It wasn't that long ago that National Football League jokesters were still calling them the New Orleans Ain'ts! Hundreds of their fans were so upset with their lack of progress that they wore bags over their heads to home games to show their disgust. There were even stories that their scouting department was so disorganized that it approached every college player draft with a cluster of regional phone books and a giant hatpin. But thanks to second-year head coach Jim Mora, an ex-marine who works a 25-hour day, New Orleans has retrieved the capital ``S'' that had slipped from in front of its nickname. The Saints also have an 8-3 record, second best behind San Francisco in the NFC-West, and an excellent opportunity to end their futility of never having made the playoffs. No matter what, the team is already assured of its first winning season since becoming an NFL expansion franchise in 1967, 21 years ago.
When New Orleans defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday, coming from behind to win, 20-16, it was the Saints' fourth consecutive road victory and fifth straight overall.
This is a team that has suddenly discovered the proper chemistry, with consistency, togetherness, and hard work being the main elements of the winning formula. Corny? Maybe. Effective? Absolutely.
Against the Steelers, the Saints turned two fourth-quarter Pittsburgh turnovers into scores. They also mounted two goal-line stands and blocked their sixth kick of the season.
Offensively, this is a franchise that appeared to need help in putting points on the scoreboard earlier this season. And basically this is still not a big-play team that can break a game open early and then coast the rest of the way. Its pass receivers rarely appear in league highlight films.
To get the job done, the Saints seem to rely primarily on ball control, the power running of Reuben Mayes, the blocking of their two tight ends, and a slew of modest pass patterns.
The New Orleans quarterback is Bobby Hebert, a three-year veteran who usually stays in the pocket, takes what the defense gives him, and has orders to eat the football rather than throw a costly interception. Hebert, who played in only seven games a year ago because of injuries, is obviously better than he looks.
Defensively, Mora runs every practice like a Marine boot camp. If an opponent supposedly has superior personnel, he tries to make sure the Saints are in better condition. He constantly changes his defensive sets and likes linemen who are strong enough to fight their way through blocks, yet fast enough to pursue to the outside.
Part of Jim's philosophy is: ``You can't expect to practice in shorts and then go out and win football games in full uniform. Learning how to handle that extra weight and bulk is important.''
Like most pro football coaches, Mora does not share his innermost thoughts with the press. Several times this year he has deflected reporters' inquiries by telling them that his team still has a long way to go.
Such respones mean nothing, but are spouted routinely every Sunday in NFL locker rooms. The truth is that the Saints have come a long way. Their ability to play consistently well on the road is one of the last steps in winning a division title. Experience and another good draft should do the rest.
Of the Saints' four remaining regular-season games, three are at home, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Houston Oilers, and the Green Bay Packers. On Dec. 20 they must travel to Cincinnati to play the Bengals.
Mora, a Californian who roomed with Congressman Jack Kemp for three years at Occidental College, pulls out an old sports clich'e when he says his team will take these games one at a time. He also gives the impression that worrying about the coming playoffs is best left to other NFL coaches who have been there before.
This may be the party line, but anybody who has watched the Saints go from sneakers to combat boots this season is apt to take the opposite view! Very small Giants
Even before Washington beat the New York Giants, 23-19, the defending Super Bowl champions had long since begun emitting the aroma of mothballs. Sunday's loss only made it official - the Giants, now 3-8, have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.
New York never came together as a team, perhaps because of injuries or the hole that the disruptive players' strike created. Whatever the reasons, the Giants never showed the tenacity that was so indicative of last year's 14-2 record. The Big Apple team that was so good last year that it was fit to be pied couldn't qualify this season for a fast-food restaurant.
What's left for coach Bill Parcells is the chance to do some experimenting with his bench and special teams between now and the end of the season. He'll also be trying to get more consistency into his offense. There is still so much exceptional talent on the Giants, that there is every reason to believe that they can again be a power in 1988.
In Hollywood, all things are created sequel. On the other hand, the NFL hasn't had back-to-back Super Bowl champions since the 1979-80 Steelers. Elsewhere in the NFL
``When you play as hard in the fourth quarter as you do in the first, that's when you know you've arrived as a football team,'' said coach Ray Perkins of Tampa Bay, now 4-7. ``So far, we haven't been able to do that.''
After several hundred fans turned out two weeks ago to welcome home the Indianapolis Colts after a road victory against the Miami Dolphins, Colts running back Eric Dickerson told reporters: ``This is terrific. We never had anything like this happen in Los Angeles, not even after we played in the Super Bowl.'' This is to remind Dickerson that the year the Rams went to the Super Bowl, Eric was still a freshman at Southern Methodist!