Mike Ditka won his season opener and walked away feeling a bit like a loser.
The New Orleans Saints turned two first-half turnovers into touchdowns and had only one turnover, contrasting with a mistake-laden performance from the St. Louis Rams in a 24-17 opening victory Sunday. Lamar Smith caught one touchdown pass and threw for another on an option play.
But any enthusiasm was muted by a season-ending injury to quarterback Billy Joe Hobert, who ruptured his right Achilles' tendon in the fourth quarter. Coach Mike Ditka choked back tears discussing it after the game.
"He's a great kid," Ditka said. "He's my kind of player. It's a big loss for him."
"I'll miss having him out there this year. We'll have to do the best we can."
Hobert was injured without contact, dropping back to pass on the artificial turf with 14:20 remaining and crumpling. Hobert was 11-for-23 for 170 yards and one touchdown before being replaced by Danny Wuerffel.
"I wasn't really sure what happened to him," said Wuerffel, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1996 at Florida. "I was just trying to stay mentally ready for the whole game."
"You never know when that big play comes."
The Saints also have former first-round pick Heath Shuler, who is coming off foot surgery.
The Saints opened at St. Louis for the second straight year. Ditka lost 38-24 to Dick Vermeil last year in the coaching comeback game for both men. New Orleans led the ematch 24-0 with 4:45 left in the first half and ended a four-game losing streak against the Rams.
New Orleans also won despite rushing for only 35 yards on 24 carries and getting shut out in the second half.
The Rams fumbled five times, losing one of them, and had one interception of Tony Banks' deflected pass that led to a Saints touchdown on the following play. Four Rams missed a chance to tackle Smith on a 35-yard pass play from Hobert that put New Orleans ahead 24-0.
A sellout crowd of 56,943, minus 8,150 no-shows no doubt distracted by Mark McGwire's home run chase across town with the Cardinals, let its displeasure be known. Fans counted out the missed tackles when the replay was shown.
"We had a lot of little mistakes," Rams coach Dick Vermeil said. "Blame me, blame whoever you want."
Jerald Moore is the most likely scapegoat.
Moore fumbled three times, once at the St. Louis 5 and twice inside the Saints 5. The first fumble was caused not by contact, but by the ball connecting with his thigh pad, and the ball bounced right to Saints defensive end Joe Johnson for a 5-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
"I gave them a touchdown and we lost by a touchdown," Moore said. "That's on me. It's like the worst feeling ever."
| Jerald Moore fumbles after being hit by the Saints' La'Roi Glover. (AP) |
One of Moore's fumbles came on his 1-yard scoring run with 55 seconds left in the first half. He dived on the ball in the end zone.
"It felt like it wasn't even a touchdown to me, because of the way it happened," Moore said.
Moore was benched midway through the third quarter in favor of June Henley, who was on the practice squad last year. Vermiel inexplicably made his other two top running backs, second-round pick Robert Holcombe and free agent pickup Greg Hill, as inactives.
Vermeil was non-committal about whether Moore still had a starting job next week.
"If you can't hold onto the ball, you can't play," he said. "That's all there is to it."
Johnson has been with the Saints only five days. He ended a holdout when he signed a one-year deal, $3.08 million deal on Wednesday.
"The ball was just sitting there," Johnson said. "I just picked it up and ran. I just finished it off."
The Saints made it 14-0 on a 20-yard option pass from Smith to a wide-open Andre Hastings later in the first quarter and also got a 36-yard field goal from Doug Brien in the second quarter.
Banks had an effective game statistically. He was 29-for-44 for 298 yards and one touchdown and hit Eddie Kennison for a 15-yard score that cut the gap to 24-14 with 7:14 left in the third.
Jeff Wilkins made a 34yard field goal with 1:26 to go to cut the Rams' deficit to seven.
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