J.R. Smith of the Cleveland Cavaliers made one of the all-time worst blunders in professional sports history last week at the end of Game 1 of the NBA finals. Fans of the New Orleans Saints could instantly relate, after the way that their team's 2017 ended in the divisional playoffs. Much like the Cavaliers, their beloved franchise has it's own history of mind-blowing errors beyond just these two postseason gaffes. Today, Canal Street Chronicles resumes our offseason series of 'Triumphs and Tragedies' by looking back at one of those unforgettable blunders.
THE RIVER CITY RELAY
The date was December 21, 2003, and the New Orleans Saints would travel to Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, FL to play the Jacksonville Jaguars in week 16 of the NFL season. The Saints entered the game with a record of 7-7, were led by coach Jim Haslett, and needed to win both of their final two games for even a chance at a playoff berth. New Orleans were paced offensively by running back Deuce McAllister, who had the best rushing season of his career in 2003 with 1,641 yards and 8 scores, while quarterback Aaron Brooks added 3,546 yards passing with 24 touchdowns and just 8 interceptions. The Jaguars came into the contest well out of playoff contention with a 4-10 record, and were led by coach Jack Del Rio, a former Saints linebacker in the mid-1980's and Saints linebacker coach in the late-1990's. New Orleans had the only score of the first quarter, going up 3-0 on a 31-yd. field goal from kicker John Carney. Jacksonville evened the score with a 2nd quarter field goal, then took a 10-3 lead later with a Byron Leftwich touchdown pass to former L.S.U. running back LaBrandon Toefield. The Saints tied the score at 10 a short time later, when quarterback Aaron Brooks hooked up with tight end Boo Williams on a 2-yd. touchdown strike. Jaguar running back Fred Taylor, who torched the Saints defense on the day with 194 rushing yards on 34 carries, scored on a short touchdown run late in the second quarter to give the Jags a 17-10 lead at the halftime break.
Scoring in the second half was scarce, as the two teams managed just a field goal each through the 3rd and late into the 4th quarter. A Jacksonville punt gave New Orleans the ball at their own 25-yd. line for one final chance with 11 seconds left to play, trailing 20-13. After a Brooks incomplete pass, the Saints lined up for one final play, seven seconds left, and 75 yards away from a tying score. Brooks, who threw for 296 yards on the afternoon, completed a pass to wide receiver Donte' Stallworth down the right side around midfield. Stallworth broke an initial tackle attempt by Jags defensive back Fernando Bryant, then alluded two more defenders as he broke towards the middle of the field and the clock struck zero. Stallworth got down to nearly the 31-yd. line, and pitched the ball back over his left shoulder to wideout Michael Lewis at the Jaguars 34. Lewis ran the ball down to the Jacksonville 25-yd. line before flipping the ball back to Deuce McAllister, who fought his way along the left sideline down to the Jaguars 20. McAllister was boxed in, and managed to lateral the ball towards the middle of the field to wide receiver Jerome Pathon while on his way to the ground. Pathon took the ball and found open space, bursting into the end zone for an improbable New Orleans touchdown with no time left on the clock. Coach Jim Haslett passed on the opportunity to go for a 2-pt conversion attempt that would have won the game in regulation, instead sending out the extra point unit intending on sending the game to overtime.
Incredibly, and unbelievably, kicker John Carney missed the extra point attempt wide right, instantly turning one of the most thrilling moments in franchise history into one of the most infuriating. Carney, a member of the Saints Hall of Fame, had been perfect on extra point attempts on the season up to that point, and was known as an accurate and reliable kicker throughout his 23-yr. NFL career. Listen to iconic Saints play-by-play announcer Jim Henderson's call of the moment, and it's aftermath, here:
New Orleans was officially eliminated from playoff contention with the loss, although a Dallas Cowboys victory later in the day would have eliminated the team anyway. The River City Relay was however, a moment that personified a frustrating franchise history, one that seemed to find a way to lose, often in extraordinary ways.