Saints Earn Cellar in NFC "Worst"
December 7, 1999
"Bad is never good until worse happens." -Danish proverb.
Dear Saints Fan,
The battle for last place in the NFC "Worst" drew little interest around the league other than from fans of the teams involved. In case you haven't heard, the Falcons dominated the Saints 35-12 Sunday in a game that had little consequence other than the indignity of which team would end up at the bottom of the standings.
There was a time when the Falcon game would touch off a week of celebration or remorse depending on the outcome. But these days fans share the self-proclaimed "numbness" that defined Ditka's mood in his post game interview.
The Saints have fallen to 2-10 on the year and can do no better than equal the disappointing 6-10 records turned in the first two years of the Kuharich/Ditka regime. The team would have to win the remainder of its games to match that mark. Not since the 1-15 season of 1980 has the franchise been in such desperate straits.
The present feeling among Saints fans is akin to the emotion associated with breaking up a high school romance. In the final days, the passion and excitement that once fueled the relationship is replaced with the bare minimum amount of courtesy necessary to see it through to the end. Against this backdrop, the fans and the franchise are preparing for whatever might happen next.
Solutions to the Saints' problems will continue to be debated, but it will be left to Tom Benson to act. It's not up to fans or the media to come up with answers to the current problems the franchise is facing. It is up to Tom Benson to develop and initiate a plan of action.
Whatever course Benson eventually takes will be intended to generate support of his team by the paying public. While fans will not take part in developing the "cure" they will remain as Benson's ultimate motive to heal an ailing franchise.
How will fans react to Benson's next move? Season ticket sales and attendance figures are the most tangible gauge of a favorable approval rating. While there will always be a core of diehards who will pay to attend games come hell or high water, attracting new blood to the stands is the difference between a sold-out and a half-filled Dome.
Benson faces a tough road ahead. Fan sentiment is moving beyond outrage to apathy. The game is played to provide entertainment and enjoyment for its patrons. If it doesn't, then Saints fans will be looking for other ways to enjoy their leisure time.
When working people choose to enhance their weekend with diversions, they are not seeking to fill that time with a pursuit that accounts for frustration and disappointment. (That is, with the possible exception of golfers). Leisure time should improve a person's ability to handle daily labor rather than create additional burdens.
For fans to resume their romance with the Saints, Tom Benson cannot simply dust his franchise with powder and fresh perfume expecting cosmetic changes to be enough. Fans will have to be convinced, rather than promised, that Benson has put the people in place to turn the team around.
If Benson expects to generate box office bucks in 2000, he will need to produce a winning football team. This means he will have to bite the bullet for at least a season on season ticket sales. Benson will have to bank instead on the hope that the team comes out of the gate quickly, drawing a strong walk up crowd to fill the Dome. One thing seems certain. The public will wait to see if the planned turnaround actually takes place before paying to watch.
The 2000 season will be one that fans "take off" unless something dramatic, if not miraculous, happens to reshape the franchise. It's now Tom Benson's job to make the right decisions that will bring his team out of the cellar and into contention.
Until Next Time,
What Next for Ailing Franchise?
November 29, 1999
Dear Saints Fan,
In successive weeks the Saints took the road to face the two teams currently sporting the best records in their respective conferences. It would be a measure of how far the Saints have come in Ditka's third season as well as how much further New Orleans have to go to close the gap with the league's elite. Valiant first half efforts gave way to second half blowouts as the Saints fell to Jacksonville 23-41 and then to the Rams 12-43. The Saints were outscored 52-6 in the final half of both games.
While the gap between the Saints and the league's best may not be as wide as the lopsided scores would indicate, it's still a margin substantial enough to warrant changes throughout the organization before a turnaround can be expected.
How will the Saints attempt to right the ship? There's been no official word from Tom Benson, Bill Kuharich or Mike Ditka and with the season in progress, any such inquiry will be met with the non-response of "focusing on the next game" or other evasive clichés. The fact is that any plan of action that might be formulated now probably can't be implemented until the season is over. Unfortunately, for Saints fans the offseason has already begun. Each passing week will seem like an eternity until action is taken to convince the paying public that the Saints are being placed in capable hands.
The sources of the Saints problems probably run the gamut from the front office, to personnel evaluation and coaching. Tom Benson will have to be careful when conferring with the staff on hand to discern just who he can trust for an honest appraisal of what needs to be fixed. In a league where job security is a daily issue, it's unlikely that Benson will gather much more than finger pointing or pleas for more time to get the job done from the principals involved.
Ultimately, only one member of Benson's current payroll might command his ear. Terry O'Neil has managed to survive the slings and arrows associated with a disastrous season and may be in the catbird seat as Benson settles into the process of restructuring his franchise.
It's been suggested by some outside the organization that O'Neil be named to replace Bill Kuharich as CEO of the franchise, let him name a General Manager and then begin working in concert with the new GM to fill the other subordinate positions within the organization. A plausible scenario to be sure, but will it be enough to prompt season ticket sales?
Benson finds himself in a lose-lose situation at this stage of the game. If he does nothing and stands by the contract extensions he prematurely gave to Kuharich and Ditka, then fans will respond with a complete revolt at the ticket office. On the other hand, installing a new regime means another rebuilding process that will be initially stymied by the lack of a first and third round pick in the 2000 draft.
For Tom Benson to resuscitate the hearts of ailing Saints fans, he must revamp his franchise and bat .1000 in the process. It won't be enough to make cosmetic changes or attempt to convince fans that he has the best people already in place to achieve the goal of winning a Super Bowl. It's also likely that he will take a hit at the box office until tangible results are realized from whatever changes are made.
Will Benson undertake the major changes that are demanded by the present circumstances? Can he withstand a drop off in season ticket sales while the process unfolds? Or is the best opportunity for Tom Benson in another city where he can be assured of significant financial concessions along with another honeymoon with fans who will be initially satisfied to simply have an NFL team to call their own?
This will be the most dramatic offseason since the inception of the franchise as these questions are answered in the weeks and months to come. In the meantime, fans can watch their team play for pride as the remaining string of games provide a momentary diversion from the deeper problems to be faced after the final gun is sounded on the Saints thirty-third season of vanquished hope.
Until Next Time,
Falling in Love Again
November 15, 1999
Dear Saints Fan,
Imagine that you have been married thirty-three years. The honeymoon days are far behind you and your beloved has not avoided the trappings that come with age. But every once in awhile, the moon hits the pillow just right and she becomes the most beautiful woman you've ever seen. Such is the love affair Saints fans have with their team.
Following a 24-6 domination of the Forty Niners Sunday, some think the Saints are suddenly a centerfold quality team. But the harsh light of the season seems to reveal otherwise. Now 2-7 the Saints have a long way to go to fulfill preseason fantasies of a playoff run, although for the moment, fans can savor a great victory over an opponent that has routinely had the upper hand.
The unlikely hero of the game was Billy Joe Tolliver who took advantage of outstanding offensive line play to move the ball downfield. He completed 12 of 15 passes without an interception for 242 yards, including an 11-yard touchdown to Andre Hastings. Tolliver also ran for two scores amassing 36 yards on six carries. Prior to Sunday's match, Tolliver had thrown four touchdowns and eleven interceptions.
Ricky Williams was also impressive, piling up 99 yards on the ground and another 57 on three receptions. While he has yet to score as a pro, Williams' presence has added a true threat to the Saints offense. Keith Poole also continues to grow into the role of a big play receiver. Whenever the ball is thrown his way it's either been for a touchdown or a big gain. Poole had two receptions for 74 yards against the Niners.
While the Saints offense totaled 365 yards, the defense held the once vaunted Forty-Niner attack to a meager 234. The Saints scored their highest number of points in a single game this season while giving up the fewest. The Niners were held to only three trips to the red zone, resulting in two field goals and an interception to end their final possession of the game.
Without question, Frisco has lost its place among the elite franchises in the league. The jerseys their fans wore to the game reflected one of the signs of San Francisco's decline. The numbers "8" and "80" that most of the visitors were wearing are no longer representative of Super Bowl caliber performances. Instead, Steve Young and Jerry Rice are now associated with a proud past. The Niners roster appears devoid of any hands down replacement as a fan favorite.
With a three game road schedule against the Jaguars, Rams and Falcons, the Saints have the chance to prove whether the cosmetic surgery that Ditka performed on the roster over the course of three seasons will result in the transformation intended to bring the team into contention. It will also give fans the chance to preview their date with the team when it returns home to face the Rams December 12th.
While diehards hope that the perfect display of football witnessed Sunday was something to be expected for the remainder of the season, more than likely, it was merely a "Glamour Shot" of a rag-tag team still in need of a make over. But even if the Saints never become the fairest of them all, Saints fans continue to remain faithful to the one they call their own.
Until Next Time,
Fate of Franchise in Benson's Hands
November 10, 1999
Dear Saints Fan,
The 1999 season has been reduced to a matter of survival. From the owner to the fans and everyone in between, a vigil is on to see just how much more must go wrong before something gives.
The Saints lost again Sunday, falling to Tampa 16-31 before a sparse home crowd. The day began with the hope that something good might finally happen with Ditka's troops. Unfortunately, it turned out to be another bad day at the office.
The Bucs offense, which had been ranked near the bottom of the league throughout the season, piled up both yards and points against the Saints defense. The offense continued to struggle despite the fact that Ditka has taken over the play calling from his offensive coordinator. Bad calls and bounces that have nagged the team all season continued unabated. The first half of the season is over, leaving the Saints 1-7 and without much by way of confidence building performances to convince fans that a turnaround is on tap.
The situation is now out of hand. It's gotten beyond the point where fans believe that this team can be transformed into the contenders we were told to expect by Ditka's third season. The focus has shifted from the win/loss column to Tom Benson, who must begin making decisions that will ultimately call for another new beginning.
To his credit, Benson has been willing to pay top dollar to put his organization in the running. He's spent over $55 million in signing bonuses alone over the last eighteen months, but he has not had the people in place to insure that his investment is spent wisely.
Benson owes it to himself and the fans to hire the people who will direct his franchise to the Super Bowl. Playoff victories have been accomplished with every other team in the league at one time or another, but the fans of the New Orleans Saints have had nothing more than a handful of winning seasons and a single NFC West title to applaud.
Benson did come forward last week to make a rare public statement, but did not address any specific plans to solve the problems on the field. Rather, he chose to direct his "State of the Franchise" memo to members of the local media who had suggested that he should sell the team. Benson emphatically stated that he will not sell, but also alluded to the trouble Bud Adams had with negative media and lack of fan support in Houston which, according to the Benson memo, prompted the move of the Oilers to Tennessee.
Rather than focus his attention on the media, Benson should acknowledge that the team's losing skid is a direct reflection of the principals who run the organization. He should let everyone know that he has given his top people a fair chance to deliver, but they have not. He should then announce that he is addressing the situation by beginning a search for a new General Manager, who in turn will decide who should fill other positions within the organization. Bill Kuharich's performance during his tenure with the Saints demands this course of action.
Kuharich has failed as the guiding force behind the New Orleans NFL franchise. There is nothing to indicate that more time at the helm will amount to his reaching the pinnacle of his profession. Despite the fact that the team has lost seven games in a row and shows no signs of coming close to getting better, Kuharich remains silent. His failure to step forward as team spokesman is yet another indication of his lack of charisma and leadership. His mentor and predecessor, Jim Finks, was the unquestioned leader of the organization. It is unthinkable that Finks would be without strong commentary at a time like this, yet Kuharich remains in charge of the organization perhaps hoping that one day he will grow into the job.
Mike Ditka has also failed to produce as planned. The team that he heralds as good enough to win has yet to show even modest improvement in Ditka's third season. In fact, this year's team is on track to post a worse record than in his first two seasons. The stubbornness that had been his shield up until this point is no longer holding up. The fans and the organization have seen enough to know that Ditka has been unable to either correctly choose, or properly coach his players to the level necessary to warrant additional time to do so.
Ditka is no longer the coach he once was. The competitive fire may burn inside of him, but his team has not responded. He speaks of motivation as something he cannot impart on his players, claiming instead that they should be able to motivate themselves. For a man who is a throwback to the likes of Halas and Lombardi, it's demeaning to the leadership qualities they represented for Ditka to resort to the likes of sports psychologists and motivational speakers to address his team rather than command the podium exclusively when times are tough. The team might respect Iron Mike for what he once was, but they don't fear him. That is a dangerous situation when trying to get the best out your players.
Regardless of the current state in which the organization finds itself, there is still hope for the future, albeit not this year. The team may truly be only a few more players away from rounding out a competitive roster. All the more reason to have the right people in place to insure that those personnel decisions are made properly and that the players acquired are put in the best position to win.
Regardless of the clichés and rhetoric that will be spewed as the second half of the season unfolds, nothing should alter the course that Benson must take to give his franchise a chance to compete in the future.
With all that Benson has learned over his years of involvement with the NFL, he should have the ability to know where to look for answers should he have none of his own. He should take advantage of every available resource when making the decision to employ the next man to run the New Orleans Saints as well as make certain that the mistakes made in the past are not repeated.
Tom Benson can go a long way toward restoring the faith of the fans by taking action. Should he stand firm with the decisions that have already been made, we will be left to conclude that he is satisfied with the current product. Unfortunately, there is no way that product can be enthusiastically supported.
Until Next Time,
Fans Must Dig Deep to Maintain Faith
November 1, 1999
Dear Saints Fan,
In the Christian world, the crowd often persecuted the Saints. In the NFL, it's the other way around. Sunday's 16-21 last second loss to the previously winless, expansion Browns ranks among the worst days in the history of the franchise.
Fans needed to see more than a win against Cleveland to resurrect hope for the remainder of the season. The post game reports should have been about the overall command of an opponent on the way to a lopsided victory. But while Ricky got his yards and the Saints dominated practically every statistical category, it was not enough to secure a win.
Five New Orleans turnovers kept the Saints off the scoreboard and the Browns in the lead 14-13 when the Saints took over on their own thirty-seven with 3:41 left to play. Tolliver directed the team down the field where the Saints faced third and eleven on the Brown thirty-six with only thirty-two seconds remaining in the game. Lamar Smith banged for eight yards up the middle to get the ball to the twenty-eight, placing Doug Brien in position to kick the game winning field goal. But rather than let additional time run off the clock, Tolliver called an immediate time out which left twenty-six seconds to go. The kick was good and the Saints had recaptured the lead 16-14.
Cleveland returned the ensuing kickoff to their own twenty-five facing a two point deficit with only fifteen seconds to overcome it. After his first pass fell incomplete, Couch completed his next attempt for nineteen yards to the Brown forty-four where the receiver went out of bounds. With two seconds left, Couch dropped into the shotgun, eluded a three-man rush, and then heaved a Hail Mary pass with all his might into the end zone. Sammy Knight got his hands on the ball but somehow it shot upward and behind the defenders into the hands of the Browns receiver. With that, the final gun sounded on New Orleans' sixth consecutive defeat.
The team finds itself in the cellar once again. To make matters worse, it's during a season when the division and the rest of the league has produced no clear cut favorite to win it all. One game away from the midpoint of the season and fans are already backing off the modest expectation of a break-even year.
After being exposed to the manner in which the latest loss occurred, fans have become numb to the current state of affairs. Visions of a 1-15 season appear more frequently in the dazed minds of Saints fans than the miracle of 10-6. The Saints have been branded as the team that let Cleveland break into the win column. Now the opposition will be equally determined to avoid the indignity losing to the Saints.
For the diehard who continues to stand by the team in these, the darkest of times, perhaps the reward will ultimately be realized. Yet the question ""Why Us?" still hangs heavily over the spirit of those who put their hearts and hopes into the team.
Fans are left only to their faith at this point. Not faith that has been previously misplaced in Tom Benson, Bill Kuharich or Mike Ditka, but faith in a higher power that will somehow intercede on our behalf.
The next test of faith comes Sunday against Tampa. The Bucs are favored to win. Should the Saints prevail, it would be nothing less than an overt sign of divine intervention.
Until Next Time,
Focus on Ditka Obscures Deeper Issues
October 27, 1999
Dear Saints Fan,
Investing hopes and dreams with the New Orleans Saints has become a lot like having social security deducted from your paycheck. It's not doing you a damn bit of good now, and it doesn't look to pay off in the immediate future.
With one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, Mike Ditka's tenure as head coach of the Saints appears to be coming to an end. Sunday's 31-3 loss to a somewhat pedestrian New York Giant team added to the current five game losing streak and leaves the team 1-5 on the season. To make matters worse, the Saints had the look Sunday of a team that has cashed it in for the season. Now the most devoted Ditka supporters struggle to justify hope that he can stop the skid.
After three offseasons to build the roster, countless practice sessions to teach his players and thirty-eight regular season games that have only produced thirteen victories, Ditka has had sufficient time to work his magic. Unfortunately, it's amounted to little more than a shell game for fans who were promised that this would be the year.
Some want Ditka out now, basically for the reasons stated above. But if Ditka were to be fired or resign before the season ends, the immediate satisfaction that his detractors may enjoy would be quickly replaced by a strong surge of apathy after it becomes apparent that the results will be no different with an interim coach at the helm.
Ditka should be forced, if necessary, to stay at his post until the final gun sounds on the year. He should be the front man to take the heat for as long as the slide continues. He should also be the man to take credit should he be able to turn the team around. The only alternative at this stage of the season is to promote an assistant from within. It would solve nothing to allow one of his assistants to have to explain the losses that are customarily expected whenever an interim coach takes over.
If the death knell is sounding on Ditka's tenure with the Saints, then the only opportunity the organization will have to consider a full time replacement is after the season is over. But when that happens, fans will revisit another problem that has been suppressed under the uproar surrounding the head coach.
If Ditka cannot rally the troops on the field, then Bill Kuharich and Tom Benson must come to the forefront to right the ship. Because trust in Kuharich and Benson cannot be willingly placed, a deeper problem is revealed.
Tom Benson is being forced to take a hard look at his organization from top to bottom. He was convinced by Kuharich and Ditka to spend a substantial amount of up front cash to secure high priced players in exchange for the promise that the corner would be turned this year. He also faces the off the field challenge of preparing to take on the State to negotiate revenue issues that could determine whether the team will remain in New Orleans. If the franchise is to ever reach the pinnacle of the NFL, owner Tom Benson will have to begin making the right decisions about his team now, with little margin for error.
Benson faced similar circumstances after Mora resigned in 1996. He had a head start on the rest of the league to get his house in order to strike when the time was right. It then took until the end of January 1997 before the attempt to hire Bill Polian as GM failed. Benson's forced option was to promote Kuharich who then persuaded Benson to hire Ditka. If Benson fails to step forward at this time to do what is necessary to remedy the situation, the public will be left to resort to speculation, anger and worst of all, giving up their support of the team.
As for Kuharich, his fate is closely linked to Ditka's. While Kuharich may a better football man now than he was when he got started in the business, the Saints have not made the progress demanded by the owner or the fans under his charge. Benson must begin to put the people in place capable of transforming his franchise into the winning organization that fans deserve.
Finding another head coach is a chore in itself. But if Benson has to shoulder the additional burdens of replacing Kuharich, along with dealing with the folks in Baton Rouge over money, it might be too much to expect of him. In the final analysis, the best scenario for Benson might be to look for local investors to purchase the team and conclude the sale as quickly as possible.
Fans are facing a true disaster this time around that involves more than suffering through another rebuilding period should Ditka move on. To salvage any hope for the future of the franchise, drastic changes will have to be made at key positions throughout the organization. Unfortunately, should history continue to repeat itself, the next words fans can expect to hear from Tom Benson will be to the effect that he has the best people in place to get the team to the Super Bowl.
Where will it end? To borrow a phrase from Mike Ditka, "I don't know." But fans who have given so much of themselves to the Saints over the years may be unwilling to sacrifice much more without a convincing reason to do so.
Until Next Time,
Latest Loss a Gripping Experience
October 19, 1999
Dear Saints Fan,
Famine, pestilence and the rest of the seven plagues might be the only trials left for Saints fans to endure. Suffering through successive seasons of dashed expectations may not reach biblical proportions, but it comes mighty close for those who follow the team with their heart and soul.
Another third quarter lead was not enough for the Saints to claim victory over the Titans Sunday. Tennessee scored seventeen fourth quarter points to win the game 24-21. The Saint's fourth consecutive defeat in the fourth quarter was another tough loss for the team and the fans.
Frustration reached a boiling point with Ditka this week when he grabbed the... er, "spotlight" Sunday by responding to hecklers with obscene gestures. That outburst cost him an apology and a $20,000 fine from the organization. Now fan disappointment has taken on a sharper edge that borders on anarchy. The question with many observers following Sunday's loss is not whether Ditka can get the job done, but if he should remain as head coach of the Saints.
The roller coaster that Saints fans have been riding since Ditka came on board has reached another low point. Following an off season when hope had been re-ignited, the team's current 1-4 record has supplanted many of the reasons that were promoted to justify the turnaround year that was expected.
Too many questions without answers have fans hoping for a miracle, but knowing in their hearts that it is extremely unlikely that the team will enjoy its first winning season since 1992. The Saints now have to finish the remainder of the season 7-4 to merely reach the break-even mark.
Ditka maintains that "We're better than our record." If he's speaking about the ability of his players to win, there might be good reason to agree with that statement. It would also be reasonable to infer that if there are enough players on the roster capable of winning, then they either have not been shown the way, or refuse to do what it takes to reach their potential. Neither is an acceptable stage of development in the third year of a coaching regime in the NFL.
If the team has enough talent to win without the record to reflect it, then the finger is routinely pointed by fans at the coach (and not vice-versa). But Ditka may be taking more heat than he deserves.
It's the players who ultimately determine the outcome on a given Sunday. Broken plays, penalties, ill-timed interceptions, bad calls and injuries have all had a significant role in the Saints fourth quarter misfortunes. None of these factors can be directly attributed to the coach, yet disgruntled fans have little recourse than to insist that someone else at the helm would make the difference.
Running the ball is the benchmark of Ditka's plan to win it all. The most puzzling letdown so far this season is the failure of the offensive line to open the holes necessary to establish the running game. Despite the talent that appears on paper, the guys up front have yet to dominate the opposition. But these are Ditka's players. The guys he selected to give his franchise running back room to get past the line of scrimmage. Whether it's a poor job of coaching, motivation or the inability to evaluate talent, Ditka has to accept the brunt of responsibility for the product on the field.
While the record does not reflect it, the '99 version of the Saints is the best squad the organization has put together in a long time. They are coming closer, but have not turned the corner. Ditka and his players can salvage the season and the support of the fans if the team continues to play hard and begins to chalk up some victories. But if that doesn't happen, you won't have to call the Psychic Friends Network to predict that the paying public will demand something more than the promise that things will be better next year.
Until Next Time,
Saints Must Defy History to Salvage Season
October 11, 1999
Dear Saints Fan,
The Falcons extended an eight game win streak against the Saints to nine Sunday, mustering just enough by way of key plays to escape with a 20-17 victory. A home crowd of over 57,000 braved the elements only to witness another fourth quarter meltdown by a Saints team that has been unable to put an opponent away for the last three games.
The final gun may have sounded more than the end of the football game. It put a bullet in the hearts of fans who are quickly losing hope that Ditka will get the job done in New Orleans. Iron Mike is now 13-23 as head coach of the Saints, compelling Saint's faithful to turn a deaf ear to his promise of delivering a winner.
Being a Saints fan has truly become an act of will. In three consecutive losses, the Saints have been unable to put together a complete game. The most exasperating aspect of the team's performance thus far is that the talent seems to be on the roster, but the results are not being realized.
From the stands, the Saints offense has the look of a chicken trying to find its head. Despite the investment the team made to solidify the line, it has yet to dominate an opponent. The running game has been stuck in first gear and the passing game, except for a few big plays, has been little threat to scorch the scoreboard. The offense has yet to score in the fourth quarter this season. The defense has played exceptionally well for the better part of all of the games this season, but seems to find a way to let the other team back in it.
The coaches and players now have to overcome a mindset that could spell disaster if victories continue to elude the team. Winning is the only answer. This will be particularly difficult now that the Saints have to dig out from an early season hole.
In thirty-two seasons, the Saints have started 1-3 or worse twenty times. Only once after a similar start, when the team finished the year 9-7 in 1989, did the Saints salvage a winning season. The Saints did manage an 8-8 record after a 1-3 start in 1990, which was enough to qualify for the playoffs and a 6-16 loss to the Bears.
As problematic as the task might appear, the Saints will have to overcome the odds and turn this season around. If not, then fans will likely be subjected to yet another coaching change and rebuilding effort without the benefit of a first round draft pick in 2000. Adding to the confusion will be the issue of whether Benson decides to hold onto the team as well as the status of current GM Bill Kuharich.
Unlike seasons past, parity throughout the league still leaves the Saints in control of their destiny. While history may dampen expectations, the team still has enough talent to turn in a winning season. The burden is squarely on the shoulders of Mike Ditka and his coaches to convince the team to play hard and learn to win.
The next opportunity comes this week in the Dome when the 4-1 Titans come to town. Early reports are that both Hobert and Ricky Williams will be held out of the game and that Ditka is still undecided whether Tolliver or Wuerffel will start at quarterback. It will be a true test of the character of the team to see how the game unfolds. It will be an even greater challenge for fans who desperately want to see a winning tradition established after so many years of unrealized hope.
Mike Ditka claims that no one can match his disappointment when the
team loses. The magnitude of his frustration must be extraordinary if it
exceeds the current state of mind of Saints fans who continue to suffer
through another season of unrealized expectations.
Until Next Time,
Frustration Mounts with Latest Loss
October 4, 1999
Dear Saints Fan,
It was an all too familiar scene in Chicago yesterday. The Saints playing well enough to defeat a team that "should be" beaten, then failing to finish the job. Sadly, most fans could see it coming. Sunday's 10-14 loss to the Bears, courtesy of two Chicago touchdown passes in the closing minutes of the game, typified a pattern of defeat that has defined the team throughout most of its existence.
It was supposed to be different with Mike Ditka at the helm. He has assembled the type of players who will play hard, even in defeat. But Sunday's loss raised an issue that even Ditka might be hard-pressed to understand. It revealed a team that might be afraid to succeed.
Throughout a three year rebuilding process that should have the roster sufficiently developed to beat teams such as the Bears, Ditka has stated that the team needs to believe in itself. Apparently that was not the case on Sunday.
With the game in hand in the fourth quarter, it was adding up to the type of win that Ditka would enjoy over a glass of wine and big cigar. Nothing flashy. Just a 10-0 battle in the cold and rain at Soldier Field against his old team.
After Ashley Ambrose pulled in his second interception of the day to close out a Chicago drive, the Saints took over on the Bear thirty-eight yard line with twenty-six seconds left in the third quarter. Up until this point, a combination of excellent defensive play and Bear errors was seemingly enough for the Saints to escape with a victory.
The Saints drove to the Chicago twenty-eight yard line and facing fourth and thirteen, were in position to kick a field goal. Defying the odds, the Saints elected to go for the first down. Tolliver lost eleven yards taking the sack. The Bears took possession on their thirty-nine yard line with 14:08 left to play. It was then that fans began to realize that unsettled feeling that the game was up for grabs.
Chicago pushed the ball to the Saints fourteen-yard line and on fourth down and seven, Jeff Jaeger missed a thirty-two yard field goal attempt, hitting the crossbar. Depending on how you look at it, either the Saints defense held for the final time of the day or the Bears finally decided to stop beating themselves.
The rain began to combine with a bit of snow as the Saints took possession on their own twenty-two yard line with 9:21 remaining in the game. Ricky Williams accounted for seventeen yards on four carries in that series and Keith Poole caught a pass for another thirty-seven as the Saints eventually faced a fourth and one at the Bear twenty-one yard line. Rather than attempting the field goal, the Saints again elected to try to convert. Lamar Smith was stopped for no gain. The Saints were now hanging onto a ten point lead with 4:35 left to play.
The Bears began a seventy-nine yard drive with Curtis Enis running right for eighteen yards. Nine plays later the Bears scored on a twenty-two yard touchdown pass to Curtis Conway to pull within three points of a tenuous Saints lead. The collective groan of Saints fans could be felt as the game was slipping away.
With 1:48 remaining, all the Saints offense had to do was convert a few first downs to go home with a win. Ricky Williams started the drive with a nineteen yard run from the Saint twenty-three yard line to the forty-two. Three plays later the Saints faced fourth and twelve at their own forty, having to punt and leave it to the defense to secure the win.
The Bears took over on their own thirty-three with 1:08 to play. It was up to the defense to hold them until time ran out. At the very worst, let them try another field goal and take the game into overtime. Shane Matthews then completed five of six passes the last of which for a touchdown to Conway for the winning score.
How did this happen? If the recap of the final quarter is any indication, the Saints were simply unable to put the game away. Now the team faces the hurdle of attempting to establish confidence in itself in the face of two successive games that were given to the opposition. This is not lost on the teams the Saints will face in coming weeks who now know that so long as the game is close with time on the clock, there's a chance to win.
The Saints will line up against the 0-4 Falcons this week in the Dome. It will be a game that might well shape the fortunes of the team for the remainder of the season, for better or worse. As for the fans, it's unlikely that the support that would have followed a victory in Chicago will be mustered on Sunday as the holding pattern continues on a season that was promised to be the turning point.
Until Next Time,
Disappointed Fans Have Reason for Optimism
September 20, 1999
Dear Saints Fan,
Sunday's 21-28 loss to the 49ers at 3Com Park resulted in disappointment of a different sort for fans. Where past losses carried the additional weight of knowing the team had a long way to go to achieve respectability, this was one that revealed that the Saints are on the edge of becoming the team fans have waited to see since Ditka's arrival 1997.
Fans who have been disillusioned in the past are now expressing the anger and resolve that this one "got away" and that "we'll get 'em next time when they come to the Dome." This is a far cry from the kind of loss where fans ache over the inability of the team to compete.
If the 49ers are among those teams properly listed as potential Super Bowl contenders, then Sunday's performance should place the Saints on the same page. It was a beginning to end battle between two good teams that played as hard as possible, only to see one to outlast the other.
Disappointment, sure. But no longer the disenchantment associated with a team that is rebuilding. The Saints showed Sunday that they have the talent to compete this year and fulfill the expectations of fans who have been waiting patiently for the pieces to be assembled.
The Saints have the look of a significantly better team than has taken the field in years past. The overall improvement of the offensive line and skill positions allowed Abramowicz to call a game that took advantage of the 49er weaknesses in their secondary as the Saints opted to rely more on the pass than running Ricky Williams. Hobert was not sacked the entire game. He looked poised in the pocket despite playing with a cracked rib and turf toe. Ricky Williams showed flashes of being the super star Ditka drafted him to be, although the game plan was designed to attack the 49ers through the air.
The defense continued to play with an intimidating style that had Steve Young pressured and hit throughout most of the game. The Saints defense totaled five sacks and kept the heat coming throughout the day. For the first time since Ditka's arrival, the Saints have the personnel to plan and execute a scheme that put a good 49er team on its heels.
The team still finds itself on the wrong side of the hump that will have to be cleared before moving into the elite class of the NFL. At the same time, the Saints are 1-1 early in the season and have played with the type of intensity and design that should not only have them clearing the hump, but vaulting into contention.
Until Next Time,
Saints Shaky, But Survive Opener 19-10
September 13, 1999
Dear Saints Fan,
The '99 edition of the New Orleans Saints was introduced to the cheers of an enthusiastic home crowd of over 58,000 Sunday afternoon. Hoping to rewrite a thirty-two year history of coming up short, the Saints scored on the opening kickoff after the Panthers' Michael Bates had the ball jarred loose by Fred Weary, allowing Tyronne Drakeford to recover the fumble and run twenty yards for the touchdown. Not since John Gilliam returned the first kickoff ever for the Saints in 1967 had the team scored on the opening play.
But before long, it looked like more of what fans have grown accustomed to seeing on Sunday afternoon. Much like the typical performance fans have witnessed in Ditka's first two seasons, the team played hard, but inconsistently.
In the first half, the offense was held to only three first downs. In eight first half possessions, the Saints offense left the field after "three and out" six times, with a single scoring drive that resulted in a forty-six yard field goal. Along the way, Ricky Williams sustained a new injury to his ailing left ankle and was unable to carry the load after ten rushes for forty yards. Hobert looked determined, but rusty, as he got four quarters of playing time for the first time since 1997.
In the second half, the team came out of the locker room inspired to take the game. The defense continued to play well, totaling four of its seven sacks on the day against a mediocre Panther offensive line. Austin Robbins sack and fumble recovery in the third quarter gave the Saints the ball on the Panther twenty leading to a field goal and a 13-10 lead that would be enough to win the game.
The offense also showed a second half resolve that will hopefully carry over this week against the 49ers. In six second half possessions, the Saints offense scored twice, punted three times and was able to run out the clock in the final possession of the game. Hobert seemed to find some of his timing with his receivers, culminating in a beautiful sixty-seven yard touchdown pass to Keith Poole in the third quarter. The Saints rushed for one hundred forty-seven yards, led by Lamar Smith who had sixty-six yards with thirteen carries. However, the offense was only able to find its way into Panther territory four times during the entire game, one of which came courtesy of Robbins' fumble recovery.
With an offensive scheme that was devoid of a tight end, the team still managed to put the game away. The absence of Cam Cleeland may have been more significant than the loss of Ricky Williams as Scott Slutzker dropped both of the balls thrown to him. Abramowicz opted to use Aaron Craver out of the backfield in situations when a tight end would be the likely go-to receiver. Cleeland is supposed to begin testing his injured leg in practice this week with the hope of seeing game time in San Francisco.
The Saints defense stifled the Panthers offense, forcing eight punts. Panther quarterback Steve Beuerlein was knocked down ten times and hurried another seven with three passes batted down in the course of the game. But the Panthers also had drives of fifty-one, sixty-nine and forty-two yards that resulted in an interception, touchdown and missed field goal. Had the Panthers been a better squad, the outcome may have been different.
Credit has to be given to the defensive line and secondary for the victory. Even though it was the Panther offense that was providing the test, the Saints defense held them to only ten points with outstanding plays turned in by the front four and defensive backs for most of the day. Special team play cannot be overlooked, setting the tone early with the opening kickoff and holding Michael Bates and Eric Metcalf in check.
It was another gutsy performance by Ditka's team, but it's unlikely that the performance the Saints mustered Sunday would have been enough against the better teams in the league. This week in San Francisco will reveal more about the Saints chances to make a run for the playoffs in '99. But for now, the team and the fans can enjoy a week that finds the Saints atop the NFC West, 1-0 on the season and in the division.
Until Next Time,
New Wave Fans Tired of Waiting
September 6, 1999
Dear Saints Fan,
If the history of the New Orleans Saints stands for anything positive, it would have to be the loyalty of its fan base. But lately there's a new attitude developing. The label of "lovable losers" isn't so endearing anymore. Maybe it's due to poor parenting, a bad school system or video games, but today's fans want to see a winner. And they want to see it NOW.
If there is to be any hope for a winning season in '99, the Saints will have to ignore the past and begin to create a new future. The unfortunate truth, however, is that a long-standing history of being an also-ran will continue to define the team until the numbers change.
Following an unimpressive preseason during which the team posted a 2-2 record, Ditka has settled on his opening day roster. Every man who sweat through countless hours on the practice field, in the weight room and studying assignments had hoped to make the final cut. But whether the fifty-three players chosen to take the field will result in a dramatic improvement over recent years is still anyone's guess.
What will fans see in the 1999 season?
The key to a successful season will be the Saints' record in the NFC West. The eight games played against division opponents will ultimately tell the tale of whether the Saints make a move this year. The team has lost more than it's won against the teams that currently comprise the NFC West, with an all time record of 68-114-2. In the last two seasons under Ditka, that record has not improved. The Saints are 0-4 against San Francisco and Atlanta, and 2-2 against Carolina and St. Louis.
On the eve of his third season as head coach, Ditka is still searching for a core of key players to lead the team to victory.
On offense, fans can expect to see Ricky Williams, Eddie Kennison and Wally Williams take the field for the first time as Saints. Scott Slutzker will replace Cam Cleeland at the all important tight end position until it's determined whether Cleeland will return at all this season because of injury. Keith Poole has replaced Andre Hastings as one of the starting receivers alongside Kennison. Fontenot and Hobert are returning from season ending injuries and Turley will finally begin seeing action exclusively at right tackle. Chris Naeole and Aaron Craver, the only two healthy players who return to their starting positions from last season, will join a hobbled Willie Roaf to round out the offense on opening day.
Defensively, the secondary may have three new starters before the season is long underway with Ambrose, Weary and Willie Clay moving into position. While it took until the last game of the preseason to decide, Keith Mitchell and Chris Bordano will start with Mark Fields at linebacker. Joe Johnson is injured and will miss the entire season. He will be replaced initially by Brady Smith, but William Whitehead stood out in the preseason and could ultimately press for playing time. Jared Tomich has nursed a torn calf muscle throughout the preseason and has been spelled by newcomer Troy Wilson.
Ditka had to rebuild the roster from scratch, but the question of whether the job could be done in the course of three offseasons still looms. Just because Mike Ditka expects the Saints to win "a lot of games" doesn't necessarily mean that fans are altogether convinced. While he might accurately conclude that this year's version of the Saints is better than the other two he's had, it's also correct to assume that fans would expect nothing less in the third year of a rebuilding project.
Questionable depth and the lack of proven players at some starting positions
could outweigh the improvements made in other areas of the team.
Critics say that the Saints have not done enough this offseason, pointing
to the failure of the organization to pursue another quarterback, particularly
Neil O'Donnell, or a linebacker such as Jamir Miller. But in all,
this has been a productive offseason
that resulted in the acquisition of a solid group of veterans who will make a positive difference. The problem remains, however, that the Saints have yet to win with any of the players on the current roster.
Diehards whose hopes have been battered over the better part of thirty-two seasons know only too well that it's best to check expectations at the door and wait to see what really happens. Realistically, the Saints have the best opportunity in several seasons to at least win more games than are lost. But as far as fans are concerned, the time worn slogan of "It Can Happen Here" has been replaced with the new motto that "It Better Happen Here!"
Until Next Time,
Saints Performance Disenchants Fans
August 23, 1999
Dear Saints Fan,
Preseason or not, Saturday's 37-7 loss to the Colts added up to a miserable time for the 41,000 Saints' faithful in attendance. The performance turned in by the home team was a major setback for those who want to believe that the personnel is finally in place for the Saints to achieve more than the modest expectation of being competitive in '99.
The offense opened the game with a textbook drive that went for ninety yards and a touchdown. The defense then held the Colts to a three and out series. After that, the team reverted to the type of football that has fans reevaluating their hopes for the upcoming season.
As with any exhibition game, this one will be quickly forgotten once the scores begin to count. But it's hard to swallow the fact that in Ditka's third season, his team could show so poorly against a Colts squad that only managed a 3-13 record last year.
Among the more startling letdowns of the night was the ineffectiveness of the defense. The defensive front, thought to be the strongest unit on the team, was held in check and failed to make enough plays behind the line of scrimmage. Starting defensive ends Joe Johnson and Jared Tomich were held out of the game to nurse injuries. Neither Brady Smith nor Troy Wilson was able to take up the slack. Wayne Martin and La'Roi Glover were also stymied by the Colts offensive line, unable to get the expected inside push.
The play from the starting linebackers was even more abysmal. Missed assignments and poor execution left fans to wonder if there is anyone on the current roster who deserves to start at the middle and strong positions. Add the breakdowns in the secondary and it's not hard to imagine how the Colts offense was able to put up twenty-four second quarter points to seal the game.
The mood in the stands was also dampened by the outstanding debut enjoyed by Edgerrin James. He rushed for 77 yards on 10 carries, including touchdown runs of 16 and 12 yards. James completely outmatched the Saints secondary once he broke through the front seven on his trips to the end zone. All the while, Ricky Williams remained on the bench with a towel draped over his shoulders and an orthopedic boot on his foot. For fans, there wasn't even the solace of comparing the performances of the top two backs taken in the draft.
Not all was negative on the night. For the first time in live action, the starting offensive line was able to take the field. The question is often asked whether it's the great back or the great line that makes for an effective running game? The evidence seemed to favor the former option as Willie Roaf, Wally Williams, Jerry Fontenot, Chris Naeole and Kyle Turley routinely opened the holes for Troy Davis. To Davis' credit, he continues to impress and is playing well. All the same, this might be the first chance a Saints' running back has had in a long while to have a hole to hit.
Except for the play of the starting offensive line when the Saints ran the ball, fans had little cause for encouragement. The quarterback rotation remains suspect with Tolliver, Wuerffel and Delhomme struggling to take command of the offense. At this point in time, there is only the hope that Hobert can eventually return to the lineup and play to expectations. After sustaining a groin injury during pregame warm-ups last week, Hobert was hit this time with the sudden death of his sister, whose funeral was held Saturday. Hobert missed his seventeenth consecutive start since leaving the field in the fourth quarter of last year's season opener with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Rumors abound that the Saints front office will scour the waiver wire or possibly consider a trade to bring in another quarterback to add reliable depth to the position.
Eddie Kennison and Andre Hastings opened the game at receiver and each had only one reception. With Cam Cleeland held out due to ongoing injuries, the other tight ends on the team provided little threat to the Colts defense. As with the offensive line and the running game, quarterbacking has to be included when evaluating the receivers.
Special team play was marred by P. J. Franklin's inability to establish field position on kickoffs and punt returns after being given a shot to start in place of Kennison. Field position, as described by Mike Ditka, was among the worst from any team he's ever coached. Tommy Barnhardt's punting was also a letdown for fans who still question the release of former punter, Mark Royals.
Once the second string took the field, it was apparent that the malaise that struck the starters had spread to the rest of the team. There were a few good plays here and there, but overall, this was not a game that fans should be misled about by reciting statistics or the occasional decent run, block or tackle made by one of the reserves.
This week, attention will turn to the Packers as Ditka continues to evaluate players prior to settling on an opening day roster. Some pundits claim that it was against the Packers in preseason last year that the team began to define itself as an also-ran. That opportunity will present itself again should the team fail to rebound from its lackluster performance against the Colts.
For the first time in league history, a natural grass surface will be used indoors when the Saints and Packers take the field in the Dome. By the end of the '99 season fans are hoping for yet another NFL first, that being the playoff victory that has eluded the team since its inception.
Until Next Time,
Thinking Big In The Big Easy
August 16, 1999
Dear Saints Fan,
The way fans perceive their favorite team in the world of sports is a strange phenomenon. For Saints fans, it borders on the bizarre. Given the fact that the team has done little to make its mark in the league, other than notoriety of the not so pleasant sort, it's amazing that optimism in New Orleans this time of year remains as predictable as an afternoon thunderstorm.
As the first preseason game of 1999 drew closer to kickoff, it was impossible to contain the excitement that has been building since Ricky Williams was drafted in April. Saints fans could not wait to see for themselves whether Williams was the real deal. In the course of a 26-14 victory over the Dolphins Friday night, that question began to be answered on a strongly positive note.
If the first preseason game is a reliable indicator, Ricky Williams will meet or exceed the boldest expectations of fans hoping for a reason to cheer. He was in the game for nineteen plays and handled the ball on eleven of them. In that brief appearance, he carried the ball nine times for forty-four yards. He demonstrated the vision and power to run between the tackles and the speed to turn the corner. The last time the Saints enjoyed that option was when Dalton Hilliard handled the inside game and Reuben Mayes took the outside toss. Before that, fans counted on the Thunder and Lightning tandem of Chuck Muncie and Tony Galbreath to get the job done. Now Ditka has a feature back in Williams who can do it all.
While it may be too early to make bold statements about Williams' chances for success as a New Orleans Saint, it's hard to ignore the ability he showed Friday night. He was able to take the big hit in his first professional game and shake it off. He looked like the kind of back who could break loose on any play, drawing enough respect from the defense to quiet the pass rush. By his own admission, he was just getting into the flow of the game when he left the field with an ankle contusion that would not have kept him out in the regular season.
But Ricky can't do it alone. If the Saints are to have the kind of season fans hope for, the entire team must rise to the occasion.
The defense that opened the game provided good reason to predict that it will return to form this year. The aggressiveness that has been a trademark of Zaven Yaralian's crew showed signs of developing the controlled recklessness that is the mark of a championship defense. Without starters Joe Johnson, Jared Tomich and Tyronne Drakeford, the defense proved to have adequate depth to hold Miami's starters in check. When all of the starting eleven return, this could be one of the best Saints defenses ever.
While questions have been raised about the "Mike" and "Sam" linebacker slots, there were no apparent breakdowns by the defense against the Dolphin starters. Should the organization fail to find another linebacker after other teams make cuts, Yaralian will still have enough overall talent on the defense to cover any shortcomings. With what appears to be a deep and talented secondary, Yaralian should be able come up with a "strong nickel" scheme that can support the run as well as cover the passing lanes.
The quarterback situation continues to be an important concern. Billy Joe Hobert missed his sixteenth consecutive start, tweaking a groin muscle in pregame warm-ups. Tolliver had a less than stellar outing completing only four of eleven passes for thirty-three yards and no interceptions. He has the arm, but appeared to lack the poise to stay calm in the pocket when the rush was on. Wuerffel had the best statistics on the night and looked somewhat improved over last year against the Dolphin scrubs. He completed seven of eleven passes for one hundred three yards without an interception. Jake Delhomme did little to separate himself from Wuerffel for a roster spot going five of eight on the night for fifty yards with no interceptions.
Considering that this was the first game of the preseason, it might be too early to sound the alarm about the current quarterbacks on the roster. But Tolliver and Hobert will have to be effective if the Saints intend to march beyond a break-even season this year.
Saints' receivers and the offensive line held their own, even with a substantial number of substitutions throughout the game. Once the starters at those positions can begin to establish continuity in pregame action, the offense could be in place to challenge opposing defenses and keep the chains moving. However, lack of depth was noticeable at the tight end position where Cam Cleeland is the only proven player.
The Saints took the field Friday and competed well in a preseason exhibition. Until opening day, fans are left to follow the progress of the team and hope that this will be the year. In the meantime, enjoy the feeling of optimism that makes the preseason what it is.
Until next Time,
Thinking Big in the Big Easy
August 9, 1999
Dear Saints Fan,
Speculation about the upcoming season continues with each report from training camp. Who will be the starting quarterback? Will Ricky Williams storm through opposing defenses at will? Can the linebackers defend the pass? The list goes on. Yet there remains a bigger question that the organization needs to answer. When will the New Orleans Saints bridge the gap that separates the franchise from the perennial contenders?
For the Saints' faithful who have been weaned on thirty-two seasons of unfulfilled expectations, hoping for anything more than a winning season seems almost selfish. But fans have been witnessing mediocrity or worse for far too long and with the renewed hope that's currently in the air, it's time consider whether the Saints will become more than an occasional flash in the pan.
Most football analysts agree that success on the field starts at the top. Since Tom Benson purchased the team from John Mecom he has been the subject of a wide range of praise and criticism. One of the most biting attacks on Benson's ownership has been his reluctance to pay the price for success.
Even if that accusation was true in the past, Benson can no longer be blamed for refusing to pay what it takes to produce a winning team. As a hands-off owner and self described "fan", Benson has learned that he must put his cash on the line to attract and keep top talent. Signing bonuses have become the coin of the realm in today's NFL. To Benson's credit, he has shelled out millions of dollars in up front money to secure the services of players that are being counted upon to make a difference on the field. If the '99 season doesn't prove out, it won't be because Benson sat on his wallet.
Bill Kuharich has also taken a prominent role in orchestrating the Saints potential for success. Once the organization made the decision to draft Ricky Williams, Kuharich saw it through. While it required a healthy degree of draft day luck, Kuharich's foresight and effort had the Saints ready to strike when Williams became available. He also moved quickly in free agency this year to sign Wally Williams, along with adding Eddie Kennison, Ashley Ambrose and Tommy Barnhardt to the roster. Kuharich has also managed to bring in a substantial number of rookie free agents, some of whom are excelling in training camp and could contribute this season.
Kuharich can also rely on Terry O'Neil and Charles Bailey as part of the ongoing process of acquiring the best players available. O'Neil could well be the most innovative "capologist" in the NFL. Aside from making it possible to sign key players to long term deals, his management of the Saints salary cap has allowed the team to fund the contracts of name free agents as well as getting Ricky Williams signed in time to participate in every scheduled practice since the draft.
Bailey has yet to establish a track record as a member of the Saints organization, but his history of personnel evaluation in Pittsburgh provides an excellent resume. Where the Saints had reportedly made personnel decisions in the past based primarily on film and reputation, Bailey insists that prospects now come in for first hand evaluation.
With the financial commitment of Tom Benson and a front office in place that has been able to identify and sign the talent, it's up to the coaches and players to finish the job. Ditka has proven that he still has what it takes to coach in the NFL. Most observers agree that Iron Mike has gotten the most out of a less than stellar roster. But it's the players he has been assembling that leave questions about Ditka's ability to evaluate the personnel that he motivates to overachieve on Sundays.
Whether the Saints finally turn the corner, or fail to make serious progress this year, will be largely up to the personnel decisions made by Ditka.
When asked recently about the Saints front office and whether the organization was in place to field a team that could never be counted out, draft analyst and pro personnel expert Mike Detillier had this response. "You know how strongly I feel about Terry O'Neil. He's one of the best contract negotiators in this or any business. What I have seen about Charles Bailey is also very encouraging, but this team has one judge and jury on talent. It's Mike Ditka."
Detillier remarked further that "Mike makes the final decisions on talent, but he has trouble being talked into bringing new people aboard. In many cases, the scouting staff has to literally pound and pound away at him for free agent players. Ditka, to me, has just not adjusted to the NFL world of free agency."
So what will it take for the Saints to become one of the elite teams that is routinely in the hunt for a championship? According to Detillier, "The teams that stay on top have top people and very informed people giving out advice on talent, pro and college. You can't do everything in this business and you must trust your teams' scouting staff or make replacements." As for Ditka, Detillier believes that "By the third year you must know who has the eye for players and who doesn't."
The Saints are postured to make a serious run at a winning record this season. There's also reason to think that the organization is finally in place to secure winning seasons and playoff bids for years to come. But the efforts of the talent evaluators to identify top players are in large part subject to Mike Ditka and his willingness to rely on them to select the best men to take the field. Will Iron Mike finally begin to defer to the right people when it comes to making those decisions? If he does, the Saints could become the team fans have hoped for, once and for all.
Until Next Time,
July 30, 1999
Dear Saints Fan,
The upcoming NFL exhibition season should be abandoned. Training camps should be closed to the public. Anyone writing about the upcoming season attempting to make the quantum leap from now to the Super Bowl should be censored! This is absolutely necessary to protect otherwise rational fans who become temporarily insane when forecasting their team's prospects this time of year.
The NFL preseason is like the veil of Sheba. It serves to entice, rather than satisfy. It's only after it's lifted when fans discover if their excitement was warranted. In years past, we've even resorted to putting bags over our own faces after seeing what was hidden behind the gauze.
The four game stretch leading up to opening day is almost libelous with its false representations of what will actually occur when the games count. Starters weary from two-a-days are trotted out to entertain the crowd for a few series. Then we get to watch players who are unlikely to make the team combine with those who will see little to no action in the regular season, to determine the outcome of a game that doesn't matter. Pity the fans who leave these contests projecting the Super Bowl because their first string kept it close for fifteen minutes on a Friday night in August. Consider institutionalizing those who go so far to point out that the other team kept its starters in longer.
But this remains an important time for Saints fans eager to see our team take the field in '99.
Although it's basically a "feeling" at this point in time, most fans seem to think the Saints fortunes will change this year. Why should there be optimism about a team that has a 12-20 record over the past two seasons and hasn't had a winning record since 1992? More than anything, it will be because the team that Ditka has been molding since his arrival might finally include enough guys who can determine the outcome of games.
It's all about the players on Sunday afternoon. There are still holes to be filled, but not nearly so many as in recent years.
On offense we can talk with enthusiasm about an offensive line led by William Roaf and Kyle Turley. Wally Williams, Jerry Fontenot and Chris Naeole round out an offensive front that should find it a lot easier to look good with Ricky Williams running behind them.
The quarterback rotation should finally be set with Hobert ready to go and Tolliver firmly established as his backup. Before the preseason is over, Tolliver could possibly emerge as the starter. The quarterback position with the Saints may not have lacked talent as much as continuity lately.
There is no reason why Hobert or Tolliver cannot be effective quarterbacks for the Saints. They will have the personnel to work with this season, and as Hobert stated after the team drafted Ricky Williams, there are "No excuses now." The difference from season's past will be Ditka's commitment to Hobert and Tolliver, rather the merry-go-round we have witnessed over the last two seasons.
Ditka insists that the receivers he has on hand are the best group he has had since his arrival in New Orleans. That might not be saying much, but with opposing defenses likely to focus on stopping Ricky Williams, the Saints had better have capable receivers in the fold. Eddie Kennison, Keith Poole and Cam Cleeland are presently projected as starters, with Williams and Craver providing additional options out of the backfield. The play action pass, always a fan favorite, might be the bread and butter play the Saints will rely on to keep the chains moving. While the receiving corps lacks flash, Ditka should have a group that can hold onto the ball and make the sacrifice to work the middle of the field.
As with the offense, the defense will be relying heavily on the front line to be successful. Fortunately, we can expect a proven group to return to action this season led by Joe Johnson and La'Roi Glover. Wayne Martin will test his ability to come back from a disappointing '98, but is enough of a pro to answer the call. Jared Tomich has unseated Brady Smith to become the starter at left end and appears to have added the muscle to go with his speed.
Linebacker remains a question mark for the moment. Weakside linebacker Mark Fields is the only established starter. Kevin Mitchell will battle Chris Bordano for the "Mike" spot. Vinson Smith will attempt to hold off Keith Mitchell on the strongside. If the players on hand can't cut it, there may be opportunities to acquire another linebacker before the summer is out. Concerns at middle and strongside linebacker are legitimate; but Yaralian will find a way to get his best eleven players in position to stop opposing offenses.
The addition of Ashley Ambrose will do more than create competition with Molden and Drakeford for one of the starting corner jobs. It could allow defensive coordinator Zaven Yaralian the opportunity to cover any weaknesses in the linebacking corps by playing more nickel and dime packages, even on first down. With Ambrose in the fold, coverage of the three wide receiver sets that have become the norm in the league should be vastly improved.
Sammy Knight has the potential to go to the Pro Bowl at strong safety. The battle between Rob Kelly and Je'Rod Cherry for the other safety position should be heated. As the summer progresses, this is another area where a veteran cut by another team could be signed. But this year, with improved coverage anticipated from the corners, the safeties will be able to focus on delivering the blows and going for the interception much more so than in recent seasons.
Special teams should be solid with Kennison involved in the return game and Doug Brien returning to handle kicking. Tommy Barnhardt is a proven punter although some question the release of Mark Royals. Fans should not underestimate a new rule that forces kickers and punters to use "undoctored" footballs during games this season. It's been said that this rule could take as many as seven yards away from punt distance and even more yardage off kickoffs and field goals. Coverage will be the key. Bobby April should have a solid group of teamers to maintain field position with the maturation of a once youthful roster.
Will the Saints finally become winners in '99? Ditka thinks the time is now. Saints fans couldn't agree more. But before optimism can turn into confidence, the team will have to rack up the victories on Sunday afternoons.
Until Next Time,
Remember McKeithen, Forget the Saints
July 4, 1999
Dear Saints Fan,
Imagine for a moment, one of those rare Sundays in late October when the New Orleans sky is cloudless and perfectly blue. The air is cool, without a trace of the humidity that hung over the city since the spring rains. In the French Quarter, the bells from Saint Louis Cathedral announce the start of the twelve o'clock mass. The occasional clop of a sightseeing buggy marks time with the echo of a saxophone being played somewhere nearby. The aroma of coffee and beignets fills the air. A perfect day for some. It's the kind of day members of the print media in Baton Rouge hope Saints fans will enjoy, because if they had their way, we wouldn't be troubled with the alternative of going to the "McKeithen Dome" to watch pro football.
Two articles of interest have been published in the Baton Rouge "Advocate" recently to support House Bill 2208. The bill was enrolled near the end of the state's 1999 regular session and proposes to include the term "John J. McKeithen Superdome" among the other legal descriptions of the home of the New Orleans Saints. The legislators apparently believed that this would be a fitting tribute to the man largely responsible for making the Dome a reality and securing a home for the NFL in New Orleans. Existing names reserved in the legislation are "Superdome", "Louisiana Superdome", "Dome(d) Stadium", Louisiana Dome(d) Stadium", and "Louisiana Dome".
The bill further amends existing law to subject future dealings between the state and the Saints to the approval of the 144 members of the legislature. The new language provides that "The state of Louisiana, through the governor, shall not confect, execute, or enter into any amendment to any existing contract or lease or a new or renegotiated contract or lease without the express approval of both houses of the legislature or the Joint Legislature Committee on the Budget."
The bill currently sits on the governor's desk where it will reportedly be vetoed.
In the meantime, the topic of naming rights to the Dome has been tied in with the possible loss of the Saints and the NFL in Louisiana. In opinion columns appearing in The Advocate entitled "Name Superdome after McKeithen" (6/28/99) and "Louisiana Superdome: A name that fits" (7/3/99), it's obvious that there's no love lost in some quarters when it comes to Tom Benson and the New Orleans Saints.
"Maybe New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson should look for another state to subsidize his lifestyle," begins the first article. After all, we're told, "Naming the domed stadium as an honor to McKeithen seems appropriate." The article goes on to note that even though it's estimated that naming rights would generate $30 million to $40 million in new money over a 10-year period, "…the tradeoff is a degradation of the image of the state, the city and the magnificent stadium."
Don't tell that to the other NFL cities when it comes to sports venues. Corporate advertising in sports continues to grow, as do the revenues generated for the right to do so. Yet some believe this trend is inappropriate if it involves one of the most recognizable multipurpose arenas in the world. With apologies to another Baton Rouge luminary, perhaps the motto should be "If the name doesn't fit, the team should split."
The other columnist pulls no punches. He labels Benson's current lease with the state as "already too generous." With reference to the income that could be generated by marketing the Dome, he argues that "Personally, I think I deserve the money as much as Benson if they slap a big red roof on the Dome and name it after Pizza Hut, especially since I didn't win the Powerball Wednesday." The column then takes a more philosophical tone and pleads that we should leave the name alone since "'Louisiana Superdome' best honors all of us, the people of Louisiana who built the darn thing when it ran tens of millions of dollars over budget. The same people who have helped the Dome pay for itself by clicking through the turnstiles year after year to see, among other things, performance after worthless performance by the Saints."
Worthless, he says. The existence of the Saints and the NFL in Louisiana account for tens of millions in revenue and exposure annually. The value of hosting even a single Super Bowl is astounding. The jobs created, the goods sold and even those disappointing Mondays for the fans who have always pulled for their team are all part of what makes the Saints a significant asset to New Orleans and the State.
The price of keeping the Saints comes nowhere close to the impact of losing the team. But that point is apparently a non-factor for those who are attempting to wave a flag of decency over this legislation. For reasons that appear more sanctimonious than sane, some would have you believe that losing the NFL in Louisiana doesn't matter so long as the stadium is named "appropriately".
The Saints and the NFL are big money ventures that also generate big money. The revenue created by the naming rights to the Dome can be drawn upon when it comes time for future dealings with the New Orleans Saints. Why should the legislature shrug off the opportunity to have a corporate entity, rather than the taxpayers, foot some of the bill? Of course, if it were up to The Advocate we wouldn't have to be troubled at all if the Saints would just leave and take up residence out of state.
On that perfect fall Sunday, the outline of the Dome can be seen from various parts of the city, reminding us again about the late Governor McKeithen and how the Saints left New Orleans.
Until Next Time,
Making Our Way Through The Dog Days
June 16, 1999
Dear Saints Fan,
Deep in the dog days of the offseason, fans search high and low for any tidbit of news to keep going until training camp opens. Without much to report until the middle of the summer, we're left to rehash the usual diet of clichés. For Mike Ditka, the past refrain has been "Why not us?" If he were asked to phrase a slogan for this season, it might be "The time is now."
Saints fans have endured empty promises made throughout the history of the franchise. Feelings of optimism have preceded each of the team's thirty-two seasons, but fans still haven't celebrated a single playoff victory. Ditka opens year three of the Iron Era on the heels of two disappointing campaigns that resulted in a combined record of 12-20. It remains more accurate speak of the hope, rather than the expectation, that the Saints will win it all this year. In fact, most fans seem willing to accept a winning season as good enough in '99.
With two mini-camps completed, we're still looking for something more substantial than "helmet and shorts" scrimmages to conclude that the Saints will take a big step forward in '99. The hard evidence will begin to take shape when the hitting starts in training camp. But we won't know until the season unfolds if year three of the Iron Era will be the charm.
Two seasons ago, Ditka took over a franchise that had hit bottom. He's contended with the unenviable task of having to replace nearly an entire roster rather than simply finding a few key players to push the Saints to the top. Only six starters remain from the team Ditka inherited from Jim Mora in 1997. Willie Roaf is the lone survivor on the offense. Wayne Martin, Joe Johnson, Mark Fields and Alex Molden have held onto their defensive positions. Doug Brien still handles the kicking. The rest of the starters that will open the '99 season will be Ditka's guys.
The constant shuffling of personnel throughout two regular seasons have left fans to witness little more than exhibition style football while waiting for the final pieces of the puzzle to be assembled. Ditka has held fast to the philosophy he shares with GM Bill Kuharich that the initial stages of a massive overhaul begin by establishing the offensive and defensive fronts. We shared the growing pains of first and second year players while they learned their trade on the field. Ditka, as promised, played his younger players who will now be counted on to be pros.
The list of players who will have to come through this season reflects the development of the team under Ditka and underscores its youth. Fans will expect significant contributions from Ricky Williams, Cam Cleeland, Kyle Turley, Chris Naeole, Rob Kelly, Jared Tomich, Sammy Knight, Keith Mitchell, and possibly Chris Bordano, Keith Poole and Brett Bech. We have to anticipate Hobert's healthy return with Tolliver making a push to start. Other veteran free agents such as Drakeford, Kevin Mitchell, Vinson Smith, Wally Williams and Eddie Kennison will be asked to make a difference. Of course, the shopping for additional players will continue throughout the summer and the rookie free agent pool is also certain to produce a few new faces.
As quickly as rosters change in the NFL, they have to come together and win. It helps to have an established plan in place to stabilize the inevitable changes in personnel. This could be a problem offensively since Danny Abramowicz continues to refine his offensive scheme.
His first season featured the "keep it simple" approach to accommodate a merry-go-round at quarterback. Last year he planned a "two back" attack without a blocking fullback, but that strategy was scuttled after the season was underway. This season will reportedly feature multiple formations including tight ends lining up in the backfield as "H" backs. Throw in new blocking techniques from first year line coach Bill Meyers, along with the questions that remain about Hobert's return and the starting receiving corps, and fans have reason to wonder if the offense can finally come into its own this year.
Defensively, it's hoped that a unit that fell from fourth in '97 to near the bottom of the league last year will come together. While the line looks solid, the popular view is that opposing offenses will continue to attack the secondary and take advantage of the middle and strongside linebackers. Apparently the organization shares that sentiment. Veteran free agents brought in recently include linebackers and defensive backs that could push for starting jobs. Fans also have to consider the addition of new defensive backs coach Carlos Mainord as an untested factor going into the season.
You would think we'd know better by now, but the feeling by and large is that this will be the breakout year fans have been waiting for.
There's something different about this season that has stirred our instincts. It began with the signing of Wally Williams when the first wave of free agency had barely opened. It was bolstered when Eddie Kennison was acquired. But the defining moment was the draft day miracle of Ricky Williams becoming a Saint. Never, in our wildest imagination, did any fan believe that Williams would be wearing the Fleur de Lis. Then Charles Bailey was hired to work his magic evaluating pro personnel in the manner that kept his former Steeler team afloat despite the ravages of free agency. Somehow, it seems, the Saints are doing things right.
For the moment, the nagging doubt that normally hounds Saints fans is silent. Could it be that this is the year when our expectations will actually be exceeded?
Until next Time,
Williams Signed and Sealed-Will The Saints Deliver?
May 18, 1999
Dear Saints Fan,
Ricky Williams continues to headline Saints news, this time establishing his first precedent as a pro. In a position to hold the team hostage over his contract, Williams and Leland Hardy of No Limit Sports opted to prove that common sense could form the basis of a major NFL contract.
Make no mistake; Williams and Hardy were in the driver's seat the entire way. Being the only player drafted by the Saints, coupled with the value associated with the picks given up for him, Williams was entitled to a big time deal. And he got it. But just as Williams college career reflected both performance and character, so does his incentive based contract which will pay him as much as $68.4 million over eight years, or as little as $16.2, all dependent on whether he earns it on the field.
The fact that Ricky thinks he can meet his performance incentives along with the organization's hope that he does, resulted in a reality based contract that requires that these dreams come true before paying for them. Should the incentives be met, Williams will be among the best-paid athletes in the league, making this a good deal for all involved.
Now that Williams is formally in the fold, fan interest shifts to the Saints prospects for the upcoming season. More specifically, what should we expect from a 6-10 team that has made only three significant personnel moves in the offseason?
The additions of Wally Williams, Eddie Kennison and Ricky Williams should result in the overall improvement of the offense. Fans can realistically look forward to solid, if not spectacular results from the running game and pass protection. But if opposing teams successfully force the Saints into passing situations, then our hopes for a breakout season may have to be placed on hold.
The problems the Saints could face this year involve the lack of established starters at key positions on both sides of the ball. The defense is still unsettled at two of the three linebacker positions. Finding a legitimate "Mike" linebacker to quarterback the defense may be the most problematic task facing Zaven Yaralian this year. Kevin Mitchell, Chris Bordano, Vinson Smith and free agent rookie Donnie Spragan will contend for the job. The secondary is another area of concern with Rob Kelly, Tyronne Drakeford and Alex Molden being asked to show improvement this season. If opponents can exploit the Saints defense, especially with a passing attack, it will force the offense to scrap the running game and play catch up.
Even should the defense hold its own, Abramowicz can expect to face the same sort of defenses he saw the last two seasons which were geared to stop the run and force the pass. This will place the offensive load on the shoulders of Billy Joe Hobert and a receiving corps still in need of a player or two.
As for Hobert, he has yet to realize a full recovery from the season ending Achilles surgery that forced him out of action after only three quarters of regular season play last year. While Hobert is penciled in as the starter at present, Billy Joe Tolliver could press for the job. It's also possible that Ditka could be convinced to bring in another veteran as other teams pare their rosters. Hopefully, the quarterback who ultimately gets the nod will not hurt us this season, but none of the contenders on the roster has thrown more TDs than interceptions as a Saint.
Whoever ends up taking the snaps from center will have a big and reliable target with Cam Cleeland. But if he's covered, then Eddie Kennison will have to rise to the occasion. Something he hasn't been able to do his last two seasons with the Rams. At this point in time it's unknown who will line up as the second and third receivers alongside Kennison, underscoring the uncertainty at the position.
The story of the '99 season will continue to unfold through the summer as the coaches make decisions on the starters and backups who will represent the team come opening day. Ricky Williams will be a big part of the action, but whether he represents the final piece of the puzzle has yet to be determined.
Despite the questions at various positions on the roster, this should be a much better team than we have witnessed in Ditka's first two seasons. Still young, the players Ditka has assembled have yet to reach their full potential individually and as a team. While it may be premature to forecast a Cinderella season, it's reasonable to expect that the Saints will be much improved in '99.
Until Next Time,
Ditka Gets His Man
May 6, 1999
Dear Saints Fan,
The stage was set for disappointment weeks before the draft when Mike Ditka publicly announced his willingness to trade the "orchard for the apple tree" to select Texas running back Ricky Williams. He had fans convinced that Williams was the only player in the draft who would make a major difference on a team that hasn't been able to post a winning record, or even field a 1000 yard rusher, in too many years. Saint's faithful began to dream about the most prolific running back in Division I history taking the handoff and demolishing defenses in the Dome.
But those dreams were shaken by the fact that the Saints were not in position to draft Williams unless a major deal could be made to move up. Prior to the draft, none of the teams in a position to take Williams were willing to talk. The only certainty was that Williams would be gone by the time the Saints would be on the clock with the twelfth selection overall.
With only a forty-eight hours to go before draft day, the Colts traded Marshall Faulk to the Rams. The realization that Williams would not be coming to the Saints began to set in since the popular view was that the Colts would attempt to replace Faulk with Williams. To make matters worse, the division rival Rams had acquired a pro-bowl back in Faulk and was now in position to deprive the Saints of the draft's top receiver prospect Torry Holt.
On draft day, last minute attempts to trade up with the Browns, Eagles and Bengals failed. But Williams was still on the board after three quarterbacks were taken. There was a remote possibility that the Colts would be willing to move out of the only surefire position to get Williams if the deal were big enough. While the Colts were on the clock the Saints made a series of offers that would have reportedly surrendered the entire '99 draft, first and third round picks in 2000, a first in 2001 along with players. When it became apparent the Colts would stay put, Saints fans were left to deal with another in a series of long-standing disappointments.
The clock continued to wind down as we stood by with Ditka & Company to watch Indianapolis draft Ricky Williams. Then the commissioner announced that with the fourth pick in the 1999 draft, the Colts had selected--Edgerrin James?!
Excitement, shock and disbelief overcame previously morose fans when it became apparent that Williams would indeed become a New Orleans Saint. Courtesy of a prearranged trade Kuharich had reached with Washington GM Charley Casserly, the Saints would exchange the third through seventh round picks in this draft and a one and three next year for the privilege. The Ricky Williams trade went through, lifting the spirit of the diehards and fair weather fans alike.
Now that the emotions of draft day have subsided, the question remains - Did the Saints give up too much for one player?
Despite the fact that every relevant measuring device known to man is available and utilized to evaluate pro potential, the Saints are not the only team to prove that the draft is an inexact science. All the same, with the spring thaw (or, in New Orleans, about the time the sno-ball stands open) optimism abounds over the new players chosen to improve the team.
This year that optimism could be well placed for Saints fans. Williams is a franchise caliber talent who ranks among the highest rated running backs ever to enter the draft. But this trade cannot be evaluated in a vacuum. The organization still has to acquire additional players before being mentioned among teams projected as legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Is that an admission that the team is "more than one player away?" Anyone who follows the Saints is aware of the gaps on both sides of the ball. While opinions vary, it seems the closer you are to New Orleans, the better the deal sounds. The further away from the epicenter, detractors are more vocal in their attempt to measure Williams against the phantom players the team could have drafted with the picks exchanged for him. In a sport where a single player does not make a team, the Saints could continue to struggle even should Williams live up to his billing. But for the moment, he rates as the most heralded "can't miss" prospect that the Saints have ever drafted.
By suggesting the Saints gave up too much, critics of the deal imply that the players the Saints could have gotten with the draft picks traded for him would contribute more than Williams would. Had Ditka kept the picks he traded, the top two receivers would have been off the board along with the top two running backs. The top quarterback prospects had already been snatched although it's believed Ditka would have opted for Cade McNown with the twelfth pick, or move down to get a second tier running back, linebacker or defensive back. But what difference would these players have made that Williams can't trump in spades this season and for years to come?
Looking forward to next year's draft, the team will miss the opportunity to select another quality player at a position of need. This may bolster the argument of those who pan the deal, but does not mean much to those who see Williams as a rare breed of player who can change the outcome of a game. It also ignores the fact that with the second round pick the team retained in 2000, along with an aggressive approach to free agency, the Saints could well assemble the remaining pieces of the puzzle by the fourth year of the Iron Era. In the meantime, Williams presence could be the difference between last year's 6 - 10 and the real possibility for 9 - 7 or better this season.
For fans, we got the guy featured on the cover of nearly every draft publication issued. A running back who should be exciting to watch and who will add a special dimension to the offense. A player most of us will want to identify with and claim as our own when the topic turns to football. The Saints are on the national map not because of a coach, but because of a player who can do more to turn the team around than any we've ever had before.
Until Next Time,
Williams Deal A Tough Call
April 3, 1999
Dear Saints Fan,
The draft is only a few weeks away and the Saints are reportedly ready to make a blockbuster trade to acquire Ricky Williams. If the deal is made, it will include all of this year's draft choices and apparently a combination of all or part of the team's first four picks next year. The question in the minds of Saints fans, after years of personnel decisions that have backfired, is "Should this one be made?"
Williams is considered by most to be one of the best running back prospects to come out in recent years. Some have gone so far as to say that he should be mentioned with the likes of Earl Campbell, Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders. Williams possesses a combination of athleticism and character that comes about rarely. His presence on any roster is projected to instantly establish a productive running attack. Yet, there is a strong contingent of fans who believe the cost to get him is too high.
Critics of the deal premise their argument on the fact that the Saints are more than "one player away" from Super Bowl contention. Under the harsh light of hindsight (or even the dim candle of recollection for that matter), the argument has merit. The Saints simply have not had enough players who can compete at a championship level, as consecutive 6 - 10 seasons bear out. In addition to a running back, team needs include receiver, linebacker, and the secondary. Questions remain at the quarterback position and the offensive line lacks depth. Due to an offensive game plan that was to feature two running backs last season, the Saints also lack a proven blocking fullback.
If the deal for Williams involved only the remainder of the '99 draft it would be an easy sell. The team would acquire a franchise running back in addition to having secured Eddie Kennison with the second round pick. Sacrificing the chance this year to draft prospects in the third through seventh rounds would be a minimal cost to obtain the services of Williams. The primary concern would be whether he could avoid injury.
The sticking point in the deal is how much the team must give up next year. Trading away the top three to four picks in the 2000 draft may be good reason to back off.
Should the Saints stay put, there's an excellent chance that either Torry Holt or David Boston will be available at the twelfth spot in the first round. Either would be an outstanding addition to the offense. With the remaining picks, the Saints would be drafting for help down the line. Next year's draft would combine with this one to round out the roster with even more young players. But all told, keeping the current selection or even trading down for additional picks would not match the excitement or the controversy the deal for Williams would create.
The Saints may be more than one player away, but when talking about "players" there may be none better than Williams to put the Saints on track. To acquire him the organization will have to give up a lot -- maybe too much in the eyes of some fans. But the impact he would have on this team would be both dramatic and immediate. Williams embodies the sort of talent that can raise the level of play of the team around him. He is the working definition of a feature back who should start living up to his billing the first time he's handed the ball.
What about next year's draft? Injuries, performance, attrition and age will continue to determine needs by the time it comes around. A deal for Williams would force the Saints to rely more than usual on the rookie and veteran free agent pools for the 2000 season. But with a healthy Williams on the roster, the prospect of one offseason without a handful of top draft picks should not be an insurmountable problem.
For exasperated Saints fans tired of waiting until "next year" the deal must go through. For those who think the team would be better off to keep rather than trade the requisite draft picks, Ditka's not listening. He might need a miracle to turn things around this year. The ghost of Walter Payton materializing in the year's draft is, for Ditka, akin to what St. Bernadette experienced at Lourdes. No matter what the public outcry may be, the coach is intent on getting Williams.
Williams may not be the last player the Saints need to win the Super Bowl but he represents a major piece of the puzzle. The timing is right to get the star player that fans have been waiting for since Ditka began setting the stage two seasons ago. It's a deal that involves high stakes, but if Williams is everything he is projected to be, the payoff will be big.
Hopefully, the Saints can pull it off.
Until Next Time,
Intrigue Surrounds Upcoming Draft
March 8, 1999
Dear Saints Fan,
The Saints dove headfirst into this year's free agent market hoping to make a splash once the season begins. Wally Williams was signed to solidify the offensive line and Eddie Kennison was acquired in exchange for a second round pick in the upcoming draft to pose a deep threat at the receiver position. Presently, the organization is attempting to sign another free agent receiver, likely Jeff Graham, as well as an outside linebacker and safety. Now that the first wave of free agent signings is drawing to a close, fans are gearing up for what should be the most intriguing draft we've seen in recent years.
The Saints currently hold the twelfth selection in the first round. Even casual fans recognize the need for a difference maker at running back and expect that the team will attempt to find one from the college ranks. But who the Saints ultimately choose and where he is picked could make for an interesting scenario.
The draft gurus have Ricky Williams pegged as the only true gold chip back entering the draft. His combination of power and balance could turn any offense into a threat, something the Saints desperately need to make headway in '99. Williams is followed by Miami's Edgerrin James, another power runner who made a name for himself courtesy of a few nationally televised performances late last season. Then there is LSU's Kevin Faulk, a back likely to be available when the Saints pick at number twelve, but who could also be on the board as many as eight slots lower.
Trying to script this year's draft is a shot in the dark at this point in time. It requires some assumptions, including the likelihood that another free agent receiver will be signed. But to make things simple, let's suppose the Saint's bullpen includes Ricky Williams, Edgerrin James, Kevin Faulk and this year's top receiver prospect, Tory Holt.
The first possibility reflects Ditka's willingness to draft for need regardless of the opportunity to trade down. With Williams and James off the board and the receiver position bolstered by the free agent acquisitions of Kennison and Graham, Ditka could simply draft Faulk with the twelfth pick. The experts will claim he could have parlayed the pick for an additional selection later in the draft, but Ditka will claim that Faulk probably wouldn't have been available had a trade been made, much like the justification offered when he tabbed Chris Naeole in '97.
The next possibility is a trade up. Ditka may consider bundling any number of picks and/or players for the opportunity to draft Williams. He may even consider a trade up for James at a lesser price. With the second round selection previously exchanged for Kennison, this might not be a bad idea.
The Saints are already a young team and it's doubtful that any players drafted from the third through seventh rounds will make an immediate impact. The roster should be solidified to the extent possible this year at practically every position but running back once the free agent dust finally settles. If Ditka perceives that he is only one player away from turning things around, and that player is an every down back such as Williams or James, he will gladly forfeit any number of this year's picks to get his man. It's doubtful there will be much consideration about mortgaging the future of the team since the roster presently includes more than its fair share of second and third year players. Moreover, the popular opinion is that Ditka must win this season to justify the final years of his contract.
Another option involves Tory Holt, considered to be a gold chip prospect at receiver who could be available when the Saints are on the board. By all accounts, Holt is the premier receiver entering the draft this season and the Saints have expressed interest in acquiring him. The question becomes whether the Saints would be a better team with Holt or with Faulk?
Looking no further than this season, Faulk would have the greater impact. Should Ditka overlook drafting a gold chipper who may be a future pro bowler in Holt or try to better the running game this year with a blue chip prospect in Faulk who may not be the every down back Ditka will ultimately need to make the Saints perennial contenders? With the offensive line apparently intact will Ditka convince himself that one of the current backs in the stable will have as good a chance as Faulk to make a difference? While drafting Faulk would probably be a popular decision among local fans, it may be at the expense of bypassing a better skill player in Holt.
Trade up, trade down, or stay put. Will it be a receiver or running back? Will Ditka fool everyone and pick from an outstanding group of young quarterbacks or even a defensive player? This is what makes the draft such an intriguing venture this year as Ditka attempts to put a team on the field that can make a run for it all.
Until Next Time,
1999 Offseason Begins With Uncertainty
January 15, 1999
Dear Saints Fan,
Year three of the Iron Era is supposed to be a time charged with optimism and anticipation. Fans should be looking forward to the organization assembling the last few pieces of the puzzle to complete the rebuilding program that began when Kuharich and Ditka were hired at their current positions two years ago. Yet, we remain at the crossroads wondering what direction the team will take next.
Tom Benson, Bill Kuharich and Mike Ditka have traveled their chosen path together long enough to know that 1999 will prove whether the decisions made in January 1997 will pay off. Those decisions began with Tom Benson's promotion of Bill Kuharich to President/General Manager/Chief Operating Officer after a failed attempt to secure Bill Polian to fill that role. Kuharich then presented his case for hiring Mike Ditka as head coach. Ditka readily accepted after deciding, among other things, that he and Tom Benson shared the same view of the current state of the league and how they wished to shape its future. Now, at the beginning of a season when the pressure to win will begin to move toward the boiling point, each must confront their respective responsibility for consecutive 6-10 seasons while maintaining ongoing trust and belief in the other that the job will get done.
A roster composed of largely unspectacular and unproved players accompanies Mike Ditka into the third year of the Iron Era. From day one, the question about Iron Mike was not his coaching ability, but whether he could handle the issues forced by salary caps and free agency.
Ditka found out rather quickly that many of today's players see the NFL as a stage for their talent where they get paid to entertain. They speak of playing in a profession that assures nothing more than a short-lived career during which lifetime wages must be earned. The type of heart that pushed Ditka to the top in his day beats faintly in too many of the players that he must coach in today's NFL.
But despite the environment, Ditka must coach his team to a winning record this year. If he does not, then it's likely he will pull the plug on his own contract and step down. To succeed, he must continue to squeeze all of the ability from the players on hand. More importantly, he must bat close to .1000 when acquiring free agents and rookies this time around.
For Bill Kuharich, he enters his thirteenth season with the team, all of which have involved player personnel decisions. This will be his third full season as President/GM/CEO, responsible directly to Tom Benson for the overall operation of the organization. Because the Saints have accomplished nothing more than a handful of winning seasons and no playoff victories throughout Kuharich's tenure with the organization, it seems well past time to identify and fix the breakdowns in evaluating college and pro personnel.
Tom Benson was initially heralded as a local hero when he purchased the franchise from John Mecom in 1985 and kept the team in New Orleans. With the assistance of the league he was able to assemble a front office that included Jim Finks who, in turn, brought Jim Mora in as head coach. The turnaround of the team was dramatic but short-lived. Benson's years of ownership have seen the fan base wax and wane depending on the win/loss column. Whatever his expectations for the upcoming season, they cannot include another losing season.
For the fans, the greatest disappointment following year two of the Ditka/Kuharich regime is that we expected to see something more than incremental progress. Bill Parcells success with the Jets and Dan Reeves ability to turn the Falcons into contenders is proof that a franchise can be turned around in short order. Yet the Saints remain an organization that has yet to reach any significant level of success.
Benson, Kuharich and Ditka must prove worthy of keeping the remaining trust the fans have placed in them to build a successful franchise. If they fail this year, it's unlikely they will be able to boast about having the best fan base in the league. Oddly enough, the fortunes of the team can change this season if the correct decisions can be made to assemble a winning roster. But with the same people in place who have gotten the team only so far as 6-10, fans have little reason for optimism as we enter the offseason.
Until Next Time,