The Gatorade bath came at halftime, and Jim Haslett loved every sticky drop of it. Never mind that the gesture was hardly one of joy or that the recipient of the soaking wasn't the New Orleans Saints' feisty first-year coach but the floor of the visitors' locker room at Ericsson Stadium. When standout right tackle Kyle Turley hoisted a large banquet table into the air, punctuating an intermission that featured more confusion than Palm Beach on Election Day, Haslett, the coach of the NFL's most surprising playoff contender, didn't mind getting caught in the cross-fire.
The Saints brought Mardi Gras levels of mayhem to Charlotte, terrorizing Carolina Panthers quarterback Steve Beuerlein throughout New Orleans's 20-10 victory and pausing in midstream to rail at one another and their coaches. Leading 7-3 but frustrated over missed opportunities that could easily have resulted in 17 additional points, Saints players went Roger Clemens at half-time, yelling, cursing and hurling objects in their midst. Offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy's attempt to draw up adjustments on the grease board was terminated when wideout Willie Jackson fired an open water bottle at McCarthy's marker. Then, as Haslett began voicing an all-too-familiar refrain—"This team can't beat us; only we can beat us, and we're doing just that"—Turley literally tuned him out, pulling on the headphones to his portable CD player and listening to Fear Factory's Descent. Of his abrupt decision to shed the headphones and toss a table that included two large Gatorade jugs, the 6'5", 300-pound Turley reasoned, "It was time to get back out to the field, so I figured, Why the hell not?"
There is nothing subtle about these Saints (7-3), a collection of underappreciated players who have won six consecutive games, thanks largely to brute force. A year removed from Mike Ditka's reign of error, which ended when he was fired after a 3-13 season in 1999, New Orleans is eyeing its first postseason appearance in eight years. Even after their lone big-name player, halfback Ricky Williams, suffered a broken left ankle that will sideline him for six to eight weeks, the Saints conceded nothing. "We'll miss Ricky's running and his leadership, but one man doesn't make a team," says defensive tackle Norman Hand, who had one of New Orleans's eight sacks on Sunday. "If anything, it makes us even more of a no-name bunch, and I hope people keep sleeping on us like they have so far. We might not be the prettiest group, but we'll make you sore the next day."
Just ask Beuerlein, who in two games against New Orleans was sacked a total of 14 times. "They are a great defense, the best I've seen in a while," says Beuerlein, who on Sunday lost three fumbles and threw two interceptions. Last February, Beuerlein played in the Pro Bowl, a game in which only one member of the Saints' No-Fame Defense, the league's third-ranked unit, has ever participated. That player, end Joe Johnson, missed last season with a knee injury and had only four sacks through the first nine games this year. On Sunday he announced his return to dominance with a three-sack performance that included a play on which he stripped Beuerlein and recovered the fumble, killing the Panthers' opening drive at the New Orleans eight.
Additional punch was provided by defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, who got his 13th sack, tying the Philadelphia Eagles' Hugh Douglas for the NFL lead. Rookie end Darren Howard intercepted a Beuerlein pass in the second quarter but lost an apparent touchdown when he fumbled at the end of his 47-yard return. (The Saints also missed a 33-yard field goal, and quarterback Jeff Blake was intercepted in the end zone.) The defense did score in the third quarter after strong safety Sammy Knight forced a Beuerlein fumble and outside linebacker Keith Mitchell scooped up the ball and ran 90 yards. Mitchell, who later recovered another Beuerlein fumble, is the best linebacker no one's heard of, a fourth-year player starting because Charlie Clemons went down with an injured Achilles tendon.
The offense's chief downfield threat is Joe Horn, a DSL-fast wideout and admitted fashion plate who has emerged as one of the NFC's top receivers. One of several key free-agent additions by new general manager Randy Mueller, Horn caught five passes for 89 yards, including a 43-yard touchdown strike from Blake, and then left the stadium clad in a custom-made gray velvet suit. Horn's role in the offense took on greater significance after the fourth-quarter injury to Williams (16 carries for 93 yards), who, in his second season, has established himself as a bona fide star. The former Heisman winner's ankle snapped after the Panthers' Mike Rucker wrapped up his feet following a two-yard gain—a carry that gave him 1,000 yards in 2000. "The atmosphere is so much better this season, it's ridiculous," Williams said last Friday over sushi at a New Orleans restaurant. "The coaches have a plan that we believe in, and that alone is a huge change."
Ditka was overwrought and under siege last year, and his loyalty to embattled former offensive coordinator Danny Abramowicz was only part of his undoing. When Haslett and Mueller arrived in January, they found an organization in a shambles, with plenty of reasons for player disgruntlement. There were no computer breakdowns of prospective free agents. Ditka had been so involved in commercial ventures that he used the office adjacent to his for a second secretary devoted to his personal business. Player fines were inconsistent, with varying amounts for identical offenses. Predictably, player discipline suffered. The low point came last December in a 31-8 loss to the Ravens in Baltimore, where backup halfback Lamar Smith, now with the Miami Dolphins, refused to enter the game because he said he had not warmed up sufficiently. Says one new coach, "This place was like a f———zoo."
In came Haslett, who, players say, is everything Ditka was not: organized, approachable (players call him Jim or Haz) and focused on football. What he does share with Ditka is a temper. "He's like Bobby Knight," says defensive coordinator Ron Zook. When both were Pittsburgh Steelers assistants in 1997, Haslett got so angry with Zook during a game that he rolled up several laminated game-plan sheets and twice whacked Zook in the chest.
Haslett faced his first crisis on Sept. 18, the day after New Orleans suffered a 20-10 setback to the Seattle Seahawks to fall to 1-2. Johnson summoned the rookie coach into what had been a players-only meeting and began venting. Haslett stood stoically as Johnson, Blake and others voiced their concerns—the offense was too conservative, the defenders weren't blitzing enough. After initially becoming defensive, Haslett calmly said, "Look, this isn't rocket science; it's football. We call the plays, you execute them. I'll take your opinions into account, but I'm going to do this my way. This meeting is over."
The Saints lost to the Eagles 21-7 the following week, then came back after a bye and launched their winning streak. They have yet to beat a team that's above .500, and the difficult part of their schedule begins on Sunday at the Superdome against the AFC West-leading Oakland Raiders. With Williams out, ballcarrying duties will be shared by elusive rookie Chad Morton and journeyman grinder Jerald Moore, who have a total of 13 carries between them this year. "We'll be fine," Haslett says.