From the Sidelines

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 31, 1999

MICHAEL KIRAL / L’Observateur / July 31, 1999

On the cover of this week’s ESPN Magazine is an unusual (some might say disturbing) picture of Mike Ditka and Ricky Williams as a bride and groom.

My first question is “Does Diana Ditka know about this?” As for New Orleans Saints fans, they can hope that the relationship is one of bliss with a honeymoon in Atlanta come January 30. After all, the fans’love affair with the Saints has lasted over 30 years with few happy moments.

The Saints headed to LaCrosse this week to kickoff year three of the Ditka Era. Expectations are high among the players and coaches. After draftingWilliams, Ditka was quoted as saying that now is the future for the team.

How the team does this season may determine how much more of a future Ditka has with it.

The Saints have gone 6-10 in each of Ditka’s prior two seasons while Atlanta and the New York Jets, the two teams with worse records when he came aboard, both went to the conference championship games last year.

The team has not made the playoffs since 1992 and its winning percentage of .363 ranks 26th in the NFL over the last five years.The drafting of Williams, the 1998 Heisman Trophy winner, did a number of things for the organization. It gave it a player it can rally around offthe field and provides it a driving force on the field, one that it has lacked since Archie Manning.

Williams will be asked to pick up a rushing attack that has not seen a 1,000-yard rusher since Dalton Hilliard in 1989. The team’s last twoleading rushers, Lamar Smith and Ray Zellars, have combined for a total of 1,009 yards over the last two seasons. In 1998, the team ranked last inthe NFL with a 82.8 yard-per-game average. It will be up to Williams toimprove on those anemic numbers.

If Williams can, it will have an impact on all areas of the team. Hispresence could open up the passing attack which in turn, needs to be effective in order for him to run effectively. Billy Joe Hobert returnsafter an Achilles tendon injury suffered in the first game of the season caused him to miss the rest of the year.

How Hobert comes back will determine how much the Saints can improve on an offense that ranked 28th in the league in 1998. He will not be askedto win games as much as he will be not to lose them. The team missed hisleadership last year and just his presence on the field should be an improvement.

As has been the case throughout Ditka’s tenure with the team, there have been changes in the receiving corps. Out are Sean Dawkins and EricGuliford, in is Eddie Kennison.

The Saints hope Kennison can find the ability he showed in his rookie year and provide them with the deep threat they have not had since the days of Wes Chandler. If Keith Poole can also step up and provide speed on theother side, it could allow Andre Hastings to move into the slot position that he seems more adequate for. Another target for Hobert will be tightend Cam Cleeland who led the team in receptions and touchdown receptions last year as a rookie.

The offensive line is on its way to being one of the best in the NFL. WillieRoaf has made the Pro Bowl five times and Kyle Turley showed flashes of brilliance last year as a rookie and has been moved to his natural position at tackle. Jerry Fontenot is an old pro at center and Wally Williams wasone of the Saints’ biggest pickups in free agency this offseason. The weakspot may be at right guard where Chris Naeole has yet to justify being selected in the first round in 1997.

The defense will be another position where Williams will help the team if he can effectively run the ball and keep the offense on the field. Thedefense was on the field entirely too much last year and wore down at the end of the games. Another year of experience could also help the defenseby allowing defensive coordinator Zaven Yaralian to be more aggressive with his play calling.

The defensive line figures to be the team’s strongest point. Joe Johnsonmade his first Pro Bowl last season and La’Roi Glover came from out of almost nowhere to become one of the best at his position. Wayne Martinshould be able to bounce back from a injury-riddled season that limited him to three sacks. Jared Tomich and Brady Smith will battle for the leftend spot.

Linebacker, once the team’s strength, became one of its biggest weaknesses last year, causing the team to fall from fourth to 26th in the league in total defense. How players like Mark Fields, Kevin Mitchell, ChrisBordano, Vinson Smith and Keith Mitchell perform will determine how far the defense, and thus, the team, will go.

The Saints recently addressed a big need by signing Ashley Ambrose for a secondary that ranked 30th in the NFL in pass defense. Ambrose will push1996 first-round pick Alex Molden for the starting spot at cornerback with Tyrone Drakeford holding down the other spot. Sammy Knight will beat strong safety with Rob Kelly and Je’Rod Cherry battling it out at free safety.

The special teams again will be strong this year with kicker Doug Brien and punter Tommy Barnhardt. Kennison will return punts with AaronCraver probably filling the role at kick returner.

The Saints have the potential to contend in a weak NFC West. Atlantafigures to experience a drop off from last year’s Super Bowl squad while San Francisco is getting old at some key positions. Both St. Louis andCarolina are in rebuilding years.

There are a number of questions that need to be answered as training camp starts. How the team answers those questions will determine if therelationship between Ditka, Williams and the Saints is one made in heaven or one doomed for a quick break-up.

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