From the Sidelines

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 15, 1999

MICHAEL KIRAL / L’Observateur / December 15, 1999

Going through some back issues of the paper the other day, I came across a column I wrote for the Dec. 14, 1996 edition titled “Cheers missing inDome with Saints’ recent demise.”The column came during the Saints’ 3-13 season and was about how the Superdome Classic the weekend before had given the arena two things it wasn’t accustomed to – cheers and a winning football team. It talkedabout how the Saints were playing out the string after a long, miserable season.

Sound familiar? Three years later, the situation remains the same. Actually, it might evenbe worse. Back then, Saints fans had even a glimmer of hope for the future.Such is not the case right now.

Not long after that column was written, Mike Ditka was named the coach of the Saints. Saints fans praised the decision, believing “Da Coach” wouldturn around the franchise and lead it to the promised land of the Super Bowl as he did with Chicago in the early 1980s. The team came intotraining camp the following summer with the slogan “Find a way or make a way.”In the three years hence, all the team has shown is that it has found a way or made a way to lose. It has lost games because players havemisidentified coverage terms. It has given the Cleveland Browns theirfirst win on a Hail Mary pass on the final play of the game. In that time,the Saints have been shut out for the first time in over a decade and they have gone through a three-game period in which they gave up 35 or more points each game. All told, the Saints have stepped onto the field 45 timesin that time and have walked off of it in defeat 31 times.

There are three more games left this season, road games against Baltimore and Carolina and a home game against Dallas. While other teamsare trying to wrap up postseason berths, the Saints are playing for pride.

Sadly, there may be some players who are not even playing for that but for a paycheck and to just get the season over with.

Ironically, that column was also written shortly after Jim Mora resigned as head coach. Three years later, he has led Indianapolis to a 10-2 record,the second best in the NFL. One of the few teams the Saints finished aheadof that season was Atlanta. Two years later, the Falcons would be playingin the Super Bowl. Tampa Bay and St. Louis have risen in that time whilethe Saints have continued to slide down.

In that column three years ago, I noted that the Saints needed to go out like they did in 1986 when they hired Jim Finks as general manager and let him hire Mora as coach. That combination led the Saints to four playoffappearances in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Saints then had to ridthe roster of players whose numbers on the field did not match those on their paychecks. Again, sound familiar? From there, the team had to addquality draft picks and free agent signings.

Because the organization has not done a good job doing either of those things during the Ditka-Bill Kuharich era, the next rebuilding job will not be easy. It could be argued that the Saints have even less talent than theydid at the end of the Mora era. Because of the Ricky Williams deal, theSaints do not have either a first round (which could be the first pick overall) or a third round pick in the draft. That leaves a lot of pressure onmaking quality selections with the other picks and in free agency.

Changes will have to be made this offseason, some of which will be very tough. Perhaps those changes will finally be the right ones and three yearsfrom now, the columns will be about the Saints enjoying cheers in the Superdome right up there with the high school champions.

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