New Orleans Saints

The New Orleans Saints play in the Southern Division of the National Football Conference, with their home ground being the Louisiana Superdome. Born as an expansion team in 1967, they failed to achieve great success until 1987, after which they reached the playoffs four times.

They are the first team in the history of the NFL to lose over 13 games in a season but still succeed in reaching a Conference Championship the following year, yet they have never played in a Super Bowl.

History

Origins

On 1st November 1966, significantly being All Saints Day, the New Orleans Saints became the 16th franchise to be added to the NFL. John W. Mecom Jr. became the main stockholder, and the team was ready to play in the NFL the following season, placed in the Capitol Division of the Eastern Conference.

They started their first season well, winning five out of six games. This gave the sport the spur it needed to get the fans in, further aided by the club bringing in future Hall of Fame players Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor and Doug Atkins. 80,879 people turned out to watch their first match against the Los Angeles Rams, establishing the reputation of professional football in the city.

However, their success on the pitch was short lived, finishing the season disappointingly low and failing to achieve significant results in the years that followed.

Early Years

In 1970, the Saints were moved to the NFC West where they remained until 2001. The 1970 season itself was unremarkable with the exception of a magic moment courtesy of Tom Dempsey. In a match against the Detroit Lions he kicked a 63 yard field goal, setting a still unbeaten record, although it was later equalled by Jason Elam.

The goal came in the last few seconds of the game, securing victory for the Saints. The victory was a glimmer of hope in what turned out to be another poor season as the Saints went on to lose their next six games.

Archie Manning joined the side in 1971, going on to become one of the strongest players in the club over the next few years. Nevertheless, the Saints struggled to achieve significant results, despite a succession of new coaches which included John North in 1973, Ernie Hefferle, and Hank Stram in 1976.

It had been hoped Stram might have been able to turn things around, considering his previous success with the Kansas City Chiefs. However, with Manning in recovery after elbow surgery, the club continued to struggle.

A loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had not had a win themselves in 26 games, showed how low the level of play had sunk.

In 1978 Stram was replaced by Dick Nolan. This proved a positive change in the short-term, as the Saints had a promising season, with Manning making the NFC Pro Bowl and the team coming close to the playoffs for the first time.

End of season losses to the Atlanta Falcons and Pittsburgh Steelers unfortunately meant they were to miss out for another year. The Saints had the chance to build on their performance the following year but a clumsy loss to the Oakland Riders put playoff dreams out of their grasp once again.

Downhill

14 losses at the beginning of the 1980 season brought attention to the Saints when media personality Bernard Diliberto suggested fans wore paper bags over their heads when the Saints played at home to highlight their poor performance. This practice later became commonplace across sport in the United States.

Dick Stanfel took over from Dick Nolan but he did little to improve things as the Saints finished with their lowest ever record and he was replaced by Bum Phillips in 1981. Even running back George Rogers, whom they selected in the NHL draft, was unable to turn things around for the Saints, despite becoming rushing champion.

There was a brief ray of light when the club had the chance to reach the playoffs in 1982. However, the losing culture which had developed in the club continued as, after seven games were cancelled due to player strikes, the Saints lost out on qualifying on a tiebreaker.

In response, John Mecom put the franchise up for sale in 1984 and rumours began to circulate that the team may be moved to Florida. These were quickly supressed as the team was sold to Tom Benson, a New Orlean who would secure the team’s future in the city. Benson made his mark on the franchise by appointing general manager Jim Finks and head coach Jim Mora.

A series of new coaches and players including quarterback Bobby Herbert and Rueben Mayes saw the club begin to improve and by 1987 they were beginning to play competitively again.

Into the Playoffs

Another players strike came in 1987 but replacement players meant that only one game was lost that season and the Saints had the chance to show their true potential. As the regular players returned, things were looking up and the club won their last nine games, an outstanding achievement.

This gave them a wild card entry into the playoffs, and despite losing to the Minnesota Vikings in the first round, the Saints had finally showed they could mix it with the big guns in the sport.

The following season the club were keen to build on the success of the previous year, and despite a loss to their arch rivals the 49ers, things looked hopeful as they won their final game of the season. Unfortunately, tiebreak decisions meant they were to miss out on the playoffs.

Nevertheless, now back on track, the Saints went on to reach the playoffs for three consecutive seasons. Equally predictable was the club’s failure to progress beyond the first round, with losses to the Chicago Bears, the Atlanta Falcons and the Philadelphia Eagles.

1993 saw the success of the previous few years a distant memory as their performance began to falter, finishing last in their division in 1995 behind the Carolina Panthers, who had only recently been added to the NFC West.

The outcome was fatal for Mora, who had been the team’s most successful coach and the only one to see the team into the playoffs. He resigned in 1996 and, under interim coach Rick Venturi, the Saints recorded their worst finish since 1980.

The Ditka Years

Mike Ditka was brought in as head coach in 1997 and it was hoped that his previous success taking the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl could be repeated in New Orleans.

Ditka was keen to sign a big player and set his sights on Ricky Williams, a running back who had won the Heisma Trophy. However, his obsession with acquiring Williams’ services meant the Saints traded all their picks for the 1998 season and those for the first and third round the following year.

This trade received mixed feedback, with some fans excited at the prospect of Williams playing for the Saints, others thinking it was an unwise move. Ditka stood by his decision, boldly claiming that the Saints would reach the Super Bowl the following year.

With Williams struggling with injury and play becoming inconsistent, it was clear Super Bowl hopes definitely weren’t on the cards. As fan opinion subsequently turned against Ditka, he was fired at the end of the season by Benson, along with Kuharich and the rest of the coaching staff.

A New Start

With Ditka’s departure, Jim Haslett took up the challenge of head coach and Randy Mueller came in as general manager. New younger players including Jake Reed, Joe Horn and Chris Oldham were brought in and, behind Williams and Horn, the Saints won their first six games in 2000.

Later that season, Aaron Brooks was given the chance to show his ability stepping into the quarterback role as injury put Williams out of the running. Making his name known with wins against the St. Louis Rams and the 49ers, Brooks helped the club stay at the top of the NFC West to clinch their first division title since 1991.

They went on to achieve their first ever win in a playoff against the Rams, but they lost to the Vikings in the next round. Despite not progressing further, the season was a highlight in the history of the franchise, with Haslett and Mueller receiving the awards for Coach and Executive of the Year.

Inconsistency

Sadly, as has been the case so often in the franchise’s history, the Saints failed to make the playoffs in the following couple of years, despite momentary highs including becoming the second team in the history of the NFL to beat the eventual Super Bowl champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in both regular season meetings.

There were also personal successes, although not necessarily with the Saints! Jake Delhomme became a player to watch in 2002, proving a vital backup for Brooks, but he signed to the Panthers knowing that he wouldn’t have the opportunity to compete for starter position in the Saints while Brooks was there. He went on to lead the Panthers to the Super Bowl.

Haslett’s job was in question in 2004 as the Saints continued their uphill struggle. The season saw the chances of a playoff appearance taken out of their hands as their fate came down to a game between the Rams and the Jets. The Rams victory meant the Saints would miss out on a position in the playoffs.

Hurricane Katrina

Any optimism for the 2005 season was crushed when Hurricane Katrina threw New Orleans into chaos. A win in their first week against the Panthers lifted the spirits of the town, but the club were forced to relocate and played their first home game away from New Orleans at the Giants Stadium. Not surprisingly, the Saints struggled to perform away from their fans and lost the game.

They played the rest of their games that season at San Antonio’s Alamodome and the Baton Rouge’s Tiger Stadium. They finished the season disappointingly and Haslett was fired.

Recovery

The Saints seemed determined not to let the instability of 2005 beat them and they came back the following year to win the conference title. Many players, including Aaron Brooks, were taken out by new coach Sean Payton and replaced by new ones including Drew Brees and draft pick Reggie Bush.

The team’s first game back in the Superdome was a memorable occasion, with performances by Green Day and U2 raising the spirits of the crowd. ‘The Saints are Coming’, performed by U2, went on to become the unofficial anthem of the club and they won the game against the Atlanta Falcons in front of a sell out crowd. This occasion is still the second-highest rated programme ever on cable.

They continued the season on a high, winning their third division title and going on to secure their second playoff win. In their first ever NFC Championship, they faced the Chicago Bears, where unfortunately the game went to the Bears.

2007 saw crowd support continue, as the Saints sold out the Superdome for the second year in a row. Unfortunately, the Saints could not repeat the feats of the previous campaign, finishing 3rd in the NFC South. Nevertheless, with the fans behind them the future looks promising for the Saints in 2008 and beyond.

Achievements

  • Division Championships – NFC West Winners (1991, 2000), NFC South Winners (2006)