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They Would Be Saint Elsewhere Without Haslett

Commentary: Coach figures to keep New Orleans on upswing even with injuries to Williams and Blake.

November 26, 2000|BOB OATES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One of the season's surprise success-story teams, the New Orleans Saints, will line up in St. Louis today without the two players who did the most to turn things around this fall in the Superdome.

They are Jeff Blake, the quarterback who broke a foot in the first quarter of the Oakland game last week as New Orleans' winning streak ended at six, 31- 22, and Ricky Williams, the running back who broke an ankle seven days earlier.

"Injuries are by far the worst thing about football," Oakland owner Al Davis says. "It's such a beautiful game until people get hurt."

You can look it up: Injury luck controls the destiny of every good pro club.

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BRONC0S UNDERSTAND: The Denver Broncos present the most conspicuous recent example of NFL injury luck--good and bad.

Like most champions before them, and the one after, the 1997-98 Broncos escaped serious injury to win consecutive Super Bowls.

Then in 1999-2000, Denver lost many of its best players, running back Terrell Davis and quarterback Brian Griese among them, and can't get back to the top.

Injury luck influences other sports, too, but it's seldom the controlling influence elsewhere.

When you hit a home run, you rarely break an ankle jogging around second base.

You seldom break a foot dunking a basketball.

In most sports, injuries are a nuisance.

In football, they're a menace.

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FLUKE INJURIES: Because human beings are involved in eight or 10 violent collisions on every play of every NFL game, sports fans expect and accept injuries as a fact of life in football.

Still, some of football's worst injuries are suffered on fluke plays.

More than one seemingly superbly-conditioned running back has taken a season-ending hit from himself--while cutting sharply, perhaps, to evade an opponent.

Football is, in fact, so continuously threatening to the human body that many players are critically injured on simple, routine plays.

Thus, New Orleans running back Williams broke his ankle this month on an end run when tackled cleanly, almost gently, by but one opponent.

A week later, the New Orleans quarterback, Blake, was hurt and lost when, on a sprint toward the sideline, he was tackled cleanly, almost gently, from behind.

Neither of the Saints' injured stars was piled on or otherwise abused in that game.

Neither was a victim of unsportsmanlike conduct.

Both were victims of the game they love.

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THE FAVRE CASE: The unseen weapon that destroys more talented football players than any other one thing is a personal lack of tolerance for injury.

Some of those who in high school demonstrate NFL-class aptitude for the game, offensively or defensively, learn then or in college that they can't handle the injuries that are built into football.

So they drop quietly out.

At the other end of the scale are those who, like Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre, quietly illustrate the almost inhuman tolerance for injury that the great players have.

You've seen Favre smashed around in game after game on play after play, taking the kind of punishment every week that would end the careers if not the lives of most of the sports fans who fantasize themselves as quarterbacks.

Yet Favre has started 136 consecutive NFL games, the all-time quarterback record.

More than that, just before he saw Indianapolis last Sunday, Favre cast away the crutches and cast off the cast that had protected his injured foot--for six painful days--and beat the Colts, 26-24.

That is tolerance.

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NEW WINNER: In New Orleans this season, Jim Haslett is proving something else, namely, that you can never tell about ANY new head coach.

There is nothing whatever in his record to suggest that Haslett, who was 7-3 before his quarterback was injured, would join Mike Martz of the Rams in the select handful of effective new NFL coaches--the most effective, possibly, since the arrival of Denver Coach Mike Shanahan some years back.

Maybe you weren't surprised when Haslett, a lifelong defensive player and coach, converted the sad-sack Saints into an instant defensive power this year.

But everyone in the league had to have been surprised when Haslett's backup quarterback--a virtual rookie named Aaron Brooks--played the Raiders to a standstill last week in another of Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon's solid games of an MVP season.

Brooks, though without NFL experience, was Haslett's handpicked backup this season--he saw something there that few others had--but when he moved in that afternoon to operate a deceptively smooth offense, the Saints were losing by 10 points, 10-0.

In the end, they lost by nine, 31-22.

Brooks led the Saints to three field goals and two touchdowns, throwing for both touchdowns--one a 53-yard bomb.

That tells you something about . . . the new quarterback?

No, the new coach.

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FORMER RAIDER: As NFL people said of an obscure lifelong assistant coach named Vince Lombardi when, at Green Bay in 1959, he launched the greatest coaching career in football history, one game doesn't make a season, and one season doesn't prove anything.

Haslett could yet fall on his face.

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