For 19 years the Saints have been marching in, all right. Marching in the gumbo muck of a New Orleans bayou bottom. Marching in place—last place—eight times in all; first place never. Win their division? Sufferin' catfish, the Saints have only twice finished as high as second in the four-team West Division of the NFC. They have had 17 losing seasons, and not once have they broken the .500 mark. Mediocrity? A great season for this team means 8-8, a high-water mark they have reached just twice. An average year is maybe 5-11. And a bad football season in New Orleans would be like 1980, when the squad went 1-15, leading thousands of otherwise respectable Louisianans to wear bags over their heads while attending the weekly slaughters and to dub their team the Ain'ts. When the organization solicited opinions last winter for reactions to a proposed uniform change in 1986, one fan wrote in to say that the Saints were barking up the wrong tree, that what they ought to change was not the uniforms, but their name. "God will not be mocked," the correspondent said reprovingly.
And yet...and yet...hopes abound these days in football-mad New Orleans, fueled by the Saints' Aug. 9 preseason win over the Broncos in Denver, 10-7, and last Saturday's wild 38-34 loss to the New England Patriots in the Superdome, in which the Saints overcame a 31-6 fourth-quarter deficit before losing in the final 59 seconds to the defending AFC champs. However, New Orleans gave away the game in vintage Ain'ts fashion, scoring four touchdowns in the fourth quarter—the last one on a four-yard run by rookie back Rueben Mayes with 2:20 to play—only to allow New England to march back upfield and score in seven plays. Sound familiar?
"I don't talk a lot about the past to these guys," says Jim Mora, the coach hired in January to lead the team out of the cesspool of its own sorry history. "We're starting new."
Underscoring that newness, on Monday Earl Campbell decided to call it a career after eight mostly distinguished seasons. That presents Mora, 51, with an enormous challenge, but then he has already proved what he can do when given a clean slate. In 1983 he left his job as defensive coordinator of the Patriots to accept his first head coaching position with the USFL's Philadelphia Stars. Mora guided the Stars, who moved to Baltimore in 1985, to the next three USFL championship games, winning the title in 1984 and '85, and to an overall record of 48-13-1. He is a winner. Wooed by a number of NFL teams during the off-season, Mora signed on with the Saints because he "likes a challenge." He was also impressed with Tom Benson, the car dealer who, along with 10 partners, bought the team for $70 million in June of 1985 from John Mecom, who had overseen the team's first 18 years of futility. And he thought highly of veteran general manager Jim Finks, another new face in New Orleans, who in the '60s was responsible for building the Minnesota Vikings into a four-time Super Bowl contender and who in the '70s helped rebuild the then-hapless Chicago Bears to a state of respectability.
August 24, 1986
Which, for now, is all that Saints fans are hoping for. Respectable would be 8-8, and 9-7 would be downright heavenly. With the Saints in a division that includes both the Rams and the 49ers, no one is asking for the Super Bowl. "If we just win nine games, that's better than any Saints team has ever done," says quarterback Bobby Hebert, 26, a Cajun who grew up in nearby Galliano and is expected to start this year over veterans Richard Todd and Dave Wilson. Mora has not made his quarterbacking decision official, and Todd certainly didn't do his cause any harm against New England, completing 12 of 19 passes for 155 yards. But it was Hebert who led the comeback charge in the fourth quarter with two touchdown passes.
"First you want to break .500," says Hebert (pronounced A-bear), whose boyhood memories of the Saints mostly involve Archie Manning dancing around desperately to avoid the pass rush. "Then you want to make the playoffs, then you want to get to the Super Bowl, then you want to win the Super Bowl. It's a continuous process."
First things first, however. The Saints aren't going to be winning any Super Bowls until they prove they can survive Mora's training camp in the humid hell of Hammond, La., where for the last four weeks the players have been feeling like boiled shrimp during Mora's two-a-day workouts, most of them in full equipment—often in 100° temperatures. No more leisurely practices as was the Saints' custom last year under laid-back coach Bum Phillips, who resigned in favor of his son, Wade, with four games left in what turned out to be a 5-11 season. "If our guys can go through tough two-a-days in this heat and humidity," says the affable Mora, "they can go through anything."
Never mind that their home games are played in the climate-controlled Super-dome. Discipline is discipline, and for now, anyway, most of the Saints veterans feel that Mora's dosage of the tough stuff has been a healthy one. "The coach is pushing all the right buttons," says defensive end Bruce Clark, a Pro Bowler following the 1984 season and the Lombardi Trophy winner in 1978 while at Penn State. "I played under Joe Paterno, so I know exactly what it takes to win. You can't expect to practice in shorts and then win football games in full equipment. This year our equipment feels like second skin. And it's open competition for the starting spots, which is new around here. Let's just say that Bum played a few favorites. This training camp has pulled things out of some guys I didn't expect. I'm not naming names, but you want to ask them where they've been the last few years."
"The intensity level has been turned up about 100 percent," says veteran nose tackle Derland Moore, 34, who has played for eight head coaches in his 14 years with the Saints. "These are the hardest practice sessions I've ever been through, and I've been through three-a-days with Hank Stram. I feel almost like I'm in a military camp. But if this is what it takes to win, I'll do it, because I'm tired of losing, of being laughed at and booed. I'm probably the losingest player in the NFL. And to this day, if anyone came up to me and told me they were one of the ones wearing a bag over their heads in 1980, I'd punch them in the mouth. It wasn't just embarrassing to the players, it brought shame on Louisiana."
Things have been pretty much downhill for the Saints ever since the first play of their first game, Sept. 17, 1967, when rookie John Gilliam ran back the opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown against the Rams. They lost that game, naturally, and the runback still stands as the longest in Saints history. Since then, the litany of failures, both on and off the field, has been staggering, with many of the worst embarrassments coming in front of their own fans. The Saints were shut out in their first regular-season game in the Superdome and in the past 11 years have lost 10 times before their largest home crowd of the season. They were the first-ever victims, in New Orleans of course, of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had lost a record 26 straight over two seasons. Loyal fans, hoping to change the Saints' abysmal luck, have hung gris-gris bags filled with newt eyes or the like in the Saints' locker room and offered to practice voodoo against their opponents. Some whimsically suggest the source of misfortune is that the Super-dome sits on what may have been an ancient Creole burial ground. "If it's happened, it's happened here," says one Saints official, who offers as evidence the example of Gumbo, the Saint Bernard mascot who sued the club after being fired in the midst of the 1985 season. O.K., O.K., so his handler's father filed the suit. Everyone knows the disgruntled Gumbo was behind it.
Gumbo was the least of the Saints' problems in 1985, when home attendance fell precipitously from an average of 59,078 to 48,599. The defense, which in 1983 was second in the NFL, was ranked 24th in the league, the offense 27th. To be fair, injuries had something to do with the problems on offense. In the third game of the season—at home in the seemingly accursed Dome—the Saints lost three starting linemen to the disabled list (Brad Edelman, Steve Korte and Kelvin Clark) in a span of 17 plays in the first half.
But the real problem was that the Saints under Bum Phillips ran the most basic offense in football, something right out of the '50s. It was a joke around the league. It's one thing to try to ram the ball down the other team's throat when you've got Earl Campbell in his prime, as Bum had in Houston; but when you've got Earl Campbell at age 30, 20 pounds overweight and as slow as the lips of a catfish, then you're in trouble. Which the Saints were. They rushed for all of four TDs last year. When they threw the ball it was always from a standard formation—two wide receivers, a tight end, two setbacks. They were about as tough to read as Garfield.
That will change under Mora, and whether the offense is improved or not in performance (it's tough not to improve on 27th), the Saints will at least look like a professional football team and not something out of a Woody Hayes playbook. Multiple formations, men in motion, different fronts that could include any number from one to four wide receivers are standard fare with Mora. The halfbacks actually take off downfield in their passing routes, while the quarterbacks have options like rollouts, moving pockets, drop rolls, 3-step, 5-step and 7-step drops. Nothing revolutionary, mind you—Just new to the Saints.
But players, not formations, win games, and it is in this area that Mora has been able to best call upon his USFL experience. So far the Saints have signed eight former USFLers—five of whom played under Mora with the Stars. At least one of them—safety Antonio Gibson—is expected to start, while linebackers Vaughan Johnson and Sam Mills should give three-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Rickey Jackson some much-needed help on the inside against the run, where last season the Saints were woefully weak. "A lot of these USFL players were cut by NFL teams before going into the USFL, so they're highly motivated," says Mora, who this summer testified for the NFL in the lawsuit brought against it by the USFL. Mora said, in effect, that the 5-11 Saints would have beaten his USFL champion Baltimore Stars, supporting the NFL claim that the USFL was an inferior product and thus did not merit national television coverage, testimony that angered Mora's former employers. "I'm not sure I'd do it again," says Mora of his court appearance. "But I said it because I believed it. There were players on that Stars team—and we've signed some of them—who could have played for the Saints, but the depth wasn't there. In the backs of their minds they've always wondered if they could cut it in the NFL. Now they've got the chance to find out."
The biggest question mark in the Saints' offense is the running attack, especially now that Campbell has packed it in. But then there was a problem even before that. In 24 games with New Orleans since Phillips gave up a first-round draft choice for him midway through the 1984 season, Campbell rushed only once for 100 yards. He had worked hard in camp and was back to 225 pounds after tying on the feed bag in 1985. But Saints fans booed him continually on Saturday, when he rushed for only 35 yards in 12 carries against the Patriots and was usually brought down by the first tackier to hit him. He was only a shadow of the runner who gained 1,934 yards one season.
To fill the void left by Campbell, the Saints have two 1986 draft choices at running back who have looked impressive in training camp, third-rounder Mayes out of Washington State and second-rounder Dalton Hilliard from LSU. Both are faster than Campbell and have better hands. Neither looked spectacular against New England as the Saints' ground game gained only 85 yards in 29 carries. "We've got to be able to run the football," said Mora, steaming afterward. "We sure couldn't turn it tonight. But we'll do it. We'll find a way."
"We're going to turn this thing around, you can feel it in the air," says Clark. "This year will be the first time the New Orleans Saints have a winning record. I guarantee it."
Or he'll eat his gris-gris bag.