Is It A Sin For Saints To Win?
No, but the New Orleans football team acted as if it were. Coach Jim Mora wants to change that.
Posted: Tuesday September 11, 2007 3:03PM; Updated: Tuesday September 11, 2007 3:57PM
This story was originally published in the Aug. 25, 1986 issue of Sports Illustrated.
For 19 years the Saints have been marching in, all right. Marching in the gumbo muck of a New Orleans bayour 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 Saint 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 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.
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 first 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 degrees 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."