The first step the Saints took on what’s been a journey of more than eight years under coach Sean Payton was an apprehensive one onto the home turf of the Cleveland Browns.
They had just navigated a brutal training camp at Millsaps College in sweltering Jackson, Mississippi — but it had brought few results to bear as the Saints lost three of four exhibitions that preseason and were outscored 83-49.
The Superdome was undergoing repairs after being destroyed by Hurricane Katrina more than 12 months earlier; Payton was making his regular-season debut as an NFL coach; and quarterback Drew Brees was starting in his first meaningful game since tearing a ring of tissue in his throwing shoulder at the end of the 2005 campaign, before he joined New Orleans in free agency from San Diego.
“That ... was ... a team that was really unsure of how good it was going to be,” said veteran Saints tackle Zach Strief, then a rookie who did not dress out for the contest. “There was not — I don’t think — a ton of confidence in that locker room going in.”
As the Saints prepare to return to Cleveland on Sunday for the first time since Week 1 in 2006, they’ve won 79 of the 128 regular-season games in the interim. They’ve won six of the 11 playoff contests as well as the only Super Bowl they’ve appeared in — accomplishments that show the heights to which they’d climb.
Yet, to members of the Saints who were around for that game and still form part of the team, details of that first, 19-14 victory in front of “The Dawg Pound” remain vivid, from an embarrassing newbie mistake made by a player who blossomed into a perennial All-Pro to the palpable momentum the win built for a fledgling program seeking to establish itself as legitimate.
Right guard Jahri Evans recounted how, on a third-and-goal from the 2 in the second quarter, he attempted to open a hole through which Saints running back Deuce McAllister could punch in a touchdown.
The plan failed when Evans engaged Cleveland behemoth Ted Washington — and the Browns’ 6-foot-5, 375-pound, four-time Pro Bowl nose tackle didn’t budge. Washington plowed through Evans and dragged McAllister down for a loss of 1.
“I remember I hit him — and I slid right down his body,” Evans, then a rookie fourth-round draft selection, said through laughter.
It’d all be OK for the Saints and Evans, who is one of five players with New Orleans in 2014 who were in Cleveland that day — along with Brees, Strief, center Jonathan Goodwin and receiver Marques Colston. It wasn’t just that Evans had a lot more success blocking later on, permitting him to make 114 consecutive regular-season starts for the Saints while landing on The Associated Press’ All-Pro first team each year from 2009 to 2012.
But that day in Cleveland, kicker John Carney capped the drive halted by Washington with a field goal, one of four he nailed that day. Brees threw a touchdown to rookie and seventh-round draft choice Colston, who’s since caught 62 more to become the Saints’ all-time leader in touchdowns.
Safety Roman Harper, now with Carolina, recorded his first career sack to force a fourth-quarter punt on Cleveland’s second-to-last possession. And safety Josh Bullocks then iced the five-point win with an interception at New Orleans’ 30 on the Browns’ final possession.
Brees on Wednesday recalled the relief he, his new teammates and their rookie coach felt.
“I remember going in just saying, ‘Man, can we please get a win today?’” Brees said. “It was just scratching (and) clawing ... after a preseason where we were just kind of hoping we would win one game. I can’t say the expectations were super high at that point — I think it was just about, ‘Let’s find a way to win, however we have to. Come together, and find a way to win.’”
Soon enough, Brees, Payton and the Saints would win three division titles, reach two NFC Championship games and capture Super Bowl XLIV. Brees would pass for 5,000+ yards in four separate seasons and become the first NFL player to accomplish that feat in more than one campaign.
The Saints opened the 2014 season with an overtime 37-34 loss at Atlanta, setting the stage for the upcoming trip to Cleveland (0-1).
Circumstances have changed in innumerable ways since the Saints’ previous visit to Cleveland, but there’s no denying a relatively similar opportunity to get a season moving in the direction they want it to is at hand.
“It’s hard to compare those two situations, but you’d like to avoid falling into a hole,” said Goodwin, who was a backup the last time he was in Cleveland with the Saints. “You’d like to keep the hole as shallow as possible, so it’d be big to win this week.”