Streetcar: The Season of ‘99
As season openers went it was promising. The Saints began the 1999 season on the road against the Carolina Panthers. Featuring a squad that carried two Heisman trophy winners: Danny Wuerffel, a quarterback out of the University of Florida, and Ricky Williams, a University of Texas running back who broke so many records during his college career that the Saints were willing to give away all their draft choices to get him as a first round pick. (The move was so sensational that Sport Illustrated magazine shocked the sports world with a cover about the Saints football marriage for which Head Coach Mike Ditka wore a tuxedo and Williams agreed to wear a wedding dress.)
Opening day made the excitement seem worthwhile. The Saints won 19-10. Williams in his rookie debut had modest success carrying the ball 10 times for 40 yards. Wuerffel, sat on the bench playing back up, along with rookie Jake Delhomme from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. Starting at quarterback was Billy Joe Tolliver a nine-year veteran out of Texas Tech.
All was good as the team flew back to New Orleans and the season looked bright. Unfortunately, there were still 15 more games to play.
A week later, the Saints lost their home-opener to the San Francisco 49ers. That was followed by an unusually early BYE week and then a string of 14 games, of which the Saints lost 12. (The only remaining victories were a revenge battle on the road against the 49ers and, sweetest of all, a Christmas Eve win against the Cowboys in Dallas.)
Overall, though, it was a miserable season. Since the three wins were all away games, the home fans were denied a Saints victory in the Dome.
I remember being at a Saints a game during that era at which there were maybe 30,000 fans. The Dome was totally quiet as each team traded exchanges of three downs and a punt, with lots of incomplete passes along the way. Finally, one fan with a deep raspy voice bellowed “boring!!” which was heard throughout the Dome. The crowd issued its loudest cheer of the game.
Or maybe the second loudest. There was one member from the Saints sideline that was usually the star of the day. It was Fetch Monster, an Australian Shepard dog who never failed in her job of running onto the field after a kickoff to fetch and return the kicking tee. The crowd loved it.
Other than Fetch, the cheers were few. This was not the Saints worst season. That would have been in 1980 when the team finished 1-15 beating only the New York Jets on the road in the snow. There were three two-win seasons and one other three-win year, but 1999 was the most disappointing, especially since Ditka had already won a Superbowl earlier in his career for the Chicago Bears. His success, we hoped, would be transferable. But Ricky Williams was injured often and Wuerffel was a bust. The talent just never galvanized. As the season wore on owner Tom Benson ran an ad in the Times-Picayune apologizing for the team’s performance and promising better days.
Only one player on that team would eventually achieve Superbowl glory. Jake Delhomme, the backup rookie quarterback from ULL would eventually be traded to Carolina, where as starting quarterback he led the team to the 2004 Superbowl against the New England Patriots. The Patriots won but it was a thriller decided by a last second field goal.
On January 2, 2000, the Saints closed out the ’99 season losing at home to Carolina 45-13. The team they had defeated on opening day handed them a 32-point loss on the final day. It was the Saints worst beating of the season.
Three days later Tom Benson must have felt like the loneliest man in the world as he fired Ditka and the entire coaching staff (which included Danny Abramowicz, one of the of the original Saints) and the entire front office. It was a clean sweep. The press hounded Benson for allowing this disaster to happen. The critics included those voices who had urged him to hire Ditka in the first place.
In the following 2000 season, the Saints, under new head coach Jim Haslett, finished on top of their division and for the first time ever won a playoff game before being eliminated.
Nine years later, on the 10th anniversary of Ditka’s last team, the Saints won the Super Bowl.
No one is yelling “boring” anymore and if they do they could not be heard over the crowd noise.
Fetch Monster was also released as part of the 1999 purge, but at least now fans can cheer the kicks rather than just the tee.