The New Orleans Saints have a little over a month before they report back to team facilities to begin training camp. While the players take a short break from team activities, we decided to take another look back through the franchise's colorful history. Today, Canal Street Chronicles continues our New Orleans Saints Triumphs and Tragedies series with a look back at one of the darkest periods in the franchise's 52-yr. existence.
The Ditka Era/Error (1997-99)
Jim Mora, who had been the Saints head coach since 1986, had resigned midway through the 1996 season as the team was on their way to a 3-13 finish. New Orleans had already been a team in decline prior to that disaster. They had not had a winning season or made the playoffs since 1992, and were coming off three straight losing seasons. The famous "Dome Patrol" defense had long been disbanded, and nearly all of the stars that had boosted the team to a perennial playoff contender had moved on. The Saints still had some talent in place, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive linemen Wayne Martin and Joe Johnson, along with linebacker Mark Fields, were among the best at their positions and all would wind up being inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame at the conclusion of their careers. For the most part however, the team was in need of a major talent upgrade, along with a change in leadership on the field. Saints owner Tom Benson was hoping to recreate the disciplined and hard-nosed success he got from Mora, his first coaching hire when he purchased the team. He set his sites on Mike Ditka, a Super Bowl champion coach formerly of the Chicago Bears. "Iron Mike" was known for his tough approach to the game. His Bears teams were among the NFL's best throughout the mid-late 1980's, and won Super Bowl XX with one of the most intimidating squads in league history. He had won 106 games in his eleven seasons with the Bears, but had been out of coaching since being fired by Chicago following a 5-11 finish to the 1992 season.
Ditka was quick to put his personal stamp on his new team, selecting offensive guard Chris Naeole with the 10th overall pick in the '97 draft. He also added to an already strong defense with the free agent addition of defensive tackle La'roi Glover, and hit paydirt with undrafted college safety Sammy Knight and linebacker Keith Mitchell. Ditka's first Saints squad performed well defensively, ranking 4th in the league in total defense and sacking opposing quarterbacks 59 times. It was a short-lived honeymoon for the new era of New Orleans football however, as the Saints lost their first three games of the '97 season by an average of 18 points on their way to a 6-10 finish. The Saints offense was awful, finishing dead last in the league. Ditka tried four different starting quarterbacks on the year with putrid results. He traded two mid-round draft picks to acquire Heath Shuler, a former 3rd overall draft pick by the Washington Redskins in 1994 who was already considered to be a bust. He used a fourth round pick that spring to draft University of Florida Heisman Trophy winning qb Danny Wuerffel, and signed former Raiders and Bills bust Billy Joe Hobert to go along with the previous year's reserve qb Doug Nussmeier. The four players combined to complete less than 50% of their passes, and threw an incredible 33 interceptions against just 13 touchdown passes. Shuler, who was the scapegoat for the team's struggles, ended his final NFL season by throwing 14 interceptions and only 2 touchdowns in nine starts. One of the biggest draft busts in league history would aggravate a severe foot injury during the year from which he never recovered, eventually forcing his retirement. Ditka's prized running game would fare poorly as well. The team averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, and were led by Ray Zellars and Mario Bates, who combined for less than 1,000 yards and just 8 scores.
Entering the 1998 season, Ditka again focused on strengthening his offensive line in the draft by using the 7th overall pick on future All-Pro tackle Kyle Turley, then adding versatile tight end Cam Cleeland with an early 2nd round pick. Cleeland would lead the team in receptions (54) and touchdown receptions (6) in his rookie year, while Turley would team with future NFL Hall of Famer Willie Roaf to give New Orleans an elite pair of offensive linemen over the next four years. The Saints won their first three games of the '98 season, but any excitement was quickly demolished by losing their next three and 5 losses in six games on their way to another 6-10 campaign. The offense was again a disaster, ranking 28th in the league. Despite the talent along the offensive line, Ditka's rushing attack finished dead last, averaging less than 3.5 yards per carry again, and scoring a measly 6 times on the ground. Feeling that one Billy Joe wasn't enough, Ditka signed journeyman Billy Joe Tolliver at quarterback following a season ending injury to Billy Joe Hobert. The Saints again played musical chairs with their signal callers, using four different starters on the year. The Billy Joe's and Wuerffel were joined by a mid-season signing of Kerry Collins after his tumultuous release from Carolina, but none had any sustained effectiveness. The New Orleans defense again managed to pressure the quarterback well, finishing with 47 sacks and a Pro Bowl berth for Joe Johnson. Their secondary was a mess though, despite 6 interceptions and two touchdowns from safety Sammy Knight. The New Orleans pass defense finished 30th, last in the league, and the entire squad finished 26th in total defensive rankings.
Mike Ditka approached the 1999 draft with the 12th overall selection, but with every intention on moving up into the top five picks. When the Indianapolis Colts (coached by former New Orleans head man Jim Mora) drafted University of Miami running back Edgerrin James with the number four selection, Ditka and the Saints worked out a deal with the Washington Redskins to move to number five. With that pick, Ditka selected University of Texas Heisman Trophy winning back Ricky Williams, in hopes of duplicating the tremendous rushing success he had in Chicago with Walter Payton. What will live forever in infamy is the amazing amount that New Orleans gave up to get Williams. The Saints surrendered ALL of their 1999 draft picks (12th overall, along with 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th round picks), as well as their 1st and 3rd round selections in the 2000 draft to the Redskins for the Longhorns running back. Williams performed adequately during his first season, rushing for 884 yards, but averaged just 3.5 yards per carry and scored just twice and failed to live up to the astronomical expectations. The team again got abysmal play from the quarterback position, using four different starters who combined for 30 interceptions and just 16 touchdowns. The Saints were once again at the bottom of the league in point differential, although the defense provided a lone bright spot with 45 sacks. New Orleans won their season opener, but dropped their next 7 games in bumbling to a 3-13 finish, finally costing Ditka his job at the end of the season.
After the 1999 draft day trade for Williams, Ditka and his new running back infamously appeared on the cover of ESPN the Magazine dressed as a bride and groom. The photo was meant to be lighthearted, of course, but was instead a snapshot of what Ditka had become by this point in his career. He was no longer "Iron Mike"; the tough-as-nails Hall of Fame tight end, or no-nonsense and hard nosed head coach, but instead he was a parody of his former self. Ditka, whose three year record with the Saints was 15-33, would later admit after his departure from New Orleans that his 'heart was no longer in coaching'. He used 7 different quarterbacks in three seasons, who combined for an embarrassing 84 interceptions, while throwing only 47 touchdown passes. Outstanding talent along the offensive and defensive front lines was squandered with little talent at the skill positions and poor game planning. Even long-time observers of the Saints described this period as one of the darkest times in Saints franchise history, and the hire was arguably Tom Benson's biggest mistake during his successful ownership of the team.