The New Orleans Saints have had many moments in their 51-year history. Although there have been a number of glorious moments, to be sure, there have been a large amount of times that all blunt instruments have had to be moved out of a fan's reach. Today, Canal Street Chronicles takes a look back at just such a moment.
The date was Sunday, November 9, 2014.
The location was The Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, LA. The Saints opponent on this afternoon was a long time rival, the San Francisco 49ers (who we will unfortunately see later in this series as well). Both teams had high expectations for contention in the NFC conference, yet both came into this contest with a record of 4-4. The loser of the game would take a major blow to their playoff hopes as the season moved into it's second half.
The game was a hard-hitting affair, reminiscent of Saints versus 49ers games from the late 1980s. Unfortunately for the Saints, the early result was also a painful reminder of many of those games, as San Francisco capitalized on a few New Orleans miscues to take a 14-3 first quarter lead, and took a 21-10 advantage into halftime.
The second half was a bit of a different story. New Orleans cut the 49er lead to 21-17 in the 3rd quarter, then finally took the lead with a late 4th quarter touchdown pass to All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham with only 1:52 remaining. The Saints had the statistical advantage in nearly every category on the afternoon. Quarterback Drew Brees did not have the 300-yard passing game that he is accustomed to, but still had an output of 292 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Running back Mark Ingram ran through a stout 49er defense, with 120 yards on 27 carries, and rookie receiver Brandin Cooks provided a downfield threat with 5 catches for 90 yards and a touchdown. The Saints defense, which struggled all season, held the San Francisco passing game to less than 50 percent completion, and helped the effort further with four sacks. Saints tight end Jimmy Graham was the focal point of the team's passing attack, with 10 receptions for 76 yards and 2 scores. His second TD gave the Saints a 24-21 lead with less than 2 minutes to go in the game. It looked like New Orleans had finally taken control of this hard fought and important contest.
Control that is, until San Francisco proved otherwise after receiving the ensuing kickoff. The 49ers faced a pivotal 4th and 10 from near their own 20-yard line. The Saints defense, which had let the team down all year, gave up a brain-numbing long pass down the middle of the field to a wide open 49er receiver Michael Crabtree. The play set up a game tying field goal, evening the score at 24 with just 44 seconds remaining.
When New Orleans resumed play from their own 20-yard line following the 49ers field goal, it was assumed by many that the Saints would merely run out the clock and take the game to overtime. Three plays gained the Saints 23 yards, bringing them to their own 43 with time on the clock for one final play. Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills, and Marques Colston would line up to Brees' right side, while Brandin Cooks would trail the play for one final heave to the end zone — a low percentage play nicknamed by most as the "Hail Mary".
Brees took the shotgun snap, then stepped up in the pocket as he released his pass 57 yards down the field and into the end zone. Waiting in the vicinity was a sea of humanity; the four New Orleans receivers along with four San Francisco defenders. Incredibly, the ball fell into the waiting arms of Jimmy Graham, who caught the football over 49er defender Perrish Cox and in front of Antoine Bethea for the game winning touchdown. However, equally as incredible, there was a penalty flag on the play. The infraction was a pass interference against Graham, for making illegal contact against Cox during the play, thereby disallowing the touchdown and sending the game into overtime.
There was no doubt that Graham had made contact with Cox on the play, so the call itself was next to impossible to argue.
The issue that many Saints fans have to this day is the timing of the call. Think of how many football games that you have watched or been a part of in your life, at any level. Then think of how many times you have seen a Hail Mary attempt at the end of a half or game. Has there ever NOT been contact between players on those plays? And how many times has a penalty actually been called?
With less than six minutes to go in overtime, Brees was sacked and fumbled deep in Saints territory. The play immediately led to a 49ers field goal, giving San Francisco an important 27-24 victory. The game was the first of 3 straight at home for the Saints, but all three would turn out to be losses. New Orleans finished the season with a disappointing 7-9 record, but still 2nd in the NFC South. The Carolina Panthers won a subpar division that season, with a laughable record of 7-8-1. One more Saints victory in 2014, like perhaps a game that was lost on a questionable (at best) penalty call, would have given New Orleans an 8-8 record and the 2014 NFC South title.