johnson 46 tackles 8 1/2 sacks
OLB Andre Royal[N] 73 tackles 5 sacks
MLB Brian Jones** 13 tackles 0 sacks
OLB Mark Fields 108 tackles 8 sacks
CB Alex Molden 68 tackles 0 int.
SS Chad Cota[N] 117 tackles 2 int.
FS Rob Kelly 19 tackles 1 int.
CB Tyronne Drakeford[N] 33 tackles 5 int.
P Mark Royals 88 punts 45.9 avg
[N]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 88)