As you might expect, the intensity at Saints practices has
increased now that Mike Ditka is in charge. Last season, after
they finished their stretching exercises at the start of
practice, the players strolled off to do their individual
position work. These days, stretching is followed by the
Nutcracker: Players on the defensive front seven line up against
offensive linemen and running backs, and the two sides run plays
in something fullback Ray Zellars describes as "a full-blown
war, except it takes place on a football field."

When the Nutcracker begins, the popping of pads echoes off the
side of the team's training headquarters. Only when Ditka is
satisfied that a high intensity level has been reached does
practice move forward. "Boy, that drill gets your blood
flowing," says Zellars. "Guys wake up pretty quickly. People
even look forward to it. They like the fight. There sure was
nothing like that last year."

That, of course, is Ditka's plan: to eliminate all recollections
of the Saints' 3-13 season in '96. NFL teams are often a
reflection of their coach, and nowhere will that be more evident
than in New Orleans, where Ditka returns to coaching after
spending the last four years as an NBC studio analyst. With his
thick neck and cold stare, Ditka was known for his physical play
during a 12-year career as a tight end. He instilled that
toughness in the Bears teams he coached from 1981 through '92.
Now Ditka is preparing the Saints to run between the tackles.

The rushing game was the subject of Ditka's first lecture to his
team in February, and it's something he has pounded into his
players' heads. "Run the ball, run the ball, run the ball," says
rookie tailback Troy Davis. "That's about all that ever comes
out of his mouth."

The last New Orleans player to gain 1,000 yards in a season was
Dalton Hilliard, in '89. The Saints ranked last in the NFL in
rushing in '96, averaging a paltry 81.8 yards per game. The low
point came during a 30-15 loss to the Bengals on Sept. 15, when
New Orleans gained 27 yards on 15 carries. With Heath Shuler
taking over at quarterback after riding the Redskins' bench in
'96, there's an even greater urgency for the team to establish a
ground game. "I don't believe in miracles," says Ditka. "But I
don't think it's going to take a miracle."

In fact, what it's going to take is a quality line and a deep,
talented backfield. Though the Saints might not have much else,
they appear sound in those two areas. The line is anchored by
Pro Bowl left tackle William Roaf and center Jerry Fontenot, a
Louisiana native who came to New Orleans after eight years in
Chicago. Also, the Saints used their first-round draft pick on
Chris Naeole, a 6'3", 313-pound right guard from Colorado. Those
three typify the kind of quick, aggressive blockers that Ditka
needs to control the line of scrimmage.

Joining Zellars in the backfield will be Mario Bates, who has
led the team in rushing three years in a row--albeit with just
584 yards and four touchdowns in '96. Davis, the team's
third-round draft choice out of Iowa State, became the first
player in Division I history to run for more than 2,000 yards in
consecutive seasons when he gained 2,185 last year. He's one of
a handful of rookies who will probably see significant playing
time this season.

"The rookies on this team might not be the best players," says
Ditka. "But if they get in a fight with you, they will knock you
out. Those are the kind of guys I've got to have right now."

Especially if he plans to continue running the Nutcracker. --D.F.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE The team's top rusher in each of the last three seasons, Bates will get plenty of opportunities in Ditka's run-oriented offense. [Mario Bates]