by Aaron Schatz
Two weeks ago, we started a weekly series on "coaching all-stars," the best players in the history of some of the NFL's best (and most-travelled) head coaches. This week's article mixes a great defense from 20 years ago with a great offense with 10 years ago, then spices things up with a few players from the good old USFL. Ladies and gentlemen, your Jim Mora All-Stars!
Quarterback, running back, and wide receiver are really not tough here. For the other wide receiver spot, we'll give Eric Martin the nod over Quinn Early's 1995 season because Martin had similar numbers in a tougher offensive environment.
One of the hardest things about a Jim Mora All-Star team is figuring out what to do about the fullback position. In the first half of his career, Mora had some excellent fullbacks. Craig Heyward was an old-school fullback who actually split carries with the halfbacks. When Heyward left for Chicago in 1993, the Saints used their fourth-round pick on a kid named Lorenzo Neal. (By the way, Neal only played two games as a rookie, but carried the ball 21 times for 175 yards. As a fullback.) But over the second half of his coaching career, Mora generally used a two-tight end base offense. He had Irv Smith and Wesley Walls, then Ken Dilger and Marcus Pollard. It's really hard to choose between Smith and Walls in 1995, but we'll go with Smith's higher DVOA on fewer passes in a more traditional tight end role. Pollard led all tight ends in DYAR in 2001.
Oates was named to the all-USFL team in 1984, and the only Pro Bowl center that Mora had in the NFL was Joel Hilgenberg in 1992. We'll take him over a young Jeff Saturday. Like Oates, Eatman had a long NFL career after the USFL folded, primarily with Kansas City. He was USFL's "Man of the Year" in 1984. Was that an award for doing charity work, or a combination of actions on and off the field? Honestly, I have no idea.
Trying to figure out guards was difficult. In 15 years as an NFL coach, Mora had only one guard ever make a Pro Bowl roster: Edelman as a reserve in 1987.
DE: Wayne Martin, 1992 Saints
DT: Jim Wilks, 1989 Saints
DE: William Fuller, 1985 Stars
OLB: Rickey Jackson, 1986 Saints
ILB: Sam Mills, 1992 Saints
ILB: Vaughan Johnson, 1990 Saints
OLB: Pat Swilling, 1991 Saints
Here's another position where Mora surprisingly never had any stars: defensive line. Only one lineman ever made the Pro Bowl, Martin when he had 10 sacks in 1994. But linebackers? All you have to do is look at his New Orleans teams and then try to cherry-pick each player's best year. Hard to go wrong with any of those guys.
Mora ran a 4-3 in Indianapolis and his later years in New Orleans, but a 3-4 in New Orleans, and it looks like his USFL "Doghouse Defense" was a 3-4 as well. We'll go 3-4 here because Mora had so many more stars at linebacker than defensive line. For the spot opposite Martin, I chose Fuller, who went on to have a long and successful NFL career, over Chad Bratzke with the 1999 Colts.
Robert Massey had a huge impact on the NFL, considering he's a guy that most of you have probably never heard of. Why was he so important? Robert Massey was Drew Rosenhaus' first client. He signed just a two-year contract when New Orleans took him in the second round of the 1989 draft. Massey was a very promising cover corner, but didn't like the organization, so he demanded a trade during the 1991 offseason. Rosenhaus engineered a deal that sent Massey to Phoenix for Kennard (listed above) and a late-round draft pick. Massey didn't do much in 1991, but ended up making the Pro Bowl in 1992. He also set an NFL record that year, returning two interceptions for touchdowns in a single quarter in a game against Mark Rypien and the defending champion Redskins.
Massey and Allen aside, this is another unit that's hard to pick, because once again we've got a unit where Mora rarely had stars. His Saints defenses were built around linebackers, without big names in the secondary. His Colts defenses had a lot of guys that Bill Polian brought over from the Panthers, including defensive backs Tyrone Poole and Chad Cota. At free safety, I picked Lush and his 10 picks over former cornerback-turned-safety Dave Waymer of the 1989 Saints, although Lush wasn't one of the USFL stars to make an impact in the NFL -- he played one season as a backup for Indianapolis and Minnesota in 1986, was a strikebreaker for Atlanta in 1987, and then never played again.
I'm not sure which of Sean Landeta's USFL seasons was the best, so we'll go with the year he was chosen as Rookie of the Year and had his highest gross punting average (41.9 yards). At kicker, I decided to take a Morten Andersen year after the NFL started keeping track of kickoff distance. Andersen hit a league-leading 85 percent of his field goals in 1992, and was second in the league with 38 touchbacks. Hughes made the Pro Bowl with two punt return touchdowns in 1993.
Now that we've reached the end, you may notice a bit of a surprise: There are no Colts picks on these teams except for offensive "skill players." I had a couple of guys who I considered -- Bratzke, Saturday, left guard Steve McKinney, outside linebacker Marcus Washington -- but to be honest, those Colts teams were almost entirely powered by Manning, James, and Harrison. (Tarik Glenn was a good left tackle, but come on, who are you going with: Glenn or Willie Roaf?) The 1999 team probably has the biggest gap between DVOA and win-loss record of any team we've ever measured, ranking just 17th despite a 13-3 record. And two of Mora's four Colts teams were also the only two teams in Manning's career to win fewer than 10 games: the 3-13 team of his rookie season, and the 6-10 team in 2001. That team was hurt by the injury to Edgerrin James, but still finished eighth in offensive DVOA. The bigger problem was a horrendous defense, the worst Colts defense of the DVOA Era. It's not really easy to take a linebacker off that defense and move him ahead of one of those great mid-90s Saints linebackers.
Mora may have the clearest trends of any coach we've done so far. His teams generally had excellent backs and receivers, quality tackles, a good center, and strength at linebacker. They were weaker at guard, defensive line, and in the secondary. And until Manning, he didn't really have great quarterbacks. Stars quarterback Chuck Fusina was a Tampa Bay Bucs reject, and Saints quarterbacks included the decidedly average (Bobby Hebert), the past their prime (Jim Everett), and the never met their potential (Steve Walsh).
Next week: Doug Farrar sits in to look at the Dick Vermeil All-Stars.