The New Orleans Saints were known as one of the NFL's "hard luck" franchises for many years since their inception in 1967. The team didn't even have a winning season for the first 20 years of their existence. The Saints finally qualified for the playoffs in 1987, then again following the 1990, '91, and '92 campaigns, but failed to come away with a victory in any of those appearances. Today, Canal Street Chronicles continues our offseason series of the Saints Triumphs and Tragedies with an unforgettable moment in their 34th NFL season.
FIRST PLAYOFF WIN
The date was December 30, 2000, and the New Orleans Saints had qualified for the playoffs for the first time since the 1992 season. The Saints were the most unlikely playoff participant of the 2000 season. They entered the postseason as champions of the NFC West with a 10-6 record, but were coming off of a 3-13 disaster the year before. They were led by a first time head coach in Jim Haslett, and a first time starter at quarterback in Aaron Brooks, who had replaced injured starter Jeff Blake down the stretch of the year. New Orleans was led by a powerful and opportunistic defense, as linemen La'Roi Glover (a league leading 17 sacks), Joe Johnson (12 sacks), Darren Howard (11), and Willie Whitehead (5.5) combined on 45.5 of the team's 66 sacks, and linebackers Keith Mitchell and Mark Fields earned Pro Bowl berths alongside Glover and Johnson. Offensively, the Saints boasted the best pair of offensive tackles in the league with Pro Bowler Kyle Turley and future Hall of Famer Willie Roaf. They paved the way for 2nd year running back Ricky Williams, who rushed for 1,000 yards and 8 touchdowns in just ten games, before going down for the season in week 11 with an ankle injury. Wide receiver Joe Horn had 94 receptions for 1,340 yards and 8 scores in his first year with New Orleans, earning his first Pro Bowl bid. Opposing the Saints was a longtime rival, the defending Super Bowl champions, and the "Greatest Show on Turf", the St. Louis Rams. The Rams were also led by a first time head coach in Mike Martz, and had some of the most dangerous offensive players in the game with future Hall of Famers quarterback Kurt Warner and running back Marshall Faulk, along with All-Pro receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. St. Louis had stumbled through the middle of the year with injuries, but the team was again healthy as it entered the playoffs, and they carried with them the NFL's top ranked offense in yardage, points scored, passing yardage, touchdown passes, and rushing touchdowns. The Rams had defeated the Saints 26-21 less than a week before in the Dome to finish at 10-6 as well, losing the division title to New Orleans in a tiebreaker because of the Saints 7-1 divisional record.
The defending champions wasted no time getting on the board with a 68-yd. drive to open the game, culminated with a 17-yd. touchdown strike from Warner to Bruce. The Saints answered later with a touchdown drive of their own to tie the game, ending with a Brooks touchdown pass to wideout Robert Wilson. Faulk, who had run through the Saints defense for 220 yards less than a week before, was held in check this time around, running for just 24 yards, although he did catch 7 passes for 99 yards. The Saints defense forced 3 interceptions and a fumble from Warner, while sacking him 3 times on the day. The game was a defensive struggle through the rest of the first half, although a Doug Brien field goal later in the second quarter gave New Orleans a 10-7 lead heading into the break.
Aaron Brooks lost his favorite receiver, Horn, early in the game with a knee injury, but threw for 266 yards and 4 touchdowns on the day. Saints wide receiver Willie Jackson stepped up to star in Horn's absence, catching 6 passes for 142 yards and 3 touchdowns, the first coming midway through the 3rd quarter to widen the Saints lead to ten points. Jackson then had touchdown receptions on back to back possessions early in the 4th quarter, giving the Saints a 31-7 lead with less than twelve minutes remaining and sending the Superdome crowd into a frenzy in anticipation of the franchise's first playoff win. The defending champs weren't going down without a fight however, and any Saints fan will tell you that this franchise has never made things easy on their loyal followers. The Rams roared back, first scoring on a Warner touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl to narrow the score to 31-13 after a failed 2-pt. conversion. Saints fans thought they could breathe easier, after safety Sammy Knight's second interception of the game thwarted another Ram drive deep in New Orleans territory with just 6:34 left on the clock. Another three and out by the Saints offense was then followed by a lightning fast St. Louis touchdown drive of under a minute in duration. The Rams successfully recovered an onside kick afterward, and drove quickly for another touchdown and successful 2-pt. conversion, closing the score to 31-28 with 2:43 left and bringing every Saints fan to the edge of their seat in fear of a historic collapse. New Orleans this time recovered the ensuing onside kick, giving them possession at the St. Louis 37-yd. line, but could still not convert a 1st down, forcing them to punt from the Rams 41 with 1:51 still remaining on the clock. Saints punter Toby Gowin kicked the ball deep into St. Louis territory, where explosive Rams returner Az-Zahir Hakim awaited. Hakim moved to field the ball at his own 8-yd. line, but muffed the punt, where it bounced into the waiting arms of Saints fullback Brian Milne at the St. Louis 11-yd. line. One unforgettable call by Saints play-by-play announcer Jim Henderson and three qb kneel downs to end the game later the New Orleans Saints had their first playoff victory in team history.
The Saints would lose to the Vikings in Minnesota 34-16 in the following week's divisional playoff to end their memorable 2000 season. It would be six years, a coaching change, and a devastating natural disaster before the team would return to the postseason. Sean Payton and Drew Brees would eventually bring unparalleled success to the New Orleans franchise, but the unlikely run of the 2000 Saints would provide joy previously unknown to a long-suffering fan base.