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'Aints Alive Again
David Fleming
September 23, 1996
In New Orleans it's paper bag time once more as the Saints lost to the Bengals and fell to 0-3
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September 23, 1996

'aints Alive Again

In New Orleans it's paper bag time once more as the Saints lost to the Bengals and fell to 0-3

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1995

1996

TEAM

Rushes per game

Rank

Rushing Yards per game

Rushes per game

Rank

Rushing Yards per game

49ERS

25.9

18

92.4

40.0

1

143.5

BILLS

32.6

1

124.6

39.0

2

115.0

BRONCOS

27.5

16

124.7

38.7

3

191.3

DOLPHINS

25.8

19

94.1

37.0

4

156.3

PACKERS

25.6

20-T

89.3

36.3

5

147.3

Source: Bud Goode's Sports Computer

Back in March, New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson paid $10,000 to have coach Jim Mora and eight other top members of his organization accompany him to a two-day "people skills" seminar at the local Hilton. While the group squirmed in their chairs, media consultant Andrea Kirby, a former ABC reporter, fired questions at them during mock interviews and lectured them on everything from body language to eye contact. Benson then arranged for two follow-up sessions and a lecture for the team so that the Saints might present themselves in a more positive light to the NFL community.

On Sunday, after New Orleans fell to 0-3 by utterly collapsing in a 30-15 loss against the previously winless Bengals, the Saints showed that they had learned their lessons well. The players giggled and hugged their opponents on the field after the game despite a miserable performance that included a fumble and three interceptions in the second half by quarterback Jim Everett, six penalties that gave the Saints 22 (seventh highest in the NFL) on the season, and a running game that produced only 27 yards on the ground. Even Mora, the former Marine known for throwing press-conference tantrums, stood at ease after the game and sounded as if he were addressing his therapist. "I can usually say things that make sense after a game like this, but honestly, I am stumped," said Mora. "I swear to god, though, it's tearing me up inside."

The tortured-coach routine certainly puts a nice p.r. spin on the Saints' downward spiral. But the truth is, last week was just Mora the same on the field for New Orleans, a team that is 1-10 in its last 11 games played in September. This year's slow start is a particularly bitter letdown, though. The team spent a bundle in the off-season free-agent market to beef up its defense, and now, said linebacker Winfred Tubbs, who led New Orleans with 12 tackles, "it's like putting a Pro Bowl team together and then losing every week. We need to hurry up and find a way to win." It may already be too late. Only four teams in history have made the playoffs after starting 0-3.

Watching New Orleans come unraveled late in the game must have had Kirby herself searching for the now familiar 'Aints paper bag chapeau. With five minutes to play and the Saints trailing 23-15, cornerback Eric Allen, protesting a pass-interference call, charged a ref and drew another penalty. A minute later linebacker Mark Fields was ejected from the game for fighting with Bengals lineman Ken Blackman, though his final punch missed by three feet. The Bengals scored three plays later.

Fields's phantom roundhouse epitomized the Saints' defensive effort. Despite the fact that the Bengals' offense had only one healthy receiver—third-stringer David Dunn—Cincinnati quarterback Jeff Blake lit up the New Orleans' secondary for 225 yards. The Saints' defense has just one takeaway in 208 plays in 1996. "There is a sense of helplessness out there," said Allen. "We're just dog-paddling now when we should be swimming. No way did we ever think about losing to this team."

Indeed, the Bengals had plenty of their own troubles coming into Week 3. Both Cincinnati papers had called for the firing of Dave Shula, who is 29 games under .500 in his five seasons as coach. One editorial even named Shula its Loser of the Week as the entire city scoffed at the Sept. 10 announcement that 40,000 seat licenses—the right to buy a season ticket—at an average of $500 apiece must be purchased by April for the team's new stadium deal to go through. It didn't bode well that more than 7,500 tickets at only $30 a pop went unsold for Sunday's game.

Meanwhile, more than 20,000 tickets remain available for each of the Saints' next two home games. And a franchise-record-low crowd of 43,288 showed up for the home opener when former New Orleans linebacker Rickey Jackson was honored with a spot on the Superdome's Wall of Fame. Recently when Jackson, a Saints marketing consultant who apparently skipped the March seminar, saw an empty trophy case while touring the team's new training facility, he asked of no one in particular the question that all New Orleans seems to be asking these days: "What are they going to put in there?"

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