The team's owner dances on the sidelines; the fans dance Sunday nights away on Bourbon Street. The hysteria that gripped Denver in 1977 and San Francisco in '81 has hit New Orleans. With Sunday's 20-16 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Saints have assured themselves of finishing with a winning record for the first time in their 21-year history. But, like a traffic cop spoiling a wedding motorcade, New Orleans coach Jim Mora holds up his right hand and says stop. "We're not a playoff-caliber team until we're in the playoffs," he says. "Until you've done it, don't talk about it."
This hard-eyed assessment is echoed in the locker room. "We're not in the playoffs—we're not even a winning team yet," said Rickey Jackson, the Saints' Pro Bowl linebacker, after Sunday's game. Stares. Head scratchings. Uh, Rickey, your team is 8-3, which means you can't be any worse than 8-7 in this strike-abbreviated season. And that, you see, is a winning record. You can't miss. "I don't feel we'll have a winning season until we win one more," he said. "Otherwise we could've been 8-8."
Strange logic, until you consider the recent history of this beleaguered franchise. In 1983, Jackson's third year with New Orleans, the smart money liked the Saints as the NFC's sleeper team. They ended up 8-8, blowing four of their last six games. Last season, Jim Finks's first as general manager and Mora's first as coach, New Orleans was at last a professionally run franchise. Hopes were high when the Saints were 6-5 with five games left. Alas, they lost four of the five. And no one who endured it can forget the ignominy of that 1-15 performance in '80. Two guys, cornerback Dave Waymer and offensive tackle Stan Brock, were rookies then. They remember the Aints days, the paper bags over the fans' heads. Celebrating? Not yet.
"We're not a top-level team yet," says Mora, although the only teams with better records are the Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers. "We're upper-middle. The difference between upper-middle and lower-middle is what? A bounce, a break, a penalty, a little momentum, a little confidence."
December 7, 1987
Still, New Orleans has hung some impressive skins on the wall this season. A week after giving away a game to San Francisco on Oct. 25, the Saints came back to defeat the Atlanta Falcons 38-0. That was the largest winning margin in their history. Then they crushed the Los Angeles Rams 31-14 and pulled out successive fourth-quarter, come-from-behind wins over the 49ers and the New York Giants.
After four consecutive victories, three of them on the road, a letdown seemed inevitable, but on Sunday New Orleans moved to a new level. Playing on the road once again, it won a game it should have lost, against a Steeler team with a winning record.
For most of the afternoon, few things went right for New Orleans in rain-slick Three Rivers Stadium. The Saints are a running team, but they could average only three yards a shot on the ground. Rueben Mayes, last season's Rookie of the Year, had a case of the yips and had trouble holding on to the ball. Quarterback Bobby Hebert was inconsistent, and even the field goal kicker, Morten Andersen, the man with the best percentage (.801) in NFL history, was struggling. Two long attempts, 53 and 50 yards, fell short, the occasional fate of domed-stadium kickers when they have to deal with a soggy rock.
Worst of all, the New Orleans defense seemed to go out of its way to be kind to Mark Malone, the NFL's lowest-rated quarterback. Pittsburgh's offense didn't cross midfield in the first half until just after the two-minute warning. (The Steelers were ahead 7-3, anyhow, on a 33-yard interception return by Dwayne Woodruff.) Following the warning, the Saints did a strange thing. They rolled back the clock and went into a prevent defense—rush three linemen, leave everyone else back in coverage and get eaten up slowly. And Pittsburgh did eat them up, putting together its only sustained scoring drive of the day to lead 14-3 at the half.
So you figure that New Orleans had learned its lesson. Put heat on Malone. Don't give him time to get anything going. The Saints have big league blitzers in Jackson and Pat Swilling, a surprisingly effective second-year outside linebacker. For a while New Orleans mixed things up on Malone, giving him the rush and then dropping people into coverage, and with 6:10 to go it led 20-14, following a five-yard Mayes TD carry, a 19-yard TD pass by Hebert to Eric Martin and a 32-yard kick by Andersen.
Now it was crunch time, and Pittsburgh would have one, maybe two more possessions. New Orleans went back into its prevent defense, and the Steelers put together a 61-yard drive. They had first-and-goal from the four, but the Saints stiffened, stopping Pittsburgh inches away.
New Orleans then ran three plays, took a deliberate safety and free-kicked. The Steelers were now on their own 44 with 53 seconds remaining, no timeouts and facing that same three-man rush, that same prevent defense. Twenty-seven seconds later they were on the Saints' 14. "I hate the prevent," said Swilling. "I'm not a passive person, and I don't like passive football. But I'll play what they tell me to. I did yell over to Coach Pease [defensive line coach John Pease] to get a rush in there. He relayed it to the defensive coordinator, Steve Sidwell, and they gave us the green light to rush both outside 'backers."
No sooner did the Saints go after Malone than he made his best throw of the day, to wideout Calvin Sweeney cutting across the middle. That gave Pittsburgh first-and-goal on the three, but the clock was ticking down to 10 seconds. A new rule allows the passer to stop the clock by grounding the ball, if he begins his throwing motion immediately after receiving the snap and throws in the direction of a sideline. Malone tried to run a real play, and Swilling took an inside rush and wrapped him up at the 11. On the next play, Sweeney slipped, Waymer intercepted Malone's pass, and New Orleans had saved a game.
"I know some people criticize the three-man rush," said Sidwell afterward, "but the only thing we're concerned with is points allowed. I know it's frustrating to our guys, but in a two-minute situation I don't have enough guts to put us in one-on-one coverage."
O.K., sneer if you like, but the Saints are still 8-3, and they have a favorable schedule. Only one of their final four games is against a team with a winning record, and three are at home. Naturally this kind of blue-skies talk doesn't sit well with Mora, who's of the you-haven't-done-it-till-you've-done-it school of coaching. But look at how far the Saints have come. In 1985 Tom Benson and 10 partners bought them from John Mecom, an absentee owner who ran things from Texas or from his yacht in the Gulf. Benson cleaned out the Mecom gang and brought in Finks to run the day-to-day operation. Finks, who had had success at Minnesota and Chicago, had been out of football for three years. In 1983 and '84 he was president of the Chicago Cubs, and when Benson got in touch, he was working as a senior consultant for Hill and Knowlton, a Chicago-based p.r. firm.
"I had no great desire to get back in the football business," says Finks. "But I always thought that New Orleans could be an ideal franchise, if handled right. It had first-rate facilities, including the best indoor stadium in the world. Plus there was great enthusiasm for football in the whole area—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama."
It was Finks who selected Mora, winner of two titles, with Baltimore and Philadelphia of the USFL, as coach. Mora had a solid reading on the talent of the now defunct league. The Saints had already tapped the USFL for Hebert, who quarterbacked the Michigan Panthers to the 1983 title game. In 1986 they added five notable former USFLers: linebackers Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson; defensive back Antonio Gibson, who became their strong safety; Mel Gray, their punt and kick returner; and Chuck Commiskey, who started at guard early this year.
No less impressive was their '86 draft, which produced Mayes, halfback Dalton Hilliard, who has had some dazzling games this season, left tackle Jim Dombrowski, Swilling, fullback Barry Word and nickelback Reggie Sutton. The highlight of the '87 draft was the aptly named offensive guard Steve Trapilo.
Mora's coaching philosophy is much the same as it was when he was winning in the USFL—basic ball-control offense and conservative defense, which can cut loose on occasion but would rather lie back and force turnovers. (The six that New Orleans got on Sunday gave it the league lead, with 37.) Mora also pays great attention to special teams play. Johnnie Poe's blocked punt in each of the last two games led to a field goal. Backup linebacker Joe Kohlbrand's thundering hit on Steeler rookie Rod Woodson knocked the ball loose on a punt return and set up Martin's TD.
But are the Saints really a mid-upper, even upper-upper, team, as their record would suggest? It's hard to say. Their wide receivers are only so-so, which could hurt them in a game that comes down to a last-minute shoot-out. A Dan Marino would devour their prevent defense. But why quibble? Compared with what the Saints used to be, this is like Mardi Gras. Best of all, they're winners—finally.