In the days leading up to the start of training camp in late July 2009, the New Orleans Saints were anything but a fashionable pick to win Super Bowl XLIV.
The Saints were coming off an 8-8 season in 2008, which followed a 7-9 campaign after Sean Payton, in his first season as a head coach in 2006, led his team to the NFC South title and an appearance in the NFC championship game.
Even that was a distant memory, however, when the Saints compiled a 15-17 record over the next two seasons — especially in the eyes of the Las Vegas oddsmakers.
According to Bovada, the 2009 Saints were no better than a 20 to 1 shot (tied for sixth among NFC teams) to win the Super Bowl — a game that eluded the franchise in its first 42 years of existence.
Until 2006, when the Saints lost in the NFC title game to the Chicago Bears, they hadn’t even come close to a Super Bowl and the opportunity to play for the NFL’s ultimate prize — a shiny Vince Lombardi Trophy.
That all changed when the Saints, behind a potent offense led by Payton’s imaginative play-calling and quarterback Drew Brees’ pinpoint passing as well as a ball-hawking defense, stunned the football world.
The Saints started out 13-0, and, despite a three-game losing skid to end the regular season, won Super Bowl XLIV five years ago — on Feb. 7, 2010 — defeating the Indianapolis Colts 31-17 in Miami Gardens, Florida.
To be sure, it was a magical season that ended with a Mardi Gras-style parade through downtown New Orleans — the likes of which many long-suffering fans believed they’d never live long enough to see.
Five years later, as he tries to find ways to put a team together to get the franchise back to the NFL’s pinnacle, General Manager Mickey Loomis is constantly reminded of that season.
Yet, he admits he hasn’t thought much about how it happened.
“I really haven’t spent a lot of time reflecting back on that yet,” Loomis said Friday. “I will … at some point.”
There was talent and great character in the locker room, of course, but one of the things that came to mind quickly was the determination the Saints played with that season.
A year earlier, six of the Saints’ eight losses were by five points or fewer — one of the things that resonated throughout that entire offseason with Payton and his coaching staff.
“There were a number of games that we had an opportunity to win, but we didn’t finish well,” Loomis said. “That was a theme for the 2009 season: We had to find a way to do a better job finishing games. That was one of the primary things.”
Another big thing was adding more pieces to the puzzle.
While the 2008 Saints offense was set after leading the NFL in total yards and scoring, the team ranked 23rd in defense and tied for 26th in points allowed.
What they needed was a new defensive coordinator, a new scheme and some difference-makers on that side of the ball. All that came with the addition of Gregg Williams to run the defense and an injection of playmakers — especially in the secondary.
“I knew we had the right head coach,” Loomis said. “I thought we were going in the right direction and we were making progress; we just had to finish games that were right there in front of us.
“So going into that season, we were looking for improvement,” he added. “We got it. … It’s as simple as that.”
While the offense was up to its old tricks with Brees carving up opposing defenses, the new-look defense that featured safety Darren Sharper and cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Malcolm Jenkins, started taking the ball away with more regularity.
The Saints wound up with 39 takeaways in the regular season and eight more in three postseason games — giving Payton, Brees and the rest of the offense even more opportunities to do some damage.
“Gregg Williams did a great job, and our defensive coaches did a great job, that year of creating opportunities for our offense,” Loomis said. “That was a big difference from the year before.”
With the offense, defense and special teams working in unison, the Saints blitzed through their first 13 opponentsalthough they did have a scare in games at Miami and Washington.
They trailed 24-3 just before halftime against the Dolphins before roaring back for a 46-34 win in late October and were down by 10 in the fourth quarter against the Redskins before tying it and winning 33-30 in overtime in early December.
“I don’t know if I’d say that the Miami game was a turning point in the season, because we were already 5-0, but we got down early and came back and won it going away,” he said.
“I think that gave our entire club a lot of confidence for the rest of the season.”
Of course, the Saints, who later lost three consecutive games to close out the regular season, would return to that same stadium 105 days later after two big playoff wins at home to, ironically, do what they couldn’t do a year earlier — finish off the job.
“A lot of people were kind of writing us off after we lost those last three games,” Loomis recalled, “but then we came on like gangbusters in the postseason.”
In the Super Bowl, they trailed 10-6 at halftime when Payton rolled the dice on the now-famous onside kick dubbed “Ambush” to start the second half. The Saints recovered after a wild scrum, which helped them take the lead for the first time a few minutes later.
Loomis said he knew Payton had the trick play in his back pocket, but didn’t know when he would use what became one of the gutsiest calls in Super Bowl history.
“I thought he might do it after our first score and then we had that long halftime, and I remember thinking, ‘Hell, he might come out and do this onside kick,’ ” he said. “I didn’t know for sure, but, look, you know Sean is aggressive, and I expected it at some point in the game.”
Sufficiently inspired, the Saints took the lead off that momentum-building play.
Then, after the Colts went back in front, Brees led his team on a touchdown drive before Tracy Porter’s interception and 74-yard score against Peyton Manning virtually sealed the deal with 3:12 remaining.
“That pick-six was incredible, and we were all jumping around up in our booth, but we knew Peyton Manning was down there, for crying out loud, and there was still time left,” Loomis said. “The game wasn’t over.”
But it essentially was, and all that was left was the shouting, which is one of the things Loomis said he’ll cherish forever.
While he was hesitant to pick one memory from that season or Super Bowl XLIV, Loomis said he’ll always remember the pure joy the victory brought to the hurricane-ravaged region.
“When I saw the joy it brought to our players and coaches, our owner, the people in our building — and the fans — their reaction, that’s priceless,” Loomis said. “People tell me all the time about watching the game at home and running out into their yards and screaming after Tracy’s interception, and seeing their neighbors doing the same thing.
“That’s emotional, that’s great stuff. I know how much the community and the state and our fans have been invested in our team for so many years. For that to finally happen and for those people to enjoy it that much, that’s pretty special.”
Special, indeed. And Super.
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.