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February 05, 2010
Saints Are The Best NFL Feel Good Story
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net

MIAMI -- The good news is that Brett Favre isn't in the Super Bowl.

The bad news is that Peyton Manning is, and could very well win the whole freaking thing again.

For Boston area fans, that will be the ultimate pits. You'll have Alex Rodriguez, Kobe Bryant and Manning world champs at the same time. Ultimate payback for that great championship decade this area enjoyed. Maybe for good measure, you can have Ken Dryden come out of retirement and lead a late surge for the Montreal Canadiens to win their one bizillionth Stanley Cup (they've won six Coupes since the Bobby Orr Bruins won their last one in 1972).

Manning and his unstoppable Colt offense are once again headed to the Big Show, and of course, the Super Bowl is in South Florida. Super Bowl XLIV will mark the fourth time the Colts have reached the big game, and all four of them will have been in the lair of the Miami Dolphins. They lost Super Bowl III to the Jets in the Orange Bowl and won Super Bowl V against Dallas in the same venue. Three years ago in the rain in Dolphin Stadium (or was it Pro Player Park?), they beat Chicago to give Manning his one and only Vince. This year's game will be in Sun Life Stadium, but it's the same venue as three years ago. The Dolphins play in a stadium with more names than Candlestick Park.

Fortunately, even though TV cameras and Manning have a sordid love affair with each other, the main focus of this week has been shifted elsewhere. Like, for example, Manning's opponent.

It's the other most popular Super City. After all these years of hosting a big game, their team finally gets to play in one. Mardi Gras is coming up soon, but Dimanche Gras is just two days away (save yourself a trip to your online translator, "dimanche" means Sunday). Gumbo, jambalaya and beads, meet South Beach, spring break and Horatio Caine. From Bourbon Street to Ocean Drive, the Who Dat crowd heads for Dade County and gets to watch their team, the New Orleans Saints, finally play in a Super Bowl.

You have to really sit down and think hard about this if you are not a Saints fan or have never visited New Orleans. Combine all the adversity the Saints have been through over the years with the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Katrina, and the Saints have to be the biggest sentimental favorite in Super Bowl history. The Saints have been in the league since 1967, and it took until their 43rd season to finally play for the NFL championship.

After you've pondered over this, consider this little slice of brain candy: Who do you suppose Archie Manning will be rooting for on Sunday? Think very carefully before you blurt out "His son, stupid!" You cannot rule out that Archie gave that matter some thought, no matter what he may tell you to your face. More on this in a bit.

Up until 1987, the Saints had only two moments of note in their history. On November 8, 1970, at old Tulane Stadium, Tom Dempsey kicked a game-winning NFL record 63-yard field goal to beat the Detroit Lions, 19-17. Seven years later, the Saints suffered the indignity of being the first team to lose to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as the 0-26 Bucs beat the Saints, 33-14 on December 11, 1977. The loss was so cataclysmic that the Saints fired head coach Hank Stram after the game. Yes, this was the same Hall of Fame head coach Hank Stram who won Super Bowl IV over Minnesota, the last game played by an AFL team.

It took 21 seasons for the Saints to finally make the playoffs for the first time. To put this into perspective, the Patriots first made the playoffs in their fourth AFL season, and made their NFL playoff debut in the seventh season after the merger. It took sixteen seasons in the NFL for the Patriots to finally make it to a Super Bowl, and they were the last of the original AFL teams to finally win a conference championship. The Saints lost their first playoff game, a 1987 Wild Card Game to the Vikings, 44-10 at the Superdome. The Saints have had only seven seasons where they've been in the playoffs, counting 2009. They have won two NFC West titles and two NFC South titles. The Saints were 2-6 all-time in the postseason before winning the two games this season to make it to Super Bowl XLIV.

When Hurricane Katrina hit in August of 2005, it laid the entire city of New Orleans to waste. The overwhelmed levees could not hold back all the water that fell on the area, and the federal government was exposed as completely inadequate in their flawed and late response to all the people in the area who needed help. The Superdome, which itself suffered structural damage in the storm, turned into a massive homeless shelter filled with squalor, despair and outrage.

The Saints had to play their home games in Baton Rouge on the campus of LSU and the Alamodome in San Antonio while their city and stadium were repaired and rebuilt. The Superdome reopened on September 25, 2006, and a fever-pitch crowd watched the Saints dismantle the poor Atlanta Falcons, 23-3. Since this game, fans nationwide have taken the Saints to heart, and watching them finally get to play in a Super Bowl will be a satisfying sight to all football fans not based in Indiana.

Back now to the elder Manning. Archie was the Saints quarterback from 1971 to 1982, drafted in the first round out of Ole Miss (he was the second selection in the draft; the first pick was this quarterback from Stanford named Jim Plunkett, who was taken by some team in Foxborough, Mass.). Manning became known by most every observer as the best, or at least one of the best, quarterbacks in NFL history to never play in a postseason game. Like Plunkett in New England, Manning suffered from playing with a cast of second-rate JAGs (a Bill Parcells term meaning "Just Another Guy"), and spent most of his career running away from pass rushers instead of throwing to receivers like Dan Abramowicz, Don Herrmann and Wes Chandler.

Manning married a Mississippi girl named Olivia, and they made New Orleans their home. Together they had three boys, Cooper, Peyton and Eli. Peyton went to Tennessee before making his fame and fortune in a city more famous for a big brickyard and a state which regards basketball like folks from Canada regard hockey. Eli followed his dad to Ole Miss before being drafted by San Diego, forcing a trade to the New York Giants, and helping deny your Patriots an undefeated season two Februaries ago. The other son, Cooper, tried to play football but contracted spinal stenosis and now works for an energy investment firm (thanks, Wikipedia).

Archie and Olivia remained in Louisiana, and Archie is still popular in The N-O. He is still perhaps the most identifiable and popular former New Orleans Saint. He has lived through the fans with paper bags over their heads, the "Aints" and the Benson Boogie. Now, his beloved former team finally gets to play in the Super Bowl, except that it's against Peyton. Family ties will likely win out, but you have to wonder what will be going through Archie's thought process as he watches this game. He and Olivia cannot stand watching Peyton versus Eli. How bad will this be? Probably not as bad, but it will strike a nerve.

Patriot fans have good reason to back New Orleans. Of the nine Super Bowls (second to Miami after this weekend) the Big Easy has hosted, the Patriots have been in three of them, more specifically three of the last four. The Patriots did win their first Super Bowl in New Orleans, a 20-17 win over the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. That mind-blowing win more than overshadowed the losses in the other two. Given both teams' prior reputation for being consistent losers, Patriot Nation should back the Saints with all the fervor they can muster, never mind the joy in seeing Peyton Manning losing a postseason game and keeping Tom Brady at the top of most quarterback discussions and rating tables.

It should be a great spectacle on Sunday. Tom Benson will bring his umbrella, Wynton Marsalis will bring his trumpet, and Archie will bring his family and watch his middle son play in his second Super Bowl against his old team. The Saints will come marching into Sun Life Stadium on Sunday, armed with Drew Brees and an offense which can stand toe to toe with that of the Colts. The Colts bring their unique Super Bowl legacy, with two sloppy wins and the most famous Super Bowl loss in NFL history.

The Saints simply have to win. If they do, Mardi Gras will indeed last several weeks on Rue Bourbon.


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