Dusk had settled over Texas Stadium Sunday, just as quietly as the Dallas Cowboys had settled matters with the New Orleans Saints, when Saints Coach Bum Phillips was asked about his 3-4 team's playoff chances.
"If Kenny Stabler gets well," Phillips said, "we can do it."
If Kenny Stabler gets well . . .
If he doesn't, and Phillips said the 36-year-old quarterback is "touch-and-go" for this week's game here against the Washington Redskins, former wide receiver-defensive back Guido Merkens will become the Saints' No. 1 quarterback while 11-year veteran Bobby Scott, recalled from the injured-reserve list, would become the backup.
That's the same Guido Merkens (Sam Houston State '78) who has completed nine of 25 passes for a total of 53 yards and one touchdown. The touchdown came on Merkens' first professional attempt, on a fake field goal attempt in New Orleans' 27-17 victory over Kansas City.
It's the same Merkens who, in relief roles against Atlanta and Dallas, was blitzed off his feet. He told writers after the Cowboys game: "Between us, I'd rather be a defensive back."
Who plays, of course, depends on Stabler. He missed practice Tuesday and today, choosing to spend the day in the whirlpool. Stabler has bruised ribs and elbows, the most serious of which is his left, the arm he uses to throw his soft spirals.
Phillips said a decision on the quarterback wouldn't be made until game time and that Stabler may play even if he doesn't practice this week. "I don't know many other quarterbacks who could do that, but Kenny can," Phillips said.
With a healthy Stabler, the Saints won three games in a row (the most ever for the team) to reach 3-1. They were the talk of a victory-starved town. The formula for success in that streak was a simple one; play mistake-free football and control the ball on offense. The young Saints' offensive line kept Stabler clean, allowing only one sack. Stabler, a career 63 percent passer, completed more than 68 percent of his throws during the streak.
New Orleans began to come unraveled against Tampa Bay, losing a game it likely would have won except for two missed field goals and three lost fumbles inside the Bucs' 25.
Then came a 35-0 blowout in Atlanta and Sunday's 21-7 loss to the uninspired Cowboys. In those three games, New Orleans committed 13 turnovers and allowed 13 sacks.
Now the Saints find they must win two games. For a franchise that has never had a season over .500, that's asking a lot.