Back in March, New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson paid $10,000
to have coach Jim Mora and eight other top members of his
organization accompany him to a two-day "people skills" seminar
at the local Hilton. While the group squirmed in their chairs,
media consultant Andrea Kirby, a former ABC reporter, fired
questions at them during mock interviews and lectured them on
everything from body language to eye contact. Benson then
arranged for two follow-up sessions and a lecture for the team
so that the Saints might present themselves in a more positive
light to the NFL community.
On Sunday, after New Orleans fell to 0-3 by utterly collapsing
in a 30-15 loss against the previously winless Bengals, the
Saints showed that they had learned their lessons well. The
players giggled and hugged their opponents on the field after
the game despite a miserable performance that included a fumble
and three interceptions in the second half by quarterback Jim
Everett, six penalties that gave the Saints 22 (seventh highest
in the NFL) on the season, and a running game that produced only
27 yards on the ground. Even Mora, the former Marine known for
throwing press-conference tantrums, stood at ease after the game
and sounded as if he were addressing his therapist. "I can
usually say things that make sense after a game like this, but
honestly, I am stumped," said Mora. "I swear to god, though,
it's tearing me up inside."
The tortured-coach routine certainly puts a nice p.r. spin on
the Saints' downward spiral. But the truth is, last week was
just Mora the same on the field for New Orleans, a team that is
1-10 in its last 11 games played in September. This year's slow
start is a particularly bitter letdown, though. The team spent a
bundle in the off-season free-agent market to beef up its
defense, and now, said linebacker Winfred Tubbs, who led New
Orleans with 12 tackles, "it's like putting a Pro Bowl team
together and then losing every week. We need to hurry up and
find a way to win." It may already be too late. Only four teams
in history have made the playoffs after starting 0-3.
Watching New Orleans come unraveled late in the game must have
had Kirby herself searching for the now familiar 'Aints paper
bag chapeau. With five minutes to play and the Saints trailing
23-15, cornerback Eric Allen, protesting a pass-interference
call, charged a ref and drew another penalty. A minute later
linebacker Mark Fields was ejected from the game for fighting
with Bengals lineman Ken Blackman, though his final punch missed
by three feet. The Bengals scored three plays later.
September 22, 1996
Fields's phantom roundhouse epitomized the Saints' defensive
effort. Despite the fact that the Bengals' offense had only one
healthy receiver--third-stringer David Dunn--Cincinnati
quarterback Jeff Blake lit up the New Orleans' secondary for 225
yards. The Saints' defense has just one takeaway in 208 plays in
1996. "There is a sense of helplessness out there," said Allen.
"We're just dog-paddling now when we should be swimming. No way
did we ever think about losing to this team."
Indeed, the Bengals had plenty of their own troubles coming into
Week 3. Both Cincinnati papers had called for the firing of Dave
Shula, who is 29 games under .500 in his five seasons as coach.
One editorial even named Shula its Loser of the Week as the
entire city scoffed at the Sept. 10 announcement that 40,000
seat licenses--the right to buy a season ticket--at an average
of $500 apiece must be purchased by April for the team's new
stadium deal to go through. It didn't bode well that more than
7,500 tickets at only $30 a pop went unsold for Sunday's game.
Meanwhile, more than 20,000 tickets remain available for each of
the Saints' next two home games. And a franchise-record-low
crowd of 43,288 showed up for the home opener when former New
Orleans linebacker Rickey Jackson was honored with a spot on the
Superdome's Wall of Fame. Recently when Jackson, a Saints
marketing consultant who apparently skipped the March seminar,
saw an empty trophy case while touring the team's new training
facility, he asked of no one in particular the question that all
New Orleans seems to be asking these days: "What are they going
to put in there?"
FROM THE SUBLIME...
Through Sunday there were nine unbeaten teams in the NFL; eight
of them (all but the Bills) will square off in a quartet of
divisional matchups this week
...TO THE RIDICULOUS
Meanwhile, the six 0-3 clubs engage each other in a trio of
games that will whittle down the number of contestants in the
Peyton Manning sweepstakes.
49ERS AT PANTHERS
The range of Carolina kicker John Kasay, who booted five field
goals in each of the Panthers' first two wins, may spell the
difference. San Francisco's top-rated defense has allowed
opponents inside the red zone just twice this season.
PACKERS AT VIKINGS
The Vikes have outscored foes 29-3 in the fourth quarter in
their three wins. Will they be able to stay with Brett Favre &
Co. until then? No, especially if the Packers' D adds to its
league-leading nine interceptions.
BRONCOS AT CHIEFS
The Chiefs, with the AFC's most tenacious defense, held
Seattle's Chris Warren, a three-time Pro Bowler, to six yards on
14 carries. Broncos back Terrell Davis will have to have a big
day for Denver to have a shot.
DOLPHINS AT COLTS
The Dolphins get their first big road test under Jimmy Johnson
against a Colts team that outgunned them twice last season and
will have running back Marshall Faulk back at full strength.
The Ravens' Matt Stover is more than the most accurate field
goal kicker you've barely heard of. He's the most accurate field
goal kicker in league history. Since joining the Cleveland
Browns as a free agent in 1991, Stove Top, as he's known, has
converted 111 of 137 field goal tries (81.0%). That's the top
mark ever among kickers with a minimum of 100 field goals, yet
Stover has never been named to a Pro Bowl.
"Would I like to have a shot at the Pro Bowl?" says the
28-year-old Dallas native who was the Midwest regional Pass,
Punt & Kick winner in 1979. "Sure. Because it means being
recognized by your peers. But worldly recognition is fleeting.
It's here today but gone tomorrow."
The same might be said of a lot of NFL kickers. Just ask the
Jets' Nick Lowery, who is right on Stover's heels with an 80.3%
accuracy rate and is just eight field goals shy of the mark for
most in a career (Jan Stenerud had 373). Lowery was cut by the
Jets, Patriots, Bengals and Redskins before catching on in
Kansas City, where he played for 14 seasons and became a star.
Stover says he is unimpressed with his place in the NFL Record &
Fact Book. "I've always got to improve," he says. "Complacency
will kill you."
But one of his peers marvels at the record he has already put up
while playing most of his games in the swirling winds of
Cleveland. "Nobody liked to kick in Cleveland," says Al Del
Greco of the Oilers. "It's not as if Matt has generated those
numbers kicking in a dome."
THE NUMBERS GAME
THE RUSH TO GLORY
Your quarterback is a future Hall of Famer: Steve Young, Jim
Kelly, John Elway, Dan Marino or Brett Favre. So your game plan
is to throw the ball 35 or 40 times every week, right?
Wrong. The 49ers, Bills, Broncos, Dolphins and Packers are
running the ball more than anyone else this season. Through
Sunday all were averaging at least 10 more rushes per game than
they did last year, except Buffalo (which was up six a game
going into its Monday-night showdown with the Steelers), and not
coincidentally, all five were undefeated.
Here's a look at the rushing revolution at the top of the NFL
1995 Rushing 1996 Rushing
Rushes Yards Rushes Yards
Team per game Rank per game per game Rank per game
49ers 25.9 18 92.4 40.0 1 143.5
BILLS 32.6 1 124.6 39.0 2 115.0
Broncos 27.5 16 124.7 38.7 3 191.3
Dolphins 25.8 19 94.1 37.0 4 156.3
Packers 25.6 20-T 89.3 36.3 5 147.3
Source: Bud Goode's Sports Computer
The 48-yard touchdown reception by Colts tight end Marcus
Pollard that sparked Indianapolis's 25-24 upset of the Cowboys
was Pollard's first catch since his senior year at Valley (Ala.)
High. The 6'4", 257-pound Pollard played basketball at Bradley
and spent most of his 1995 rookie season with Indianapolis on
the practice squad....With 23.0 yards per game, Cardinals rookie
running back Leeland McElroy leads Arizona in rushing. This is
how bad it has gotten for the Cardinals: In the first half of a
31-0 loss to the Patriots, New England had more first downs (18)
than Arizona had offensive plays (15)....Bears second-year
punter Todd Sauerbrun, whose 37.8-yard gross average in '95 was
the second worst in the NFL, now has the second-best average in
the league, at 50.0, right behind the Bengals' Lee Johnson, at
50.2....The last time the Packers began a nonstrike season 3-0
was in 1966, the year they won Super Bowl I. Green Bay's
opponent in that game, the Chiefs, also began the '66 season
with a 3-0 mark, as they have this year.... There are 179
players in the NFL who tip the scales at 300 pounds or more; 10
years ago there were eight.... The Eagles' Ricky Watters rushed
for 153 yards in a 24-17 win over the Lions. Dating back to
1981, Philadelphia is 25-0-1 when one of its running backs
rushes for 100 or more yards in a game, but 90-112-1 when one
doesn't....The most lethal quarterback-wideout touchdown combo
since the beginning of the '94 season? The Bengals' Jeff Blake
and Carl Pickens, who have combined for 26 TDs, two more than
both the 49ers' Steve Young-Jerry Rice tandem and the Vikings'
duo, Warren Moon and Cris Carter. --J.W.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
"Tough is when you hit a running back so hard that dust comes
off the back of your TV set."
--Packers defensive end Reggie White on Fox NFL Sunday