On November 1st, 1966 New Orleans, Louisiana received an expansion franchise in the National Football League. It was All Saints Day so our new team was called, naturally, the Saints. I was seven years old, and a love affair was born.
Those first twenty years was a trek through the wilderness. Losing seasons and national ridicule was our onus. We couldn’t even make the playoffs yet alone win a playoff game. But after Tom Benson, a native New Orleanian who made his fortune in the automobile business in San Antonio, bought the team all of that changed.
Since Benson became the owner with a few minor exceptions, the years under Mike Ditka and right after Katrina, the Saints have been a solid and often elite franchise. When they won the Super Bowl in 2009 all the pain of those early years was erased.
Now in 2014 I find myself reflecting on all those Saints teams and the men who wore the Black and Gold. So I decided to come up with my all time team. It may spark some debate, but that is fine with me.
Punter: Thomas Morestead
The Saints have actually had some decent punters. Lord knows many of them got to practice their craft more than the fans would have preferred. Tom McNeill was a league leader for the early Saints teams. But Morestead is the whole package. He can punt for distance. He can directionally kick and pin a team deep, and he also kicks off and holds on field goals. Foremost he is a football player. If he has to make a tackle to prevent a return for a touchdown he has no problem putting a hat on you.
Kicker: Morten Andersen
While I may have a soft spot for Tom Dempsey, who up until this year held the NFL record for longest field goal at sixty-three yards, the obvious choice is the Great Dane. A Hall of Fame nominee he is the all time leading scorer for the Saints and won numerous games for the Black and Gold on last second clutch kicks. Maybe the biggest faux pas of the Jim Mora era was allowing him to be picked up on waivers by the Atlanta Falcons. He ended up becoming their all time leading scorer as well.
Kick /Punt Returner: Michael Lewis
Local product Tyrone Hughes was an electrifying return man for New Orleans, and John Gilliam returned the first ever kick off in New Orleans Saints history for a touchdown, but the nod goes to the Beer Man.
Special Teams: Steve Gleason
These guys are special, and none more so than Gleason. The blocked punt against the Atlanta Falcons on September 25th, 2006 ensured that the Saints first game in the Superdome after Katrina would be a classic. But even without that play Gleason was a game changer on coverage teams. He is now battling Lou Gehrigs disease but with his No White Flags charity he remains an iconic figure for the Saints and the city. Curtis DeLoatch was good but Gleason was the fire in the belly guy every team should have.
Safety: Sammy Knight and Gene Atkins
Dave Whitsell, Tommy Myers and Frank Wattelet ( yeah maybe the name had something to do with it), warranted being in the conversation but in the end Knight and Atkins were my guys. Undersized and not fleet of foot somehow Sammy Knight always found a way to get to the football. Atkins was a ferocious headhunter on those stifling Saints defenses in the late eighties and early nineties, hence his nickname Gene, the Hit Machine, Atkins.
Cornerback: Gene Howard and Dave Waymer
This was a hard one because in my opinion we have never had an all pro shut down corner. Some may argue for Eric Allen or Mike McKenzie but they did their best work early in their careers for other teams. Tracy Porter was given consideration as well, but Dave Waymer played solidly for years and ended his career as the all time leader in interceptions for the Saints. Howard was a standout on those early Saints teams. He played on woeful defenses but was a steady and solid football player. He knew that he would be making a lot of tackles against running backs and would have to cover longer because of a weak pass rush, but he always gave his best and never complained.
Linebacker: Pat Swilling, Vaughn Johnson, Sam Mills, and Rickey Jackson
Because Saints teams have played both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses I selected four players and I am thankful for that because I don’t know how you leave any of these guys off. They were the Dome Patrol. They anchored the league leading defenses of the Jim Mora era and were voted the finest set of linebackers in the history of the NFL. Swilling was a relentless pass rusher. Johnson could run and hit with ferocious intensity. Mills, aka the Field Mouse, was the leader and most cerebral of the four. Standing only 5’9′ he was never out of position, a superb tackler, and seemed immune to fatigue. Jackson was our iconic player. A defensive end at Pitt, he played in the shadow of Hugh Green. When he joined the Saints he became an instant star and second only to Lawrence Taylor as a linebacker in the NFL. They were first linebackers to ever make the Pro Bowl as a unit.
Tackle: LaRoi Glover and Bob Pollard
Glover was a superb and unstoppable pass rusher. Lightning fast he dominated everyone in his way. He was the best defender on Jim Haslett teams that were schizophrenic, explosive one game, submissive the next. Pollard is another homage to those early Saints teams. He was a stalwart on defenses that had few supporting cast members of his calibre. Derland Moore and Norman “The Big Wiggle” Hand were also solid players but for my money Glover and Pollard were better.
End: Jumpy Geathers and Frank Warren
Joe Johnson and Renaldo Turnbull were solid and both capable of spectacular plays, but Geathers and Warren were monsters. Geathers was big, strong, and fast. He was also durable. Warren was an explosive player who could line up inside or outside, run around you or run over you. Both played the run well too.
Tackle: Willie Roaf and Stan Brock
Roaf is the easiest pick I have. A perennial All Pro and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame he is not only the best tackle the Saints ever had, he may be one of the best players ever for the Saints period. In a game on the road against Atlanta the Saints ran almost every run play to his side and on pass plays he handled his opponent like a rag doll. He had great strength combined with the balance of a ballerina. Brock was a solid player with a mean streak. On one televised replay I saw him extend his left arm against a pass rusher while pounding his opponent in his midsection will a balled up fist. Stan didn’t screw around.
Guard: Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans
There have actually been several players at this position who were notable. Jake Kupp, Conrad Dobler, Emmanuel Zanders, and Brad Edelman were all very accomplished. But the road to the Super Bowl went though All Pros Nicks and Evans. in 2009 the Saints ran the ball superbly and kept Drew Brees on his feet. Without Nicks and Evans we don’t bring home the big prize. Ben Grubbs, Nicks replacement, made All Pro this year so this ranking could change in time. Evans made All Pro again as well.
Center: LeCharles Bentley
This is another position where the Saints had some good players. Jonathan Goodwin, Jerry Fontenot, Jay Hilgenberg, and Jeff Faine were all excellent players. But for sheer dominance it was Bentley. He could blow you up or keep you out. He didn’t stay with the team very long and losing him to free agency was a major blow. The emergence of Goodwin into an All Pro player was not foreseen but fortunate for the Saints as they made their Super Bowl run in 2009.
Tight End: Jimmy Graham
Graham is not an all around tight end, as his blocking is suspect, but he is so good at what he does receiving that he goes to the top of the list. Henry Childs, Dave Parks, and Hoby Brenner were also stalwarts, with Childs and Parks also having the ability to go deep. But Graham is an All Pro and a phenomenon. With only a year of college football before he entered the NFL, if he stays healthy he will rewrite the record books. He was the top vote getter at his position for the Pro Bowl this year.
Wide Receiver: Joe Horn and Wes Chandler
Marques Colston is the all time leader in almost every receiving category for the Saints. Most of the records he broke belonged to Eric Martin. But none of them had the big play capacity of Horn and Chandler. In 1980 with Archie Manning at quarterback, the thunder and lightning combo of Chuck Muncie and Tony Galbreath at running back, Henry Childs at tight end and Chandler and Ike Harris at the receivers made the Saints offense one of the most feared in the NFL. It was the first Saints team to have a non-losing season at 8-8 and many of those players made the Pro Bowl that year. Chandler was fast and acrobatic. He could outrun you and out jump you. He made spectacular catches look routine. Horn was a major free agent pick up from Kansas City. Arrogant, unpredictable, and controversial he was still a big time receiver who was unstoppable at times. With the strong armed Aaron Brooks at quarterback Horn stretched defenses like no other player in a Saints uniform.
Fullback: Hokie Gajan
Buford Jordan was outstanding for the Saints but Hokie was unusual in that he could break off big runs from scrimmage along with the ability to get those tough short yardage gains. His career was cut short by injury but when he was healthy he was a total package. He could block and catch passes out of the backfield. His burst up the middle against the Dallas Cowboys resulting in a long run for touchdown is one of the most memorable plays I have ever seen from a running back wearing Black and Gold.
Running Back: Deuce McAllister and George Rogers
This is where it got tough. Dalton Hilliard was an all purpose back who could do everything and broke numerous team records. Reuben Mayes was an explosive runner with great speed and change of direction. Had he stayed healthy he might have made the list. Chuck Muncie may have been the most gifted running back to play ever with his combination of speed and power, that gift wasted by drug abuse. Even the early Saints had a one two punch of Andy Livingston and Tony Baker. Ricky Williams flashed signs of brilliance, but drugs were his bane as well. Pierre Thomas is also a football player who can do multiple things for an offense. But for sheer ability to run the football McAllister and Rogers stand alone. McAllister was fast and strong, but it was his resolve that made him special. Against the Falcons I saw him drive through several players en route to the end zone, some clinging to him on his back, using sheer force of will to score. He played hurt. He played with dignity. He was team player and he got yards when there was no hole to run through. Rogers led the league in rushing his rookie year under coach Bum Phillips when every team the Saints played knew who was getting the ball. Also a combination of speed and power he was hardly ever brought down by one man.
Quarterback: Drew Brees
If Archie Manning was playing for the Saints today I have no doubt that he would be ranked among the best to ever play the game. He is still my favorite player and always will be. Having said that Brees still gets the nod, and not just for his incredible statistics. After Katrina the city of New Orleans was a question mark. Many thought the team would move, and that was a real possibility until NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue stepped in and eliminated that option. But without Brees the Saints may have floundered for years. He only had one viable option in free agency but he not only agreed to come play for the Saints he committed to the city. Like Archie he bought a home in the city limits and became a true New Orlenian. He lead the Saints to the NFC championship game in his first season and a Super Bowl victory in 2009.
Head Coach: Sean Payton
You have to give a lot of credit to Jim Mora for leading the franchise to its first winning season and first ever playoff appearance. I also think some acknowledgement should go to Jim Haslett for coaching the team to a division title and first ever playoff victory. But there is no doubt that Payton is the best coach the team has ever had. Two NFC championship appearances and a Super Bowl title say it all. Another milestone was reached when the Saints finally got their first playoff win on the road. The best may be yet to come.
So there you have it. The best of the Saints. An intimidating defense combined with a blitzkrieg offense with a mastermind coach. Did I leave anyone out?