My most memorable moments covering sports (Part 10 – Saints)
New Orleans became a major-league sports city when the Saints began playing in the NFL in 1967.
They have remained the most important professional sports franchise in Louisiana ever since.
I’ve covered the Saints for most of the last 30-plus years and they have provided some of the most memorable moments in my sports writing career.
Here are the top five memories in the final installment of my 10-part series:
- The Jim Mora years
My first memory of Mora came before I ever covered him or one of his teams.
His first Saints team had finished the 1986 season with a 7-9 record, which wasn’t bad given that he inherited a team that had gone 5-11 in Bum Phillips’ last season.
New Orleans was actually in playoff contention at 6-5 before losing four of its final five games.
Mora appeared on one of the local Sunday night television sports shows that follow the 10 p.m. newscast. The host congratulated the rookie coach on the improvement the team made, the fact that it was seventh in the NFL in total defense and seemed to be off to a good start in the first season of his tenure.
The coach rejected the complement, saying a losing record is never good enough, that his job was to produce a winner and nothing short of that was unacceptable. It wasn’t quite the “coulda, woulda, shoulda” tirade he would author the following season after a close
loss to the 49ers, but it was memorable in its own right.
It struck me because I had never seen a Saints coach or front office member demonstrate such high standards. The next season New Orleans was in the playoffs for the first time, the first of four playoff appearances under Mora, though the Saints didn’t win any of the playoff games during his tenure.
Mora had other memorable tirades that were triggered by reporters’ questions that he didn’t like. Once I got on the beat and started questioning Mora, I discovered that he held reporters to a high standard just as he did his team.
He took questions extremely literally and sloppily worded questions could draw his ire even if the premise was legitimate. I learned to be more thoughtful and choose words more precisely in crafting questions to him, which was a good thing.
Mora – and the men who hired him, general manager Jim Finks and owner Tom Benson – brought an unprecedented level of professionalism to a franchise that floundered during original owner John Mecom Jr’s tenure.
Covering Mora’s Saints was memorable because it was the first time New Orleans experienced how an NFL organization was supposed to operate.
- The 2000 season
A former Mora assistant, Jim Haslett, brought the franchise its first playoff victory in his first season.
New general manager Randy Mueller hired Haslett and bolstered a weak roster left behind by Mike Ditka after a 3-13 season.
The Saints won the NFC West with a 10-6 record and played the St. Louis Rams in a wild-card game in the Superdome.
The first playoff victory seemed assured when the Saints took a 31-7 lead with less than 12 minutes remaining. But the defending Super Bowl champions scored 21 points in a seven-minute stretch to get within a field goal.
When the Saints lined up to punt the ball back to the Rams with nearly two minutes left, the anxiety in the Superdome was palpable. The St. Louis offense was in a groove and the New Orleans defense was exhausted.
But Az-Zahir Hakim fumbled the punt, Brian Milne recovered for the Saints and Aaron Brooks kneeled out the clock. Jim Henderson’s radio call, “Hakim drops the ball!” remains one of the signature moments in Saints history.
- The 2006 season
This was one of the most memorable of Saints seasons for a variety of reasons.
Cowboys offensive coordinator Sean Payton was the rookie head coach that replaced Haslett after Haslett’s final team went 3-13 while being displaced because of Hurricane Katrina.
The 2006 team – featuring an overhauled roster led by free-agent quarterback Drew Brees and rookie running back Reggie Bush – opened with victories at Cleveland and Green Bay before coming home for the reopening of the Superdome 13 months after it had been severely damaged by Katrina.
The Saints beat the Falcons and went on win the NFC South title with a 10-6 record. They won a division playoff game for the first time, defeating Philadelphia in the Superdome to earn a trip to Chicago for their first NFC Championship appearance.
They came up short against Bears inside frigid Soldier Field, but the turnaround in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane and flooding was remarkable.
- The Payton/Brees era
That 2006 season gave a hint that New Orleans was entering an unprecedented era of success.
The combination of Payton and Brees has led the Saints to seven more playoff appearances after that first one in 2006. That includes the Super Bowl championship after the 2009 season and the current streak of three consecutive division titles.
Mora brought respectability and produced the first winning season and the first four playoff appearances. Haslett brought the first playoff victory.
But the Saints have been among the elite franchises in the NFL ever since Payton and Brees arrived.
- The 2009 Super Bowl season
Obviously this was an easy selection.
After that initial trip to the NFC Championship, New Orleans missed the playoffs the next two seasons even as Brees and the offense continued playing at a very high level.
Payton hired Gregg Williams as his defensive coordinator and Williams’ aggressive style produced turnovers at a high rate and brought the defense’s level of play closer to that of the offense.
The Saints exceeded everyone’s expectations by winning their first 13 games before losing to the Cowboys. That was followed by two more losses to close out the regular season, though Payton rested most of his starters in the finale after New Orleans had clinched the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
Many observers were fretting over the three-game losing streak even though it coincided with a series of injuries, most of which were not season-ending.
I remember interviewing offensive lineman Carl Nicks about the losing streak as the Saints were preparing for the playoffs.
“We were dominating everyone before the injuries,” Nicks said matter-of-factly, “and now that we’re getting healthy again I expect we’ll do the same thing (in the playoffs).”
They were certainly dominant in a divisional-round win over Arizona, then hosted the NFC Championship for the first time. Garrett Hartley’s field goal in overtime defeated Minnesota and sent the Saints to Miami for a Super Bowl game against Indianapolis.
I had covered a few Super Bowls previously, but going through the week’s activities with the Saints involved was surreal.
Though the Colts were a very good team and actually had a better record than the Saints (14-2), I felt all week that the Saints were going to win the game.
I remember sitting in the press box and watching as Indianapolis took an early 10-0 lead. A colleague of mine at the Advocate and I overheard a reporter from a newspaper from the Northeast suggest that the game was essentially over.
The two of us that had covered the Saints all season looked at one another. The unspoken message was, “he hasn’t seen this team all season.”
The game was far from over and the Saints turned it around. Hartley’s field goals, the “Ambush” onside kick to start the second half, Brees’ touchdown passes to Pierre Thomas and Jeremy Shockey as well as Tracy Porter’s pick-six against Peyton Manning put New Orleans in charge.
My location in the press box provided me a view that was essentially over Manning’s right shoulder. It was easy to see Porter read where Manning was going with the fateful pass and intercept the ball.
There was a pocket of Saints fans in the end zone below us and Porter pointed at them as he completed his sprint to the end zone.
At that point we knew New Orleans was going to win the Super Bowl.
It doesn’t get any more memorable than that.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com 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…