When Mike Ditka gave up an astounding eight draft selections to
put the Saints' fortunes in Ricky Williams's hands, he set
himself up as the ultimate sage or sucker, depending on whether
the Heisman-winning running back produces. Now Ditka is prepared
to lay it all on the line. Quietly, methodically, New Orleans
has assembled what may be among the most talented offensive
lines in the league.
The unit features a five-time Pro Bowl left tackle (Willie
Roaf); a pair of recent high draft picks (right guard Chris
Naeole, No. 10 in '97, and right tackle Kyle Turley, No. 7 in
'98); and one of the off-season's prized free-agent signees
(left guard Wally Williams). Veteran center Jerry Fontenot is
coming back from surgery on his right knee. With this group in
place, the Saints felt more comfortable pulling the trigger on
their draft-day blockbuster trade than most people knew. Never
mind that sports-talk callers from Bakersfield to Bangor expect
Ricky Williams to see narrower running lanes than a fat man on
Fat Tuesday in the French Quarter.
"Nobody knows what's going on down here, and that's fine," says
Wally Williams, a former Ravens standout who signed a five-year,
$18.5 million deal with the Saints in February. "They don't have
to know. We'll show the league the potential--scratch that
word--the things we will do once the season begins."
If New Orleans, which went 6-10 in each of Ditka's first two
years, is to lay claim to its first playoff berth (and winning
season) since 1992, the linemen, all of whom weigh at least 300
pounds, will have to pave the way. The team's defense, for the
most part, is young, fast and aggressive, but the Saints must
improve an offense that last year produced the worst rushing
game in the league and the third-worst attack overall--one that
scored 20 points or less in 10 games. The team's strong-armed
but erratic starting quarterback, seven-year veteran Billy Joe
Hobert, returns after suffering a season-ending Achilles tendon
injury in the '98 season opener. Andre Hastings, a possession
receiver, is the best of an undistinguished group of wideouts.
In other words, the passing game has the sex appeal of a C-SPAN
broadcast, but the Saints insist there's a method to their
blandness. "We've tried to build this team from the trenches
out," president and general manager Bill Kuharich says. "In this
salary-cap era, clubs choose to spend the bulk of their money in
certain areas, and when Mike Ditka came aboard, the decision was
made to spend it inside out."
The Saints were criticized for using their top choice in 1997 on
Naeole, marking the first time since '83 that a guard had been
selected in the top 10. The next year they snagged Turley, who
spent the bulk of his rookie year at left guard but was shifted
to his natural position at right tackle after Wally Williams was
signed. "I don't know of any line that has the talent I have on
both sides of me," Fontenot says. "We can be as good as we want
However high the linemen aim in that regard, it probably won't
be high enough for their new position coach, Bill Meyers, a
former Marine who is among the more demanding men in his
business. On the practice field, at least, Meyers makes even the
ultraintense Ditka look relaxed. But when he's not berating his
charges or spewing slogans such as, "We're gonna knock 'em on
their spine" or "Hit 'em in the chest and weaken the heart,"
Meyers is herding the linemen to a golf course or a bowling
alley or a Hooters on a bonding excursion. In addition to
learning, as Fontenot says, "that a lot of big guys really suck
at golf," the linemen let their guards down and become more
comfortable with one another.
"When I got to Chicago in '89, those linemen had been hanging
together for years, and that's one of the reasons they worked so
well as a unit," Fontenot says. "There's no reason we can't be as
good as those guys were."
Ultimately, the linemen know their success will be judged
largely on Ricky Williams's rushing statistics. If the newcomer
runs wild, the trickle-down effect will be tremendous. The
unassuming Roaf has been a standout in the league for several
years, but Turley and Naeole, who blocked for Heisman winner
Rashaan Salaam at Colorado, wouldn't mind some attention of
their own. "We've just got to do our jobs and get Ricky some
room," Turley says, "and the recognition will come."
"If it comes, it comes," says Naeole, a native Hawaiian. "This
city needs a big name so badly, but our job is to do the dirty
work. Like Coach Meyers says, 'If you want to watch Ricky, you'd
better buy yourself a ticket and sit in the stands.'" --M.S.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO ALL FOR ONE, RUN FOR ALL Williams's rushing stats will affect his paycheck--and impact the reputation of his blockers.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG
Sept. 12 CAROLINA
19 at San Francisco
26 Open date
Oct. 3 at Chicago
24 at N.Y. Giants
Nov. 7 TAMPA BAY
14 SAN FRANCISCO
21 at Jacksonville
28 at St. Louis
Dec. 5 at Atlanta
12 ST. LOUIS
19 at Baltimore
24 DALLAS (Fri.)
Jan. 2 at Carolina
1998 Record 6-10 (3rd in NFC West)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 30/18/28; defense 16/30/26
1999 Schedule strength NFL rank: 13 Opponents' 1998 winning
percentage: .513 Games against playoff teams: 6
When the Saints selected Ricky Williams with the fifth pick in
the 1999 draft, it marked the fifth time since the 1970 NFL-AFL
merger that a team that had not had a 1,000-yard rusher for
eight or more years drafted a running back within the first 10
picks. (The last New Orleans player to rush for 1,000 yards was
Dalton Hilliard in 1989.) In 1978 the Houston Oilers, suffering
from a similar drought, also used their first pick to draft a
Heisman Trophy-winning running back out of Texas; the Saints
hope that Williams can repeat history and someday join Earl
Campbell in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Team Drought Running back drafted Selection no.
Dolphins 10 years Sammie Smith 1989 9
Career-best 831 rushing yards in 1990
Saints 9 years Ricky Williams 1999 5
Packers 8 years Brent Fullwood 1987 4
Career-best 821 rushing yards in 1989
Lions 8 years Billy Sims 1980 1
Three 1,000-yard seasons
Oilers 8 years Earl Campbell 1978 1
Five 1,300-yard seasons
PLAYER TO WATCH
Last year tight end Cam Cleeland caught 54 passes for six
touchdowns and was named to various all-rookie teams, but that
wasn't how he made headlines. The 6'4", 272-pounder received far
more attention because of a hazing incident in training camp that
left him with blurred vision and headaches. Already regarded as
soft by some teammates, Cleeland, a second-round draft pick, was
then held up as a victim of jock brutality. However, once the
season started, Cleeland, who caught just 19 passes his senior
year at Washington, proved to be surprisingly adept at beating
single coverage and getting free on play-action patterns.
PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1998 STATISTICS
Coach: Mike Ditka
Third season with Saints (118-82 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Billy Joe Hobert 128
23 att. 11 comp. 47.8% 170 yds. 1 TD 0 int. 87.2 rtg.
RB Ricky Williams (R) 13
361 att. 2,124 yds. 5.9 avg. 24 rec. 262 yds. 10.9 avg. 28 TDs
RB Lamar Smith 228
138 att. 457 yds. 3.3 avg. 24 rec. 249 yds. 0.4 avg. 3 TDs
FB Aaron Craver 283
45 att. 180 yds. 4.0 avg. 33 rec. 214 yds. 6.5 avg. 5 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Eddie Kennison 90 17 rec. 234 yds. 1 TD
WR Keith Poole 166 24 rec. 509 yds. 2 TDs
WR Andre Hastings 189 35 rec. 455 yds. 3 TDs
TE Cam Cleeland 84 54 rec. 684 yds. 6 TDs
K Doug Brien 102 31/31 XPs 20/22 FGs 91 pts.
PR Eddie Kennison 90 40 ret. 10.4 avg. 1 TD
KR Troy Davis 301 2 ret. 10.5 avg. 0 TDs
LT Willie Roaf 6'5" 312 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
LG Wally Williams 6'2" 321 lbs. 13 games 13 starts
C Jerry Fontenot 6'3" 300 lbs. 4 games 4 starts
RG Chris Naeole 6'3" 313 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Kyle Turley 6'5" 300 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
LE Jared Tomich 26 tackles 6 sacks
LT Wayne Martin 46 tackles 3 sacks
RT La'Roi Glover 67 tackles 10 sacks
RE Joe Johnson 70 tackles 7 sacks
OLB Vinson Smith 4 tackles 0 sacks
MLB Kevin Mitchell 56 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
OLB Mark Fields 109 tackles 6 sacks
CB Ashley Ambrose 40 tackles 2 int.
SS Sammy Knight 75 tackles 6 int.
FS Rob Kelly 31 tackles 2 int.
CB Tyronne Drakeford 76 tackles 4 int.
P Tommy Barnhardt 81 punts 41.2 avg.
 New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 122)