New Orleans then ran three plays, took a deliberate safety and free-kicked. The Steelers were now on their own 44 with 53 seconds remaining, no timeouts and facing that same three-man rush, that same prevent defense. Twenty-seven seconds later they were on the Saints' 14. "I hate the prevent," said Swilling. "I'm not a passive person, and I don't like passive football. But I'll play what they tell me to. I did yell over to Coach Pease [defensive line coach John Pease] to get a rush in there. He relayed it to the defensive coordinator, Steve Sidwell, and they gave us the green light to rush both outside 'backers."
No sooner did the Saints go after Malone than he made his best throw of the day, to wideout Calvin Sweeney cutting across the middle. That gave Pittsburgh first-and-goal on the three, but the clock was ticking down to 10 seconds. A new rule allows the passer to stop the clock by grounding the ball, if he begins his throwing motion immediately after receiving the snap and throws in the direction of a sideline. Malone tried to run a real play, and Swilling took an inside rush and wrapped him up at the 11. On the next play, Sweeney slipped, Waymer intercepted Malone's pass, and New Orleans had saved a game.
"I know some people criticize the three-man rush," said Sidwell afterward, "but the only thing we're concerned with is points allowed. I know it's frustrating to our guys, but in a two-minute situation I don't have enough guts to put us in one-on-one coverage."
O.K., sneer if you like, but the Saints are still 8-3, and they have a favorable schedule. Only one of their final four games is against a team with a winning record, and three are at home. Naturally this kind of blue-skies talk doesn't sit well with Mora, who's of the you-haven't-done-it-till-you've-done-it school of coaching. But look at how far the Saints have come. In 1985 Tom Benson and 10 partners bought them from John Mecom, an absentee owner who ran things from Texas or from his yacht in the Gulf. Benson cleaned out the Mecom gang and brought in Finks to run the day-to-day operation. Finks, who had had success at Minnesota and Chicago, had been out of football for three years. In 1983 and '84 he was president of the Chicago Cubs, and when Benson got in touch, he was working as a senior consultant for Hill and Knowlton, a Chicago-based p.r. firm.
"I had no great desire to get back in the football business," says Finks. "But I always thought that New Orleans could be an ideal franchise, if handled right. It had first-rate facilities, including the best indoor stadium in the world. Plus there was great enthusiasm for football in the whole area—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama."
It was Finks who selected Mora, winner of two titles, with Baltimore and Philadelphia of the USFL, as coach. Mora had a solid reading on the talent of the now defunct league. The Saints had already tapped the USFL for Hebert, who quarterbacked the Michigan Panthers to the 1983 title game. In 1986 they added five notable former USFLers: linebackers Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson; defensive back Antonio Gibson, who became their strong safety; Mel Gray, their punt and kick returner; and Chuck Commiskey, who started at guard early this year.
No less impressive was their '86 draft, which produced Mayes, halfback Dalton Hilliard, who has had some dazzling games this season, left tackle Jim Dombrowski, Swilling, fullback Barry Word and nickelback Reggie Sutton. The highlight of the '87 draft was the aptly named offensive guard Steve Trapilo.
Mora's coaching philosophy is much the same as it was when he was winning in the USFL—basic ball-control offense and conservative defense, which can cut loose on occasion but would rather lie back and force turnovers. (The six that New Orleans got on Sunday gave it the league lead, with 37.) Mora also pays great attention to special teams play. Johnnie Poe's blocked punt in each of the last two games led to a field goal. Backup linebacker Joe Kohlbrand's thundering hit on Steeler rookie Rod Woodson knocked the ball loose on a punt return and set up Martin's TD.
But are the Saints really a mid-upper, even upper-upper, team, as their record would suggest? It's hard to say. Their wide receivers are only so-so, which could hurt them in a game that comes down to a last-minute shoot-out. A Dan Marino would devour their prevent defense. But why quibble? Compared with what the Saints used to be, this is like Mardi Gras. Best of all, they're winners—finally.