Tampa Bay Sports Day

Aints No More!

This year’s annual Mardi Gras celebration isn’t set to begin until Tuesday of next week, but New Orleans’ beloved Saints have already touched off an early Bourbon Street bash which might last until then.

With a stunning 31-17 upset victory over the Indianapolis Colts (16-3) in Super Bowl XLIV, at Sun Life Stadium in Miami on Sunday night, the New Orleans Saints (16-3) washed away at least a small amount of the suffering inflicted by the 2005 flood waters of Hurricane Katrina on the city for which the Saints played their collective hearts out.

Though New Orleans is still recovering from the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, the Saints provided a huge spiritual lift to a city in need, with the biggest win a football team can possibly have.

As a result, things will be different in New Orleans for a while.

The Big Easy? For at least several more days, it’ll be the Big Brees-y.

Fat Tuesday? Make that Phat Tuesday. Or even, Who Dat Tuesday.

And, from long-time Aints, to finally, Super Bowl-winning Saints.

Who Dat say they gonna beat dem Saints?

Well, only three teams could all season (only two when the Saints weren’t resting their starters), and much more importantly –- none were able to, for the first time in Saints’ history, when it mattered the most.

So, be gone, paper bags! Saints fans who used to wear them over their heads with embarrassment can now reveal their proud faces with the wide grins befitting loyal fans a Super Bowl champion.

Yes, the former NFL laughing stock has at long last reached the pinnacle of football success.

The franchise that began in 1967 and produced no winning seasons in its first 20 years of existence; the team that this year, enjoyed only its ninth winning season in its 43-year history; and, the club that had just two postseason victories over that time, not only won its third postseason game of the year on Sunday, but finally accomplished the ultimate feat that many Saints’ fans thought they’d never see.

In true New Orleans fashion, the Saints went marching into Miami and returned from the Super Bowl to the bowl of low-lying New Orleans, as conquering heroes, by pulling together in a team effort, with resiliency, guts, and a little bit of voodoo magic.

The Saints were led by their emotional leader, quarterback Drew Brees, whose supremely efficient 32-for-39, 288-yard, two-touchdown, no-interception performance earned him the Super Bowl XLIV Most Valuable Player award.

While many expected a shootout with big plays galore between Brees and Colts’ quarterback Peyton Manning (who entered the game with his four NFL MVP’s and one Super Bowl MVP), it was a precise, patient, and composed Brees (in his inaugural Super Bowl appearance) who led his team to their first NFL championship.

It wasn’t even that Brees tied the Super Bowl record for completions with 32, or that he posted the second most accurate passing game in Super Bowl history, completing 82.1 percent of his passes. It’s that in a game in which both secondaries blanketed receivers downfield all game long, Brees beat Manning at his own game.

Manning is well known as the master improviser, adjusting and readjusting to what he sees until he can make a defense pay. However, this time, it was Brees who was perfectly content to forego throwing the deep ball (which he does so well), and instead, pick apart the Colts’ defense underneath, with 21 completions for single digit yardage. Nine more completions went for gains between 10 and 19 yards, and only two others were over 20 yards, while none of Brees’ completions went for more than 27 yards.

In winning with the short game, Brees effectively spread the ball around to eight different receivers. Wide receivers Marques Colston (7 catches, 83 yards) and Devery Henderson (7 catches, 63 yards) led the way, but Brees also connected with wide receivers Lance Moore and Robert Meachem, tight ends Jeremy Shockey and David Thomas, and running backs Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush.

Rebounding from a sub-par 3-for-7 opening quarter, Brees finished a nearly flawless 29-of-32 over the final three quarters, with two of those last three incompletions being a dropped pass and a spike to stop the clock. He completed his final ten passes (tied for the second longest streak in Super Bowl history), including all seven in the fourth quarter.

After starting the game with two punts, Brees directed New Orleans to scores on the Saints’ final four possessions and on five of their final six, before taking a knee to end the game in jubilation.

It was the perfect ending to a postseason run that Brees finished with eight touchdowns, no interceptions, and 732 yards.

Furthering the New Orleans team effort was second-year kicker Garrett Hartley, who became the first kicker in Super Bowl history to make three field goals of over 40 yards (46, 44, and 47 yards), a defense that kept Manning and the Colts’ dangerous offense in check over the final three quarters, and some great moves by the Saints coaching staff.

Manning (31-for-45, 333 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception) was good, but the Saints’ defense, led by the confusing looks designed by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, made sure that Manning wasn’t good enough to win.

The Saints opened the game in a 3-4 scheme as Manning guided the Colts to a 10-0 lead on their first

two possessions, including a 96-yard drive that matched the longest scoring drive in Super Bowl history. Williams then switched to a 4-3 alignment in a second quarter in which the Saints outscored the Colts 6-0 and possessed the ball for all but 2:27 and six of 32 plays.

“In the third quarter, we mixed it back and forth,” Williams said. “That was kind of our plan, to make sure that we didn’t show everything we had early in the game. We had a first half game plan, we had a third quarter game plan, and we had a fourth quarter game plan.”

The Saints also won the battle of Peyton vs. Payton, with New Orleans head coach Sean Payton’s bold move of taking away an extra possession from Manning, by opting for an onside kick to begin the second half. It was the first such kick in a Super Bowl prior to the fourth quarter, and it resulted in a Saints’ recovery and a march into the end zone for New Orleans’ first lead of the game.

Though Manning led the Colts back, to lead 17-13, in the third quarter, it was the Saints who had the big fourth-quarter, outscoring an Indianapolis team which set a record with seven fourth-quarter comebacks during the regular season.

Like Indianapolis, New Orleans had shown some of its own comeback ability this season, and the Saints dominated the Colts, 31-7, over the final three quarters, to make some of their own history.

New Orleans matched the largest deficit overcome (10-0) in a Super Bowl; they became the first team in NFL history to win three postseason games in the same season after trailing by at least seven points in each game; and, they overcame a double digit deficit for a league-leading fourth time this season. Ironically, on October 25th, on the same field, the Saints outscored the Dolphins, 22-0, in the fourth quarter to win, 46-34, to win their sixth straight game, en route to starting the season 13-0. This time, it was a 15-0 fourth quarter that won the game of all games for the Saints’ franchise.

Perhaps the most surprising moment came late in that fourth quarter, with nearly everyone expecting Manning to do what he usually does in a must-have drive. With the Saints desperately clinging to a 24-17 lead late in the fourth quarter, and Manning moving Indianapolis to the New Orleans 31 yard-line, the Saints’ defense came up with the big play, as it had all season. To that point, the Saints, who had lived off of takeaways all year, were unable to force any turnovers. That’s when second-year corner back Tracy Porter (who played with a Super Bowl trophy haircut) stepped right in front of Manning’s favorite target — Colts’ leading wide receiver, Reggie Wayne — before going untouched for a 74-yard pick-six that made the improbable dream finally seem real for long-suffering Saints’ fans. The score was the tenth interception return for a touchdown this season for the Saints’ usually opportunistic defense.

In the end, a disappointed Manning, who became the fifth Super Bowl-winning signal caller — and likely, at least the fourth future Hall of Fame quarterback — to lose to New Orleans this season (Eli Manning, Tom Brady, Kurt Warner, and Brett Favre were the others), said, “I give the Saints a lot of credit… they deserved to win.”

Of course, no football victory will ever give back the lives that were tragically lost, nor help return the thousands of still-displaced, former New Orleans residents to their hometown, nor solve many of the other serious problems that Hurricane Katrina left in her wake, which still affect New Orleans today.

But, the Saints capturing their first NFL title is hardly void of significance. It represents something for the entire city of New Orleans to rally around, and it can ultimately serve as inspiration to help restore New Orleans to the level it was in the past.

That feeling is reciprocal among the Saints. “We play for so much more than ourselves,” Brees said.

“We feel like we did this for them,” said Saints’ middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who played his college ball, fittingly at Miami.

“We played for our city,” Brees added. “We played for the entire Gulf Coast region. We played for the entire Who Dat nation that has been behind us every step of the way. It means everything. We’re here because of their strength and everything they fought through here the last few years. They’ve given us so much support, so we owe it all to our fans. Just to think of the road we’ve all traveled, the adversity we’ve all faced, it’s unbelievable. I mean, are you kidding me? Four years ago, whoever thought this would be happening? Eighty-five percent of the city was under water. Most people left not knowing if New Orleans would ever come back, or if the organization would ever come back.”

Similarly, Brees wasn’t sure if he’d come back to football, after a shoulder injury with San Diego earlier in his career. Ironically, Miami and New Orleans were the only two cities willing to take a chance on him. Miami passed, opening the door for Brees to come full circle and march the Saints into Miami and then back home, to adoring fans in New Orleans, as champions.

Also coincidental is what Brees chased last season, when he fell only 15 yards shy of the all-time single-season passing record of Dan Marino, who played for the Dolphins in yet another New Orleans-Miami connection. Now, Brees gladly trades second place in that race for the Super Bowl ring that Marino, one of the greatest ever, never won.

Even more coincidences make the Saints’ victory seem that perhaps this moment was indeed meant to happen for both Saints’ fans and for playing a role in helping to rebuild New Orleans, as much as for the Saints, themselves.

For one, there’s Manning being born and raised in New Orleans, just like his brother Eli (with the New York Giants), and their father Archie Manning, who was a Saints legend, a two-time pro-bowler, but who never enjoyed a winning season on a lot of those bad Saints teams between 1971 and 1982.

And, there’s even the Saints’ connection to the very trophy itself. Brees’ quarterback coach is 28 year-old Joe Lombardi, the grandson of the great Vince Lombardi, for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named. At least until the next champion is crowned, it might as well be temporarily renamed the Lombardi Gras trophy.

Even under the far more likely scenario that the trophy retains its original name of Joe Lombardi’s grandfather, it will certainly now be forever appreciated by the Saints and their fans, who despite facing serious, “real-life” issues, do seem buoyed through their identification with their Saints.

Brees said of the connection between the two, “We just all looked at one another and said, `We’re going to rebuild together. We are going to lean on each other.’ That’s what we’ve done the last four years and this is the culmination in that belief.”

After 43 years of waiting, the paper bags can be put away for good, because the franchise that used to be known as the Aints, finally bagged that ever-elusive NFL championship when its city needed it most.

It was a long time coming, through the years of the Aints, the paper bags, and now, the much more serious obstacle of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Yet, the city of New Orleans has always held steadfast in maintaining its close bond with its Saints, who have always meant a lot more than being a football team to the city they represent.

Saints fans believed that soon NOLA later, this moment was a dream which had to happen.

Now that it’s real, geaux crazy and celebrate on Bourbon Street, New Orleans. You deserve it!

And, when the party’s over, may the city of New Orleans soon follow the Saints along the same path to complete recovery.