From the Sidelines

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 20, 1999

MICHAEL KIRAL / L’Observateur / October 20, 1999

“Coulda, shoulda, woulda.”Those words spoken by former Saints coach Jim Mora in 1987 could be the epithet for Mike Ditka’s current reign as coach.

This was one of the most anticipated years for the organization since those early years of the Mora era. With the drafting of Heisman Trophywinner Ricky Williams, the trade for hometown hero Eddie Kennison and the signing of free agents Wally Williams and Ashley Ambrose, there was hope for the Saints to have their first winning season since 1992. Throwin the mediocrity of the NFC, especially of the NFC West, and a playoff berth was not out of the question.

Instead, that promise has drowned in the sea of missed chances through the first five games. In all five of those games, the Saints have taken thelead into the final 15 minutes. And in all but the first game againstCarolina, the Saints have found themselves on the short end of the scoreboard by the time those 15 minutes were over. Leads of 7, 10, 3 and6 against San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta and Tennessee have crumbled, leaving in a 1-4 ruins what could have been a 5-0 monument.

The Saints have been outscored 51-8 in the fourth quarter this season.

That lone touchdown came with 45 seconds left in the game Sunday and the Saints trailing Tennessee, 24-13. The Saints then attempted anonsides kick, and, being the Saints, failed to recover it despite having at least three attempts to fall on it inside the Tennessee 40-yard line. Toput the Saints’ woes in perspective, the opposing defenses have more touchdowns (2) than the Saints’ offense (1) in the fourth quarter.

Which brings to mind another slogan that the team has used in recent years – “Find a way or make a way.” Over the last four games, the Saintshave done neither.

The Saints have committed the bulk of two drafts and $67 million for Williams and have three first round draft picks and a highly regarded free agent signee on the offensive line. Yet, against the Bears, Falcons andTitans, the team has failed to run out the clock or create or maintain crucial drives. It signed Ambrose and William Clay to shore up itsdefensive backfield. That plan has worked for the most part over the first45 minutes of the pas four games as the Saints have allowed a total of 25 points over that time. But in clutch time, especially against the 49ers andBears, it has fallen apart. The defense has allowed three touchdowns inthe final three minutes in those games.

Succeeding in clutch time comes down to two things – calling the right play and executing those plays. The Saints in the past four games havecome up short in both.

Never was that more evident than in the final seconds of the second quarter Sunday. The Saints had just moved to the Titan 1-yard line with12 seconds left. With no timeouts left, the best move would appear tohave been to run some sort of play that would have allowed time for a field goal if the play failed.

Instead, the call was for Williams to run up the middle. The Titans stuffedthe play and instead of at least a 13-0 lead and momentum going into halftime, the lead was just 10-0 with Tennessee still in the game. EvenDitka called the play “absurd”.

Absurd certainly applies to the Saints’ 1999 season so far. And it doesn’tappear to have much of a chance to get much better. Three or four winsover the final 11 weeks may be a stretch.

And remember there will not be much help from the draft next year. Thefirst three rounds have already been used on Williams who has a combined 292 yards through five games. The Saints have found a way in just fivegames to do something that many of the best college teams could not do over four seasons – contain Ricky Williams.

If the Saints need more slogans to promote their product to a dwindling fan base, here are two from the movie “Field of Dreams” – “Go the Distance” and “Ease their pain.”

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