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Attitude Adjustment for Ditka, Saints

September 22, 1997|From Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — When Mike Ditka dropped his nice-guy pose and ripped his players, the New Orleans Saints became a different team.

A little inspiration from Ditka and a big game from Mario Bates, who rushed for 162 yards and two touchdowns and passed for another, gave the Saints their first victory, a 35-17 decision over the Detroit Lions on Sunday.

"We got into a three-game funk and what he was trying didn't work," Saint cornerback Eric Allen said. "So he had to try something different."

The Saints (1-3) had lost 12 consecutive September games going back to 1994, but dropping their third this year sparked a halftime tirade by Ditka last week. The first-year coach, who admitted he was having difficulty sleeping, dropped his mellow mode in the Saints' 33-7 loss to San Francisco, confronting his players and challenging their ability and desire.

"I think what he did helped us," said Wayne Martin, who had four of the Saints' five sacks against the Lions. "Whatever it was, it was such a relief."

Against Detroit (2-2), Ditka was animated throughout the game, walking on the field to talk to special teams, taking quarterback Heath Shuler aside for intense discussions and gathering defensive players around him before each series. And when he wasn't talking, Ditka was applauding and slapping players on the back.

"I just wanted to give each one a word or two of encouragement," Ditka said.

The Saints, who led the NFL in turnovers with 19, committed none against the Lions.

Shuler, who had eight interceptions and no touchdown passes in the first three games, started despite speculation he would be replaced by rookie Danny Wuerffel. He completed 15 of 21 passes for 202 yards and a touchdown, and also ran for a touchdown.

"It was almost like we didn't have anything to lose," Shuler said. "I was through with pressure. I'm tired of it."

So was Ditka. "That monkey just got off my back. Thank God," he said.

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