The Gatorade bath came at halftime, and Jim Haslett loved every
sticky drop of it. Never mind that the gesture was hardly one of
joy or that the recipient of the soaking wasn't the New Orleans
Saints' feisty first-year coach but the floor of the visitors'
locker room at Ericsson Stadium. When standout right tackle Kyle
Turley hoisted a large banquet table into the air, punctuating
an intermission that featured more confusion than Palm Beach on
Election Day, Haslett, the coach of the NFL's most surprising
playoff contender, didn't mind getting caught in the cross-fire.
The Saints brought Mardi Gras levels of mayhem to Charlotte,
terrorizing Carolina Panthers quarterback Steve Beuerlein
throughout New Orleans's 20-10 victory and pausing in midstream
to rail at one another and their coaches. Leading 7-3 but
frustrated over missed opportunities that could easily have
resulted in 17 additional points, Saints players went Roger
Clemens at halftime, yelling, cursing and hurling objects in
their midst. Offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy's attempt to
draw up adjustments on the grease board was terminated when
wideout Willie Jackson fired an open water bottle at McCarthy's
marker. Then, as Haslett began voicing an all-too-familiar
refrain--"This team can't beat us; only we can beat us, and we're
doing just that"--Turley literally tuned him out, pulling on the
headphones to his portable CD player and listening to Fear
Factory's Descent. Of his abrupt decision to shed the headphones
and toss a table that included two large Gatorade jugs, the 6'5",
300-pound Turley reasoned, "It was time to get back out to the
field, so I figured, Why the hell not?"
There is nothing subtle about these Saints (7-3), a collection of
underappreciated players who have won six consecutive games,
thanks largely to brute force. A year removed from Mike Ditka's
reign of error, which ended when he was fired after a 3-13 season
in 1999, New Orleans is eyeing its first postseason appearance in
eight years. Even after their lone big-name player, halfback
Ricky Williams, suffered a broken left ankle that will sideline
him for six to eight weeks, the Saints conceded nothing. "We'll
miss Ricky's running and his leadership, but one man doesn't make
a team," says defensive tackle Norman Hand, who had one of New
Orleans's eight sacks on Sunday. "If anything, it makes us even
more of a no-name bunch, and I hope people keep sleeping on us
like they have so far. We might not be the prettiest group, but
we'll make you sore the next day."
Just ask Beuerlein, who in two games against New Orleans was
sacked a total of 14 times. "They are a great defense, the best
I've seen in a while," says Beuerlein, who on Sunday lost three
fumbles and threw two interceptions. Last February, Beuerlein
played in the Pro Bowl, a game in which only one member of the
Saints' No-Fame Defense, the league's third-ranked unit, has ever
participated. That player, end Joe Johnson, missed last season
with a knee injury and had only four sacks through the first nine
games this year. On Sunday he announced his return to dominance
with a three-sack performance that included a play on which he
stripped Beuerlein and recovered the fumble, killing the
Panthers' opening drive at the New Orleans eight.
Additional punch was provided by defensive tackle La'Roi Glover,
who got his 13th sack, tying the Philadelphia Eagles' Hugh
Douglas for the NFL lead. Rookie end Darren Howard intercepted a
Beuerlein pass in the second quarter but lost an apparent
touchdown when he fumbled at the end of his 47-yard return. (The
Saints also missed a 33-yard field goal, and quarterback Jeff
Blake was intercepted in the end zone.) The defense did score in
the third quarter after strong safety Sammy Knight forced a
Beuerlein fumble and outside linebacker Keith Mitchell scooped up
the ball and ran 90 yards. Mitchell, who later recovered another
Beuerlein fumble, is the best linebacker no one's heard of, a
fourth-year player starting because Charlie Clemons went down
with an injured Achilles tendon.
The offense's chief downfield threat is Joe Horn, a DSL-fast
wideout and admitted fashion plate who has emerged as one of the
NFC's top receivers. One of several key free-agent additions by
new general manager Randy Mueller, Horn caught five passes for 89
yards, including a 43-yard touchdown strike from Blake, and then
left the stadium clad in a custom-made gray velvet suit. Horn's
role in the offense took on greater significance after the
fourth-quarter injury to Williams (16 carries for 93 yards), who,
in his second season, has established himself as a bona fide
star. The former Heisman winner's ankle snapped after the
Panthers' Mike Rucker wrapped up his feet following a two-yard
gain--a carry that gave him 1,000 yards in 2000. "The atmosphere
is so much better this season, it's ridiculous," Williams said
last Friday over sushi at a New Orleans restaurant. "The coaches
have a plan that we believe in, and that alone is a huge change."
Ditka was overwrought and under siege last year, and his loyalty
to embattled former offensive coordinator Danny Abramowicz was
only part of his undoing. When Haslett and Mueller arrived in
January, they found an organization in a shambles, with plenty of
reasons for player disgruntlement. There were no computer
breakdowns of prospective free agents. Ditka had been so involved
in commercial ventures that he used the office adjacent to his
for a second secretary devoted to his personal business. Player
fines were inconsistent, with varying amounts for identical
offenses. Predictably, player discipline suffered. The low point
came last December in a 31-8 loss to the Ravens in Baltimore,
where backup halfback Lamar Smith, now with the Miami Dolphins,
refused to enter the game because he said he had not warmed up
sufficiently. Says one new coach, "This place was like a f------
In came Haslett, who, players say, is everything Ditka was not:
organized, approachable (players call him Jim or Haz) and focused
on football. What he does share with Ditka is a temper. "He's
like Bobby Knight," says defensive coordinator Ron Zook. When
both were Pittsburgh Steelers assistants in 1997, Haslett got so
angry with Zook during a game that he rolled up several laminated
game-plan sheets and twice whacked Zook in the chest.
Haslett faced his first crisis on Sept. 18, the day after New
Orleans suffered a 20-10 setback to the Seattle Seahawks to fall
to 1-2. Johnson summoned the rookie coach into what had been a
players-only meeting and began venting. Haslett stood stoically
as Johnson, Blake and others voiced their concerns--the offense
was too conservative, the defenders weren't blitzing enough.
After initially becoming defensive, Haslett calmly said, "Look,
this isn't rocket science; it's football. We call the plays, you
execute them. I'll take your opinions into account, but I'm going
to do this my way. This meeting is over."
The Saints lost to the Eagles 21-7 the following week, then came
back after a bye and launched their winning streak. They have yet
to beat a team that's above .500, and the difficult part of their
schedule begins on Sunday at the Superdome against the AFC
West-leading Oakland Raiders. With Williams out, ballcarrying
duties will be shared by elusive rookie Chad Morton and
journeyman grinder Jerald Moore, who have a total of 13 carries
between them this year.
"We'll be fine," Haslett says. "We've got the best offensive line
in the league, so hopefully we can keep trucking along and sneak
into the playoffs."
As Turley would say, "Why the hell not?"
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER Hand in Glover Panthers quarterback Steve Beuerlein has his shirt wrinkled by Saints defensive tackle La'Roi Glover as he's sacked for the seventh time during New Orleans's 20-10 victory (page 44). [Leading Off]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER Carolina on His Mind Mitchell, who recovered two fumbles and ran one back for a touchdown, leveled Tim Biakabutuka on Sunday.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Grounded Williams, who will be out at least six weeks with a broken ankle, was among the NFL's first 1,000-yard rushers this season.
"We'll miss Ricky's running and leadership," says Hand, "but one
man doesn't make a team."