Countdown to Saints Season Opener: The start of a new era

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Dennis Allen
(Photo: Parker Waters)

METAIRIE – The New Orleans Saints begin their 56th season next Sunday when they visit the Atlanta Falcons.

They’re also beginning a new era.

This can be seen as the start of the fifth era in the franchise’s history, though any dissection of the history of any franchise in a team sport inevitably will feature some overlapping of eras and some instances of multi-year phase-outs rather than a definitive end date to a particular era that was distinguished by multiple key figures.

But generally speaking, the Saints history can be viewed as the Mecom Years (1967-85), the Benson/Finks/Mora Years (1986-1996), the Post-Finks/Mora Years (1997-2005), the Payton Years (2006-21) and now the post-Payton years.

The clearest line of demarcation is the one between original owner John Mecom Jr. and the Benson family – Tom Benson, who bought the franchise from Mecom in 1985, and his widow, Gayle, who succeeded her husband after he died in 2018.

The various front-office and coaching tenures within Mecom’s ownership era tend to blend together because they all featured similarly low ceilings. But the front-office and coaching tenures of the Benson ownership era are more distinctive because they feature gradations within an overall period featuring much higher ceilings.

Here’s a closer look at the evolution of the franchise by eras, now that the Saints are embarking on a new one for the first time in a long time:

The Mecom Years 

The first 19 years of the franchise were distinguished by the ownership of Mecom, a young Texas oilman whose enthusiasm and willingness to spend couldn’t overcome mostly poor selections in front-office and coaching hirings and the resulting failures on the football field.

No professional sports franchise ever made a more dramatic stage entrance than the New Orleans Saints did on September 17, 1967, when rookie John Gilliam returned the opening kickoff of the franchise’s first game 94 yards for a touchdown inside a rocking Tulane Stadium.

It was all downhill from there.

The Saints, who lost that first game, never had a winning season during Mecom’s tenure though he and the franchise started to get their feet under them in the latter years.

The franchise’s only non-losing seasons (1979 and 1983) and its next-best finishes of 7-9 (in 1978 and 1984) under Mecom all came during the final seven years of his ownership.

The Benson/Finks/Mora Years  

When Mecom finally decided put the franchise up for sale, the New Orleans Saints nearly ceased to exist. Mecom was near an agreement to sell the franchise to a group that would have moved the team to Jacksonville, Fla., before Louisiana Gov. Edwin W. Edwards recruited a relatively obscure New Orleans car dealer/businessman named Tom Benson to lead a group that would purchase the franchise and keep it in Benson’s hometown.

Benson took over as managing partner not knowing any more about running a football team than Mecom did when the NFL awarded him the expansion franchise, but Mecom’s successor was a more astute and mature businessman than his predecessor.

The new owner officially purchased the franchise during the off-season before the 1985 season. The team slipped from the cusp of a winning record in ’83 and ’84 to finish 5-11 in 1985.

Head coach/general manager Bum Phillips stepped aside late in the season and promoted his son Wade from defensive coordinator to interim head coach in a long-shot attempt to earn the younger Phillips a crack at the full-time gig.

It didn’t work as Benson chose to clean house and start his tenure in earnest in 1986. He accepted guidance from the NFL and his more experienced colleagues and hired Jim Finks – one of the most respected front office leaders in the league – to run his operation.

And everything started to change.

Finks turned to Jim Mora, who had guided one of the most successful franchises in the growing USFL to be his head coach, and the start of the second era was officially under way.

The Saints benefited from an influx of talent from the USFL and a bonanza in Finks’ first draft and finished a respectable 7-9 in 1986.

A year later they had not only their first winning record but a sparking one of 12-3, making the playoffs for the first time. They had winning records each of the next two seasons, though neither produced a playoff berth.

Then came an 8-8 record and an improbable playoff berth in 1990, followed by the franchise’s first division championship in 1991 and another playoff berth in 1992.

The Saints’ first four playoff berths all included losses in the first post-season game, Finks retired after being diagnosed with lung cancer in 1993 and none of Mora’s subsequent four teams had a winning record or made the playoffs.

Mora resigned midway through the 1996 season and thus came to an end the second Saints era, and Benson embarked on a new beginning within his tenure as owner.

It wound up being the part of the Benson years that most resembled the Mecom years, though there was good mixed with the bad.

The Post-Finks/Mora Years  

Benson turned to Mike Ditka, who had been very successful as head coach of the Chicago Bears and guided one of the most dominant Super Bowl champions during the 1985 season.

Ditka’s tenure marked the beginning of the post-Finks/Mora era, but didn’t qualify as an individual era. It lasted for just three losing seasons (1997-99) and Benson started again as a new millennium was beginning.

A new general manager (Randy Muller) reshaped the roster for the 2000 season and a rookie coach (Jim Haslett) led the team to not only a division title but the franchise’s long-awaited first playoff victory in its 34th season.

Mueller was fired in 2002 and Haslett coached for five more seasons, but never got back to the playoffs. His tenure ended with a 3-13 record during the displaced season caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Thus ended the third era, which much like the first era wound down amid uncertainty about the franchise’s future in the Crescent City.

The Payton Years  

Benson gave serious consideration to overtures from the city of San Antonio about making his personal second home, which hosted the Saints during the displacement, the franchise’s new home.

But the NFL made it clear that it would not approve the move of the franchise out of a city reeling from Katrina and the Saints had no choice but to return. Benson and general manager Mickey Loomis, who had been promoted after the firing of Mueller, embarked on yet another new era with the hiring of a young Dallas assistant named Sean Payton to be head coach.

Payton reshaped the roster much as Mueller had six years earlier, which included the signing of quarterback Drew Brees, who would become the most significant player in franchise history, and his first team won a division title and the Saints advanced to the NFC Championship Game for the first time.

Three years later the Saints won their only Super Bowl, Payton took them to seven more playoffs and another trip to the NFC Championship Game after the 2018 season.

The post-Payton Years 

And here we are.

A new era – the post-Payton era – begins, but gets under way in a manner different from all the other transitions.

The Saints have changed owners, general managers, head coaches and countless players over the years.

This era – like every era – begins with uncertainty and yet this one begins with more continuity than any of the others.

Gayle Benson is the managing partner, Loomis enters his 21st season as the general manager, Dennis Allen succeeds Payton after being one of his top lieutenants for 12 seasons in two tenures and Jameis Winston is the quarterback, entering his third season with the team.

The Saints are riding an active streak of five winning seasons, which has never happened before and which includes a franchise-record four consecutive division championships that ended last season.

No other Saints era has begun from as lofty a starting point as this one does.

“I just think the foundation is set,” running back Mark Ingram II said. “The standard here is excellence.”

(Next up: Part 2: Dennis Allen takes over.) 

Click here for the entire Saints countdown series.

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Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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