It had been hyped as a grudge match between former teammates-turned-rivals, but last Sunday’s New Orleans Saints-Dallas Cowboys game was really no more than Buster Douglas-Evander Holyfield.
One guy just wasn’t prepared.
Troy Aikman, the Cowboy quarterback who had kept Steve Walsh on the bench in Dallas, was making his 24th start and running an offensive system he had studied for two years. Walsh, traded Sept. 25 to New Orleans for three high draft picks, was making his seventh start in a totally foreign scheme.
Aikman completed all 11 of his second-half passes as the Cowboys rallied for a 17-13 victory. Walsh completed 18 of 27 for 177 yards, but the Saints managed just three points in the second half, and two fourth-quarter drives stalled despite good field position.
“It gets frustrating,” Walsh said. “I’m trying to take it in stride, you know, there will be some growing pains. I still come out of the huddle sometimes thinking about what everyone’s going to do, and that’s not good.”
In New Orleans, the Saints’ 5-7 record is more disappointing than a week-long storm during Mardi Gras. But don’t expect Coach Jim Mora to second-guess the deal that brought Walsh to the Saints for their first and third picks in the 1991 draft and a conditional second-round pick in 1992.
Listening to Mora, you’d figure it was the best deal made in his part of the country since the Louisiana Purchase. Even Dallas Coach Jimmy Johnson, who coached Walsh for four years at the University of Miami, told reporters after the trade that, “I think he’s worth more than what we got today.”
But the Cowboys already had decided that Aikman--and a stockpile of draft picks--was the key to their future. And Mora was convinced that neither Bobby Hebert, who is still a holdout, nor John Fourcade, who started the first five games, was the right man to help bring the Saints’ offense to a level with their Super Bowl-caliber defense.
So Jim Finks, the team’s president/general manager, went on a quarterback quest and, according to Mora, anyway, returned with a 24-year-old holy grail.
“We think Steve’s got the potential to be an excellent player in this league,” Mora said. “We liked what we saw. He’s a good passer. He’s got a nice arm and a nice touch. Uses good judgment. Bright. He’s got good poise, good concentration. He’s mature for his age. He’s a good leader. He’s got all the things you’re looking for.”
Maybe, but professional football has evolved to the point at which even a guy with the right stuff and all the right moves can’t just jog out behind the center and pass his way to the Super Bowl.
“Considering the circumstances, I think he’s done an outstanding job,” Mora said. “That’s a tough thing to ask a young player to do, to come in after the third game of regular season and be the starter. It’s not like he’s an experienced quarterback. He’s in his second year, in a new system without the benefit of having been to training camp, and he’s been asked to come in and do something you usually don’t ask any player to do at that position.”
Walsh has thrown for 1,472 yards and completed 134 of 224 passes--a respectable 59.8%--as a Saint. He has thrown nine touchdowns and nine interceptions and ranks 10th in the NFC with a quarterback rating of 75.3. But the New Orleans’ offense is limited because of his inexperience.
“The most frustrating thing is that I’m not making a lot of audibles, which I think is really one of my fortes,” Walsh said. “When you take that away, that really affects an offense. It’s an important weapon. When you take that away from a quarterback, you’re putting a lot of pressure on the offensive coordinator to make the right calls.”
Walsh isn’t complaining about a tight rein, though. He knows better than anyone that he is not yet ready to start calling his own game at the line. The Rams figure to show the Saints all their new, ever-evolving defensive looks Sunday, but 99% of the time, Walsh will run the play that’s called.
“When you have as many formations as we have, when the game plan is changing every week, it’s kind of hard to get to the right play,” he said. “That ability is only going to come through training camp and having the time to understand the system in depth, Audible situations have to be just a reaction. If you start thinking about it, then it’s too slow.
“Once I have the ability to say this play isn’t good and check to another play, things should go a lot smoother for us.”
Meanwhile, Walsh will relish the bumpy ride. In Dallas, the status quo was beginning to get to him. The baseball-cap-and-clipboard gig was getting old. He wanted the show the big boys what he could do.
Heck, when he was 5, he played on a hockey team for 7-year-olds. He was a starting quarterback on his Pop Warner team at 8. He was the only 12-year-old--and the starting first baseman--on a St. Paul, Minn.-area all-star baseball team. He was the starting quarterback at Cretin High School in St. Paul as a sophomore.
At Miami, Walsh took over as a sophomore after Vinny Testaverde left for Tampa Bay. During one spring practice, a defensive lineman looked across at Walsh, 6 feet 3 and 180 pounds, and sniffed, “Oh, great. We’re gonna start Ichabod Crane.”
By the end of that 1987 season, Miami was 12-0 and national champion. And the skinny kid at quarterback was already a leader, his uncanny calm under pressure already a Florida legend. In a game at Florida State, for instance, he threw for three late touchdowns and two two-point conversions as the Hurricanes rallied for a 26-25 victory.
Miami was 23-1 when Walsh was the starter (and he threw for 424 yards against Notre Dame in the 31-30 loss).
Walsh packed his degree in finance and set off to get some starting capital out of the NFL. Johnson, Walsh’s coach at Miami, had taken Aikman in the first round of the regular draft two months earlier, but he felt Walsh was too good to pass up and made him the second overall selection in the first round of the 1989 supplemental draft.
So Walsh knew he was No. 2 on the depth chart from the outset.
“In Dallas, the pressure wasn’t really on me, it was on Troy,” Walsh said. “I was able to learn at a little bit slower pace and take things easier. Troy was force-fed everything.
“Now, this is what I thought life in the NFL should be. It was weird to be in a situation where the pressure really isn’t there and you just go into work every day and try to get better. But the experience at Dallas allowed me to come in here and play right away. I had time to learn an NFL system and understand life in the NFL.”
Most observers figure Walsh is one training camp away from becoming one of the league’s best. Bill Walsh, former San Francisco coach and quarterback guru, once told Johnson to “be careful what you do with Steve, he does so many things you just can’t coach.”
“He goes in there every week and does better,” Mora says. “Sometimes that isn’t always noticeable to the casual observer because every week is a different situation. Different teams give you different problems, they have different types of players, some teams are stronger than others.
“But when you study it from our side, you see the gradual improvement. It’s natural for him to improve with experience because he’s a bright kid and he prepares well. But it takes time, especially at that position.”
Walsh admits he’s a little impatient. It feels as if he’s waited a long time for this opportunity. On the day the trade was announced, Walsh told the media: “It’s like draft day. All the fans expect you to go in and be a superstar. I find that exciting. I don’t find that frightening at all.”
Mal Scanlon, Walsh’s football coach at Cretin High, figures it’s unlikely even the great expectations of Saints’ fans exceed Walsh’s personal goals, anyway.
“You watch,” Scanlon told the New Orleans Times-Picayune after the trade, “once he gets in there at New Orleans, it’ll be a long time before he gives the job up. It happened on the playground. It happened in high school. It happened at Miami. He has the determination of a bulldog. That’s what Steve Walsh is all about.”