Good afternoon," said the stewardess over the intercom last Saturday as the New Orleans Saints' charter prepared to take off for Denver. "We'd like to welcome aboard the leaders of the NFC West." At this unexpected greeting, a gasp was heard from the back of the plane—the sort of amazed, self-congratulatory noise one makes when he manages to balance his checkbook for the first time. Small wonder. For the first time in history, the Saints were the sole leaders of the NFC West.
That's right, folks, the New Orleans Saints, Pete Rozelle's entry in Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour, a team that until a few weeks ago hadn't led the NFL in anything except squandered first draft choices, fired head coaches and consecutive losing seasons, 12. Looking at it another way, the Saints had a perfect record—12 losing seasons in their 12 NFL seasons. Now, as they flew to Denver, the Saints sported a 5-4 record and a surprising one-game lead over the once-mighty Los Angeles Rams.
This state of affairs seemed highly unlikely only a month ago. At that time the Saints were 2-4 and had just been shellacked 35-17 by the Rams in the Superdome. Rumors surfaced that Coach Dick Nolan's job was in jeopardy. Critics were lambasting Nolan's flex defense, which was allowing more than 27 points a game. One candidate for Louisiana state representative promised that, if elected, he would ban the flex. Yes, it was business as usual in New Orleans.
Then, abruptly, the Saints did an about-face. Yielding a total of just four touchdowns, they rattled off three straight victories, equaling their longest winning streak ever. Meanwhile, the Rams lost three straight. New Orleans took sole possession of first place two weeks ago in Washington, when it upset the Redskins 14-10 by stopping them 18 times without a score in goal-to-go situations. That night 3,000 people gathered at Moissant Airport to welcome the Saints home. "They were chanting, 'Dee-fense. Dee-fense,' " says Safety Tommy Myers. "A few weeks earlier they could have dropped us all in the Mississippi without a lick of remorse."
And so, suddenly, New Orleans was faced Sunday with a Big Game, a showdown between the NFC West leader and the AFC West co-leader. As Quarterback Archie Manning put it, "The only big games we used to have was when your grandmother came to see you play."
Unfortunately for the Saints, on Sunday it was the Broncos, a team which has stayed atop the AFC West for two seasons now, who met that test. Denver edged New Orleans 10-3, scoring the decisive touchdown early in the fourth quarter on a 17-play, 76-yard, eight-minute drive. Wide Receiver Rick Upchurch covered the final 12 yards with a short Craig Morton pass. The Saints crossed midfield on their three remaining possessions, but were stopped each time by the Broncos. New Orleans' last gasp ended at the Denver 34 as the Bronco rush forced Manning to throw the ball away on fourth-and-four with 1:08 remaining.
Nevertheless, New Orleans remained in first place, sharing the top spot with the Rams, who beat the Seattle Seahawks 24-0. More important, even in defeat the Saints showed that at long last they belong on the same field with the best.
Throughout their history the Saints have been plagued by an unstable organization. Under impetuous John Mecom, who, at 27, was the youngest owner in the NFL when he was granted the New Orleans franchise in 1966, there has been a constantly revolving—nay, spinning—door for front-office executives and head coaches. Among other disasters, this instability has produced terrible drafts. Between 1972 and 1975 the Saints made four first-round picks—and each player was a total bust. This year's first choice. Kicker Russell Erxleben, played in the first regular-season game but has been sidelined since then by a muscle pull.
Recently, Mecom hinted that there will be another organizational shake-up at the end of the '79 season. This time, however, at the ripe old age of 40, Mecom appears to be acting with more deliberation. Whatever the outcome of Mecom's maneuverings, Nolan's job seems secure. Nolan, who won three NFC West titles as head coach of the 49ers in the early 1970s, joined the Saints as a linebacker coach in 1977, and then was elevated to the top spot after that season when Mecom surprisingly axed Hank Stram. Last year Nolan coached the Saints to seven wins, their most ever. Low-key and taciturn, he is known around the league as Mute Rockne.
Nolan spends most of his time with the Saints' defense. In recent weeks his hotly debated flex, which he learned from Tom Landry as an assistant at Dallas and later used in San Francisco, has produced results. One reason for the defense's improvement has been the play of End Don Reese, who in 1977 was one of two Miami Dolphins sentenced to prison for selling cocaine. The year Reese spent in the Dade County Stockade, the Saints drafted Maryland's 6'6", 254-pound Joe Campbell in the first round, thinking he would solve their defensive-end worries for a decade. Now Reese has replaced Campbell in the starting lineup, and his pass-rushing has been invaluable. Reese was a first draft choice of the Dolphins, but after the conviction the Saints were able to acquire him for a third-round pick. They now think the trade was a steal, a feeling one of the Saints recently conveyed to Reese by telling him, "I swear I'm glad you went to jail."
It is the New Orleans offense, not the defense, which carries the team, thanks to three of the Saints' first-round selections who have panned out—Manning, Running Back Chuck Muncie and Wide Receiver Wes Chandler. Manning, the top choice in 1971, was plagued by injuries for years; two arm operations sidelined him for the entire 1976 season, and he considered quitting football. "I thought I'd go back to Mississippi and raise pigs or something," Manning says. "I was discouraged. My arm hurt and we were getting the stew beat out of us. The reason I didn't quit was that I didn't know how to go about it." Last year, healthy for the first time since 1973, Manning threw for 3,416 yards and was named the NFC Player of the Year.
Muncie, the No. 1 pick in 1976, ran for 54 yards against the Broncos and needs just 310 more in the final six games to become the first Saint ever to reach 1,000. "Chuck is playing twice as well as he ever has before, which makes him about half as good as he can be," says one teammate.
When Manning goes to the air, his deep threat is Chandler, the No. 1 choice in 1978. Chandler was only a part-time performer at wide receiver last season. This fueled suspicion that the Saints had wasted still another first-round pick. Some critics questioned whether the 5'11", 186-pound Chandler was big enough for the NFL. Well, before this season began, Chandler brashly predicted he would catch 80 passes, something no wide receiver has done since Dave Parks and Lionel Taylor in 1965. Chandler caught three on Sunday in Denver and has 44 for the season. He leads the NFC with 783 yards.
Chandler says he wants to be recognized as the greatest receiver in pro football. And if he is, he would like to be known as the Count, a reference to Count Dracula who, Chandler says, was widely recognized as the greatest at his specialty. Be that as it may, Chandler can content himself for the time being with the knowledge that at last the Saints are showing some very sharp teeth.