It was scarcely an Austerlitz, or even a Wagram, yet there were hints of a neo-Napoleonic era in the offing when Hank Stram's insurgent New Orleans Saints pieced together two field goals and two touchdowns to outlast the Buffalo Bills 20-17 last Saturday. The little Corsican had to start somewhere, after all, and this was the first time in the Saints' 10-year history that they had won the first three games of any season—pre or regular. There haven't been any posts for New Orleans.
Intimations of dynasty aside, the game did show that Archie Manning is hale again. Playing the first half, the red-headed quarterback completed 10 of 18 passes for 148 yards, including an 11-yard touchdown flip to Tight End Henry Childs in the second quarter. His play-calling was sharp, he picked up secondary receivers and the one time he ran, he picked up 10 yards. Though Manning may not yet be the Marshal Ney Stram requires, he is an accomplished field general.
And an extra bonus came the way of the Saints with the return of Joe Gilliam, late of the Steelers and a Virginia rehabilitation center, to his exciting form of yesteryear. Gilliam, who played most of the second half, completed only four of 12 passes, but two of them were 50-yard bombs. No scores resulted from his fireworks, but the crowd of 66,282 let Joe know how happy they were to see him out there.
New Orleans is a locale ideally suited to the Stram temperament. With its Napoleonic resonances and its aura of history and mystery—reflected everywhere from the teeming bo√Ætes of Bourbon Street to the imperial enormity of the nearby Superdome—the city complements the man. And vice versa. "This could be the best franchise in professional football," Stram said the morning of the game. "Once we get it going."
August 28, 1977
Clad in a black velvet shirt, a white sport coat and trousers, shod in elegant cream loafers ticked with gold, Stram relaxed in his ninth-floor suite at Le Pavilion, sipping a Coke. His face was tanned to the color of mahogany wainscoting; not a hair—real or otherwise—on his 53-year-old head was tinged with gray, nor was a hint of scalp evident through the careful thatching. Surrounded as he was by marble busts in the classic mode and excellent Rembrandt, Holbein and D√ºrer reproductions, Stram's mien was distinctly Napoleonic. "When I coached at Notre Dame as an assistant 20 years ago," he said, "I thought I'd never see the equal of the football intensity there. But this whole Gulf Coast, clear around from Florida through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and down to Texas, is a whole region at the same high pitch."
A new world to conquer for the chesty little man who was the best coach in the old American Football League and whose lifetime record of 128-86-10 is near the top among active NFL coaches. The Kansas City Chiefs were the first in the NFL to use multiple offensive formations and stacked, highly mobile defenses, and Stram is still tinkering with these stratagems. "About the only thing I've added to the system since the '69 and '70 Chiefs," he said, "is more action with the tight I—more motion to take account of the greater sophistication of the defenses throughout the league. We hop around a lot."
The purpose is to keep defenses off balance until the snap of the ball, and Stram has an abundance of smart quarterbacks to implement his system. "This is by far the best quarterback package I've ever had in professional football," he said.
The very best right now is Manning, the six-year vet from Mississippi who sat out last season following surgery on his right shoulder. That was Stram's first year with the Saints, yet Manning learned the complicated offense just by watching. "Archie works the system like syrup on pancakes," said Stram. "He's a lot like Lenny Dawson up at Kansas City—cool and smart, excited by complex formulas—but he's bigger and stronger than Lenny, blessed with a better physique. Heck, he's 6'3" and 200 pounds, but he runs the 40 in 4.6 seconds. He moves very well, by design. Picks up secondary receivers as well as anyone I've worked with. On a play-action pass to the left last week against the Giants, with short yardage, the back slipped, but Archie picked up right away. He improvised and took it in for a score. We won that one, by the way, 23-7."
Behind Manning are three veterans—Bobby Scott, a reliable backup to Manning for four years, who set up what proved to be Saturday's winning touchdown with a 40-yard completion late in the fourth quarter; Bobby Douglass, the ex-Chicago Bear with a powerful, if inaccurate, left arm and a bad left knee; and Gilliam, who performed so well at Pittsburgh when Terry Bradshaw was ailing three years ago. Gilliam sat out last season following his conviction on marijuana and weapons possession charges. Stram is giving him a final chance.
"Joe knows it's the last hurrah," Stram said. "Every play is first and 10 from here out. He worked some on his own during the season he was out, and he's put on some good muscle—up from a playing weight of 175 to a tough 186 today. His attitude's good, and we know he's got the smarts."
When Gilliam came to camp last month, he stood up before the whole team and told them, "I've battled with drugs. I just hope you'll give me a chance." Stram and the Saints seem willing to do so, and maybe Jefferson Street Joe will become Bourbon Street Joe. That would certainly be better than Junk Heap Joe. And he knows it.
In other departments the Saints seem equally blessed, with two big, surefooted (and sure-handed) running backs in Chuck Muncie and Tony Galbreath, who scored the game-winner Saturday from one yard out; a plethora of wide receivers, including former Olympic sprinter Larry Burton, who caught the fourth-quarter bomb from Scott; sound, maturing linebackers; and a newfound cohesion that—as of Saturday's game—requires some refining. The regular-season schedule, with the exception of two games against the Rams and one each with St. Louis and Chicago, looks a lot easier than last year's. Remembering that debacle, Stram still cannot bring himself to say it out loud: "Four and 10."
Granted, O. J. Simpson only played a quarter for the visiting Bills on Saturday. The Juice came into camp this year with blurred vision in his left eye, the result of a hard hit by the New York Jets last season. You can't squirt like the Juice if you can't see the glass. Doctors in Buffalo suggested at first that Simpson might need surgery, and his usual ebullience subsided into snappishness. He chewed out management and teammates with unwonted rage. "It was a tough week for me," he recalls, "and I can't remember being that uptight before. I'd wake up in the morning and look at the alarm clock on the dresser in camp...and I couldn't make out the numbers."
"Man," says his best friend, Reggie McKenzie, the pulling guard, "the cat was a basket case. He was thinking the worst. He'd wake up in the dark and think, 'Is this what it's going to be like?' "
But after Bills owner Ralph Wilson flew O.J. to the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins, specialists there gave Simpson the go-ahead to play. His problem was a tiny hole—self-healing—behind the retina. Fluid leaking in was causing the blur. By Saturday O.J. could see fine straight ahead, with minor blurring to the left side. What's more, he was psychologically sound, once more his leaping, raucous self. "The thing I was really concerned about," he said, "was that I'd have to wear glasses. I look terrible that way."
Behind the crisp blocking of a healed Jim Braxton, the fullback who had gone down in last year's first game with a knee injury, and under the sharp direction of Quarterback Joe Ferguson, back from four fractured transverse processes, the Juice gained 32 yards in five carries. Ferguson gave Buffalo its first score in the second quarter with a six-yard pitch to Wide Receiver Bob Chandler; in the last period, after a field goal, backup Quarterback Ken Johnson brought the Bills to 20-17 by hitting reserve Running Back Curtis Brown on a 53-yard scoring play.
It was New Orleans' night—loud, wet and steamy with victory (for a change). "Hank's multiple offense is really a lot of fun," said Manning. "The fans don't know it, but what you're actually doing is confusing the team you're going to play next week. The sets and shifts confuse the intention. A lot of it doesn't mean a thing, and you end up in the same old vanilla formation after going through 30 other flavors. But what the hell—vive la French ice cream!"