On the seventh day he erupted. All last week New Orleans Saints coach Mike Ditka tried to pass himself off as a changed man, insisting that his team's 0-2 record and sloppy play would not trigger his legendary temper. The New Orleans players bought it, too, many of them going so far as to describe their coach as "mellow." Never mind that Mellow Mike wasn't sleeping more than a few hours a night and was, by his own admission, putting more pressure on himself than he did during his Hall of Fame playing career and his 11 raucous seasons as coach of the Chicago Bears. The Saints figured they would do well enough in Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers at 3Com Park to keep Ditka tantrum-free.
Then the NFEs worst team did the football equivalent of spitting in Zeus's face. New Orleans played one of the most abysmal games in its undistinguished history, turning the ball over eight times in a 33-7 loss to San Francisco in front of 61,838 appreciative 49ers fans. The Saints' first-half performance alone—five turnovers, 23 points allowed, none scored, only one offensive snap in Niners territory (which ended in an interception)—was so reprehensible that it would have made stone-faced special agent Dana Scully blow her top.
Ditka's volcanic halftime explosion was one of the most forceful of his career. Think of Mount Olympus pulling a Mount Saint Helens. Many Saints said they had never seen anything like it. In the locker room Ditka ranted. He raved. He cursed. He kicked things. He slammed his fist into lockers. He went from one player to another, questioning each one's manhood, challenging him to respond. One did: Cornerback Eric Allen, a 10-year veteran, talked back to the coach. Ditka didn't like it and expressed his displeasure—loudly. The confrontation escalated. Players stepped between the two men to restore some semblance of order. One angry player hurled a garbage can across the room. "[Ditka] was looking for a player to come back at him so he could get a charge out of the team," Allen speculated later. "He knew I'd respond, so he went after me."
Ditka also singled out quarterback Heath Shuler, whose 5-for-11, 66-yard, three-interception first half reduced his league-worst passer rating to 24.1. Midway through the second quarter, Shuler had completed more passes to San Francisco cornerback Rod Woodson—two—than to his own receivers. "I hope you'll be comfortable on the bench," Ditka curtly told Shuler at halftime. In came rookie Danny Wuerffel, who proceeded to throw three interceptions in the second half.
New Orleans doesn't have a quarterback controversy; it has a leadership crisis. After the game Ditka laid into his players again, this time at medium volume. He was practically whispering by the time he met reporters, his face as red as the 49ers' jerseys. "It's disheartening, it's embarrassing and I apologize," Ditka said. "I apologize to our fans. I think we're a better football team than this, but those are just words. If you can't back 'em up, what's the point of saying them?"
It's too early to tell whether Ditka will be good for the Saints, the only current NFL team never to have won a playoff game. What has become obvious is that the Saints are about the worst thing imaginable for Ditka, who nine years ago suffered a heart attack while coaching the Bears.
New Orleans is still reeling from the disaster of last season: The Saints started 2-6, and then Jim Mora, their coach for 10½ seasons, threw a Ditkaesque tantrum (he even overturned a laundry hamper) and resigned. Interim coach Rick Venturi presided over the team's final eight games, seven of which it lost. Then Ditka came to town preaching personal responsibility and love of the game, and the players took to him immediately. They regard him as a sincere, no-nonsense boss who has earned the right to impose his standard of excellence. But there's a huge gap between accepting those standards and measuring up to them. In dropping one-sided games to the St. Louis Rams, the San Diego Chargers and San Francisco, Ditka's Saints have revealed themselves to be pro football's most egregious sinners.
New Orleans already has 19 turnovers, one more than the Washington Redskins had in the entire '96 season. The Saints are on pace to surrender the football 101 times on the year, and if they reach even half that total, you can bet that jobs also will be surrendered. Ditka might even walk away. After ending a four-year hiatus from football to accept the Saints job in January, Ditka must be thinking, I gave up a life of golf, speaking engagements, network commentary and gin rummy for this!
"This is horrible, pathetic," Allen said after Sunday's game. "It's much more depressing than last year or the year before. We've been feeling so good about the situation, and you wonder, How can this happen? It seems impossible. If we don't get it together, things could get ugly. Instead of people playing to win or to please the coach, we could have people playing to save their careers."
The Saints aren't the league's most talented team, but they shouldn't be this pitiful. The optimism inspired by their 3-1 preseason has eroded, though the players' faith in Ditka remains solid. "I promise you Ditka hasn't done a thing wrong," linebacker Winfred Tubbs said. "I hate to put a man of his stature in this situation, because it makes him look so bad. Talentwise and coachingwise, we're probably one of the best teams around. But right now we're playing like the worst team in the league. No wonder he got mad."