Sep 28, 200912:00 AM
The Editor's Room
Weekly Commentary with New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde
Errol Laborde's picks: The Top 7 Saints games of all time (so far)
Listed in ascending order
7. Sept. 17, 1967. Opening Day.
That the NFL’s newest franchise was going to be something special was immediately evident on the season’s opening day as the Saints played their first regular season game ever. Eighty-thousand fans, already euphoric just because the city finally had a team, would have blown the roof off Tulane Stadium had it had a dome when, on the Saints’ very first play, rookie John Gilliam fielded the opening kick and ran 94 yards past puffing Los Angeles Rams for a touchdown. With the game only a few seconds old, the Saints led 7-0. Fans were in a frenzy. Was this first-year team Super Bowl-bound? Could the Saints be stopped? Were fans witnessing the beginning of a dynasty? No, yes and no proved to be the answer to those questions as the Saints went on to lose the game 27-13. They would not gain their first win until Nov. 5 against the Eagles. Ahead would be years of frustration. For the moment, though, hopes were high, even if reality was only four quarters away.
6. Oct. 28, 1979. Claiming First.
In what was one of the Saint’s all-time greatest defense games, the Black and Gold stopped the Washington Redskins seven times within the 2-yard line, leading to a 14-10 victory. The win was especially sweet because with it the Saints, for the first time ever, moved into sole possession of first place within their division, the NFC West. Finishing with an 8-8 record, they might have made the playoffs had it not been for a Monday Night Football game in December when they blew a 35-14 lead over the Raiders and fell 42-35. There would be no postseason, but at least the highlight films had something to show from that magical day in October.
5. Dec. 31, 1990. The Big Party.
New Year’s Eve revelry had to wait as Monday Night Football closed its season with a battle between the Saints and Rams. Although the Saints entered the game with a modest 7-8 record, a win would give them a wild card playoff spot. Throughout the city, the champagne was still on ice when, with 2 seconds left in the game and the score tied 17-17, Saints place kicker Morten Andersen trotted on the field. The snap, the hold, the kick –– it’s good! A week later, at Soldier Field in Chicago, the Bears would slam the Saints 16-6 in the opening playoff game, but the team at least had made New Year’s Eve special –– and New Orleanians were given another excuse to drink.
4. Nov. 8, 1970. The Kick.
So pathetic had been the season so far that Tom Fears, the Saints original head coach, had been fired during the past week. Not much was expected when the Saints, under interim coach J.D. Roberts, faced the Detroit Lions at Tulane Stadium. As the game reached its final seconds, fans were heading to their cars. It was evident that the Lions would win 17-16. But wait! What’s this? With the Saints in possession of the ball but still on their side of the field, Roberts sent out place kicker Tom Dempsey. Born without toes on his right foot, Dempsey wore a special square-toed kicking shoe. The Lions were lax. Fans giggled at this impossible attempt. All watched as the ball sailed through the autumn sky, heading toward its target like a hawk pursuing prey. Even the bees got into the act as a hive of them happened to crash into WWL’s radio transmitter, blocking the signal just as the announcer yelled the impossible. Field goal! 63 yards! The longest in league history! Saints win 19-17! An otherwise dismal 2-11-1 season received salvation. All else would be forgotten. The kick would always be remembered.
3. Dec. 30, 2000. Finally.
For only an unimpressive fifth time in 33 seasons, the Saints had made the playoffs. Even less impressive was the fact that the locals were the only team in the league to have never won a playoff game. Odds-makers thought the trend would continue as the Saints, though they had won their division, were the consensus underdogs playing in the dome against the St. Louis Rams. The game started well with the Saints taking a 10-0 lead. By late in the fourth quarter, however, the Rams had the momentum. As the Saints guarded a shaky 31-28 lead, the Rams, who were the defending Super Bowl champs, seemed unstoppable. Then, in the closing moments of the game, three names became immortalized in Saints history. One was Az-Zhair Hakim, the Rams’ kick returner, whose fumble allowed the Saints to take over the ball and run down the clock. The other was Brian Milne, a little- known Saints special team player who recovered the fumble. And the third was God, whose existence radio announcer Jim Henderson affirmed over and over as he screamed into the microphone, “There is a God, there is . . . ” A week later the Saints would get stomped by the Minnesota Vikings, 34-16, but at least the team had won a level of respectability. First-year coach Jim Haslet was named coach of the year. A year later, the Saints would not even make the playoffs, but on that December day in 2000, the fledgling new century seemed to offer promise.
2. Jan. 13, 2007. Back in the Playoffs.
After completing an unbelievable post-Katrina dream season, the Saints were finally back in the playoffs. Although the team had won its first playoff contest ever in 2000, that was in a first-round wild card game. This year, the team could be a bit more smug, having won its division, secured a first-round bye and having home field advantage against the Philadelphia Eagles. The game was a thriller, and the Saints prevailed 27-24. A week later, the team would lose to the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, but for the moment at least recovery tears were overcome with champagne bubbles.
1. Sept. 25, 2006. Saints Triumph in Emotion Bowl.
From the moment the sun rose, the day was already going to be special. The Saints were going to return to the Superdome that evening after being away for more than a year because of Katrina. The game was going to be on Monday Night Football. The Atlanta Falcons were in town.
Although few in the sellout crowd doubted that the Saints, who had started the season with two surprising road victories, could win, no one anticipated that the home team would play a game that was just about perfect. Nor could it be expected that the Saints would take the lead within the first two minutes of the game and never look back. During the course of a 23-3 win, the Saints blocked an Atlanta punt and a field goal attempt and performed a razzle-dazzle double reverse touchdown play that left fans, who were already emotionally drained, hoarse from yelling.
In addition to the score, some other numbers were impressive, too. Attendance was 70,003. ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcast had an 11.8 rating, translating into a viewership of 10,850,000 homes. At the time, the game was the second-highest cable program of all time and was the most-watched program in the nation that evening. With the generosity and support of the NFL there was a pre-game musical extravaganza featuring Green Day and U2.
More than a victory, the evening was both a tonic for New Orleanians who had been suffering from the hurricane’s devastation and a message to the nation that there was plenty of spirit in this limping city. For whatever else would happen over the rest of the season, the Saints had already won the big one. Without fear of overstatement, I have said, and will always say, that that evening was one of the greatest nights in New Orleans history.
Even when the Saints win their first Super Bowl, this game will remain in first place. Given the meaning and the emotional impact of the evening, that game will be probably be frozen in first place forever.
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