With the global pandemic dampening spirits worldwide throughout 2020 and impacting the sports world in a way we never could have imagined, it feels almost therapeutic to continue to look back in time. So thus begins a series I’ve contemplated writing about for years that I’ve dubbed “Rearview Mirror.” In it, we will look at some fascinating teams, stories, and times to reinforce those good feelings of years past while awaiting our return to normal.
So here goes, with the most Jekyll-and-Hyde NFL team of all time, the 2002 New Orleans Saints, kickstarting things for us:
Record: 9-7, 3rd place, NFC South
Postseason: N/A (Eliminated in Week 17)
Head coach: Jim Haslett
Quarterback: Aaron Brooks
THE SHORT STORY
The Saints experienced the best of times and the worst of times in 2002. They beat arguably the four best teams in football, and lost to the two worst. They had a defense that gave up 20 or more points in all but one game (the season finale). They had a dynamic quarterback in Aaron Brooks and big-play receivers in Joe Horn and Donte Stallworth, complemented by a bruising, star running back in Deuce McAllister. And they had one of the game’s most exciting all-around players of 2002, a former beer truck delivery driver named Michael Lewis who in Week 6 became just the seventh player ever to return both a punt and kickoff for a touchdown in the same game. But it was the shocking end to the season that truly made this team one of the biggest head-scratchers in recent NFL memory.
THE FULL SCOOP
So what could possibly be so compelling about a 9-7, non-playoff team? Basically, they played parts of the season like Super Bowl champions, and other parts like complete chumps. But a little backstory, first.
In the first year of realignment as the Saints shifted from the NFC West to the NFC South, expectations were not necessarily all that high for Haslett’s Saints. Two years prior, Haslett earned Coach of the Year honors as the Saints had a magical year that saw them earn the franchise’s first-ever playoff win with little-known backup QB Aaron Brooks subbing brilliantly for the injured Jeff Blake.
Things looked rosy for most of 2001, as the Saints began 7-5, but finished that season in embarrassing fashion. Not only did Haslett’s club lose its last four games, three were completely non-competitive affairs. In fact, the Saints were outscored 160-52 during Q4 of 2001, and gave up an astounding 78 unanswered points to close out the disappointing campaign.
Enter 2002, with the Saints shifted to the newly-minted NFC South along with the Buccaneers, Falcons, and Panthers. Right out of the gate, the Saints seemed to quell any fears that their miserable end to 2001 would carry over as they began the year 3-0. But it wasn’t just an ordinary 3-0 start. Their first two wins came against two of the three teams that would go on to finish 2002 with the best records in football, including the eventual Super Bowl champion Bucs. The third win might’ve been the most exciting of the year, as they rallied from a 20-0 deficit to upend the Bears on the road. Granted, the Bears plummeted to 4-12 after a 2-0 start, but they were also coming off a 13-3 season in 2001.
Things, however, would take a turn for the worse a week later when the Saints visited Detroit, a team that had lost 17 of its previous 19 games. The Saints must have read too many press clippings about how good they were, because they went on the road and fell behind this time, 20-0. They went on to lose, 26-21, giving the Lions their first win – one of only three – of 2002.
Of course, in typical 2002 Saints fashion, they responded the next week with a 32-29 win over the Steelers at home. Although the Steelers began the year 1-3, they went on to win 10 games and the AFC North title. This would essentially become a theme for this Saints club, playing at a stellar level against top teams and rolling over for the bottom-feeders.
By Week 15 of the season, where their troubles really began the year before, things looked rosy for New Orleans. At 9-4, the Saints were just one game behind the first-place Bucs, with Atlanta a half-game behind New Orleans. But not only were the Saints 9-4, they had racked up more than half of those wins (5) against eventual division winners – including a two-game sweep of the Bucs. That meant that if the Saints could make up the one-game difference over the final three, they could win the division and potentially homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
The opportunity was there for the taking for N’awlins. Its final three games? Home to Minnesota, who had lost 16 straight road games. Road against Cincinnati, the team with the worst record in football at 1-13. Home to 6-9 Carolina, which had lost 13 straight division games. In an absolute worst-case scenario, a 1-2 finish would still get the Saints to the postseason in a year in which they went 5-0 against division winners Tampa Bay, Green Bay, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh. No problem, right?
The Saints would go on to shock the world in a way no team wants to. First, it was a crazy, last-second finish against the Vikes. New Orleans led 31-24 only to see Daunte Culpepper lead a 13-play, 73-yard drive culminating on a touchdown to Randy Moss with five seconds to play. It should have sent the game to overtime, but Minnesota went for two and succeeded, sealing the 32-31 upset win. How rare was the ending? It was the first time ever in NFL history it had happened in the final two minutes, and has happened just once since (in 2018).
Still, no big deal, right? Because on deck were the 1-13 Bengals. Again, New Orleans led late, but couldn’t seal the deal. Two Bengals touchdowns completed the shocking upset, one that should have devastated the Saints. Well, maybe not cornerback Dale Carter. Check out the screenshot below – more on that later.
But, again, just one lousy win for a team that swept the eventual Super Bowl champs. 6-9 Carolina. At home. A team the Saints had already beaten, 34-24, on the road earlier in the year. The Saints can’t possibly lose to another bottom-feeder. And clearly, judging by this next screenshot, Joe Horn and Co. looked plenty fired up. But we’ll assess why these images are importantly shortly.
In one more shocking chapter to yet another unbelievable Saints December swoon, the Saints managed two meager field goals and lost, 10-6, despite their defense finally holding an opponent under 20 points.
And there you have it. In the blink of an eye, an incredibly promising season with plenty of big moments was over. The dragon-slaying Saints could not beat three teams going absolutely nowhere in 2002 and missed the playoffs altogether. Of course, had this happened in 2020, the Saints could have squeaked in as a No. 7 seed – and also more on that later.
WHY DID THIS REALLY HAPPEN?
No one will ever truly know, and since this happened 18 years ago, I doubt even the most hardcore Saints fan ever thinks about the 2002 iteration. But there are definitely some theories, and some major “what-ifs.”
First, the defense. Perhaps we should truly laud the efforts of the Saints’ offense because the defense just could never find a way to not allow 20 points until Week 17. As a whole, New Orleans permitted 24.3 points per game. But the Saints also produced 20 interceptions on defense, and gave the team a chance in a must-win Week 17 game by limiting the Panthers to just 10 points.
Second – and more importantly – the health of their quarterback. Brooks was plagued down the stretch by an injury to his throwing shoulder, one that would ultimately require surgery after the season. His numbers were staggeringly poor over the last five games, and his offensive line did not protect him the way it did early in the season. Brooks completed just 44.1% (!) of his passes in five December contests, including, ironically, identical 9-25 outings in two wins. He played well in the Minnesota loss, but was just 28-69 in the final two games, and played miserably – 12-31, 145 yards, two picks – in the Carolina game when his team needed him most. And after suffering just 20 sacks in the first 11 games, Brooks absorbed nearly that many – 18 – over the last five.
But the worst quarterback number of all for the 2002 Saints? That would be zero. As in zero appearances for backup QB Jake Delhomme during the losing skid. Delhomme played sparingly in the team’s final two wins, but never appeared in the three losses despite Brooks’ ongoing struggles. In hindsight, of course, that was a big mistake. The old adage “the backup QB is the most popular guy in town” doesn’t usually bear fruit. But Delhomme left as a free agent after the season, and ended up guiding the Panthers to the Super Bowl in 2003. It’s fair to wonder if he could have gotten the team over the hump in 2002 when Brooks was clearly hurting.
If ever there was a time to wonder if a non-playoff team could have made noise in January, this was it. If 2002 was 2020, the Saints would have gotten into the playoffs and faced the Bucs. The Bucs went on a dominant postseason run to capture the first Super Bowl title, but the Saints seemed to have their number in 2002. The league’s top scoring defense had trouble containing New Orleans’ offense, permitting 26 and 23 points, two of the three highest point totals they allowed on the season. No, they probably wouldn’t have gone on a magic carpet ride, but the narrative about this squad would have been completely different.
Delhomme sitting on the bench while the Saints collapsed would look awful a year later when he took the Panthers on that aforementioned magic carpet ride. Haslett defended his actions regarding the QB while also admitting that his team did not play “basic football” in completing their collapse against Carolina. But it’s entirely possible he had lost a portion of the team.
Remember those screenshots? They paint a picture of a team in need of an attitude adjustment. Perhaps the Saints thought they were better than they were. Perhaps they took for granted being 9-4. Or perhaps they just ran out of ways to hide their warts. Whatever the reason, the story did not have a happy ending.
In the years to follow, things did not get better for the Saints under Haslett. They finished 8-8 in each of the next two seasons, although they ended 2004 with a four-game winning streak. But all the good vibes from that were wiped out in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and sent the Saints out of New Orleans as they went 3-13. Haslett was gone, and the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era began in 2006.
Though the franchise has become a consistent winner in the years since, 2002 could have been something special. Instead, they are a distant memory in the rearview mirror of NFL annals.