From the Sidelines

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 29, 2000

MICHAEL KIRAL / L’Observateur / November 29, 2000

What would you have said the score of the New Orleans-St. Louis scorewould have been if you were told before the season that the Saints would start 1-3, lose five projected starters including Ricky Williams and Jeff Blake, lose another in Fred Weary during the game and set a team-record for penalty yardage? You probably stood a better chance of picking the correct numbers in the Powerball this week than of saying 31-24, Saints. But New Orleans hit thejackpot Sunday, marching out of the Trans World Dome with one of its biggest wins in team history.

Who would have thought it? After all, these were the defending Super Bowl champions playing on their own turf. Yes, they were missing KurtWarner but the Rams were still averaging over 37 points per game going in. They still had Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Trent Green andAz-Zahir Hakim.

And what was New Orleans bringing to St. Louis? A quarterback in AaronBrooks making his first NFL start. A running back duo of Chad Morton andJerald Moore. A team still trying to get over the loss of its startingquarterback and running back in successive weeks and trying to bounce back from a loss to Oakland that snapped a six-game winning streak.

This was a squad that had already lost tight end Cam Cleeland, linebacker Charlie Clemons and defensive back Steve Israel for the season and would see cornerback Fred Weary and linebacker Corey Terry go down in the first half.

For Saints’ squads of the past, that combination would have been a lethal one. They would have been buried by one of the most prolific offenses inNFL history. Televisions across the state would have been clicked off byhalftime.

But these are not the same old Saints. The Saints not only went into St.Louis and upset a two-touchdown favorite, they dominated them for much of the game. The defense held the Rams to 279 yards, their lowest outputof the season. Faulk was held to 27 yards on eight carries as the Rams allbut gave up running the ball after the first quarter. La’Roi Glover and JoeJohnson, the veterans on the defense, came up with another stellar effort.

Of course, it always helps the defense when the offense holds the ball for almost 40 minutes and runs 74 plays to the Rams’ 57. Moore, Morton andBrooks helped the Saints exceed their season average with 147 yards rushing. Brooks looked anything like a quarterback making his first start,standing tall in the pocket and converting one key third down after another on the winning drive and scrambling for yards when he had to.

There were two men that were the most responsible for Sunday’s win – head coach Jim Haslett and general manager Randy Mueller. Haslett had theSaints playing the aggressor from the start, opening the game with an onsides kick and later using a flea-clicker on the opening drive. The Saintslater attempted a fake punt near midfield.

And it was Mueller who brought in nearly every star of Sunday’s game. Hebrought in Brooks in a preseason trade with the Packers. Brian Milne, whoscored the Saints’ first touchdown on a pass from Brooks, also came on board early in the season. So did Moore who ran for a team-high 61 yards. Morton and Darren Howard, who sacked Green to end the game, were draft picks in April. Fred Thomas, who stopped Hakim on a fourth down with aopen-field tackle with just over two minutes left, was a free agent pickup. So was Chris Oldham who made a diving interception to end theRams’ last threat.

Thanks to those players, and the ones that Jim Mora, Mike Ditka and Bill Kuharich brought in, the Saints are now, as unbelievable as it may sound, the leaders in the NFC West with four games to play. It will not be easywith games against Denver and the Rams as well as those against Atlanta and San Francisco still to play.

Having come so far this season and having to go through so much adversity, a loss to the Rams may not have seemed so bad. Instead, theSaints made it their finest hour. It may be the first of many to come.

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