Saints alive, but they're no Redskins: ask Eagles

Ken Rosenthal

October 14, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

PHILADELPHIA -- Of the two unbeaten teams remaining in the NFL, it's clear Washington is superior to New Orleans. For a second opinion, just consult their only common opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles.

Two weeks ago, the Eagles lost to the Redskins 23-0. Yesterday, they fell to the Saints 13-6 -- on a day their hapless quarterbacks combined for five interceptions and got sacked five times.

The Saints are 6-0, but they've beaten only one team over .500 (Kansas City on the road) and quarterback Bobby Hebert's shaky play at Veterans Stadium raised doubts about whether they're a bona fide Super Bowl contender.

Hebert panicked against the swarming Philadelphia pass rush, completing only two of eight passes for 29 yards and throwing two interceptions before departing with a mild concussion late in the second quarter.

Backup Steve Walsh fared better (8-for-17, 96 yards, one TD), but each of the Saints' three scores resulted from turnovers that left them inside the Eagles' 20. They lost the total-yardage battle 204-162, lost it to Brad Goebel and Pat Ryan, two quarterbacks who don't belong in the NFL.

No wonder Eagles defensive end Reggie White said, "Their offense doesn't compare to the Redskins' offense at all." No wonder cornerback Eric Allen said, "You can't compare anybody right now to Washington, except maybe Buffalo."

The Redskins are 7-0 after pounding Cleveland 42-17 yesterday, and the difference is, they dominate both sides of the ball. The Bills boast a great offense, the Saints a great defense. Each is essentially half a team.

No one expects the Redskins to go unbeaten; in fact, they could lose to both the New York Giants and Houston in the next two weeks. But if quarterback Mark Rypien stays healthy, their chances of reaching the Super Bowl should be excellent.

Who's going to stop them? Detroit (5-1) and Chicago (4-2) failed in their first attempt. The defending champion Giants (3-3) continue to sputter under new coach Ray Handley. Dallas (5-2) has won four straight, but no way Jimmy Johnson can outcoach Joe Gibbs.

That leaves the Saints, who aren't quite sure what to make of their success. "Some of the older guys keep saying, 'Stay focused, don't get crazy,' " linebacker Pat Swilling said. "People say you're 6-0. I keep telling people we could be 6-10 real quick."

The Saints, remember, started 7-1 in 1988, but missed the playoffs after finishing 10-6. It's doubtful this group will suffer the same fate, not with a defense that hasn't surrendered a touchdown in 16 quarters, not with a three-game lead in the NFC West.

About that defense. It revolves around four two-time Pro Bowl linebackers: Swilling, Vaughan Johnson, Rickey Jackson and former Baltimore Star Sam Mills. It's fast, and fierce, and absolutely legit.

The Saints allowed a league-low 53 points these first six games -- and two of their opponents' touchdowns resulted from offensive turnovers. Needless to say, Goebel (12-for-22, 106 yards, 4 INTs) and Ryan (6-for-12, 74 yards, 1 INT) never had a chance.

The Eagles (3-4) get a bye next week, and after that Jim McMahon is expected back. Imagine where this team would be with Randall Cunningham, or even a healthy McMahon. The defense is so good, the team is competitive with Goebel, a rookie free agent, or Ryan, a career backup.

Maybe that's why Saints coach Jim Mora didn't seem too upset yesterday over his stalled offense. Walsh rallied the team from a 6-0 deficit, the defense kept getting back the ball and the result was a tough win on the road. "Offensively it was a struggle," Mora said. "But we knew it would be."

Hebert figures to start next week against Tampa Bay; he took blows to the head on two separate plays but said afterward, "I've just got a bad headache." Mora stuck with Walsh even when Hebert said he was ready to return late in the third quarter. Who needed the risk?

The scary thing is, Hebert might have played worse than Goebel, who turned the ball over on five straight possessions before being replaced by Ryan. Granted, it was only one game, but without adequate protection Hebert showed he's just another mediocre NFL quarterback.

Yes, the Saints give him much of the credit for their fast start -- they barely made the playoffs at 8-8 when he sat last season in a contract dispute. And yes, it helped immeasurably when they averaged more than 150 yards rushing the three previous games. Yesterday they managed only 64.

Now fullback Craig "Ironhead" Heyward is out indefinitely -- he picked the wrong weekend for a sexual-assault arrest, wouldn't you say? The rest of the Saints' schedule isn't especially difficult. The true test, for Hebert, for everyone, probably will come in the postseason.

Five Eagles starters yesterday said New Orleans wasn't as good as Washington. Two avoided the question for diplomatic reasons. No one gave the Saints the edge.

The two can't meet until the playoffs.

But right now, it wouldn't be close.

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