Who Dat Nation: A History Lesson | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Who Dat Nation: A History Lesson

Hell has frozen over.

Pigs have flown.

A Republican occupies the Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat held for almost half a century by members of the Kennedy family.

And the New Orleans Saints are going to the Super Bowl.

What's next: An African American winning a statewide office in Mississippi?

The Saints will play the Indianapolis Colts in Miami Sunday (5:25 p.m., Ch. 12, 620 AM). It will be a sweet day for the Saints and their fans, which suffered through 150 years of NFL futility. (Editor's note: The Saints began playing in 1967.)

The Saints began their history with an auspicious play. On Sept. 17, 1967, New Orleans' John Gilliam ran back the opening kickoff of the Saints' first regular-season game for a touchdown.

For a long time, it was all downhill from there. The Saints lost their first game and many more to come. During the Saints' first 20 seasons, their best finish was a couple of 8-8 records.

The team had a few bright spots. In 1970, Tom Dempsey, who was born without toes on his right foot, kicked an NFL-record 63-yard field goal using a special shoe to give the Saint a victory over the Detroit Lions.

In 1971, the Saints selected Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning with the second overall pick in the draft. This was the move that sparked true statewide interest in the Saints. Before, the Saints had been that awful team on TV every Sunday. Now, they became that awful team on TV every Sunday that Archie played for.

Reportedly, negotiations between Manning and the Saints didn't get off to a great start. Manning's coach at Ole Miss, John Vaught, sat in on the talks. When he heard the Saints' first offer to Manning, Vaught reportedly said, "He got more than that playing for us." Manning turned out to be worth every penny the Saints paid him, on the field and off.

There were many more bad moments for the Saints.

In 1979, the Saints took can't-miss kicker Russell Erxleben with their first draft pick. Erxleben missed a lot of kicks in the NFL. The joke was he tried to kill himself but was spared when the bullet went wide right. That same year, the Saints blew a 35-14 lead in a 42-35 loss to the Oakland Raiders at home on "Monday Night Football." The team would be unofficially banished from Monday night for several seasons afterward.

In 1980, the Saints went 1-15. Their fans started wearing paper bags over their heads at games and calling the team "The Aints."

The Saints took Heisman Trophy-winning running back George Rogers out of South Carolina in 1981. Rogers led the league in rushing in his first season. He played well in his four seasons with the Saints, but he didn't get to play for a championship until he was traded to the Washington Redskins.

In 1982, the Saints traded Manning to the Houston Oilers for some guy you never heard of. Sure it's a business, but they got rid of a beat-up Manning in favor of a washed-up Kenny Stabler.

And so it went. The Saints didn't earn their first winning record and playoff berth until 1987. The team had some heady years during the late 1980s and early '90s thanks to general manager Jim Finks and coach Jim Mora. This was also when "Who Dat" Nation was born.

Finks and Mora would lead the Saints to four playoff berths, including three in a row. Then Finks resigned in 1993 after being diagnosed with cancer. He died in 1994.

Afterward, owner Tom Benson took a larger role in the team with mixed results. Mora resigned following the 1996 season and was replaced by Mike Ditka. Ditka, who won a Super Bowl as coach of the Chicago Bears in 1987, couldn't duplicate that success in the Big Easy. In 1999, Ditka traded all of the Saints' draft picks for the right to pick Ricky Williams, a Heisman Trophy-winning running back and head case from Texas. Williams played well at times, but he wasn't worth what the Saints gave up for him.

In early 2000, Benson cleaned house in the front office. He dumped Ditka and replaced him with Jim Haslett. His magical rookie season included the Saints' first playoff victory. In 2001, the Saints' used their first pick to draft Deuce McAllister out of Ole Miss.

In 2005, the Saints suffered along with the rest of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. The Saints had to move their operations to San Antonio, Texas, and ended up playing all their home games outside New Orleans. Benson earned "Scumbag of the Year" dishonors for trying to abandon the Big Easy and move the Saints to San Antonio permanently. The NFL told him his timing was poor and said the Saints weren't going anywhere.

In 2006, coach Sean Payton and new quarterback Drew Brees made the Saints' return to New Orleans a joyous one. The Saints advanced to the NFC championship game, only to lose to the Chicago Bears. The Bears went on to lose in the Super Bowl to the Colts.

The Saints put up huge offensive numbers in 2007 and 2008, but they didn't make the playoffs. Just when people were starting to wonder whether Payton was on the hot seat, he led the Saints to a 13-0 start in 2009 en route to a 13-3 regular-season finish.

The Saints kept putting up big numbers on offense. But it was the defense, led by new coordinator Gregg Williams that made this season's success possible. The Saints had a knack for creating turnovers.

That paid off big time in the NFC championship game. The statistics said the Minnesota Vikings outplayed the Saints. But the Vikings turned the ball over five times. The turnover that turned the game around came as the Vikings appeared to be driving for a game-winning field goal. With 19 seconds left, all Vikings quarterback Brett Favre had to do was make a run upfield. Instead, he threw a horrible pass that was intercepted by Saints DB Terry Porter.

The game went into overtime. The Saints won the coin toss and drove down the field, making a do-or-die conversion on a fourth-and-1 play at the Vikings 43-yard line on the way. Five snaps later, Garrett Hartley kicked the 40-yard field goal that sent the Saints to the Super Bowl.

In the biggest game in team history, the Saints finally had luck on their side. Will they be that lucky again Sunday?

Previous Comments


My money is on the Saints to win. They need to beat up and cheap-shot Peyton just like they did our state hero, Favre. I will pray for them too because I don't want to see Peyton walking the dog onn them this Sunday or any other time. Indianapolis' coach should he coach of the year in my opinion for improving a team that was already good.


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