O.K., so Mora's got his troops behind him. But who are those troops? Everett has done a lot better than people thought he would when he joined the Saints in 1994, but his top two pass catchers, Quinn Early and Wesley Walls, departed through free agency. Now New Orleans is talking about running the ball. New running backs coach Dave Atkins hopes for a 1,300-yard year from Mario Bates, who has yet to give any indication that he can perform at that level.
Mark McMillian, signed as a free agent from the Philadelphia Eagles, is a courageous cornerback who gives you every ounce of energy in his 5'7", 150-pound body. He joins Allen and first-round draft pick Alex Molden in the secondary, and if you're wondering why the Saints loaded up on cornerbacks, bear in mind that they're playing in the same division as pass-happy Atlanta and San Francisco.
I've taken my rips at the run-and-shoot offense through the years, but I'll be sad to see it go. There should always be one maverick in the bunch. Now the number of teams using the run-and-shoot, which was going to revolutionize the game, is down to one—the Atlanta Falcons.
Statistics buffs had a field day with Atlanta in 1995. For the first time in his career, quarterback Jeff George passed for more than 4,000 yards. And for the first time three players on the same team each had more than 1,000 yards receiving. But to balance it out, the Falcons also gave up the most passing yards in NFL history: 4,541. Still Atlanta made the playoffs, defying the maxim that says you win with defense. Outpass 'em, outscore 'em.
Sure, the run-and-shoot is fun to watch, but the question remains: How far can you go with it? Only one run-and-shoot team—the '91 Detroit Lions—has ever reached a conference championship game. Last season a 9-7 record earned the Falcons a playoff date in Green Bay, and the Packers blew them out. In fairness, the blame for Atlanta's mediocrity can't be laid on its offense until it comes up with a decent defense, and the Falcons' unit was the worst statistically in the NFL the last two years. Rod Rust is Atlanta's fourth defensive coordinator in four seasons, replacing Joe Haering, who's back coaching the linebackers. "Attack," was Haering's credo last year. "Gap control," says the 68-year-old Rust. "Get better players," say the fans.
How about Juran Bolden, a raw but breathtakingly fast cornerback from the Canadian Football League? Or former Buffalo Bills linebacker Cornelius Bennett, a free-agent signee? Or Patrick Bates, a free safety and a former first-round draft pick of the Raiders? It's a start.
Last month George signed a one-year contract, and it looks as if he'll take the free-agent route out of Atlanta after this season. Behind him is Bobby Hebert, who'll be 37 next year. So let's enjoy the show while we can. Let's watch Terry Met-calf and Terance Mathis catch the ball and run up all those yards, and 250-pound Ironhead Heyward splatter tacklers. Let's watch all those intricate stop-and-go patterns. The run-and-shoot won't be around forever.
After only one full season in the league, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is already a power in NFL politics, chairing the stadium committee, sitting on another. General manager Bill Polian, who had built the Bills into an AFC champion, won his third NFL Executive of the Year award last season. Panthers president Mike McCormack is an old pro who has seen the game from all levels. Dom Capers picked up some Coach of the Year votes for leading Carolina to a 7-9 record, the best ever by an expansion team.
The future looks like nothing but roses for the Panthers. So why pick them to go 6-10? Their schedule is tougher than it was a year ago, and they won't be taken lightly anymore. Still, it wouldn't be a surprise if Carolina sneaked into the playoffs at 9-7.
Walls, who is coming off a 57-catch season, signed with the Panthers even though the Saints offered the same money. "What they couldn't match," he said, "was the chance to be the guy."