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Ex-Bill Haslett has Saints on the march

The New Orleans Saints have won five consecutive games, have a 6-3 record and are breathing down the collective neck of the St. Louis Rams.

And the next thing you know, Ethiopia will become a world leader in agriculture, New Zealand will emerge as a nuclear power and Liechtenstein will declare war on Germany.

Ridiculous? Not any more. The Saints are proving that anything is possible. If the Saints make the National Football League playoffs for the fifth time in their 30-year history, look for former Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy to get the lead in the remake of “Patton” and Don Knotts to star in “Rambo IV.”

Before this season, New Orleans’ three decades of football futility included four 8-8 seasons, five winning seasons and 21 train wrecks. In their first 17 seasons-two .500 records and 15 losers-the Saints won 78 games, lost 167 and tied four. Calling them doormats was an insult to doormats. They were probably the only team in the history of sports to envy mediocrity.

This swamp-water, mosquito-infested existence is especially hard to swallow in Louisiana. I know. If I had grown up, which I refused to do, it would have been there. Football is king in Louisiana, just ahead of corrupt politics.

The LSU fans fill up Tiger Stadium on Saturday night, and 12 hours later and 70 miles down the road, the Saints will pack the Superdome. It’s safe to say that high school football in Louisiana produces more Division I college players per capita than any state in the nation.

New Orleans isn’t a city, it’s a party. The Saints weren’t invited because they took all the fun out of it. They were the wallflowers, the party poopers. No more. Now, they’re the life of the party.

So, crank up the jazz bands and “Let the good times roll”-that’s the 11th commandment in South Louisiana-’cause the Aints ain’t no more. Mardi Gras has started early in the French Quarter. Bourbon Street is hoppin’ and boppin’. Pass the crawfish. Whip up a batch of gumbo. Black and gold and the fleur-de-lis are fashionable again.

The poor souls who spent the better part of three decades sitting in the Superdome with paper bags over their heads figured it would take some great guru to get the Saints out of the gutter and on their feet again. Maybe they could lure Bill Parcells out of retirement. Or maybe Jimmy Johnson, or Dick Vermeil.
Instead, the man responsible for the Crescent City Miracle is none other than Jim Haslett, an ex-Bills linebacker/comedian/practical joker.

Haslett was drafted by the Bills in 1979 and spent the next seven seasons teaming with nose tackle Fred Smerlas to keep the rest of the team in stitches. When he was a player, you figured Haslett had everything it took to be a great head coach-in junior high school. Every time you walked away from him, you wondered if he had stuck a “kick me” sign on your back. Haslett and Smerlas hosted a radio show in Buffalo and no one was never quite sure who was Larry and who was Curly. Only Moe was missing.

The point is, Haslett doesn’t fit the mold for an NFL head coach. He’s young enough, 44, to remember what it was like to be a player and old enough to get his players’ attention. The people in New Orleans will tell you that Haslett has burned the book most NFL coaches live, and often die, by. He has made the Saints only slightly more predictable than roulette.

Two weeks ago when they beat the Cardinals in Arizona, 21-10, the Saints had a fourth down and inches. Haslett ordered quarterback Jeff Blake to pull the long-count trick and try to draw the defense offside and get the first down by penalty. It didn’t work, so the Saints took the delay-of-game penalty and punted.

Last Sunday against the 49ers, Haslett’s offense was looking at fourth and inches at its own 29. Same thing. Blake spent 10 or 12 seconds calling signals and the 49ers, figuring it was another ploy, relaxed, expecting another delay of game penalty. Instead, Blake got the snap and ran up the middle for a first down.

Then, leading 14-0, Haslett ordered an onside kick, which the Saints recovered. They promptly scored another TD for a 21-0 lead. Makes you wonder if there’s even an off-tackle play in the Saints’ offense.

The media in New Orleans will tell you that the players love Haslett, that he can be tough on them but, as Ted Lewis of the New Orleans Times-Picayune put it, they “still play their butts off for him.”

No wonder. When the Saints win, they get Monday off as well as the usual Tuesday. That is almost unheard of in the NFL, where the conventional wisdom is that the only thing better than working 15 hours a day is working 16 hours a day.

Sounds to me like Haslett is on to something good. Unconventional, unpredictable, and as of late, unstoppable. I hope so. It couldn’t happen to a better town.

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