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Pro Football : Putting It Together Isn't Everything, It's Only Thing for Mora

December 30, 1987|Bob Oates

NEW ORLEANS — Every generation or so, a special kind of coach shows up in the National Football League.

He isn't particularly creative, but he is uncommonly well organized and disciplined, he seems to know everything there is to know about football, and, above all, he has a way of getting his team to play together, to play hard and to play well--with tolerable consistency.

Vince Lombardi was such a coach, and the New Orleans Saints may have another one now.

Jim Mora, who in his second NFL season has led the Saints to a 12-3 record and into the playoffs, which will begin here Sunday with a visit by the Minnesota Vikings.

The San Francisco 49ers' Bill Walsh is a different type. Walsh is more of a genius, his NFL opponents say. They call him the league's brightest coach.

They usually refer to Miami Dolphin Coach Don Shula as simply the game's best coach--though flawed by a strange inability to recognize and draft the kind of player that Walsh finds routinely.

As a leader, Lombardi was much less creative than Walsh or Shula--or even Lombardi's great rival, Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys--but no coach ever fielded a more cohesive, more determined, better-drilled football team.

And the Saints under Mora seem to be like that.

Mora, like Lombardi, inherited most of his club from preceding regimes.

"Basically, this is Bum Phillips' defensive team," Walsh said the other day, referring to the 1981-85 coach of the Saints.

"Bum had one of the league's best defenses, and they're veterans now. The Saints have a great defense and a good offense."

In the beginning, about the same was said of Lombardi's Packers before Hall of Famers Bart Starr and Paul Hornung settled into the offense.

Much of Lombardi's material had been found by his predecessors. What Lombardi did--and what Mora has done--is use the same material and sew different results.

In another parallel, Mora has developed a team that has the capability to run every offensive play there is from every formation used in the league today.

"You've got to be able to do it all," he said.

Lombardi thought so, too. He used to say, first, that this helped defensive preparation. Second, with a big bag of plays, offensive game plans can be more selective.

In action, though, Lombardi was deeply conservative, essentially, and so is Mora. They won't be remembered as innovators.

They have excelled as borrowers, though, knowing what to borrow and to emphasize. And a football game is one place where that kind has a chance to beat an innovative rival.

It isn't so much what you do in football, it's how you do it.

Mora, who coached under Dick Vermeil at UCLA, produced two champions in the United States Football League.

He hasn't accomplished much else yet, but give him time.

Jim Finks, the general manager who hired Mora, seems to be on his way again.

As the general manager of a veteran losing team at Minnesota in 1968, Finks made the playoffs with his second-year coach, Bud Grant, who eventually led the Vikings into four Super Bowls.

Then, taking over another loser at Chicago, he made the 1977 playoffs with a third-year coach, Jack Pardee. Then there was the Bear team that eventually won the Super Bowl with Coach Mike Ditka and a bunch of players drafted during Finks' regime.

Three decades. Three cities. Three winners. Is it getting easier?

"It never gets any easier," Finks said. "But every year it's more fun."

A famous NFL hard-liner, Finks has a simple formula: Hire sound, conservative coaches and draft sound, dependable players.

Almost the first thing he did in New Orleans, after hiring Mora, was draft three running backs consecutively in the early rounds of 1986--Dalton Hilliard, Rueben Mayes and Barry Word.

Today they are the Saints' backfield, with Hilliard and Mayes alternating at halfback.

The rest of the team consists mainly of Phillips' holdovers and USFL players who came over with Mora.

New Orleans has become the USFL's last and greatest stand.

The Saints could get to the Super Bowl this winter, and perhaps win it, if they had better quarterbacking, in the view of many of the coaches and players who have played against them.

Adequate seems to be the word for their quarterbacks, Bobby Hebert, a 1985 free agent from the USFL, and Dave Wilson, a 1981 supplemental draft first-round choice from Illinois.

The Mora-Finks team has been unable to improve this position, though Hebert, the starter, is doing the job that Mora assigned him.

"Hebert never gives anything away," New England scout Dick Steinberg said.

Translation: There have been only one or two interceptions in the Saints' nine-game winning streak.

Hebert is a native son--a Cajun from Cut Off, La., who speaks with the heavy French-American accent of his ancestors.

They like Cajuns and Saints in New Orleans, so they haven't booed Hebert. Yet.

The most remarkable Saint is a linebacker named Sam Mills, who stands only 5 feet 9 inches.

Nobody drafts 5-9 linebackers, not even the Saints, who got Mills as a 1986 free agent when the USFL collapsed.

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