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Saints have flourished in their own rebuilding
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NEW ORLEANSRecycle those brown paper bags. Box that Ricky Williams wedding dress. And never use the word “Aints” to describe this team again.
At long last, the New Orleans Saints are going to the Super Bowl.
A 31-28 overtime victory over Minnesota in Sunday’s NFC Championship game is an apt metaphor to reflect how far the franchise and city have come since Hurricane Katrina tore this region asunder in September 2005. Saints players helped fundraise and lift the community’s spirits during the ongoing reconstruction process. In return, New Orleanians have provided the kind of raucous support that gave the Saints a distinct home-field advantage against the Vikings.
But to truly understand why the New Orleans Times-Picayune sold every single edition of Monday’s newspaper -- Super Saints was the blaring 1A headline -- and revelers flooded Bourbon Street well into the night, you must go further back in time. Waaay back to a 20-year stretch than spanned from when Vince Lombardi was still coaching in Green Bay through the Chicago Bears doing the Super Bowl Shuffle.
Think Houston Texans fans have it rough with eight non-playoff seasons in that club’s existence? Try going your first 20 years without a winning record -- then add another 14 until the first postseason victory.
It was enough to make Saints faithful wear brown paper bags over their heads in shame. That’s just what they did at games after late team announcer Buddy Dilberto donned the first sack during 1980’s 1-15 campaign.
“New Orleans was always a great football town,” said Dave Dixon, the 86-year-old businessman who lured the NFL here to begin play in 1967. “Any team could be successful here assuming they had a reasonable performance. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a reasonable performance for the first 10 years or so.”
Thirteen, to be exact. By the time New Orleans posted its first non-losing season (8-8) in 1979, the problems that would haunt this team like a Marie Laveau curse had begun.
The Saints scored on a kickoff return in their inaugural 1967 game and quickly went downhill from there. New Orleans was 30-77-5 in seven seasons at Tulane Stadium before moving into the Louisiana Superdome in 1975.
“They were a comedy like the Keystone Cops,” said Times-Picayune sports columnist Peter Finney, who has covered the Saints since their inception. “People used to wait for the halftime shows. They had ostrich races, World War II reenactments, fireworks, (jazz legend) Al Hirt. That was the big thing that kept a lot of fans coming.”
Archie Manning couldn’t win at quarterback here for 12 seasons. Peyton Manning wouldn’t have fared any better with his father’s supporting cast.
Terrible personnel decisions and drafts made it impossible for coaches that included Hank Stram, Bum Phillips and Mike Ditka. This was a team that chose a punter/kicker (Russell Erxleben) with the No. 11 overall selection in the 1979 draft. The Saints squandered other first-round picks in trades for fading stars like Earl Campbell. New Orleans even dealt an entire draft class for Williams, the running back who famously posed in a wedding dress with Ditka for a 1999 magazine cover before leaving the Saints jilted at the altar after three disappointing seasons.
The Saints did have their moments before the Williams debacle. In 1986, new owner Tom Benson hired a top-notch head coach/general manager combination in Jim Mora and Jim Finks. One year later, New Orleans was finally in the playoffs albeit during a strike-marred season.
Led by the formidable Dome Patrol linebacker corps of Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling, Vaughn Johnson and the late Sam Mills, New Orleans enjoyed double-digit victories in 1991 and 1992 but still couldn’t win in the postseason. Finks died of lung cancer in 1994; Mora was fired as coach midway through the 1996 season.
The Saints were hit-and-miss during the eight years after Mora’s departure, but the club started facing much larger off-field issues. Benson -- known for his “Benson Boogie” victory dance after games -- threatened to waltz out of town with his team unless landing a new stadium deal.
The situation turned especially dark after Katrina. The 2005 Saints played their home games on the road, which seemed a harbinger for things to come with the Superdome having suffered massive damage and the city in financial disarray. The Saints weren’t looking much better on the gridiron either, sliding to a 3-13 record that led to the firing of coach Jim Haslett.
But in retrospect, Katrina helped change the Saints’ fortunes. During the 2006 offseason, free-agent quarterback Drew Brees joined new coach Sean Payton in part because he wanted to help New Orleans rebuild. General manager Mickey Loomis restocked the roster with smart drafts and veteran signings. Benson was ultimately able to strike a deal with state government to keep his franchise in place. And most miraculously of all, the Saints emerged from their own rubble to become an NFL powerhouse.
“This organization lacked direction,” said Pro Bowl right tackle Jon Stinchcomb, who was drafted by New Orleans in 2003. “We then brought in coach Payton and so many great players and built from the inside out. It’s been a long road.”
One that has finally led New Orleans to the cusp of a championship and continued the city’s healing process.
“2005 could have been the beginning of the end of our community as a whole,” said Ken Trahan, a local media personality and Saints Hall of Fame general manager. “Some doubted whether the stadium could be repaired or whether they would even try to. Many people never came back to town. The others who did weren’t sure they were doing the right thing. People lost their jobs. Homes were destroyed and damaged severely.
“You’re never going to forget that, but when you look back now, it seems like a long time ago. The reason is that certain life experiences like the one that happened Sunday take you past those things. You don’t worry about them anymore. This football team has a lot to do with that.”
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