In retrospect, the Saints should have seen Ditka's blowup coming. If he really had mellowed, then what were players to make of the coach's behavior when the Kansas City Chiefs visited the Saints' training camp in La Crosse, Wis., for two days of joint workouts in late July? When a K.C. player clipped a New Orleans coverage man during a punt-return drill, Ditka walked over and chewed the Chief out, right in front of God, Kansas City coach Marty Schottenheimer and everyone else. Later Ditka got into it with Chiefs cornerback Mark McMillian, who was bitter about having been cut by the Saints in June. After McMillian mouthed off to Ditka across the practice field, Allen says, Ditka called him a "little pissant."
Sitting in his office at the Saints' Metairie, La., facility last Thursday, Ditka acknowledged that his behavior might have put Schottenheimer in an awkward position. "Look, I know there's protocol involved, and I'm not supposed to say anything to a guy on another team," Ditka said. "But the guy clipped one of my players, and that was flagrant, ridiculous. Whether or not his coaches are going to correct him, I'm not going to have it. Look, I'm all for the toughness that people like Coach Lombardi and Coach Landry stood for. But don't be juvenile. Show some respect for the game."
Ditka has tried to tread on higher ground, reminding his players that the physical prime of one's life passes quickly and that the opportunity to play pro football should be appreciated and seized. He's a levelheaded lecturer, but he's still a hothead at heart. The day after the Saints lost their season opener, 38-24 to the Rams, Ditka gathered his players for a film-review session and said, "If you have thin skin, leave now." Then he cued up the first play and started ripping.
"If you looked bad on a play," Tubbs says of the session, "you either hoped he didn't see it or you hoped he was so mad at someone else that he didn't spend much time on you."
The next Sunday, as the Saints were dropping their home opener to the Chargers, 20-6, Ditka unloaded on offensive coordinator Danny Abramowicz as they paced the Superdome sidelines. While taping his weekly television show before a live audience last Thursday night, Ditka stared into the camera and said. "You want to make a quarterback controversy? Fine. You want Jim Everett back? Fine. All I'm saying is, Heath Shuler is going to be the quarterback....Nobody's going to curse me and nobody's going to boo him enough to make me make the change."
"Another golden Ditka moment," said Stephanie Couret, the show's producer: Of the more than 100 people in the studio audience, she was the only one smiling.
Clearly the strain of losing was getting to Ditka. "It's a lot more pressure than I thought it would be," he admitted earlier Thursday, "i don't know that I've ever been more tired in my life. I can't sleep, and I'm in a constant state of mental fatigue. This never happened to me in my worst days in Chicago."
Ditka must be wondering at what point embarrassment overtakes the thrill of the challenge. "We were pretty sick last year, and he has killed off a lot of the bacteria," fullback Ray Zellars said on Sunday. "But we have a lot of work to do."
"We have to totally regroup," Tubbs added. "We almost have to start all over again."
It's a daunting job, and the mellower version of Ditka wasn't the man for it.