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From the Sidelines

Michael Kiral / L’Observateur / July 22, 1998

Mike Ditka opened his second season with the Saints by burning the city of New Orleans in a cover story in Sports Illustrated. It is hoped by Saintsfans that come January, Iron Mike will be the toast of the town.

It is a long way from now until January and appears even a longer way from where the Saints are entering training camp tomorrow and a playoff contender. A lot of questions have to be answered in the coming months ifthe second year of the “Iron Age” will be a golden one for the Saints.

Improvements must be made on an offense that proved colder than a LaCrosse winter for much of last season, ranking last in the league. Andthat improvement must start with cutting down the team-record number of turnovers, 55, that often beat the Saints more often last year than their opponents did.

A good number of those turnovers came from the quarterback position where the Saints went through four signal callers a year ago – Heath Shuler, Danny Wuerffel, Doug Nussmeier and Billy Joe Hobert.

Hobert begins his first full season with the team, having played in the final three games in 1997. He looked impressive at times, throwing forfive touchdowns and leading the Saints to two wins in the final four games but also threw three interceptions against Kansas City in the season finale. Hobert must keep his turnovers down to a minimum if theSaints are to have a chance this season at any success this year.

It would greatly benefit Hobert and the Saints if the team could finally get its running game rolling after nearly nine years of inefficiency. LamarSmith was imported from Seattle to try to jump start the running game along with incumbents Ray Zellars and Troy Davis. A healthy and efficientSmith would take pressure off Hobert and help give the Saints defense a rest.

For the second straight year, the team made a number of changes in the receiver corps. Gone are Randall Hill and Irv Smith and in are SeanDawkins, Qadry Ismail and Cameron Cleeland. Andre Hastings returns aftercatching 48 passes last season with second-year pro Keith Poole in the other slot. Dawkins could prove to be a steal from the Colts, adding areceiver who has shown flashes of stardom on the field. Ismail combineswith Poole to give the Saints a couple of deep threats.

Cleeland, the Saints’ second round draft pick in April, has the task of replacing Smith who signed with the 49ers. Cleeland, an impressivereceiver, and John Farquhar can provide Hobert targets underneath, helping set up longer routes for the receivers.

The Saints’ offensive line will be better this season only because it could not possibly be much worse than it was a year ago. The line gave up ateam-record 59 sacks and opened few holes for the running backs in 1997.

The line does appeared to be improved this year with three number one draft picks – Willie Roaf, Chris Naeole (coming off injuries that sidelined him much of his rookie year) and Kyle Turley – and two vastly improved players – Clarence Jones and Andy McCollum.

The defensive line was solid a year ago but enters camp with one glaring question – the possible holdout of right end Joe Johnson. With Johnson, thealways underrated Wayne Martin and La’Roi Glover, the line will continue to be a strength. Without him, Brady Smith and Jared Tomich, twoinexperienced players, may be forced to start on the line at the same time.

The linebacking corps literally has a hole in the middle, left by leading tackler Winfred Tubbs, who signed with the 49ers in the offseason. BrianJones, whom the Saints are high on but whom missed the 1997 season, will try to fill that hole. Mark Fields, who is improving on a yearly basis,starts on one side and either steady Richard Harvey or free agent signee Andre Royal at the other.

A solid rush by the linebacking corps and line will help a secondary that will include two new starters. Tyrone Drakeford and Chad Cota replace thedeparted Eric Allen and Anthony Newman and figure to be an improvement.

Alex Molden returns at one cornerback slot with the other safety spot still open.

A bright spot for the Saints last season was its special teams. KickerDoug Brien is a rising star and Mark Royals was one of the top punters in the league a year ago. A key will be if the Saints can find someone toreplace the injured Eric Guliford the way he replaced Tyrone Hughes last season. Guliford set a number of team records and his ability to give theteam outstanding field position could be severely missed.

I predicted a season ago that the Saints would go 9-7 and I will lower that to 8-8 for this season. The Saints have a favorable schedule with NewEngland, Tampa Bay, Dallas and Buffalo at home. The NFC West is also notas strong as it has been in years past with the 49ers growing older and Carolina, Atlanta and St. Louis all having a number of question marks.A key game could come in week four against Indianapolis and former Saints coach Jim Mora. That game might be an indication of how far theteam has come since Mora left and the Ditka era began. And who knows avictory there could lead to a winning season and a more favorable article in Sports Illustrated.

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