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Wilson Would Have to Be a Saint Not to Be Angry

Times Staff Writer

Dave Wilson is the quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, which, if all goes as expected, could soon qualify as cruel and unusual punishment under the Louisiana state penal code.

What a week Wilson is having.

First, he shows up for work Sunday at the Superdome and finds the New York Giants waiting for him. All-Pro linebacker Lawrence Taylor wants to dance--on Wilson’s face. The New York defensive line wishes the pleasure of disconnecting Wilson’s assorted limbs.

There are other problems. The New Orleans offense has taken an extended lunch for most of the season. Earl Campbell, once the most feared running back in the league, now resembles a tired mule. The Saints, hounded by injuries, are low on wide receivers, tight ends and possibly ball boys. The weekly collection of New Orleans fans, hardened by 18 seasons of failure and heartaches, is in an ugly mood.

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And Dave Wilson, sore arm and all, is expected to do something about it.

Of course, the game goes dreadfully for the Saints. Wilson throws an interception that later results in a 7-3 New York lead. Saint receivers act as if Wilson’s passes are covered with cactus needles. The Saint defense is playing like the devil, but it can’t do everything. New Orleans linebacker Rickey Jackson somehow finishes the game after having spent the previous night in the hospital with pneumonia .

Up in the radio booth, former New Orleans quarterback Archie Manning watches the Saints try to run on second and 34. “Hard call,” says his microphone partner after watching a short gain.

“I’ll tell you another hard call,” Manning says. “Third and 33.”

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At one point, Wilson, who nursed a sore arm early in the week, has completed just 4 of 16 passes for 19 yards and an interception. Taylor & Co. are after him as if Wilson owes them money. Boos rain down from the gallery.

Meanwhile, Campbell is having one of his best games of the season: 40 yards. Add his totals for the last four games and Campbell still doesn’t have 100 yards. He has yet to set foot in the end zone.

Wilson throws another interception, this time to Leonard Marshall, a defensive lineman, for pity’s sake. The Giants score again and eventually win, 28-14. The Saints drop to 3-5, edging closer to the NFC West cellar.

“Hey, Madden, Sure You Don’t Want to Coach Again?” reads a sign inside the Superdome. John Madden, former coach-turned-television commentator, says he is quite sure.

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More than likely, Madden would rather fly than coach the New Orleans Saints.

It gets worse.

Wilson jogs into the dressing room. His coach, Bum Phillips, attempts the same thing, except that some grandmother with arguably better aim than Wilson, douses Phillips with a beer. Superdome police capture the woman and ask the Saints if they wish to press charges. The Saints decline. Imagine the headline possibilities:

“Saints Jail Grandmother QB.”

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Next, Wilson leaves the stadium and finds Hurricane Juan nearing the New Orleans city limits. He drives to his new apartment, on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain, and listens to the rain and wind beating on his roof. Monday is a day off. On Tuesday, Hurricane Juan still is tap dancing off the Gulf Coast, and Phillips calls off a scheduled workout. No matter. Wilson and about a dozen other players can’t cross the lake’s causeway to New Orleans.

“Yeah, well, we kind of need the practice,” says Wilson when reached by telephone and is told of the cancellation. There is no chuckle in his voice.

More good news. On Sunday, the struggling Saints play the 7-1 Rams.

It wasn’t like this at old Katella High in Anaheim. Back when life was simple, Wilson was a whiz kid quarterback. Then came Fullerton College and more success. Illinois called and Wilson stayed long enough to make Champaign tipsy with victories.

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Wilson finished 10th in the 1980 Heisman Trophy balloting. But he also finished last in a Big Ten ruling that effectively eliminated his senior season at Illinois. The Big Ten said that Wilson had only one season’s worth of eligibility remaining after his transfer from Fullerton. Wilson disagreed, sued and lost. A guy named Tony Eason took Wilson’s place.

The Saints, in need of a young quarterback, chose Wilson in the NFL’s supplemental draft. Ta-da, Wilson was a professional.

Says Wilson of his bizarre career: “If you stop to think about it, it’s going to overwhelm you.”

Wilson started four games as a rookie in 1981 and managed one touchdown and 11 interceptions. A knee injury ruined the 1982 season, and 1983 was a season of education and occasional appearances.

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Last year, though, he played well enough in a reliever’s role to earn rare rave reviews from Saint fans. Against the Rams late last season, Wilson nearly sneaked the Saints past Los Angeles. That game made him the early favorite for the 1985 starting position.

But nothing comes easy for Wilson. If it did, it wouldn’t be New Orleans.

Wilson, 26, underwent rotator cuff surgery during the off-season. He recovered well enough to consider himself the logical choice for starting quarterback. Only veteran Richard Todd stood in his way.

So, of course, the Saints signed native son Bobby Hebert, formerly of the USFL, to a five-year contract worth reportedly about $3.5 million. Wilson wasn’t pleased with the news. He asked the Saints to trade him. The Saints said they’d think about it.

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“It just wasn’t fair,” said Wilson of the three-quarterback competition. “I felt it was a lack of confidence. I was ready to let them know. I just want to play right now.”

The outburst made Wilson a favorite with his teammates. They thought he should start, too. Phillips finally agreed and Wilson began the season against the Kansas City Chiefs, full of hope and optimism.

Passing statistics for Wilson after the Kansas City game: 2 for 22, 30 yards, 2 interceptions, 0 touchdowns. At one point, Wilson threw 18 consecutive incompletions. Angry fans, you say? You would have thought jazz just had been outlawed and Bourbon Street razed.

“It was just the worst game that a person could imagine to get going,” said Manning, a Wilson supporter.

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Wilson recovered in time to lead the Saints to three victories in their next four games. All was well, he thought. But then the Saints lost to the Raiders, previously winless Atlanta and, most recently, the Giants. The boos returned.

“The fans are frustrated and they have every right to be,” Wilson said. “It’s been a long time for them. They’re always told, ‘Wait until next year. Wait until next year.’ ”

So they wait and watch the Saints bumble about like drunks in an alley. “The last couple of weeks we’ve made too many mistakes,” Wilson said. “Against the Raiders and Atlanta, I was pretty much directly responsible for those two losses. I don’t like to lose and I don’t like to be directly responsible for losses. But consistency? I believe I’ve failed on that, the consistency part.”

The Saints are edgy about quarterback inquiries. Asked about Wilson’s performance through the first half of the season, Phillips said: “I don’t know. You writing a book?”

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Later, Phillips said that receivers drop Wilson’s passes, that the offensive line doesn’t always block. “I think Dave, in his first year starting in professional football, is doing a good job,” Phillips said.

Manning was equally hesitant to criticize.

“He’s playing better than his numbers indicate,” he said. “The (offensive) system is such that it’s very hard for a quarterback to play, compared to other players in the league. You know, 300-yard days, 60% completions.”

The Saints are a run-oriented team, though, no one knows why. George Rogers has gone to Washington and Campbell isn’t fooling anyone. If it weren’t for Wayne Wilson, the Saints’ rushing attack would be non-existent. Dave Lagarde, who covers the Saints for The Times-Picayune/States-Item, wrote that “the offense sleeps with the fishes.”

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That leaves Wilson and a passing game as advanced as a black and white Motorola. Hoby Brenner, a tight end, is the leading receiver and he’s nursing an ankle injury.

“The season’s only half over,” Wilson said. “We still can come back. I still feel we’ve got a good team.”

Still, Wilson must resort to past glories to support his sagging confidence. Suddenly those days at Katella, Fullerton and Illinois are awfully attractive to his ego. Anything to survive.

“It’s a situation right now where people could jump ship,” Wilson said. “You could justify our losses becauses of injuries, with other things. But it’s not that easy. You’ve got to put those losses out of your mind. You can’t start pointing fingers.”

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Phillips said this week that Wilson would remain the starting quarterback, even with Todd and Hebert on the bench. The situation may change as the season wears on, or if Phillips is fired at year’s end, a possibility.

“If they feel I’m not a starting-type quarterback, I might have to ask again (for a trade),” Wilson said. “I still feel I am the quarterback of the near future. I still believe I’m the best one out there right now.”

The near future? How about surviving the week?


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