The city of New Orleans, Louisiana, was awarded an NFL franchise on November 1, 1966. In December John W. Mecom, Jr. became the majority shareholder and thus president of the team; later that month Tom Fears was named head coach. In December the team was named "Saints" due to its birthday on the Roman Catholic Church's All Saints Day--a fitting nickname for a team in the largely Catholic New Orleans area. The team's original stadium was Tulane Stadium, which could seat more than 80,000 fans. The team was placed in the Capitol Division of the NFL's Eastern Conference; their division foes were the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, and Washington Redskins The team started off well, with a 5-1 pre-season record; then, on the first play of the regular season, wide receiver John Gilliam returned the opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown. However, this was not enough for the Saints and they lost their regular season opener to the Los Angeles Rams 27-13. Their first win came on November 5 as they defeated the Eagles 31-24. That would be one of the Saints' only triumphs in their inaugural campaign; they ended the season 3-11, the second-worst mark in the league and three-and-a-half games behind Washington in the divisional race. At the time, however, the Saints' 3 wins tied for the most ever for an expansion team's inaugural season.
Their next few seasons continued along similar lines. They improved slightly in 1968, putting up a 4-9-1 record as they competed in the Century Division against the Cleveland Browns, St. Louis Cardinals, and Pittsburgh Steelers; in 1969 they returned to the Capitol Division (featuring the same opponents as 1967) and managed to go 5-9.
The 1970 season saw yet another realignment for the Saints due to the AFL-NFL merger. The Saints were placed in the NFC West, where they would remain through the 2001 NFL season. Their original NFC West competitors—the Atlanta Falcons, the Los Angeles (and later, St. Louis) Rams, and the San Francisco 49ers—would also remain in the division through 2001 (with the Carolina Panthers joining in the 1995 NFL season), leading to the development of long standing rivalries.
The season started off poorly for the Saints. After going 1-5-1 in the first seven games, Fears was fired and replaced by J.D. Roberts on November 3. In Roberts's first game as coach, New Orleans trailed the Detroit Lions 17-16 with time winding down, but Tom Dempsey kicked an NFL-record 63-yard field goal to win the game. Dempsey's achievement is made all the more remarkable by the fact that he was born without toes on his right foot (which he kicked with). This Saints victory, however, would be the last for the season; they lost their next 6 games to finish 2-11-1, the worst record in the young history of the franchise.
In the 1971 NFL Draft, the Saints owned the second overall pick behind the Boston Patriots. Deciding that a franchise quarterback was necessary, they selected Archie Manning from Ole Miss. In the season opener, Manning did not disappoint; he passed for 218 yards and a touchdown and ran in another touchdown on the final play to give the Saints a 24-20 win over the Rams. Four weeks later, Manning engineered a 24-14 upset of the Dallas Cowboys, the same team who would return to Tulane Stadium three months later and win Super Bowl VI over the Miami Dolphins. Throughout the season Manning split the quarterbacking duties with veteran Edd Hargett. Manning ended the season with six passing touchdowns and four rushing touchdowns; he did well enough to become the team's undisputed starter the next season. Despite the promise Manning showed, the Saints's misfortunes continued as they finished 4-8-2.
In 1972 the Saints started 0-5 and finished 2-11-1. During the 1973 preseason, the Saints fired Roberts and hired John North, who led the Saints to consecutive 5-9 seasons in 1973 and 1974.
In 1975 the Saints moved from Tulane Stadium into the Louisiana Superdome. Despite the new home, they went just 2-12; North was fired after six games and Ernie Hefferle was named interim head coach for the final eight games of the season.
For the 1976 season, Hank Stram was hired as head coach; he came with a proven track record (three AFL titles, one Super Bowl win) from his years with the Kansas City Chiefs (formerly the Dallas Texans). However, his talents proved ineffective in his first season as the Saints went 4-10; Manning sat out the entire season after undergoing elbow surgery just after Stram's hiring, forcing the quarterback duties to be split by backup Bobby Scott and Chicago Bears castoff Bobby Douglass. 1977 was not much better as the Saints went 3-11, including a humiliating 33-14 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on December 11, the Bucs' first victory in the NFL after 26 consecutive losses.
In 1978 Stram was replaced by Dick Nolan. The season saw an improvement in the Saints' fortunes; Manning had the best season of his career up to that point, passing for 3,416 yards and 17 touchdowns. He was named to the NFC Pro Bowl squad for the first time and was also named the NFC's Most Valuable Player by The Sporting News and UPI. The Saints put together a record of 7-9, their best ever mark. The Saints might have made the playoffs if not had been for a pair of losses to the hated Atlanta Falcons where the Falcons used the "Big Ben" play to score the winning touchdown in the final seconds of each contest, as well as a last-minute loss to the eventual World Champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
In 1979 the Saints built on the success of the previous year. After an 0-3 start (including a 40-34 overtime loss to the Falcons on opening day), the Saints won five of their next six games to take sole possession of the NFC West lead after nine games. The Saints were 7-6 heading into a Monday night game with the Oakland Raiders; their rivals for the NFC West title, the Rams, were 8-6. The Saints jumped out to a 35-14 lead and seemed certain to gain a share of first place with their win. But the Saints blew the lead and lost 42-35. The next week they were blown out 35-0 at the Superdome by the San Diego Chargers, ending their playoff hopes. The Saints, however, did manage to beat the Super Bowl-bound Rams (playing their last game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum) in the final game of the regular season. This gave them an 8-8 record, the first non-losing season in team history.
In 1980, the Saints had high hopes after their two relatively successful seasons. Instead, the bottom fell out, where despite a strong offense, their defense was almost nonexistent. The team started 0-12 and Dick Nolan was fired; he was replaced by Dick Stanfel, who lost two games (including one in San Francisco where the Saints blew a sizable lead), they managed to win against the New York Jets, who finished with the league's second worst record at 4-12, by a point. This game was also noteworthy for an episode where Archie Manning was signing autographs after the game. A boy ran up to him and stole his (unfastened) necktie, after which he was fined for violating the NFL's dress code. The Saints then lost their last game of the season to the New England Patriots to finish 1-15, the worst mark in team history and (at the time) the worst for a 16-game schedule, since eclipsed by the 2008 Detroit Lions (0-16). A local journalist and radio/TV personality, Buddy Diliberto, wore a paper grocery bag over his head to promote the brown bag special of Sonic, the Saint's sponsor at the time. Many fans took to wearing bags over their heads when attending games. The moniker "Aints" was also born due to the ineptitude of the 1980 Saints.
In 1981, ex-Oilers coach Bum Phillips was put in charge. The dismal 1980 season meant that the Saints would get the first pick in the 1981 NFL Draft. They selected Heisman-winning running back George Rogers out of South Carolina. Rogers was the team's workhorse, playing in all but one game and averaging more than 25 carries a game. He ran for a total of 1,674 yards, making him the NFL rushing champion. However, his fine performances were not enough to make the Saints a winning club. They finished the season 4-12, but two of those wins came over the Rams, New Orleans' first regular-season sweep of the Rams since the two teams were placed in the NFC West by the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
In 1982 the Saints signed former Oakland Raiders and Houston Oilers quarterback Ken Stabler and traded Archie Manning to the Oilers. Two games into the season the Saints were 1-1, but a strike by the players led to the cancellation of seven games. When the season resumed, the Saints won two games in a row to take their record to 3-1, but they lost four games in a row before winning their last game. They finished 4-5, but missed out on qualifying for the playoffs (expanded to 16 teams due to the strike) on a tiebreaker.
1983 saw the Saints improve on the previous season once again. They hovered at or above .500 for most of the season, but lost a golden opportunity to stay one step ahead in the playoff race by giving up 17 points in the fourth quarter of a 31-28 loss to the New York Jets on Monday Night Football.Their playoff hopes came down to the final game of the season, when they hosted the Rams. Los Angeles scored two touchdowns on interception returns and another on a punt return, and Mike Lansford kicked a 42-yard field goal with six seconds remaining to give the Rams the victory and a playoff berth and end the Saints' season. The Saints finished 8-8, tying their previous best season record.
Eight weeks after the conclusion of the 1983 season, the Saints traded their number one pick in the 1984 NFL Draft to the New York Jets for quarterback Richard Todd, who had worn out his welcome in the Big Apple by throwing too many interceptions and was being phased out in favor of rookie Ken O'Brien. During the 1984 season, New Orleans traded for former Heisman Trophy winner and future Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell, who won the NFL rushing championship in each of his first three seasons with the Houston Oilers, when Bum Phillips coached the club. The Saints won for the first time on Monday Night Football by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Superdome, but a three-game losing streak late in the season dropped the Saints to 7-9.
The biggest news of the 1984 season was that John Mecom, the owner of the team for almost 20 years, was putting them up for sale. Speculation was rife that a new owner might move the Saints out of New Orleans, namely Jacksonville, Florida. But on May 31, 1985, negotiations were finalized to sell the team to Tom Benson, a native New Orleanian who owned numerous car dealerships throughout the New Orleans area. The team's future in New Orleans was safe for the time being.
In 1985 the Saints started off 3-2 but then lost six games in a row. Bum Phillips resigned twelve games into the season, and his son Wade Phillips, the Saints' defensive coordinator, was named interim coach. The Saints ended the season 5-11. A bright spot of the campaign was the emergence of Louisiana native Bobby Hebert at quarterback, who led the Saints to victories over the Vikings and Rams late in the season. Hebert previously spent three seasons in the United States Football League with the Michigan Panthers and Oakland Invaders, leading the Panthers to the first USFL championship in 1983.
Jim Mora era: 1986-1996
Before the 1986 season Benson put his stamp on the team by making two important hires: first, he named Jim Finks president and general manager; then, he named Jim Mora head coach. The Saints' offense struggled throughout the year after Hebert went down with a knee injury in the third game of the season, but behind a revitalized defense and NFC Rookie of the Year Rueben Mayes, New Orleans improved to 7-9.
The 1987 Saints started 1-1; then, another player strike. This time, however, replacement players were used until the regular players ended their strike. As a result, the season was only one game shorter than usual. The Saints went 2-1 with replacement players as they were led by their quarterback, New Orleans native John Fourcade. When the regular players returned, their first game was against the San Francisco 49ers. The Saints lost 24-22, but that would be the last time they would taste defeat that year. They ran off a nine-game winning streak to close out the season--a remarkable feat considering that the Saints had never before won nine games in a season, let alone nine games in a row. The loss against San Francisco, however, would keep the Saints from being NFC West Champions; instead, the Saints finished 12-3, behind the 13-2 49ers, and had to settle for a wild-card spot in the playoffs despite having a better record than either of the other division champions that year. The Saints hosted the Minnesota Vikings on January 3, 1988; after twenty years, the Saints would finally take part in the NFL playoffs. The game started well for the Saints as they took a 7-0 lead, but Minnesota answered by taking a 31-10 lead into the half. The Vikings added 13 more points in the 2nd half to make the final score 44-10. Despite the loss, the Saints were recognized for their accomplishments; six players were selected for the Pro Bowl and Mora and Finks were named NFL Coach and Executive of the Year, respectively.
The 1988 Saints looked to return to the playoffs. After starting the season with a loss to their nemesis, the 49ers, the Saints bounced back with a seven-game win streak. After the streak, though, the Saints lost five of their next seven games. They won their last game of the season (against Atlanta), but they missed out on the playoffs due to tiebreakers.
The 1989 Saints managed to finish 9-7, but thanks to other strong performances in the NFC they missed the playoffs by two games.
In 1990 the Saints started off poorly, going 2-5 in their first seven games. However, they turned their season around and close wins in their final two games of the season were enough to give them an 8-8 record and a playoff berth in the newly expanded NFL playoffs, which now included six teams from each conference. They traveled to Soldier Field to take on the Chicago Bears, but lost 16-6.
In 1991 the Saints started with a seven-game win streak, opening up a four-game lead over the rest of the division. But then the Saints lost five of their next seven games, giving Atlanta and San Francisco a shot at claiming the division title. However, the Saints regrouped in the final two games of the season, and they finished 11-5 as the Falcons and 49ers finished 10-6 to give the Saints their first-ever division title. The Saints' first-round playoff game would be at the Superdome against Atlanta. The Falcons came from behind to defeat the Saints 27-20.
In 1992 the Saints attempted to defend their division title, but their hated rivals the 49ers swept the season series and finished 14-2 to the Saints' 12-4, meaning that the Saints would once again have to settle for a wild card berth to the NFC playoffs. They hosted the Philadelphia Eagles but once again could not put their home field advantage to good use, losing 36-20 for their fourth playoff loss in as many games.
The 1993 season would see the Saints start their decline from regular playoff contender to league doormat once again. They started off 5-0 but lost eight of their last eleven games to finish 8-8, one game out of the playoffs.
After seven straight years without a losing record, the team returned to the losing ways of the pre-Mora era in 1994. The Saints started 4-8 on their way to a 7-9 record.
In 1995 the Saints again finished 7-9 in the NFC West, which was newly expanded to include the Carolina Panthers. Due to tiebreakers, the Saints had the disgrace of finishing in last place in the division behind even the expansion team.
In 1996, after the Saints started 2-6, Mora resigned after more than ten years with the franchise. He finished his Saints tenure with 93 wins and 78 losses, making him far and away the most successful Saints coach ever--in fact, the only one (up to then) ever to have a winning record during his Saints tenure. Rick Venturi was named interim head coach, but he had even less success than Mora did that season, going 1-7 to bring the Saints' final record to 3-13, their worst record since 1980.
The Ditka era: 1997-99
Before the 1997 season Tom Benson named legendary Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka as the Saints coach, leading to optimism that he would be able to win a Super Bowl with the Saints as he had done with the Bears. However, the Ditka era would be a tumultuous time for the organization.
In 1997 Ditka led the team to a 6-10 record, a three-game improvement from the previous season; the team was marked by strong defense (anchored by defensive end Joe Johnson, middle linebacker Winfred Tubbs, and veteran cornerback Eric Allen, among others) and inconsistent offense.
The 1998 season was even more chaotic. Starting quarterback Billy Joe Hobert was lost for the year in the season-opening win against the St. Louis Rams. Later in the season, the team claimed quarterback Kerry Collins off the waiver wire; Collins had been released by the Carolina Panthers earlier in the season after he informed the team his heart wasn't in the game anymore. Collins was inconsistent as a starter, including a 31-17 loss to a previously winless Panthers team, but he was also at the helm for a 22-3 upset of the Dallas Cowboys, the high point of the season, before being benched against the Buffalo Bills in week 17. His lackluster performance, coupled with a highly publicized DUI arrest, led Ditka to state that the team would not seek to re-sign Collins. The Saints finished 6-10 once again.
In the months before the 1999 NFL Draft, Ditka became enamored with Texas running back Ricky Williams, the Heisman Trophy winner who'd set an NCAA record for career rushing yards with the Longhorns. Ditka's remarks that he'd "trade his entire draft" for the standout runner were well-publicized; holding the #13 overall pick, the Saints would need to trade up to have a chance at selecting Williams.
They got their chance to do so when the Indianapolis Colts selected Miami running back Edgerrin James with the #4 overall pick. The Saints orchestrated a three-way trade with the Washington Redskins and the Chicago Bears that involved the Saints' taking Washington's #5 overall pick — and, therefore, Williams — in exchange for all the Saints' remaining 1999 draft picks and their first- and third-rounders in 2000.
The trade drew mixed reactions from Saints fans. In the days after the draft, Ditka boldly predicted that the Saints would go to the Super Bowl.
Fan opinion began to solidify against Ditka when it became clear that his prediction would not come true. The Saints' 1999 season was marked by yet more inconsistency at quarterback, a porous defense, and a hobbled Williams, who struggled with a high ankle sprain and an elbow injury in his rookie year. The Saints finished 3-13. Owner Tom Benson had had enough; soon after the season ended, he fired Ditka, the entire coaching staff, and general manager Bill Kuharich.
The Ditka era in New Orleans saw seven different starters at quarterback in three seasons (Heath Shuler, Danny Wuerffel, Doug Nussmeier, Billy Joe Hobert, Billy Joe Tolliver, Kerry Collins, and Jake Delhomme) and a defense which went from top-ten to near the bottom of the league in nearly every statistical category.
To replace Ditka and Kuharich, Benson settled on Randy Mueller, formerly of the Seattle Seahawks, as general manager, and Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Jim Haslett as head coach. Mueller shook up the roster, bringing in a squad of fresh talent via free agency: wide receivers Jake Reed and Joe Horn, quarterback Jeff Blake, tight end Andrew Glover, defensive tackle Norman Hand, cornerback Fred Thomas, safety Chris Oldham, and linebacker Darrin Smith, among others. Lacking their top draft pick because of the Williams trade (a pick the Redskins would use to draft linebacker LaVar Arrington), New Orleans selected defensive end Darren Howard early in the second round.
Inspired by Terrell Davis and the Denver Broncos offense, new offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy implemented a form of the West Coast Offense with Ricky Williams as the focal point: a run-first attack designed to open up passing lanes and create opportunities for the occasional deep ball.
After a sputtering 1-3 start, the Saints found their groove, winning six straight games behind Williams and an opportunistic defense. The season marked the surprising emergence of Joe Horn, who'd previously been a backup receiver with the Kansas City Chiefs but was flourishing as Blake's main target.
Adversity struck, however, with injuries in consecutive games to Williams,and Blake, forcing the team to rely on backups at both positions for the remainder of the season. Blake's injury presented an opportunity for quarterback Aaron Brooks, who led the team to two critical road wins: an upset over the defending-champion St. Louis Rams and a late comeback against the San Francisco 49ers, keeping the Saints atop the NFC West. A Week 16 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, coupled with a St. Louis loss the following night, gave the Saints a 10-5 record, a playoff berth, and their first division title since 1991.
In the regular season finale the Saints lost to the Rams, setting up a rematch between the two teams in the wild-card playoff round. Though they lost Horn to an injury early in the game, the Saints managed to surge ahead to a 31-7 lead early in the fourth quarter behind three touchdowns from Brooks to backup wide receiver Willie Jackson. A late comeback by the Rams was halted in dramatic fashion when St. Louis wide receiver Az-Zahir Hakim fumbled a punt late in the game. Saints fullback Brian Milne fell on the ball and the Saints were able to run out the clock to secure their first-ever playoff win. The final score was 31-28.
The return of Ricky Williams the next week could not prevent the injury-hobbled Saints from losing to the Minnesota Vikings. Despite the loss, the 2000 season was viewed as an overwhelming success by the fans and the media. Haslett and Mueller were recognized by the league as Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year, respectively. Five Saints were selected to the Pro Bowl: Horn, left tackle Willie Roaf, defensive linemen Joe Johnson and La'Roi Glover, and linebacker Keith Mitchell. Horn set a franchise record with 1,340 receiving yards and emerged as a playmaker and tenacious possession receiver. Despite his injury, Williams rushed for 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns in 10 games.
The seasons following 2000 have failed to meet the raised expectations of fans and media. The 2001 season established a trend of team inconsistency from week to week: though the Saints engineered a stirring comeback from several touchdowns down to beat the Rams on the road, they also collapsed at the end of the season, losing their last four games by embarrassing margins to finish 7-9.
The season was notable for the curious behavior of Albert Connell, a wide receiver acquired in the offseason and intended to be the long-term starter opposite Joe Horn. Connell was accused of, and subsequently admitted to, stealing over $4,000 from teammate Deuce McAllister, though he claimed the theft was just a prank. Connell caught only 12 passes in 11 games with the Saints; the team suspended him for the last four games of the season and later terminated his contract.
In the offseason, the Saints — having drafted running back Deuce McAllister in the first round of the 2001 NFL Draft — traded starter Ricky Williams to the Miami Dolphins. The trade ended up giving the Saints two first-round picks.
The 2002 season started with promise but finished in familiar fashion. The Saints began the year with impressive wins over three 2001 playoff teams — an overtime win over new division rival Tampa Bay, a 15-point trouncing of Green Bay, and a come-from-behind win over Chicago on the road. But the season would include a loss to bottom-dweller Detroit, as well as another late-season collapse that included three straight losses to Minnesota, Cincinnati, and Carolina, when a victory in any one of these three games would have all but guaranteed a playoff berth. The Saints, after starting 6-1, would finish at 9-7 and would miss the playoffs once again.
Haslett and the coaching staff drew criticism for not benching starter Aaron Brooks in any of the season's final games. Brooks had been hobbled by a shoulder injury, and though both he and Haslett insisted the injury would not affect his play, the quarterback's performance suggested otherwise. Over the last six games of the season, Brooks completed only 47% of his passes, throwing for six touchdowns and five interceptions and losing six fumbles. His passer rating over those six games was 66.7, far less than his 80.1 rating over the entire season.
Backing up Brooks in 2002 was fan-favorite Jake Delhomme, who'd played at nearby UL-Lafayette and had come off the bench to cement a victory over Tampa Bay several weeks earlier. Brooks' poor performance late in the 2002 season prompted fans to chant "We Want Jake!" at games, but Haslett ignored these chants. In the offseason Delhomme signed with Carolina, in part because he'd be able to compete for the starting job. Delhomme would lead the Panthers to Super Bowl XXXVIII in his first season with the Panthers, further rubbing salt in the wounds of Saints fans.
The 2003 season started off poorly for the Saints, going 1-4 in their first five games, including a 55-21 blowout loss at home against the Indianapolis Colts as Colts quarterback and New Orleans native Peyton Manning threw six touchdown passes to hand the Saints a humiliating loss on national television. The Saints, however, would rebound somewhat from their poor start and finish the season 8-8. McAllister ran for a career-high 1,641 yards.
The 2004 season saw the Saints struggle out of the gate. They compiled a 4-8 record in their first twelve games and Haslett's job appeared to be in jeopardy. Then the Saints put together three straight wins (two of them on the road) to give them a shot at an 8-8 record and a playoff berth. The Saints faced Carolina (also 7-8) in Week 17. The Saints would need to beat the Panthers; they would also need one of two things to happen: a St. Louis tie or loss; or a Seattle win or tie and a Minnesota win or tie. The New Orleans, St. Louis, and Minnesota games were all played at 1 p.m. EST that Sunday of Week 17. The Saints defeated the Panthers 21-18 but Minnesota lost to Washington (by a 21-18 score, oddly enough), meaning that the Saints' playoff chances came down to the game between the Rams and the Jets. The game went to overtime with the score tied at 29. The teams battled back and forth for most of the overtime period. The crucial moment occurred when Jets kicker Doug Brien (formerly of the Saints) missed a 53-yard field goal. The Rams capitalized on the good field position and kicked a field goal of their own to win with just a little over 3 minutes left in overtime, sending the Saints out of the playoffs on the tiebreaker scenarios. Though the Saints had beaten the Rams earlier in the season, their loss to the Vikings and the fact that the Rams did not play the Vikings that season meant that the tiebreaker had to go to best conference record, where the Rams finished ahead of the Saints and Vikings to claim one of the NFC's wild card spots. The Vikings then got the final wild card spot thanks to their win over the Saints. While the season finished in heartbreaking fashion, many thought that Haslett would have been fired if not for his team's four game win streak to end the season.
Going into the 2005 season the Saints were optimistic that they could build on their good results at the end of 2004. But when Hurricane Katrina struck, the Saints were thrown into chaos with the rest of their city. The Saints relocated their headquarters to San Antonio, Texas. The Saints managed to provide an emotional lift for their hometown when they defeated the Panthers 23-20 in Week 1. The NFL decreed that the Saints' first home game would be played in Giants Stadium, adding insult to injury as the Saints were forced to play a "home" game in front of a hostile crowd. Due to a Jets game scheduled for Giants Stadium that Sunday, the Saints played in a unique Monday Night Football doubleheader, with the game starting at 7:30 EDT on ABC before the regularly scheduled game, with the Saints and Giants moving to ESPN (except in New Orleans and New York) when the second game started. The Saints struggled and lost 27-10, feeling aggrieved at the situation. The rest of the Saints home games would be played either in San Antonio's Alamodome or Baton Rouge's Tiger Stadium. The Saints lost to Minnesota in Week 3 but won in the Alamodome the next week over Buffalo to bring their record 2-2. They then proceeded to be blown out 52-3 in Green Bay by a team which came into the game 0-4. The Green Bay loss was even worse for the Saints due to the season-ending injury suffered by star RB Deuce McAllister. The Saints would eventually finish the season with a 3-13 record; the last few games of the season saw quarterback Aaron Brooks being benched (and later traded to the Oakland Raiders), playing time for backup quarterback Todd Bouman and even third-stringer Adrian McPherson and, eventually, the season ended with head coach Jim Haslett losing his job.
The 2006 Saints orchestrated one of the more remarkable turnarounds in NFL history, as they were the first team to go from 3-13 to a conference title game the next season. First year coach Sean Payton, who came from Dallas as a Bill Parcells pupil, was hired for a daunting task at hand. In his first move as coach, he released almost half of the roster, most notably inconsistent QB Aaron Brooks.
The Saints were aggressive in free agency, signing former San Diego Chargers QB Drew Brees, who was coming off of orthopedic surgery. Brees nearly played for the Miami Dolphins, but the team's doctors doubted whether Drew's arm could recover in time for the season. The Saints gambled on Drew's ability to recover in time for the season and signed him to a major long term contract. Then came April, and the 2006 NFL Draft.
On the eve before the draft on April 29th, news broke that the Houston Texans could not reach an agreement with Reggie Bush and instead reached a deal with Mario Williams as the #1 pick. When the team found out that Reggie would be available, they selected the USC running back with their #2 pick. In that draft the Saints also picked a player who would become a standout from the 7th round: Marques Colston from Hofstra as the 252nd pick.
When preseason got underway the Saints started out strong in a victory over the Tennessee Titans, which featured a dazzling run by Reggie Bush where he reversed his direction for a big run. That was the only highlight for the Saints preseason as they finished just 1-3, losing their next 3 preseason games.
The season officially began for the Saints with a road win against the Cleveland Browns, with Bush accounting for 129 yards from scrimmage, while Marques Colston caught a TD pass from Brees. The next week the Saints went to Green Bay, where the Saints lost 52-3 the previous year, to face the Packers. The start of the game looked bleak for the Saints as they quickly went down 13-0, but Drew Brees led a comeback, throwing for 353 yards and two TDs as the Saints came back to win a shootout 34-27. The Saints were then headed back for the first game in the Superdome since the 2005 preseason, a Monday Night date with the Atlanta Falcons on September 25th.
The Saints entered the game 2-0 against the 2-0 Falcons with many expecting the Falcons powerful running game to overwhelm the team. The game kicked off to fanfare of the Saints' official return to New Orleans. The game also featured pregame festivities featuring Green Day and U2 performing a song that would become the team's unofficial anthem, "The Saints are Coming". New Orleans dominated the game right from the start when Steve Gleason blocked a punt that was recovered for a TD by Curtis Deloatch. The Saints went on to win 23-3.
The next week the Saints lost their first game of the season to divisional rival Carolina Panthers 18-21. The team bounced back in their second game in New Orleans facing divisional rival Tampa Bay. In the game with time winding down and the Saints down by 4 the Saints were set to receive a punt. Reggie Bush returned the punt 65 yards, untouched, for the winning touchdown, and the first of his career. The Saints were 4-1 and in control of the division. A week later the Saints upset the favored Eagles in New Orleans 27-24, and the Saints were taken seriously heading into their bye week.
The Saints concluded the regular season at 10-6, winning the divisional title and, for the first time in the team's history, securing a first-round bye in the playoffs.
The Saints' divisional bout would be a week 6 rematch with the Eagles, who were led by backup QB Jeff Garcia this time and riding a six-game winning streak. The game featured several lead changes and a most inspired effort by Deuce McAllister, who rushed for almost 150 yards and 2 TDs, 1 receiving and 1 rushing. New Orleans would win its first divisional playoff game in team history 27-24 against the Eagles, and only the second playoff win in franchise history. The Saints then traveled to Chicago to face the Bears in the team's first-ever NFC Championship appearance, where they ended up falling short in the title game 39-14.
New Orleans led the league in total yards gained and passing yards in the 2006 season. Drew Brees set new Saints' single-season records in passes completed (356), passing rating (96.2) and passing yards (4,418). The team sent three players to the 2007 Pro Bowl: the aforementioned Brees, DE Will Smith and LT Jammal Brown
The 2007 regular season began with a prime time match against the defending champion Colts, but New Orleans suffered a 41-10 pounding. The losses continued as Tampa Bay and Tennessee routed them, followed by a close loss to Carolina. The Saints finally managed a victory in Week 6 by defeated Seattle 28-17. After three more victories, they lost two, beat Carolina, and then fell to the Buccaneers again. The Week 16 defeat against Philadelphia removed New Orleans from playoff contention. After a final loss to the Bears, they ended with a 7-9 record.
In 2008, the Saints began by defeating their division rival Buccaneers before losing three of the next four matches. New Orleans was selected for that year's international series game in London, where they beat San Diego 37-32. The remainder of the season was an uneven string of games, and after being beat by Carolina on December 28, the team ended its 2008 campaign with an 8-8 record.
2009 - The road to the Super Bowl
New Orleans started off 2009 innocently enough with a rout of the hapless Detroit Lions. Afterwards, they traveled to Philadelphia and beat an Eagles team that was missing its quarterback Donovan McNabb due to an injury. The Saints won with a score very close to the one in the Detroit game. They accumulated further easy wins over the Bills and Jets in the next two games. After the bye week, they handily defeated the Giants and then took the Dolphins at Landshark Stadium. In the second half, the Saints overcame an early lead by their opponent. With this impressive win, they moved to 6-0. The next four opponents were comparatively weak ones, and the Saints soon found themselves at 10-0 along with the Colts. In Week 12, they faced New England in the Superdome and inflicted a stunning defeat on the three-time Super Bowl champions. The next game however, the Saints nearly lost it as they played the 3-8 Redskins in Fedex Field. The score was tied at 30-30 when the fourth quarter ended, and in overtime Washington almost broke their eleven-game winning streak. However, a fumble by the Redskins gave the Saints the ball. They kicked a successful FG, and won the game 33-30. Afterwards, New Orleans faced the Cowboys at home and were finally brought down, the score being 24-17. The next week, the Saints were upset at home by the 2-12 Tampa Bay Buccaneers in overtime. They had secured the division title after the Redskins game, and secured the #1 NFC seed when the 11-3 Vikings lost to the Chicago Bears in Week 16. The Saints rested starters during their Week 17 game against the Panthers, finishing their season at 13-3. The re-energized team came back from the first-round bye week and hosted the Arizona Cardinals, crushing them 45-14. Now in the conference championship, the Saints faced the Vikings. The two teams waged an epic struggle through all four quarters. Minnesota QB Brett Favre was hit several times by the New Orleans defensive line and there were multiple penalties, timeouts, and booth reviews of questionable plays. Although the Vikings never trailed by more than a touchdown, they could not gain a lead and as the fourth quarter was drawing to a close, Favre threw an ill-advised pass across the middle which was intercepted by Saints cornerback Tracey Porter. The game went into overtime and New Orleans got possession of the ball after winning the coin toss. They finally kicked a 40-yard FG, sending them to Super Bowl XLIV.
The Super Bowl was played in Miami against the Colts, who had won SB XLI there three years earlier. Indianapolis gained an early lead and the score stood at 10-0 to start the second quarter. The Saints were unable to obtain a touchdown and instead went for two long field goals. By halftime, the score was 10-6. The third quarter opened with New Orleans making a surprise onside kick, and both teams got into an argument over who got hold of the ball. The Saints were ultimately ruled to have touched it first. A screen pass by Drew Brees to Pierre Thomas made for a successful touchdown, increasing their lead to 13-10. After another Colts touchdown, the Saints kicked another FG to achieve a 17-16 score. The game remained close into the fourth quarter until Colts QB Peyton Manning was intercepted by Tracey Porter and his pass returned for a touchdown. A strong defensive effort by New Orleans halted their opponent's attempts at another scoring drive, and the game ended 31-17. The Saints had finally won a championship after decades of futility, sending the city of New Orleans, and the region, into wild celebrations.
The Saints did not quite live up to their 2009 level of play the following season. Hosting the Vikings in Week 1, a much-vaunted rematch of the NFC Championship resulted in a meandering 14-9 win, the lowest-scoring victory of Sean Payton's tenure as HC. After a close win in San Francisco, they went 3-3 down the stretch as Drew Brees threw several interceptions and Garrett Hartley (the hero of the 2009 postseason) suffered multiple missed field goals that resulted in his being temporarily benched in favor of John Carney, a former kicker who had first played in the NFL back in 1988. The last remaining active NFL player from the 1980s booted two field goals to help New Orleans beat the 0-3 Panthers in Week 3. After a loss to the Cardinals the following week, he quit and the kicking position returned to Garrett Hartley.
Overall, the Saints looked sloppy and out of form during the early season, and they suffered their worst loss when the Cleveland Browns beat them at home in Week 7. But after the bye week, the team got back on course and won four games in a row before losing to Baltimore in Week 15. A MNF match with the Falcons saw New Orleans win 17-14. The final game was lost to Tampa Bay 23-13 to end the regular season 11-5. New Orleans reached the playoffs, but had to settle for a wild card as their division rival Atlanta had already locked up the NFC South title and the #1 seed. The #5 seeded Saints headed to Seattle where their season came to a spectacular end as the 7-9 Seahawks overpowered the defending champions 41-36 on a 67-yard TD run by Marshawn Lynch.
For the second year in a row, New Orleans would play in the opening game of the season, but this time in Green Bay as guests of the defending champion Packers. The Saints struggled as their opponent quickly marched out to two touchdowns, but regained their composure in a wild shootout match. Green Bay never lost their lead however, and went on to win the game 41-34 after blocking a New Orleans scoring drive on the 1-yard line. Opening at home in Week 2, the Saints easily beat Chicago 30-13, then won another shootout match with Houston. Although New Orleans' defense had performed poorly up to Week 3, they got back in sync by limiting Jacksonville to 10 points in a 23-point win the following game.
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