Winless Dad wants no Mora losing

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- No one is rooting harder for Jim Mora in the NFL playoffs than his dad, the guy whose name he proudly shares.

Nothing unusual about that, right? Doesn't every father yearn for his son to be a success in life?

Well, in this family, it runs a little deeper than bloodlines.

The elder Mora went to the playoffs six times during his long, successful coaching career. Each time, it was one-and-out.

This weekend, his son gets a chance to remove that blemish from the family tree -- and maybe ease whatever pain still lingers in his father's heart.

"I know he's worried sick this week," said the younger Mora, who guided the Atlanta Falcons to the NFC South championship in his rookie season as a head coach.

The Falcons, who had a first-round bye, host the Rams on Saturday night.

"My dad really wants us to win," Mora said Monday, standing in a hallway at the Falcons' suburban headquarters. "If we don't, he's worried that I will get stuck with his label."

Papa Mora guided the New Orleans Saints to the first four playoff appearances in franchise history. But they never got past their first postseason game, a streak of frustration that included a home loss to Jerry Glanville's Falcons during the 1991 season.

Mora also coached in Indianapolis, overseeing the greatest one-season turnaround in NFL history. The Colts went from 3-13 in 1998 to 13-3 the following year, winning the AFC East title. But the playoffs didn't get any easier after the Mora left the Big Easy, that remarkable season ending with a 19-16 loss to Tennessee.

Indianapolis made the postseason again in 2000, but the ending was just as familiar. In a wild-card game at Miami, the Colts blew a 14-point lead in the second half, gave up the tying touchdown in the final minute of regulation and lost 23-17 in overtime.

Mora was criticized for calling a fake field goal that backfired. But it wasn't his fault that Mike Vanderjagt missed a 49-yard attempt in overtime that would have removed the stigma from the coach's record.

The six straight playoff losses tied an NFL record. Now retired and living in California, Mora is the only coach in league history with 100 victories (in his case, 125) and not even one postseason win.

Mora's son, who was at five of the six playoff losses, believes his father was a victim of his regular-season success, in a sense. He got more out of his teams than he should have -- only to have their weaknesses exposed in the bright glare of the postseason.

And the younger Mora is also quick to point out that his father has won a playoff game, just not in the NFL. During the 1980s, Papa Mora captured two USFL championships with the Philadelphia-Baltimore Stars.

"Just the other day," the son said, "I found an old Stars football while cleaning out a storage room."

Mora's USFL success led him to a job with the lowly New Orleans Saints, who had never even had a winning season when he arrived in 1986.

A year later, the Saints won 12 games and made the playoffs for the first time ever. Not that it did them much good -- New Orleans was blown out in its postseason debut, falling to Minnesota 44-10.

And so, a trend began.

Mora's teams found all sorts of ways to fall on their playoff faces, from blowouts to excruciatingly close loss. The coach was lambasted for his role in those defeats, though his son believes much of the condemnation was unfounded.

The younger Mora did try to learn a thing or two, however.

"I think he may have worked his teams too hard," the Falcons coach said. "They reached their maximum level during the regular season, but when it was time to fire it up a notch for the playoffs, they weren't able to do it."

With that in mind, Mora rested Michael Vick and most of the Falcons' key players over the last two weeks of the regular season. The coach was clearly more concerned about being fresh for the playoffs than winning two meaningless games.

Atlanta closed with a two-game losing streak, perhaps slowing some of the momentum that it built up during a turnaround season. Now, we get to see if the son's way works better.

But Mora insists that he's not burdened by his father's record or feeling any burning desire to write a new ending to the family's playoff legacy.

"This is me," the son said. "It's a natural question to ask, but it doesn't have anything to do with me."

Still, beneath Mora's public stance, one can't help but get the idea that this playoff game is especially important to this family. Here's a son who wants to make his father proud -- and show that a Mora can coach a team to victory in the playoffs.

"My father did some amazing things during the regular season," the younger Mora said. "But the thing that sticks with him is his lack of success in the playoffs."

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