Only the Detroit Lions have waited longer than the New Orleans Saints to reach the Super Bowl

FORT LAUDERDALE

The coach wore dreadlocks. The running back wore a wedding dress. The fans wore bags over their heads. When it comes to dysfunction, those who follow the New Orleans Saints have always dressed for the occasion. These days, the Saints are dressed for success. Nothing is more fashionable than the fleur-de-lis, and nothing is more stylish than the way the players wearing the symbol line up for an extra point. After all these years, black and gold is something a team might wear to a coronation. Time was, however, the Saints were the ugliest ducklings in the NFL. They were aimless, hopeless and clueless. They were the dysfunctional cousins of the Bucs, of the Falcons, of the Cardinals, of all the woebegone teams that wandered endlessly before finding their way out of the ooze.

In the NFL, only the Detroit Lions have waited longer than the Saints to reach the Super Bowl. Jacksonville, Houston and the new Cleveland Browns haven't made it either, but all those are relatively recent expansion teams (remember the original Browns made it as the Baltimore Ravens).

Who Dat Say They Beat Dem Saints?

For four decades, well, pretty much everybody.

This is the team that kept throwing away draft choices, the team that kept recycling old coaches, the team that was the Last Chance Motel for players on their way out of the NFL. It took the Saints eight tries before they won a game, 21 years before they had a winning record, 34 years before they won a playoff game and 43 years before they reached the Super Bowl.

When you get down to it, the coolest thing about the Saints reaching the Super Bowl is that it took so long, and it involved so many characters and so much craziness.

For instance, there was the Mike and Ricky Show. In 1999, Saints coach Mike Ditka traded his entire draft (plus the first- and third-round picks of the following year) to acquire running back Ricky Williams. Ditka immediately declared his team would win the Super Bowl. He wore a wig with long dreadlocks at a news conference. He wore a tux and Williams wore a size 13 wedding dress for an ESPN the Magazine cover.

Three years later, Williams was traded to the Dolphins. Sometimes, marriages just don't last.

This was the team that invented fans with bags over their heads. This was the team where the first owner, John Mecom, took a swing at Freeman White of the New York Giants in a brawl. According to Sports Illustrated, Mecom scored a one-punch knockout.

This was the franchise that lost to the Bucs after Tampa Bay had lost its first 26 games.

Want to know just how bad the Saints have been?

• In 2003, the Saints were struggling for a playoff spot, but they trailed Jacksonville 20-13 with seven seconds to play and faced second down from their 23. That's when the River City Relay began, with a pass and four desperate laterals covering the length of the field. But before you could say miracle, kicker John Carney missed the extra point.

• The Saints once signed a punt returner, Lawrence Williams, who didn't show up for the game. He explained later that he couldn't find the Superdome.

• This team once hired a former astronaut, Dick Gordon, as general manager. Gordon, who had circled the moon in 1969 in the Apollo 12 mission, said this in his opening news conference: "If anybody has any suggestions how to run this football team, I'll listen."

• This team had an unnamed player who once brought an expensive parrot to a game. When it was time to go to the field, the player left the parrot in his locker room. The parrot didn't make it.

• This team saw Hall of Famer Doug Atkins finish his career. The stories about Atkins are legendary, about the time he ate 57 pieces of chicken in one sitting. About the time he drank 23 martinis. But the best of Atkins' moments came in training camp in 1967, when he grew annoyed at the noise coming from the room above his, where rookies were having a grand time. At least, they were before Atkins fired his rifle through his ceiling.

Want to know how bad the Saints were? They not only let Archie Manning get battered, they once injured Moses.

In 1967, Charlton Heston came to the Saints to film the movie Number One. It was not a role he was born to play.

"He was the most uncoordinated man I've ever seen," Saints quarterback Billy Kilmer later said.

After one scene in which the Saints obviously took it easy on Heston, the actor urged them to go full speed. So they did. Roy Schmidt, known as "Captain Weirdo" around the Saints, blasted Heston and broke three ribs.

How bad were the Saints? Because they didn't like Bob Griese or Steve Spurrier in the '67 draft, they traded their No. 1 pick to the Colts for Gary Cuozzo, who lasted 13 games. The Colts picked Bubba Smith.

They traded their No. 1 pick in '68 for Jim Taylor, who played one year and retired. They traded their No. 1 pick in '78 for Billy Newsome instead of drafting Bert Jones. They traded No. 1s for Richard Todd, who started 17 games for them, and for Earl Campbell, who started 22.

Sadly, they kept their No. 1 when it was time to draft kicker Russell Erxleben (ahead of tight end Kellen Winslow). Erxleben couldn't kick, and instead, he became a very expensive punter, which didn't work, either. One day against the Falcons, he panicked after a bad snap and lobbed the ball right to a Falcons player, who walked in with the winning touchdown. Erxleben later repeated a familiar joke that he tried to commit suicide, but he was off to the left.

There was what author Jeff Duncan called "The Great Pizza Revolt" in his book Tales from the Saints Sideline. In 1971, the Saints were so weary of the food in training camp that they walked out and went to a nearby pizza parlor to eat.

Fearful of a fine, punter Julian Fagan stayed behind in the cafeteria and ate alone. Coach J.D. Roberts indeed levied a fine … against Fagan. He said he wanted team unity.

Then there was guard Dave LaFary, who was playing in a game against Cincinnati in 1978. LaFary needed to go to the restroom, but the game was down to its final two minutes and the Saints trailed 18-17.

Offensive line coach Dick Stanfel refused to let LaFary leave, and so LaFary went potty in his pants.

Soon, the smell grew so horrible that Manning began to run plays behind LaFary. Sure enough, the Saints drove for a winning field goal.

How bad were the Saints? They were so bad that it took a record 63-yard field goal in 1970 to garner the Saints half of their two wins for the season. They were so bad it took a drive in a snowstorm for the Saints to win their only game of 1980, 21-20 over the Jets. They were so bad that Fred Whittingham once punched out Chargers coach Sid Gillman in a preseason scrimmage.

How bad? They were so bad that during pregame introductions once, the defense was supposed to peel off in one direction and offense in the other. But the units lined up on the wrong sides, and the players ran into each other on the way out like Keystone Cops. They were so bad that residents suggested they were cursed by voodoo queen Marie Laveau. And why not? Everyone else cursed at them.

These are better days. One more victory, and the Saints can make heroes of them all, Williams and Ditka and Atkins and the rest. One more victory, and the characters of the past were only setting up the present.

One more victory, and all of them are champions.

Only the Detroit Lions have waited longer than the New Orleans Saints to reach the Super Bowl 02/01/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 2, 2010 10:15am]

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