They no longer are being watched by people wearing paper bags and frowns. Only the frowns remain.

In these humid, oppressive days of summer when the Florida heat is as impregnable as Randy White in the winter, the New Orleans Saints have come out into the open.

Consequently, so have the grim faces of those who are watching them. Unlike the Saints' victories over the past 15 years, the number of people watching them recently has multiplied.

The stories about cocaine. Everybody knows.

"I guess you might say that here is where it all starts," says Saints punter Russell Erxleben.

The voice of demons surrounds the Saints. It began in June when Don Reese, a New Orleans player in 1978-80, told Sports Illustrated that cocaine abuse infested the Saints in the day, in the night and in the locker room.

Reese mentioned names. One of those names was Mike Strachan, a running back for New Orleans from 1975-80 and the team's most valuable player in 1975. Strachan is set for an Aug. 30 trial in New Orleans for charges of conspiracy and drug distribution. He has pleaded innocent and subpoenaed numerous team members.

Then there is the story of George Rogers, the NFL's rookie of the year and leading rusher in 1981. Earlier this month, Rogers, who gained 1,674 yards in his first post-Heisman season, admitted using cocaine for recreational purposes.

Reserve quarterback Dave Wilson, one of the subpoenaed players, said, "The scrutiny of the Saints will continue. We're the ones with the names out. We'll get it for awhile."

Bobby Scott, a reserve quarterback who has been with the Saints for 11 seasons, views the problem from its conception: "I think Don Reese probably got himself into trouble and needed the money from Sports Illustrated. He hurt himself more than anything."

Their nickname remains "Saints." Their career record remains 59-154-5. With all the scavengers ravaging a team coming off a 4-12 season and a winless offseason, it seems the blood of integrity has been sapped. The brittle bones of condemnation are the remains.

It's enough to make second-year Coach/General Manager Bum Phillips, a man of humor and one-liners, turn to cold one-line dead-end responses. Phillips prefers wearing cowboy hats to ball and chain.

On Don Reese: "It has nothing to do with us. He's not on this team."

On Mike Strachan's trial: "I didn't even know it was coming up."

On the drug-abuse subject in general: "I don't think about it, just coaching. What has happened with this team is not nearly as important as what is going to happen."

Wide receiver Lindsay Scott, New Orleans' first-round pick from Georgia, said Phillips was a bit more adamant with the team. "Coach Phillips told us, 'The first time I'll take the blame. The second time, any of you get caught (with drugs), you're gone.' "

Defensive end Bruce Clark left the Canadian Football League this year and persuaded Green Bay, who owned his rights, to trade him to the Saints for a first-round pick in 1983. On the day of his press conference, the Reese story came out. Guess which one was the lead story?

Clark says, "It hasn't bothered one athlete here. We got slapped in the face for something we're not even a part of. And if some players here now were involved, they have cleaned up their act. It's not like 'Oh my God!' This happens all over."

Erxleben says, "I don't think it is as bad as people think. This is a prime example of the power of the press. I think it's like the whisper game I played as a kid--somebody whispers something and it's passed along."

When the name "George Rogers" was tacked on the Saints' list of drug users, the whispers turned to shrieks. He is the power-plus-speed man from South Carolina who ran for more than 100 yards nine times and scored 13 touchdowns last year, two of his eight New Orleans records. He is the man about whom quarterback Archie Manning says, "We are a ball-control offense and George controls the ball. That's how important he is to us."

In New Orleans, George Rogers is simply The Man.

"These last few months have been hectic," says Rogers. "I've changed a lot in the last two months. The changes have been for the better."

Rogers called a press conference earlier this month and spoke of his drug use last year. He spent three days at the Palm Beach Institute taking psychiatric tests, was pronounced fit with no sign of dependence on cocaine or any other drug, and since has added a constant smile to style.

"People look up to you, so you have to take it. As far as I'm concerned the cocaine stories are cleared up. I'm tired of people asking questions. It's over and done and I ain't going to say any more," said Rogers, who, like every Saints player questioned, says he has no objections to urinalysis. ("I have nothing to hide," Rogers says.)

Again, Erxleben put things in the perspective of Sainthood/non-Sainthood: "I forgave George Rogers. It took a hell of a man to say 'I made a mistake.' George didn't hurt me or the fans. He worked every Sunday and didn't dog it. He didn't rape or kill someone. He hurt himself. That's all."

Erxleben paused as though he were watching the hang time of his words. He added, "But if George does it again, I'll be mad."

Manning, about to begin his 12th NFL season since being voted merely the "Quarterback of the Century" at Mississippi of the Southeastern Conference, stands behind Rogers, who usually stands behind him in the Saints' backfield.

Manning said, "George is very honest, very genuine. I believe in him. The whole team believes in him. We'll beat this all yet."

Scott, the rookie receiver, said of the drug talk, "It could be used in two ways--as a motivating factor or, if we lose, it could be blamed on the drugs."

Perhaps it was fitting that when Phillips came to camp to begin the end of this truly off offseason, the Vero Beach airport was surrounded by tanks and Sandinista rebels with machine guns.

Phillips knew a movie was being filmed, but said, as only he could say, "I didn't know the NFL drug enforcement was that strong."