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New Orleans Has Another Excuse for a Party : Sudden Success of the Saints (7-3) Brings a Mardi Gras Atmosphere to the City

November 28, 1987|MICHAEL WILBON | The Washington Post

NEW ORLEANS — They've taken the paper bags off their heads and uncovered their eyes here because the New Orleans Saints, at long last, are definitely worth watching, even if the coach is still not a true believer.

Through their first 20 years, the Saints were the model of failure. Bad players, poor draft picks, executive-level incompetence, the Saints had it all, which is to say, they had nothing. New Orleans is the only club in the league that has not made the playoffs or even had a winning season. But that, apparently, is about to change.

After last Sunday's 23-14 victory over the defending Super Bowl-champion New York Giants, the Saints are 7-3 and only a game behind San Francisco in the NFC West. It's the best record the Saints have ever had.

"If this club had been successful down through the years, then having a 6-3 record wouldn't cause a lot of excitement," Coach Jim Mora said before the Giants' game.

Mora also said he knew the team had to feel it could compete against and beat the good teams.

"We're at a point now where we're starting to feel that way," he said. "But you've got to do it every weekend and every year. There have been some flashes in the pan, and I don't want the Saints to be a flash in the pan."

It took the Saints 20 years to win four straight road games, as they have now, and four straight overall, which they accomplished for the first time last Sunday. It took them 11 seasons, until 1977, to win 39 games, which is the same number of games the Chicago Bears have won in the last 2 1/2.

New Orleans, a city that barely needs a reason to party, is making a fool of itself over this team. Last Sunday's victory set off a Mardi Gras-style celebration that started on the sideline with owner Tom Benson's Saints' shuffle before moving on to Bourbon Street until the wee hours.

"What we've done is raise the possibility of hope, when before there was no hope," veteran nose tackle Tony Elliott said.

Hope started in 1986, when new owner Benson named Jim Finks president and general manager. Finks hired Jim Mora as head coach.

Finks had been the primary architect of successful rebuilding jobs in Minnesota in the 1960s and Chicago in the '70s. Most knowledgeable people around the league knew that all Finks needed was time to run the draft his way, with an emphasis on linemen first, to build a playoff team.

The book on Mora was that he would work until he dropped, and so would his players, just the way it was when his Philadelphia-Baltimore Stars of the United States Football League won 48 of 62 games and two league championships between 1983 and 1985.

Some thought it was a gamble for Finks to hire a coach whose staff included several members without coaching experience in the National Football League. But Finks says he liked everything he saw and heard in three interviews with Mora, who could have taken jobs in St. Louis or Philadelphia.

Mora, 52, is a native Californian who roomed with presidential aspirant Jack Kemp for three years at Occidental College, and whose father was the film editor for the Art Linkletter show. Mora comes off publicly as mostly boring, and hates it when Benson--who made his fortune as a car dealer--dances on the sideline at the end of Saints' victories. And when Benson extended an invitation to his victory party Sunday, Mora firmly declined.

"He's a serious, serious guy on-field," tight end John Tice said. "When he says it, he doesn't back down. If he plans something, it's going to get done and usually it'll take long hours.

"The first training camp (summer 1986) was brutal as hell. Guys thought they were at the point of dropping from heat exhaustion, but the only thing he would cut were wind sprints."

When Elliott was asked how long it took for the players to begin liking Mora, he said: "We still don't like him. We respect him. But it's hard to like a man whose job it is to cuss you out and keep you in line when you have an inclination to take a down off once in a while.

"He's always hollering. But you have to admire him because the results are showing everybody that what he's doing is successful. His harassing is part of the difference between 3-6 and 6-3. He's an ex-Marine and so am I. And being in the Marine Corps seems to give a man something that enables him to go beyond what you think he can do."

Many people around the league thought shipping most of the players out, not shaping them up, was the answer. Finks and Mora have gotten rid of some, including safety Frank Wattelet, who started 75 straight games. Wattelet was signed by the Rams on Friday.

But Finks says the level of talent wasn't the problem. Comparing his arrival here to his start in Chicago 12 years ago, Finks said: "This club, when I came here, was light years ahead of where the Bears were in 1975. The Bears had become an old and almost uncared-for franchise. I hate to use those words because it flies in the face of the founder of the National Football League (George Halas). But it really had hit almost rock bottom.

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