0-4 Saints not on the march Slow start leaves team puzzled, frustrated

September 26, 1996|By Ted Lewis | Ted Lewis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW ORLEANS -- It wasn't supposed to be this way.

"I thought we'd be kicking people's butts up and down the field on both sides of the ball," said New Orleans Saints defensive end Renaldo Turnbull. "I look at the caliber of talent we have on this team, and I can't understand how we could be 0-4.

"You look at the film and see we're giving it away. It's embarrassing."

Although New Orleans was hardly considered a Super Bowl contender, free-agent acquisitions that seemingly had improved a once-dominant defense, and a cushy, fifth-place schedule made a return to the playoffs for the first time since 1992 seem attainable.

Instead, the Saints find themselves one of three winless teams in the NFL with the odds decidedly against a playoff berth.

The last two weeks have been particularly galling -- losses to the previously winless Cincinnati Bengals and Arizona Cardinals. Many fans and some of the media have called for the firing of Jim Mora, the NFL's longest-tenured head coach with the same team.

The fans already have spoken with their feet. Last Sunday's attendance of 34,316 for the Arizona game was the smallest non-strike crowd of the 11-year Mora era.

But Mora, who came to the Saints in 1986 after guiding the Baltimore Stars to the final U.S. Football League title, appears likely to last until the end of the season.

Saints owner Tom Benson last week said he will "stay the course," with the lack of a logical successor on the staff probably reinforcing that decision. Mora is in the final year of his contract.

"I don't think a change has ever benefited a team," Turnbull said.

"There's enough disruption with what's going on right now."

But others indicate drastic action might be necessary.

"When things are going fine, you don't make changes, but when they're not, you've got to do something, somewhere," said wide receiver Haywood Jeffires, a veteran free agent from the Houston Oilers. "We've got to get 11 guys on the field who want to play. If they don't want to play, then get 11 others."

Mora said he has not considered resigning.

"Losing is no fun," he said. "This is a great business when you win, and it's the craps when you lose. People like snap answers to solve things, but sometimes there just aren't any. Mr. Benson has been very supportive of me. He believes, I believe and the team believes that we can still get things turned around."

The best way to do that, Mora said, is to reverse the team's giveaway/take-away ratio. It's 11-2 against.

Improving the running game comes next. New Orleans ranks last in the league at 63.3 yards per game. Ray Zellars, who had 57 yards on 12 carries against Arizona but fumbled twice, has replaced Mario Bates as the starting running back.

The Saints made a pitch for Bam Morris last week, but lost out to the Ravens.

Defensively, the Saints have proved vulnerable to the run. Arizona, which had 257 yards in its first three games, rolled for 267, 214 by unheralded LeShon Johnson.

That would have been unthinkable a few years ago, when the Saints had the league's top defense, led by the linebacking corps of Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling, Sam Mills and Vaughn Johnson. But all are gone now via trades and free agency.

Offensive stalwarts like place-kicker Morten Andersen, wide receiver Quinn Early and tight end Wesley Walls also are gone. Just five players remain from the last playoff team.

"We had some dominant players then," Mora said. "But this team is not devoid of talent, certainly not to the point it should be 0-4. That's why it's so frustrating to go out there and then to come off the field having lost.

"I stand behind these guys and our coaching staff 100 percent. We're fighting through adversity, and we'll keep fighting until we find the answers."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: New Orleans Saints

When Sunday, 1 p.m.

Site: Memorial Stadium

TV/Radio: Ch. 45/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Tickets: About 650 remain

Pub Date: 9/26/96

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