Gumbo was the least of the Saints' problems in 1985, when home attendance fell precipitously from an average of 59,078 to 48,599. The defense, which in 1983 was second in the NFL, was ranked 24th in the league, the offense 27th. To be fair, injuries had something to do with the problems on offense. In the third game of the season—at home in the seemingly accursed Dome—the Saints lost three starting linemen to the disabled list (Brad Edelman, Steve Korte and Kelvin Clark) in a span of 17 plays in the first half.
But the real problem was that the Saints under Bum Phillips ran the most basic offense in football, something right out of the '50s. It was a joke around the league. It's one thing to try to ram the ball down the other team's throat when you've got Earl Campbell in his prime, as Bum had in Houston; but when you've got Earl Campbell at age 30, 20 pounds overweight and as slow as the lips of a catfish, then you're in trouble. Which the Saints were. They rushed for all of four TDs last year. When they threw the ball it was always from a standard formation—two wide receivers, a tight end, two setbacks. They were about as tough to read as Garfield.
That will change under Mora, and whether the offense is improved or not in performance (it's tough not to improve on 27th), the Saints will at least look like a professional football team and not something out of a Woody Hayes playbook. Multiple formations, men in motion, different fronts that could include any number from one to four wide receivers are standard fare with Mora. The halfbacks actually take off downfield in their passing routes, while the quarterbacks have options like rollouts, moving pockets, drop rolls, 3-step, 5-step and 7-step drops. Nothing revolutionary, mind you—Just new to the Saints.
But players, not formations, win games, and it is in this area that Mora has been able to best call upon his USFL experience. So far the Saints have signed eight former USFLers—five of whom played under Mora with the Stars. At least one of them—safety Antonio Gibson—is expected to start, while linebackers Vaughan Johnson and Sam Mills should give three-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Rickey Jackson some much-needed help on the inside against the run, where last season the Saints were woefully weak. "A lot of these USFL players were cut by NFL teams before going into the USFL, so they're highly motivated," says Mora, who this summer testified for the NFL in the lawsuit brought against it by the USFL. Mora said, in effect, that the 5-11 Saints would have beaten his USFL champion Baltimore Stars, supporting the NFL claim that the USFL was an inferior product and thus did not merit national television coverage, testimony that angered Mora's former employers. "I'm not sure I'd do it again," says Mora of his court appearance. "But I said it because I believed it. There were players on that Stars team—and we've signed some of them—who could have played for the Saints, but the depth wasn't there. In the backs of their minds they've always wondered if they could cut it in the NFL. Now they've got the chance to find out."
The biggest question mark in the Saints' offense is the running attack, especially now that Campbell has packed it in. But then there was a problem even before that. In 24 games with New Orleans since Phillips gave up a first-round draft choice for him midway through the 1984 season, Campbell rushed only once for 100 yards. He had worked hard in camp and was back to 225 pounds after tying on the feed bag in 1985. But Saints fans booed him continually on Saturday, when he rushed for only 35 yards in 12 carries against the Patriots and was usually brought down by the first tackier to hit him. He was only a shadow of the runner who gained 1,934 yards one season.
To fill the void left by Campbell, the Saints have two 1986 draft choices at running back who have looked impressive in training camp, third-rounder Mayes out of Washington State and second-rounder Dalton Hilliard from LSU. Both are faster than Campbell and have better hands. Neither looked spectacular against New England as the Saints' ground game gained only 85 yards in 29 carries. "We've got to be able to run the football," said Mora, steaming afterward. "We sure couldn't turn it tonight. But we'll do it. We'll find a way."
"We're going to turn this thing around, you can feel it in the air," says Clark. "This year will be the first time the New Orleans Saints have a winning record. I guarantee it."
Or he'll eat his gris-gris bag.