The New Orleans Saints were a tortured franchise when head coach Sean Payton arrived in 2006. They had never made the Super Bowl, or even an NFC Championship Game. Off the field the problems were worse for their home city—the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 leveled the area and put a long rebuilding project ahead for the region.
Football could only do a little to help, but behind Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, the team got better and four years later the 2009 New Orleans Saints became the feel-good story of the year when they won the franchise’s first Super Bowl.
Payton’s first year brought hope, as the team returned to the Superdome (damage caused by Katrina forced the team to play home games elsewhere in 2005) and produced what was then the best team in Saints’ history, winning the NFC South and reaching the conference championship game. But the two ensuing years saw a step back—not into oblivion, but to mediocrity, as New Orleans went 15-17 and missed the playoffs in 2007 and 2008.
New Orleans had the offensive weaponry, with Brees at quarterback. In 2009, he would throw for over 4,300 yards and 34 touchdown passes. His prime targets were 1,000-yard receiver Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and tight end Jeremy Shockey. The Saints didn’t emphasize the run, but the combo of Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas at least made it a viable threat.
The key additions came in defense. Gregg Williams was hired as coordinator, and two veteran pickups were made in the secondary, in corner Jabari Greer and free safety Darren Sharper. The latter would have nine interceptions in 2009. The pass rush was led by potent defensive end Will Smith, who recorded 13 sacks, while middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma was a solid presence at middle linebacker.
New Orleans hung 45 points on lowly Detroit to start the season, and then went to Philadelphia and dropped 48 more on an Eagles team that had won the NFC East in 2008 and would return to the playoffs this year. Brees and Philly counterpart Kevin Kolb each threw for 300-plus, but Brees played a clean game, while Kolb was intercepted three times. It would start a theme of opportunistic play by the Saints as the 48-22 win moved them to 2-0.
Two weeks later, now at 3-0, that opportunism won a game against the New York Jets. Sharper picked off a pass at his own 1-yard line and took it 99 yards to the house. Later, Remi Ayodele recovered a New York fumble in the end zone. The Saints won 24-10 against a team that would be in the AFC Championship Game this season and the year after.
The Saints got a week off and got ready for the New York Giants to come to town. The Giants had won the Super Bowl in 2007, the NFC East in 2008 and were off to a 5-0 start in 2009. Brees lit them up, 23/30 passing for 369 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Eli Manning was erratic.
New York never recovered and missed the playoffs this season and the next. It’s a stretch to say the New Orleans game was the direct cause of all that, but it is fair to say this—the Saints’ 48-27 win over the Giants on October 18 was a clear demarcation point in the shifting of power in the NFC.
Another win at Miami set up a Monday night date with the Atlanta Falcons. The Saints’ NFC South rival had made the playoffs in 2008 and with second-year quarterback Matt Ryan, were a threat to do so again this year. New Orleans didn’t play their best game here, losing three fumbles. But Williams’ defense intercepted Ryan three times, one of which was taken to the house by Greer. It ended with a 35-27 win for New Orleans and the undefeated season was intact.
Three more wins pushed the Saints to 10-0 and set up an even more hyped Monday Night in the Superdome. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots were coming to town. The Saints were a 1.5 point favorite, but given that most oddsmakers generally consider homefield worth three points, it was a tacit way of saying that Las Vegas felt New England to be the better team on a neutral field—in spite of the Patriots’ 7-3 record and in spite of Brady not looking entirely comfortable in his first year back after missing all of 2008 with a torn ACL.
Brees showed that Las Vegas was still underrating the Saints. Even though the Patriots scored the game’s first touchdown, this one went decisively for the Saints and fairly quickly. Brees threw three touchdowns in the first half. When New England closed to 24-17 in the second half, Brees simply tossed two more scores to put it out of reach. He finished 18/23 for 371 yards and the final was 38-17.
Now an undefeated season was very much alive, but it looked like it might slip away in a classic “letdown” spot the ensuing Sunday in Washington. The lowly Redskins had a 30-23 lead and were lined up for a short field goal in the final two minutes.
Befitting this magical year in New Orleans, the kick was shanked, and it didn’t take Brees long to move the ball near midfield and then rifle a 53-yard touchdown pass to Robert Meachen that tied the game. New Orleans won 33-30 in overtime.
One week later it was a rematch with Atlanta and for the second straight week, the Saints flirted with danger on the road. They coughed up a 23-9 lead, and let the Falcons tie it before Garrett Hartley kicked a 38-yard field goal with under five minutes left that stood up.
New Orleans was 13-0 and the Indianapolis Colts were the same in the AFC. There was a talk of two 18-0 teams possibly meeting in the Super Bowl. That was a little premature. The Saints’ run finally came to an end in a Saturday night prime-time home game with the Dallas Cowboys.
Tony Romo did what Brees normally does, and it’s be both explosive and efficient. The Dallas quarterback went 22/34 for 312 yards. Dallas built a 24-3 lead, and though New Orleans rallied to 24-17 with eight minutes to play, the comeback stalled there.
One week later, New Orleans lost in overtime to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the Saints still got good news the next night. The Minnesota Vikings lost on Monday Night Football, meaning the Saints clinched the #1 seed. With the starters resting in Week 17, New Orleans lost again. The three-game losing streak was certainly a cause for concern, but with one of the games having been mailed in, there was no need to overreact.
The previous year, the Arizona Cardinals had been the feel-good story of the year, as Kurt Warner rejuvenated his career and let the Cardinals to the Super Bowl. Now the Cards stood in the way of the Saints, as they faced off in the NFC divisional round. Arizona set a quick tone, when Tim Hightower bolted 70 yards for a touchdown just nineteen seconds into the game.
That was the end of the Arizona feel-good run though. Brees threw three touchdown passes in the first quarter and two more in the second, as he spread the ball around to Shockey, Henderson and Colston. It was 35-14 by halftime and ended 45-14.
Minnesota was next in a highly anticipated NFC Championship Game. Brett Favre had delivered one of the greatest seasons of his soon-to-be Hall of Fame career at the age of 40. New Orleans was still a four-point favorite and the game would be a playoff classic—not necessarily because it was well-played, but because of how close it was and how dramatic the finish was.
The Saints fell behind early, after Adrian Peterson ran 19 yards for a touchdown. Brees and Favre traded touchdown passes, and then Brees hit Henderson for a score that tied the game 14-14 at the half. It was 21-21 after three quarters, and 28-28 late in the game.
New Orleans got the ball after Peterson scored the tying touchdown with 4:58 left, but were unable to capitalize. Favre got the ball back and was moving Minnesota into field goal range. Then the Vikings drew a 12-men-on-the-field penalty, nudging Minnesota’s 3rd-down play to the 36-yard line and meaning they would have to pass.
Favre rolled to his right. Cornerback Tracy Porter, who had already made a huge play when he forced a fumble inside the red zone, now made a bigger one. Reading the play, Porter capitalized when Favre tried to force the ball into the middle. He made the interception. That ended regulation, New Orleans won the overtime coin toss and in the era of pure “sudden-death” OT, drove for a field goal that put them in the Super Bowl.
We now had the New Orleans-Indianapolis Super Bowl, though of course neither team was undefeated. The Colts might have been, but at 14-0, they decided to rest their players, including Peyton Manning and dropped the last two. Like the Saints, they quickly revived themselves in two home playoff wins.
Indianapolis was a solid five-point favorite and when they took a 10-0 lead, that seemed more than justified. New Orleans got field goals from Hartley, from 46 and 44, to cut the lead to 10-6 at the half.
This Super Bowl is remembered for the opening kickoff of the second half. Payton called for an onside kick and it worked. New Orleans quickly scored and took the lead. Legend has it that the onside kick irrevocably turned momentum, although Indy drove right back to take a 17-13 lead. The success of the onside kick was less about momentum, and more about giving Brees a chance with the ball rather than Manning.
And Brees was playing exceptionally efficient football. The Colts were able to take away the big play, but Brees would complete 32/39 passes for 288 yards and he was in a second half groove. Hartley hit a 46-yard field goal to cut the lead to 17-16 and with 5:42 left, Brees connected with Shockey for the touchdown that put the Saints on top. A successful two-point play made it 24-17.
Manning drove Indianapolis down the field. It was just one more opportunity for Porter to make his place in NFL lore. Manning threw the ball over the middle. Porter stepped in front of it at the 26-yard line. He didn’t stop until he was in the opposite end zone 74 yards later. The score was 31-17 and for all practical purposes it was over.
This Super Bowl is remembered for the onside kick, for Brees, who was game MVP and for Porter. But don’t overlook Hartley, who hit three long field goals on a grass turf where one miss would have been understandable. But if the Saints’ only lead 20-17 on that final defensive stand rather than by seven, perhaps Manning plays it a little safer, perhaps it goes overtime and perhaps it ends up differently.
Ultimately though, you had the feeling that nothing was going to make things end differently for the 2009 New Orleans Saints. When you get the combination of a good football team riding a wave of destiny, there’s only place it can end up—hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy. For the first ever, Saints’ fans were watching their team do that and it’s tough to think of a city that deserved it more in the world of the late 2000s.