In a list of lowlights the length of a skyscraper, it's difficult to pinpoint the lowest point in the history of the New Orleans Saints, but one candidate begins with a man named Ditka.
In the 1999 draft, it was Mike Ditka -- coach and commander of the franchise -- who made football's version of a criminally negligent decision to trade eight Saints draft picks to the Washington Redskins, including each of their 1999 picks and the first and third round selections in the 2000 draft, for the opportunity to select runner Ricky Williams.
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After the disastrous trade was consummated, a scout for the Redskins remarked privately: "We just embarrassed the entire New Orleans Saints franchise."
Unfortunately, for many years, that wasn't all that hard to do.
But the Saints have proven more resilient than anyone imagined. Once malignant, the Saints have emerged not as a cancer but as an inspiration.
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How the franchise overcame the Ditka debacle as well as decades of incompetence, ownership stupidity -- and, yes, a horrific natural disaster -- to reach the Super Bowl is one of the inspirational stories in the history of American sports.
The question is how exactly did the Saints do it?
There are a handful of key critical moves that helped the Saints overcome their painful past and emerge as a hopeful story. Many were tactical, most demonstrated the smarts the Ditka trade never did, and some were as a result of good, old fashioned luck.
Here's how the Saints' turnaround happened.
It's hard to believe but Drew Brees wasn't always so coveted. A shoulder injury left many (including his own team, the San Diego Chargers) skeptical about his long-term future. The Saints took a chance on him and he took a chance on them, signing as a free agent in 2006 to a six-year, $60 million deal. Mickey Loomis, the team's general manager, remembered: "It's easy to say how great Drew is now but not everyone in football felt that way then."
Getting Brees was the most critical factor. His deep pass prowess and accuracy allowed Sean Payton to run his wide open offense. But Brees didn't provide solely physical skills -- he gave the Saints greatly needed stability. After Brees went to New Orleans, it showed both the league and players on the Saints that New Orleans was a place where players could go and win.
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"When I was first drafted by the Saints, I am not going to lie, I was pretty scared," said Reggie Bush. "I was nervous. I didn't know what to expect. It was a year after Hurricane Katrina, and they didn't even know if they were going to have a home field to play on. I didn't know what to expect.
"Drew Brees called me the night I was drafted and told me he was excited to play with me. He told me how he got to play with LaDainian Tomlinson and he was looking forward to playing with me. That changed my entire view on what I was going into. It also eased my mind. I had a chance to watch Drew play when he was with the Chargers, so for a guy like Drew to call me says a lot about him. It eased my emotions about what I was getting into."
The only free agent acquisitions in NFL history more important than the Brees signing was Reggie White going to Green Bay, Deion Sanders signing with Dallas and San Francisco, and Curtis Martin going to the Jets.
As a young coach, one of the people Sean Payton admired was Bill Parcells. When they met on a flight from New York to Dallas (on Jerry Jones' private jet) the two men drew up plays on a napkin for over two hours. Actually, Parcells did much of the drawing and Payton did much of the listening.
"For a young guy to work with a Hall of Fame coach," said Payton, "it [was] invaluable."
Payton took the lessons he learned from Parcells and others -- how to organize, how to teach, how to motivate -- and over the years morphed those lessons into his own coaching style.
The general manager
Loomis came to the Saints in the aftermath of the Ditka disaster. He was initially an assistant personnel man on the team but still knew just how badly that trade had wrecked the Saints.
"The thing that stood out for me was because of the trade, we didn't have any second-, third-, fourth-round picks," said Loomis.
Eventually he took control of an atomized franchise and began steering it from oblivion. Truthfully, the conduit of the Saints' success runs through Loomis. He hired Payton and signed Brees, drafted Reggie Bush and signed key free agents Darren Sharper and Jabari Greer.
The 2006 draft by Loomis started the re-engineering of the team. He took offensive lineman Jahri Evans in the fourth round and he was named to the Pro Bowl that same year. In the seventh round came Marques Colston and initially, Colston looked like a bust. He showed up to rookie minicamp out of shape and with an ailing back. Then Payton and other coaches pushed Colston hard (Colston believes he was given the unusual jersey number 12 because the Saints didn't think he'd make the team) and Colston responded with a 1,000-yard season and eight touchdowns in his rookie year.
One year later, Loomis drafted wide receiver Robert Meachem, a critical contributor this season. Then came the pick of Sedrick Ellis in 2008. Other players like Mike Bell and Jonathan Vilma were solid pickups.
What Loomis did was take an organization that was literally in pieces and slowly, through many chess moves, glue it all back together again.
"This isn't a team that was built in two or three moves," said Loomis. "It was a lot of moves."
They were a wreck, the Saints, both figuratively and literally. Then after the storm, both figuratively and literally, came the drafts and free-agent pickups, a bevy of them, and then came the calm.
After that came the Super Bowl.