Work in Sports
NEW ORLEANS (Ticker) -- George Seifert achieved the highest winning percentage in NFL history as coach of the San Francisco 49ers. It didn't take long for him to see that percentage will take a beating with the Carolina Panthers.
The New Orleans Saints forced three turnovers, including a 14-yard touchdown on a fumble return by Tyronne Drakeford on the game's first play, and recorded seven sacks en route to a 19-10 victory over the Panthers in the season opener for both teams.
"There were a couple of huge turnovers that were catastrophic and we didn't recover from it," Seifert said.
Saints prize rookie running back Ricky Williams re-injured his sprained left ankle in the second quarter and missed the entire second half. He finished with 40 yards on 10 carries.
Seifert's return to the league after a two-year absence began on an ominous note. On the opening kickoff, Panthers returner Michael Bates raced up the middle to the Carolina 20, where he was popped by Fred Weary. The hit jarred the ball loose and Drakeford recovered, going 14 yards untouched into the end zone.
"The hit Fred Weary put on that kid (Bates) was big time," said Saints coach Mike Ditka. "I thought our defense and special teams played very well. There were a lot of good things."
Billy Joe Hobert, who ruptured his Achilles tendon in the season opener last year, hit Keith Poole with a 67-yard touchdown in the third quarter to give New Orleans a 19-10 lead. Poole had three catches for 89 yards.
Doug Brien kicked field gols of 46 and 21 yards for the Saints (1-0).
However, the story was New Orleans' defensive line, which dominated a Carolina line that yielded 54 sacks last year. Brady Smith, who took over as the starter at right end for the injured Joe Johnson, had 2 1/2 of the Saints' seven sacks. Defensive tackles La'Roi Glover and Wayne Martin each had 1 1/2 sacks.
"It was a fun day," Smith said. "They kind of scrambled around out there forever. It was a matter of time. I was fortunate enough to get there a couple of times and I was just really happy we won the game."
In eight seasons in San Francisco from 1989-1996, Seifert guided the 49ers to a 108-35 (.755) record and two Super Bowl titles.
He returned to try and turn around a Panthers team which finished 4-12 last year, the worst mark in the brief four-year history of the franchise.
Today, Seifert watched the Panthers self destruct. Along with the game-opening turnover, linebacker Keith Mitchell intercepted a pass by Steve Beuerlein in the first quarter to halt a Panthers drive and defensive tackle Austin Robbins sacked and recovered a fumble by Beuerlein at the Carolina 20 early in the third quarter to set up Brien's go-ahead field goal in the third quarter.
After back-to-back 6-10 seasons, Ditka made perhaps the biggest draft day gamble ever, sending all of his picks in 1999 and a first- and third-rounder in 2000 for Williams. The Heisman Trophy winning running back rushed for an NCAA record 6,279 yards in his four years at Texas.
Williams suffered a high ankle sprain in New Orleans' first preseason game. He missed the rest of the preseason, but started today and was used extensively by Ditka.
In the first quarter, Williams had eight carries for 37 yards.
He limped off the field after an eight-yard run to the Carolina 37 on the final play of the quarter.
After having his ankle re-taped, Williams returned in the second quarter and carried the ball two more times for three yards. But with about three minutes left in the half, Williams went to the locker room and did not return.
"Ricky has a sprained ankle, but it is not the same sprain he had last time," Ditka said. "He will probably be listed as questionable (for next week). He wanted to go back in the game.
There was no reason to go back in the game."
Lamar Smith handled the bulk of the carries after Williams left and produced 66 yards on 13 carries.
Playing a conservative game plan, Hobert completed 11-of-22 passes for 132 yards.
"It's tough to get into a rhythm when you don't throw the ball but once every three plays," Hobert said.
Beuerlein was 16-of-32 for 207 yards, including a five-yard TD pass to tight end Wesley Walls in the second quarter.
"They came out and played a lot better than we did," Beuerlein said. "They deserved the game today. They beat us to the punch from the first play of the game. You can't make excuses. They just outplayed us today from the get-go."
John Kasay, who kicked a 61-yard field goal in the preseason, connected on a 52-yard field goal with 1:39 left in the half to tie the game at 10-10.
New Orleans' defense reclaimed the momentum in the second half when Robbins sacked Beuerlein, forced a fumble and recovered it at the Carolina 20.
"The fumble in the second half really hurt us," Seifert said.
"We never really seemed to get control of their (quarterback) pressures."
The Saints reached the Carolina 3, but the drive stalled and Brien kicked a 21-yard field goal to snap the tie with 6:14 left in the third quarter.
Hobert's 67-yard TD to Poole two minutes later gave the Saints some breathing room. Hobert hit Poole with a 17-yard pass to midfield, and Poole broke a tackle by safety Brent Alexander pst midfield and raced into the end zone. Brien missed the extra point.
"It was a simple play," Poole said. "I ran a slant route, four-step pattern and planned on going inside. They took that away and I just went behind Eric Davis. It was an adjustment."