The New Orleans Saints were the monsters of the South for the first 10 games of last season, a 9-1 team with a defense that was running away with the NFL sack title and that trailed mighty Philadelphia in total yards allowed by only 31 yards. Then bad things started happening. Four straight losses, four leads blown in the fourth quarter. New Orleans gave up a total of 21 fourth-quarter points in its first 10 games and then yielded 51 in the fourth quarter of the next four.
The sack machine was sputtering. The offense, with Steve Walsh replacing injured quarterback Bobby Hebert (bruised shoulder, concussion), couldn't get the ball in the end zone when it had to. The team looked tired.
The Saints pulled themselves together and beat the Raiders and the Cardinals to win the division. But in the playoffs they lost to Atlanta after blowing another fourth-quarter lead. When you end up in first place, you inherit a first-place schedule, and the Saints are facing the schedule from hell. In their first five games they play teams that won 10 or more games last season; they go to Philadelphia, Atlanta and Detroit, play Chicago and San Francisco at home. In November, New Orleans returns from a trip to San Francisco to play three games in 11 days, against the Redskins, the Dolphins and the Falcons. The Saints finish up with Buffalo and then the Jets on the road six days later.
The Saints' big news in the off-season was the three-year, $5,475,000 contract that they gave NFL sack leader Pat Swilling, matching an offer sheet Detroit tendered him. Swilling and fellow linebacker Rickey Jackson form the heart of the team. It's up to the defense to force fumbles and interceptions, setting up an offense that can grind people but loses the shoot-outs.
"Every coach would like to go into someplace where he's playing a pat hand," says Chuck Knox, the Los Angeles Rams' new coach, "but those aren't the jobs that open up. I've been through this before." Three times, in fact—with the Rams in the early '70s, then with the Bills and the Seahawks. Franchise broken? Call Chuck. Now, at 60, he has to fix a team that has been steadily declining. It's hard to believe that three seasons ago L.A. played San Francisco for the NFC title.
The first thing Knox noticed was that the Rams tried to play a pressure-type defense last year, but the only pressure they generated was on their own defensive backs because their 17 sacks were a league low. So in the first round he drafted the biggest hunk of pass rusher he could, 315-pound Sean Gilbert, who didn't disappoint anybody in the preseason. Then Knox moved Kevin Greene back outside to his familiar rush-linebacker spot. As an end last season Greene dropped from 13 sacks in '90 to three.
Jim Everett, "the most talented quarterback I've ever coached," Knox says, has been in a two-year slump, so Knox brought in veteran offensive coach Ted Tollner to work with him. The Rams will be fixed, but it'll take a while.
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