The Saints’ reunion weekend is still a couple of weeks off.
But if they wanted to get the old gang from the 2000 team that won the first playoff game in team history back together again, the group from Green Bay coming in Sunday would provide a good start.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy was the Saints offensive coordinator from 2000-04. And he’s stocked his staff with players and coaches from that 2000 team, which lifted the franchise from the debacle of the Mike Ditka era to an unexpected NFC West championship and a 31-28 playoff victory against the defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams.
“We had Willie Jackson on a Stick ’n’ Nod to go up by like two touchdowns (close, 24-7), and at the time I had just never heard anything like that as far as crowd noise in my life,” McCarthy said. “I still probably haven’t.
Neither, doubtless, have tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot and safeties coach Darren Perry, members of that 2000 team. Linebackers coach Winston Moss and special teams assistant Ron Zook were assistants along with McCarthy — Zook as McCarthy’s counterpart at defensive coordinator.
Additionally, Green Bay vice president of football administration/player finance (capologist) Russ Ball held a similar position with the Saints from 2002-07, having taken over the spot from current Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis.
Also, Chad Morton, a rookie wide receiver on the 2000 team, was a special teams assistant under McCarthy from 2009-13, but was fired and replaced by Zook after last season.
What? No Aaron Brooks, Brian Milne or Rickey Jackson? Jim Haslett would be there, but he’ll be trying to figure out how Washington — where he’s defensive coordinator — can slow down Dallas on Monday night.
The success of the 2000 team seemingly came out of nowhere.
Not only had the Saints gone 15-33 under Ditka, but the 1999 draft day trade for Williams had left the team without any other picks from 1999 and without first- and third-round picks in 2000.
The Billy Joes — Tolliver and Holbert — were the returning quarterbacks.
Yeah, it looked bad.
But Haslett, a first-time head coach who had been the defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh, and first-time General Manager Randy Mueller, who came from Seattle, hit on free agents like quarterback Jeff Blake, wide receiver Joe Horn, nose tackle Norman Hand and Perry, a veteran strong safety who’d missed the season before with a neck injury.
The draft, as thin as it might have been, yielded starters Darren Howard at defensive end, Terrelle Smith at fullback and Kevin Houser at long snapper. Morton was a productive backup.
And veterans like defensive end Joe Johnson, defensive tackle La’Roi Glover, linebackers Mark Fields and Keith Mitchell (all Pro Bowlers) along with Fontenot, at center, had big years.
Even Williams gained exactly 1,000 yards before suffering a broken leg in a victory at Carolina.
That victory was the sixth in a row for the team, which lost Blake the following week only to see the unheralded Brooks lead the way in a 31-24 victory at St. Louis that put the Saints back on the playoff path.
The Saints would lose the rematch with St. Louis that cost them a first-round bye and instead gave them an immediate replay against the Rams the week later.
In that one, the Saints rushed out to a 31-7 lead, but had to hold off the Rams at the end with Milne’s recovery of a fumbled punt return saving the day.
The team was too banged up to contend the next week at Minnesota, losing 34-16.(Bonus points to anyone who can remember who scored the Saints’ first touchdown that day: Dave Stachelsli.)
But seemingly the foundation had been laid for future success.
It wasn’t to be.
The Saints were 32-32 over the next four seasons. Then came 2005 and the 3-13 Hurricane Katrina-caused diaspora that cost Haslett his job.
McCarthy had left after the 2004 season to become offensive coordinator at San Francisco.
But a year later, he was named head coach at Green Bay, beating out Sean Payton for the job.
Funny how things work out sometimes.
“I have great memories of New Orleans, and I definitely still have friends down there,” said McCarthy, who like Payton, has a Super Bowl title. “We just didn’t win enough games.
“What Sean and Mickey have done down there is to create an electric atmosphere we’re preparing for.”
Maybe as electric as it was that day against the Rams.
As McCarthy said, good days, good memories.