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Saints prove that last year's big turnaround was no fluke

Through most of their time in the National Football League, the New Orleans Saints have had to live with a loser's image. From its inception in 1967 through 1986, this was a team that created its own Great Depression. Lack of talent, draft picks that didn't work out, coaching mistakes, and questionable front-office decisions - all were part of the Saints' logo. The result was a team that did not have a single winning season until a year ago, when New Orleans went 12-3 to clinch second place in the NFC West and make the playoffs for the first time ever.

Now this year, proving that 1987 was no one-time mistake, the Saints are firmly atop the division standings again, with a 9-3 record that is bettered in the entire league only by Buffalo and Chicago.

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Actually, the big turnaround had its beginnings in 1986, when newly hired general manager Jim Finks, who had previously brought stability to both the Minnesota Vikings and the Chicago Bears, named Jim Mora as his head coach.

Mora, with 23 years of college and pro coaching behind him, had posted a 48-13-1 record with Philadelphia/Baltimore of the United States Football League. Included among those victories were league championships in 1984-85, plus the USFL Coach of the Year Award in '84.

If ever a general manager and a coach were the football equivalent of ham and eggs, Finks and Mora belonged on the same menu. Since the Saints seemed to be so far behind everyone else in the NFL, these two would also be a natural to build an organization capable of playing ``ketchup'' football.

Basically three things happened: (1)Finks made some excellent draft picks; (2)Mora repaired several weak areas by signing USFL players who had impressed him during his years there; and (3)there was a major mental change in the attitude of the holdover Saints players.

While the term organization might be the most overused word in pro football when discussing a turnaround, actually it became the foundation of Mora's overall game plan.

Not only was New Orleans defense tightened, its offense expanded, and its special teams given incentives designed to make them also feel important, but even team veterans were given a refresher course in fundamentals.

Suddenly the Saints won four road games for the first time in 20 years. Suddenly a city that has never needed a reason to party now takes its cue each week from the Saints' owner, Tom Benson, who does a sideline dance after every home-game victory.

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One thing that helped Mora immediately after he made the switch from the USFL to the NFL was that he brought quarterback Bobby Hebert with him.

In other words, Jim didn't have to spend a lot of time teaching Hebert a new system. In fact, Bobby not only knew his own assignments, but also most of those of his running backs and pass receivers.

Although Hebert's name is seldom mentioned in the same sentence with those of John Elway of the Broncos, Dan Marino of the Dolphins, or Joe Montana of the 49ers, the NFL still pays off on victories and not adjectives.

When Bobby quarterbacked the Saints last season they were 10-3, including the playoffs. Possibly Hebert's record would have been even better if he hadn't sustained a foot injury early in the season against San Francisco that limited his effectiveness for a while.

Hebert's favorite receiver is Eric Martin, who leads the league in total catches with 70 for 911 yards. The ground game is also impressive, featuring Reuben Mayes, who was voted the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1987, when he rushed for 1,353 yards, and Dalton Hilliard, who is dueling him for the team lead this season.

On Sunday, while the Saints' Stalingrad defense was stuffing Denver's offense into an area the size of a closet, Hebert threw for three touchdowns in a 42-0 romp that kept New Orleans two games ahead of Los Angeles and San Francisco in the NFC West with four weeks to go. Two of the TD passes went to Martin, who had eight receptions for 111 yards. The ground game was also impressive, with Mayes gaining 115 yards on 25 carries and Hilliard 55 on just nine attempts.

Assuming that you won't mind a little trivia with the main course, Mora is the son of a 20th Century-Fox film cutter. But although he grew up in Hollywood, Jim wasn't affected by all the glitz and glamour. Mora was both a tight end and defensive end at Occidental College in California, and roomed with future Congressman Jack Kemp. And three years in the US Marine Corps gave him a pretty good idea of the importance of discipline.

The important information now, however, is that when Mora took over at New Orleans in 1986, he inherited a 5-11 football team, a year later the Saints were 12-3 and in the playoffs, and this season they are headed in the same direction. Jim didn't do it ``with more stars than there are in heaven,'' either. He simply used real people with talent who would listen! Elsewhere in the NFL

While everybody keeps saying that Atlanta (4-8) isn't much of a football team, the Falcons have already beaten two division leaders this year (Philadelphia and the L.A. Raiders), plus another good team, the San Francisco 49ers. ``We've got a lot of kids on this team, and you have to be patient with kids,'' explained coach Marion Campbell. ``In fact, I can remember a lot of kids who went to the Pro Bowl later in their careers who hardly played at all as rookies.''

Inside linebacker Vaughan Johnson of New Orleans, who led the Saints in tackles last season with 86, has a chance to go over the 100 mark this year if he continues at his present pace. Johnson's footwork, anticipation, and ability to get both hands on people with the football are among the best in the game.

From Indianapolis coach Ron Meyer on the Colts' occasional use of the wishbone formation, regarded by most pro coaches as a college gimmick: ``They can say anything they want about it, but the wishbone gives us another dimension.''

Denver running back Sammy Winder, who owns a fleet of vintage cars and a tractor, says he would like to add a bulldozer to his collection. ``When I was a kid, I would stand and watch almost any kind of earth-moving equipment until the operator left for lunch,'' Winder explained. ``If it was raining, I still watched!''

From Marv Levy, coach of the AFC East champion Buffalo Bills, who has three linebackers from Penn State on his squad: ``You can't be too rich, too thin, or have too many Penn State linebackers!''

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