How The New Orleans Saints Became Super
August 29, 2005. The city of New Orleans was slammed by Hurricane Katrina, flooding 80% of the city and causing thousands to be displaced. The Superdome, long time home of the New Orleans Saints, sustained structural damage and the Saints found themselves displaced as well. The result was a nightmare season for the Saints. Forced to play home games in New York, San Antonio and Shreveport, Louisiana the devastation of the hurricane had taken both a physical and emotional toll as New Orleans finished a dismal 3-13.
However, the storm of the '05 season had been brewing for a number of years.
After a successful 2000 season in which New Orleans won the NFC West and scored their first playoff win in franchise history the Saints looked like up-and-comers to challenge the powerful St. Louis Rams. But from 2001 to 2004 the Saints defined mediocrity as they finished 7-9, 9-7, 8-8 and 8-8 respectively. It was clear going into the 2005 season that the Saints had gone as far as quarterback Aaron Brooks and running back Deuce McAllister could take them. While the Saints were solid offensively, they were inconsistent and weak defensively. Along the way the Saints had been hit-or-miss in the draft. In 2003 the Saints nabbed offensive tackle Jonathan Stinchcomb and the next year scored with defensive end Will Smith and wide receiver Devery Henderson. However, the Saints never adopted coach Jim Haslett's physical mentality as the bottom dropped out on the 2005 season.
So as 2006 dawned, the city of New Orleans began reconstruction. Meanwhile, the Saints were reconstructing themselves into a Super Bowl team. It began on January 18, 2006 with the hiring of Dallas offensive coordinator Sean Payton, an up-and-comer known for his offensive mind and playcalling. Knowing Brooks was not a franchise quarterback the Saints went shopping in free agency and made perhaps the biggest pickup of the decade with Drew Brees. Coming of two big seasons in San Diego Brees was sought after but was also damaged goods due to a shoulder injury he sustained in 2003. Nevertheless the Saints rolled the dice and had their franchise quarterback. The Saints remained active in free agency with the signing of center Jonathan Goodwin, who would anchor the offensive line along with Stinchcomb. Next New Orleans mined a monster draft by taking running back Reggie Bush with the second overall pick to go with second round pick Roman Harper and fourth rounder Jahri Evans. Harper and Evans would be named to the Pro Bowl squad in 2009 while Bush was widely considered the best player coming out of college football in '05. With their last pick the Saints took a flyer on Hofstra wide receiver Marques Colston who would finish the '06 season as the team's leading receiver.
With Brees taking over as leader of the team and Bush's electric play out of the backfield and on special teams the Saints exploded in 2006. New Orleans returned to the Superdome in '06 as a well-oiled machine that finished fifth in scoring offense, first in total offense and 13th in scoring defense. Finishing the year at 10-6 New Orleans won the NFC South and picked up a first round bye in the playoffs. After a 27-24 win over Philadelphia the Saints earned their first trip to the NFC Championship game. But the dream season came to an end in Chicago with a 39-14 loss to the Bears. Nevertheless with a whirlwind offseason and an offense that became one of the league's best under Payton the Saints once again appeared poised to become one of the best teams in the NFL.
But 2007 would be a rude awakening. In the spring the Saints added to the offensive arsenal with receiver Robert Meachem, tackle Jermon Bushrod and undrafted free agent running back Pierre Thomas. There was no doubt the Saints were a force to be reckoned with when they had the ball. However, defensively the Saints slipped back to mediocrity and the weakness was exposed right from the start as the Saints were ripped by the defending champion Indianapolis Colts 41-14 on a Thursday prime time game to open the season. It got worse as the Saints gave up 31 points to both Tampa Bay and Tennessee and after a loss to Carolina the Saints stood at 0-4 with a defense that had given up 119 points just one month into the season. New Orleans rebounded and won the next four and eventually got to 7-7 but that troublesome defense was again ripped apart in the final two weeks and New Orleans finished the year 7-9. In 2007 the Saints had one of the worst secondaries in the league.
The Saints found themselves in the same boat the Colts were in in the first half of the decade: the talent on offense is there but the toughness isn't. The personnel is getting better defensively, but they're not aggressive enough. So New Orleans went back to work in the 2008 offseason by again dipping into the free agent pool with the signing of linebacker Jonathan Vilma. In April the Saints focused on defense with DT Sedrick Ellis and cornerback Terry Porter. Then before the start of the season the Saints traded for tight end Jeremy Shockey. Brees put up huge numbers in 2008 throwing for more than 5,000 yards to go with 34 passing touchdowns. Thomas saw his workload increase as Bush had trouble staying healthy. But defensively the Saints made little progress. Offensively New Orleans finished number one in scoring and yards but finished roughly the same in scoring and total defense has they had in '07.
With the coming of 2009 the Saints went for veteran leadership and acquired safety Darren Sharper and running back Mike Bell. The Saints had transformed offensively from a pass-heavy team to a more balanced attack with a three-headed backfield. Sharper's presence paid off big time as Harper and Porter matured and strengthened the secondary. For 13 weeks the Saints were unbeatable and fate finally appeared to be on the side of New Orleans. But stunning losses to Dallas and Tampa Bay exposed a weakness. The Cowboys blitzed Brees heavily and the Buccaneers were able to keep the Saints offense out of synch. New Orleans finished 13-3 but held homefield advantage throughout. Brees put up big numbers as always with 4,388 yards and another 34 touchdowns. The defense improved, jumping to 20th in scoring. While not overly impressive, the Saints no longer viewed defense as a liability and with a powerhouse offense the wins kept coming.
Arizona and Minnesota both had the capabilities of pressuring Brees. The Cardinals, though, were never a threat in the divisional round as the Saints got back on track with an impressive 45-14 win. Against Minnesota the Saints were out of rhythm, but the defense that had held them back for so long saved the day by forcing five turnovers. When Garrett Hartley's 40 yard field goal sailed through the uprights in overtime the Saints had finally completed a Super Bowl journey that began in those dark days of 2005.