Sunday January 24, 2010 is a day that will be forever remembered by fans of the New Saints and the people in and around the organization. the Saints defeated the Minnesota Vikings 31-28 in an overtime thriller that put the Saints in the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history. Kicker Garret Hartley’s 40-yard field goal split down the middle of the up-rights to send the Saints to Miami and their date with destiny. The “Who Dats,” as the Saints and their fans are known as, capped off a 42 year history of frustration and futile attempts to reach pro football’s promised land, the Super Bowl. When the Saints took to the field for the first time in 1967, they began by running the opening kick off for a touchdown. Unfortunately, that was the only big highlight for that game. They did manage to set an NFL record, at that time, for expansion franchises that first season with three wins. The next big highlight in their early history was when Tom Dempsey, born without toes on his right foot, kicked a record 63-yard field goal, which has been tied once but never broken, to defeat the Detroit Lions in 1970. They did not manage to reach a .500 record until 1979. The following year they managed to win only one game. That off season they hired “Bum” Phillips who had taken the Houston Oilers to the AFC Championship game in two of the previous three seasons, however they didn’t seem to match Phillips’ success that was attained in Houston. However, the Saints did strike some gold in the 1981 and 1982 drafts that would help propel them to their first ever winning seasons and trips to the playoffs.
The Saints have often made mistakes that came back to haunt them and have streaks of bad luck which gave rise to people to say that Hell would freeze over and that pigs would fly before the Saints ever made it to the Super Bowl. Longtime New Orleans sports broadcaster Buddy Diliberto said that he walk down Bourbon Street in a dress when the Saints made the Super Bowl. Buddy D, as he was affectionately known, passed away in January 2005 from a massive heart attack. Diliberto would eventually be instrumental in a Saint’s personnel move.
In the 1971 NFL Draft, the Saints picked Archie Manning, a highly touted quarterback out of Ole Miss, as the future of their franchise. Manning never saw the Saints reach that potential as a player but he did get to see them make it as a member of the Saints’ broadcast team. Archie also achieved acclaim as the patriarch of football’s first family, the Mannings, who are featured by sons Peyton and Eli. It is said that had Archie Manning played for any other team that he would have been in the Super Bowl and in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. An aging Manning was traded to the Houston Oilers in exchange for another aging Quarterback named Kenny Stabler. Stabler had been to the Super Bowl with the Oakland Raiders in 1977 but had been sent to Houston before the 1980 season. Stabler, though still an effective leader, was starting to show his age and this lead the Saints to sign USFL veteran and native of nearby Cut Off, Louisiana, Bobby Hebert.
The 1980s seemed to turn a page for New Orleans’ team. They drafted Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers and Linebacker Rickey Jackson in 1981 and Michigan State Kicker, and native of Denmark, Morten Andersen in 1982. Rogers was a big help in the backfield but Phillips signed a favorite player of his Earl Campbell. Campbell’s stay in New Orleans was brief but it also meant that Rogers’ days as a Saint were numbered. Another thing was the Saints were still ending up with losing records yet showed promise and potential for greatness. The Saints signed Dalton Hilliard in 1986 and they finally had a solid rusher. The drafting of Jackson helped build the storied “Dome Patrol” Linebacker corps that dominated NFL defensive stats in the middle 80s to early 90s. In 1985, John Mecom Jr. sold the team to New Orleans native Tom Benson. Benson bought the team and was committed to make winners out of the Saints and no longer be laughing stocks.
One of the first moves Benson made was hiring Jim Finks as General Manager. Finks had been successful in building winning teams in Minnesota and Chicago. The 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears were built with players who Finks had signed. One of Jim Finks’ first moves as Saints GM was hiring a young coach who had won championships in the USFL, Jim Mora. The 1986 season was the first season featuring the Finks and Mora team and the last losing season the Saints would see for the next seven years. From 1987 to 1993 the Saints made the playoffs three times and losing in the opening round each time. Finks had contracted cancer and stepped down in 1992. Finks passed away in 1994 and was enshrined in Canton for his accomplishments with the Saints.
Prior to the 1994 season, the first year of the current salary cap and free agency rules, the Saints lost many of the players who were instrumental to their recent success. Among those lost were Morten Andersen, Rickey Jackson, and Bobby Hebert. Jackson signed with the San Francisco 49ers, a division rival at the time, and Hebert and Andersen went to the hated Atlanta Falcons. These players seemed to send a message to the Saints that would haunt them for the next few years. in 94 and 95 the Saints finished with 7-9 records. Halfway through the 1996 season, Jim Mora resigned with the Saints having a 2-6 record. Rick Venturi was named to replace Mora for the remainder of the season. Buddy D had seen enough of the poor play of the Saints and was lobbying to have his friend former Chicago Bears Coach Mike Ditka hired as the Saints coach. After the Saints completed the 1996 campaign with a 3-13 record, Diliberto got his wish.
Mike Ditka was named head coach and Bill Kuharich was hired as General Manager. Ditka had been a successful coach with the Bears and in 1985 won the Super Bowl, ironically in New Orleans, and was seeking to do the same for the Saints. One of his early moves was to draft Offensive Lineman Kyle Turley. Ditka took a huge gamble in the 1999 NFL Draft by trading away the Saints’ entire draft picks to draft Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams out of Texas. This move is still debated today as whether it was genius or foolish. The 1999 season started out with promise because the Who Dat Nation was looking for a mirrored result that Ditka had in his first three years in Chicago, two bad years that were followed with successful years afterwards. In Ricky Williams’ first game as a Saint, he injured his ankle and spent much of the year either playing hurt or sitting out due to the injury not healing properly. The Saints finished with at 3-13 and prompted Tom Benson to fire both Ditka and Kuharich.
Tom Benson hired Randy Mueller to replace Kuharich and then hired Pittsburgh Steelers’ Defensive Coordinator Jim Haslett as the Saints’ new Head Coach. That first season saw the Saints move their training camp from La Crosse, Wisconsin to Thibodaux, Louisiana. That first year also saw the Saints turn a page and begin a new chapter in their franchise history. The Saints won the NFC West Division in 2000 and the Saints were back in the playoffs. They won their first playoff game in franchise history that year, over the defending Super Bowl Champion Saint Louis Rams, and lost in the Divisional Round to the Minnesota Vikings. The 2001 through 2004 seasons saw the Saints remain in contention for a playoff birth only to fall short each season. The 2005 season would be one that will be forever remembered not only for the Saints and Saint fans but in all of sports.
Only days after the Saints defeated the Baltimore Ravens in the Superdome, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and severely damaged the Gulf Coast and its aftermath flooded New Orleans. During the storm, the roof and part of the structure of the Superdome was severely damaged by the winds. Some news crews in the area filmed the roof being peeled off the, at the time, 30 year old stadium which was being used as a shelter of last resort. The day after the storm passed, rising waters and two loose barges collided in a levee that surrounded the city to cause flooding. The Majority of New Orleans, including the Superdome, was under water. The damage to the city and the Saints’ home stadium meant the Saints had to find a new home for the regular season. They played their home opener against the New York Giants in the Giants’ home stadium and then split the remainder of the home games between the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas and Tiger Stadium on the campus of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. The stress from the storm and the distractions of whether or not the Saints would ever return to New Orleans were too much for the Saints and the Saints ended the 2005 season with a 3-13 record. This also saw the Saints fire Haslett. After the 2005 season was over, the NFL, Saints’ ownership, and officials with the City of New Orleans and the State of Louisiana met to see what could be done for the Saints near future. After then NFL Commissioner Paul Taglibue and Deputy Commissioner Roger Goodell met with Superdome officials it was agreed that the Saints would return to a still rebuilding New Orleans for the 2006 season.
The Saints made what many consider their best offseason moves in between the 2005 and 06 seasons. They hired Sean Payton as Head Coach, under the high recommendations of Bill Parcells and drafted Heisman Trophy Running Back Reggie Bush out of Southern California. They signed Quarterback Drew Brees, who had been very successful in San Diego and coming off shoulder surgery. They also signed Linebacker Scott Fujita and several veteran defensive backs to shore up their defense.
The Saints opened the 2006 preseason by holding training camp in Jackson, Mississippi and playing their “home” preseason games in Shreveport, Louisiana. They opened the regular season with three straight road games while the finishing touches were being made to the newly rebuilt and refurbished Superdome. The Superdome’s refurbishment was a massive effort that was completed 10 months after the NFL and Superdome management said there was going to be professional football in New Orleans in 2006. The home opener was to be against the Atlanta Falcons and be broadcast nationwide on Monday Night Football. The game was an emotional one for everybody who was at the Superdome and those watching it on television. The Saints defeated the Falcons 23-3 in a packed house. In pre-game ceremonies the bands U2 and Green Day performed a rendition of “The Saints Are Coming” which was originally performed by a punk rock band called “The Skids”. That game was the highest rated broadcast of Monday Night Football ever on ESPN and the song has become an unofficial anthem for the Saints and is still played when the Saints take the Superdome turf. The game also won an ESPY award in 2007 for “Greatest Sports Moment of 2006”. The Saints proceeded to finish the season with a 10-6 record and a first round bye in the NFC Playoffs. They defeated the defending NFC Champion Philadelphia Eagles 27-24 in a sold out Superdome. They were headed to the NFC Championship game for the first time in team history. They traveled to Chicago to face the Bears for a trip to the Super Bowl in Miami. They were able to keep up with the Bears for the first quarter and half of the second but the brutal cold weather and a strong Chicago Bears team were too much to the Saints as they lost 39-14. They spent the next two years fighting to come back to that moment of glory and prove that it was no fluke. The 2007 campaign saw injuries catch up to the Saints and they finished with a 7-9 record. In 2008, the Saints trade for New York Giants’ Tight End Jeremy Shockey and New York Jets’ Linebacker Jonathan Vilma. They improved in the 2008 season with an 8-8 record. After that season, people were beginning to feel that 2009 was going to be a special one for the Saints.
The Saints released fan favorite Running Back Deuce Mc Callister after the 2008 season and decided to rely on Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas for their running game. This may have been heart breaking for the fans but that still did not dampen their hopes. The Saints were out for blood in 2009. They moved their training camp to their practice facility in Metairie, Louisiana and completed the preseason with a 3-1 record. When the regular season began, the Saints reeled off to a 13-0 record, including a nail biting come from behind win against the Miami Dolphins and an overtime win against the Washington Redskins. The Dallas Cowboys stood in the way of the Saints reaching 14-0. With already having the franchise record for wins and the division title sealed, the Saints were playing for a first round bye in the playoffs. The Cowboys, who had a recent history of collapsing in December, beat the Saints 24-17. The Saints had to rely on losses by the Minnesota Vikings to secure the bye week and home field advantage for the playoffs. The Saints lost the next two games to finish the regular season at 13-3. The Vikings delivered the Saints the bye and home filed advantage by losing their next three games as well. The people in New Orleans were determined to see the Black and Gold go to Miami.
After taking a week off for the first round of the playoffs, the Saints hosted defending NFC Champions the Arizona Cardinals. They proceeded to dominate the Cardinals 45-14. The Saints were headed back to the NFC Championship game. Their foe would be the Minnesota Vikings and it would be played in the Superdome.
The Minnesota Vikings were lead by NFL’s elder statesman and quarterback Brett Favre. Favre may have been 40 but was still deadly to opponents. The 2009-10 NFC Championship Game would be one for the ages. The Vikings had the NFL’s best run defense and were effective in stifling the Saints’ running game. The Saints had to rely on their passing game and a solid defense to win the game. The defense did allow the Vikings to score 28 points and tie the game but, like the week before when they put a pounding on the Cardinals’ elder Quarterback Kurt Warner, proceeded to put a massive assault on Favre. Despite the pain and the turnovers, Favre kept the Vikings alive during the game and it ended in regulation with a tie score. In overtime, the Saints won the coin toss and elected to receive the ball. In that offensive series, the Saints pushed the ball inside the Vikings’ 30-yard line. This was within range for Kicker Garrett Hartley. Hartley trotted onto the field and was getting ready to attempt the field goal. The Vikings pulled the cliche stall tactic by calling a time out. This did not seem to phase Hartley as when the ball was snapped and set on the ground, he kicked the ball that sailed through the middle of the uprights and into Saints and NFL history. This 31-28 win meant the Saints would be going to Miami and the Super Bowl. The only thing that now stands in the way of capping off a story book season is the Indianapolis Colts who are lead by Quarterback Peyton Manning, son of Saints legend Archie.
With the resurrection of New Orleans in full swing, the win caused a party on Bourbon Street that continued until after 3 a.m. Monday morning and has lifted the morale and spirits of a state that has seen its share of heartache from hurricanes and fluctuations in the oil industry. It was said that pigs would fly when the Saints made it to the Super Bowl. Guess what, there were reports of pigs flying over Louisiana on January 24, 2010 because of Drew Brees’ passing the pig skin and Garrett Hartley’s kicking of the same.