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New Orleans SAINTS
Michael Silver
August 30, 1999
After the all-or-nothing drafting of Ricky Williams, pressure is on the offensive line to pave his way-and the trenchmen say they're up to the challenge
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August 30, 1999

New Orleans Saints

After the all-or-nothing drafting of Ricky Williams, pressure is on the offensive line to pave his way-and the trenchmen say they're up to the challenge

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THE SAVIOR

When the Saints selected Ricky Williams with the fifth pick in the 1999 draft, it marked the fifth time since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger that a team that had not had a 1,000-yard rusher for eight or more years drafted a running back within the first 10 picks, (The last New Orleans player to rush for 1,000 yards was Dalton Hilliard in 1989.) In 1978 the Houston Oilers, suffering from a similar drought, also used their first pick to draft a Heisman Trophy-winning running back out of Texas; the Saints hope that Williams can repeat history and someday join Earl Campbell in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Team

Drought

Running back

Year drafted

Selection No.

How fared

Dolphins

10 years

Sammie Smith

1989

9

Career-best 831 rushing yards in 1990

Saints

9 years

Ricky Williams

1999

5

?

Packers

8 years

Brent Fullwood

1987

4

Career-best 821 rushing yards in 1989

Lions

8 years

Billy Sims

1980

1

Three 1,000-yard seasons

Oilers

8 years

Earl Campbell

1978

1

Five 1,300-yard seasons

When Mike Ditka gave up an astounding eight draft selections to put the Saints' fortunes in Ricky Williams's hands, he set himself up as the ultimate sage or sucker, depending on whether the Heisman-winning running back produces. Now Ditka is prepared to lay it all on the line. Quietly, methodically, New Orleans has assembled what may be among the most talented offensive lines in the league.

The unit features a five-time Pro Bowl left tackle (Willie Roaf); a pair of recent high draft picks (right guard Chris Naeole, No. 10 in '97, and right tackle Kyle Turley, No. 7 in '98); and one of the off-season's prized free-agent signees (left guard Wally Williams). Veteran center Jerry Fontenot is coming back from surgery on his right knee. With this group in place, the Saints felt more comfortable pulling the trigger on their draft-day blockbuster trade than most people knew. Never mind that sports-talk callers from Bakers-field to Bangor expect Ricky Williams to see narrower running lanes than a fat man on Fat Tuesday in the French Quarter.

"Nobody knows what's going on down here, and that's fine," says Wally Williams, a former Ravens standout who signed a five-year, $18.5 million deal with the Saints in February. "They don't have to know. We'll show the league the potential—scratch that word—the things we will do once the season begins."

If New Orleans, which went 6-10 in each of Ditka's first two years, is to lay claim to its first playoff berth (and winning season) since 1992, the linemen, all of whom weigh at least 300 pounds, will have to pave the way. The team's defense, for the most part, is young, fast and aggressive, but the Saints must improve an offense that last year produced the worst rushing game in the league and the third-worst attack overall—one that scored 20 points or less in 10 games. The team's strong-armed but erratic starting quarterback, seven-year veteran Billy Joe Hobert, returns after suffering a season-ending Achilles tendon injury in the '98 season opener. Andre Hastings, a possession receiver, is the best of an undistinguished group of wideouts.

In other words, the passing game has the sex appeal of a C-SPAN broadcast, but the Saints insist there's a method to their blandness. "We've tried to build this team from the trenches out," president and general manager Bill Kuharich says. "In this salary-cap era, clubs choose to spend the bulk of their money in certain areas, and when Mike Ditka came aboard, the decision was made to spend it inside out."

The Saints were criticized for using their top choice in 1997 on Naeole, marking the first time since '83 that a guard had been selected in the top 10. The next year they snagged Turley, who spent the bulk of his rookie year at left guard but was shifted to his natural position at right tackle after Wally Williams was signed. "I don't know of any line that has the talent I have on both sides of me," Fontenot says. "We can be as good as we want to be."

However high the linemen aim in that regard, it probably won't be high enough for their new position coach, Bill Meyers, a former Marine who is among the more demanding men in his business. On the practice field, at least, Meyers makes even the ultraintense Ditka look relaxed. But when he's not berating his charges or spewing slogans such as, "We're gonna knock 'em on their spine" or "Hit 'em in the chest and weaken the heart," Meyers is herding the linemen to a golf course or a bowling alley or a Hooters on a bonding excursion. In addition to learning, as Fontenot says, "that a lot of big guys really suck at golf," the linemen let their guards down and become more comfortable with one another.

"When I got to Chicago in '89, those linemen had been hanging together for years, and that's one of the reasons they worked so well as a unit," Fontenot says. "There's no reason we can't be as good as those guys were."

Ultimately, the linemen know their success will be judged largely on Ricky Williams's rushing statistics. If the newcomer runs wild, the trickle-down effect will be tremendous. The unassuming Roaf has been a standout in the league for several years, but Turley and Naeole, who blocked for Heisman winner Rashaan Salaam at Colorado, wouldn't mind some attention of their own. "We've just got to do our jobs and get Ricky some room," Turley says, "and the recognition will come."

"If it comes, it comes" says Naeole, a native Hawaiian. "This city needs a big name so badly, but our job is to do the dirty work. Like Coach Meyers says, 'If you want to watch Ricky, you'd better buy yourself a ticket and sit in the stands.' "

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