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5 NEW ORLEANS Saints
David Fleming
September 01, 1997
As you might expect, the intensity at Saints practices has increased now that Mike Ditka is in charge. Last season, after they finished their stretching exercises at the start of practice, the players strolled off to do their individual position work. These days, stretching is followed by the Nutcracker Players on the defensive front seven line up against offensive linemen and running backs, and the two sides run plays in something fullback Ray Zellars describes as "a full-blown war, except it takes place on a football field."
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September 01, 1997

5 New Orleans Saints

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1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
1996 Record: 3-13 (fifth in NFC West)

Rushing

Passing

Total

OFFENSE

81.8(30)

181.1(25)

262.9(29)

DEFENSE

129.8(27)

177.1(3)

306.9(13)

As you might expect, the intensity at Saints practices has increased now that Mike Ditka is in charge. Last season, after they finished their stretching exercises at the start of practice, the players strolled off to do their individual position work. These days, stretching is followed by the Nutcracker Players on the defensive front seven line up against offensive linemen and running backs, and the two sides run plays in something fullback Ray Zellars describes as "a full-blown war, except it takes place on a football field."

When the Nutcracker begins, the popping of pads echoes off the side of the team's training headquarters. Only when Ditka is satisfied that a high intensity level has been reached does practice move forward. "Boy, that drill gets your blood (lowing," says Zellars. "Guys wake up pretty quickly. People even look forward to it. They like the fight. There sure was nothing like that last year."

That, of course, is Ditka's plan: to eliminate all recollections of the Saints' 3-13 season in '96. NFL teams are often a reflection of their coach, and nowhere will that be more evident than in New Orleans, where Ditka returns to coaching after spending the last four years as an NBC studio analyst. With his thick neck and cold stare, Ditka was known for his physical play during a 12-year career as a tight end. He instilled that toughness in the Bears teams he coached from 1981 through '92. Now Ditka is preparing the Saints to run between the tackles.

The rushing game was the subject of Ditka's first lecture to his team in February, and it's something he has pounded into his players' heads. "Run the ball, run the ball, run the ball," says rookie tailback Troy Davis. "That's about all that ever comes out of his mouth."

The last New Orleans player to gain 1,000 yards in a season was Dalton Hilliard, in '89. The Saints ranked last in the NFL in rushing in '96, averaging a paltry 81.8 yards per game. The low point came during a 30-15 loss to the Bengals on Sept. 15, when New Orleans gained 27 yards on 15 carries. With Heath Shuler taking over at quarterback after riding the Redskins' bench in '96, there's an even greater urgency for the team to establish a ground game. "I don't believe in miracles," says Ditka. "But I don't think it's going to take a miracle."

In fact, what it's going to take is a quality line and a deep, talented backfield. Though the Saints might not have much else, they appear sound in those two areas. The line is anchored by Pro Bowl left tackle William Roaf and center Jerry Fontenot, a Louisiana native who came to New Orleans after eight years in Chicago. Also, the Saints used their first-round draft pick on Chris Naeole, a 6'3", 313-pound right guard from Colorado. Those three typify the kind of quick, aggressive blockers that Ditka needs to control the line of scrimmage.

Joining Zellars in the backfield will be Mario Bates, who has led the team in rushing three years in a row—albeit with just 584 yards and four touchdowns in '96. Davis, the team's third-round draft choice out of Iowa State, became the first player in Division I history to run for more than 2,000 yards in consecutive seasons when he gained 2,185 last year. He's one of a handful of rookies who will probably see significant playing time this season.

"The rookies on this team might not be the best players," says Ditka. "But if they get in a fight with you, they will knock you out. Those are the kind of guys I've got to have right now."

Especially if he plans to continue running the Nutcracker.

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