The Saints finished 7-9 and out of the playoffs. We know this. It’s fact.
What’s not fact, what is more subjective, is everybody’s idea of season-defining and memorable plays.
What follows is WWLTV.com’s order for the 10 plays – or series of plays – that stood out this season. You likely will disagree on the order, if not the exact plays themselves. Feel free to leave a comment, but we ask one thing of you – keep it clean.
10. Drew Brees hits Devery Henderson for a 40-yard touchdown, breaking Johnny Unitas’ NFL record (Oct. 7)
This one wasn’t necessarily significant to the season so much as it was significant to the league.
Beginning on Oct. 18, 2009 with a scoring strike to Jeremy Shockey in a 48-27 win over the New York Giants, quarterback Drew Brees began a slow assault on one of the most-hallowed records in NFL history – Johnny Unitas’ 47 straight games with a touchdown pass thrown.
The NFL just so-happened to set up Brees to break the record against San Diego, his former team and the one that moved beyond him after he injured his shoulder.
With the Saints down 7-0 after former New Orleans receiver Robert Meachem caught a 15-yard touchdown pass, it was time for Brees to make his mark. The drive was a typical Brees-led drive – nine plays, 80 yards, note even four minutes chewed off the clock.
On third-and-six from the Chargers’ 40, Brees called a play that immediately made receiver Devery Henderson know it was the one.
“I was so wide open coming out of the route that I hoped he saw me,” Henderson said after the game. “I knew once he threw it out that I would catch it. When the play was called, I had it in my mind that this could be the play and I could be a part of history.”
Indeed, the 40-yard touchdown pass gave Brees a touchdown pass in 48 straight game. The streak would eventually get to 54 before ending.
While this play wasn’t a season-changer, it was a defining moment. In a season in which not everything went New Orleans’ way, for one night and for one play, we all saw just how special Brees is and can be.
9. Kickoff coverage @ New York Giants (Dec. 9)
New Orleans entered New York with just the slightest of hopes of a postseason berth after having lost its previous two games to San Francisco and Atlanta. But there was hope.
It all came crashing down on a cold, rainy day at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
The Saints went into the game as one of the best kickoff coverage teams in the NFL, their opponents averaging starting field position after kickoffs at just the 20-yard line. That was good for No. 4 in the NFL.
Yet, you got the feeling, at least during this stretch that the world was crashing down around New Orleans.
Indeed, it would get worse. The Giants averaged 47.8 yards on six kickoff returns. David Wilson alone averaged 56.8 yards on four, including a 97-yard that answered a pick-six by New Orleans’ Elbert Mack.
Wilson set a Giants’ record for all-purpose yardage in the game with 327, but that number was boosted by 227 return yards.
After kickoffs, the Giants’ average starting field position was their own 48-yard line. On the day, New York’s average starting position was New Orleans’ 49.
In the league stats posted after this Week 14 clash, New Orleans’ kickoff unit fell to No. 24 in the NFL, its opponent’s average starting position pushed to the 23-yard line.
“We tell our guys all the time, we are in this sucker together, there is no doubt about it,” Saints special teams coach Greg McMahon said. “It wasn’t coached well enough and it certainly wasn’t executed and so it was just a disappointing performance.”
The Saints never recovered and finished the season ranked No. 21 with the average start at the 22.8-yard line.
8. Jimmy Graham’s recovery of a Marques Colston fumble @ Dallas (Dec. 23)
In the micro sense, Jimmy Graham’s recovery of Marques Colston’s fumble in overtime at Dallas didn’t mean a thing other than setting up Garrett Hartley’s game-winning 20-yard field goal.
In the macro sense, however, it meant a whole lot.
By the time this play happened, New Orleans’ season was over. Not that anyone on the field knew this at the time, but Minnesota’s win over Houston earlier in the day punched New Orleans’ post-season ticket to the Caribbean, Europe or Hawaii or wherever folks not in the playoffs go.
For much of the week leading up to the Saints’ game at Cowboys Stadium, much was made about Dallas having everything to play for and New Orleans basically having little. And for much of that week, those inside the Saints’ locker room declared they were playing for pride and playing to keep momentum going for 2013.
This play, more than any other in the game, signified how true those sentiments were and how hard the team wanted wins in spite of the circumstances at that point in the season.
New Orleans had coughed up a 31-17 lead in the final five minutes of the game and went into the overtime period without any momentum in front of a raucous Cowboys’ home crowd.
After a defensive stop to open the extra time, quarterback Drew Brees guided the Saints to Dallas’ 33, in range for a Hartley field goal. But on second-and-nine, Brees hit Colston down the field for a nine-yard gain.
Dallas’ Morris Claiborne forced a fumble by Colston and by all means, it appeared the Cowboys would recover and that would be that. But Graham, having a poor game, scurried down the field, boxing out Dallas defenders and recovering the fumble at Dallas’ 2. Game. Set. Match.
The play showed the heart the Saints had regardless of what had played out during the season and set them up for an attempt to finish the season at .500 after starting 0-4.
7. Drew Brees’ pick-six against Carolina (Sept. 16)
Among the many early signs we saw that the Saints weren’t going to be the Saints of the past few years, this was one of the more glaring ones.
A refresher on some of the storylines entering the season: quarterback Drew Brees misses all of organized team activities and minicamp as he sits out while negotiating a new contract. And without coach Sean Payton being around, there was question as to whether he would find his center early or at all.
This play showed early that he would, in fact, not be the Brees we’d seen the past few years.
New Orleans had just driven 80 yards in 11 plays to take a 7-0 lead on Carolina at Bank of America Stadium. The defense followed that by forcing the Panthers to punt after just six plays.
Carolina downed the punt at the Saints’ 7 and then disaster struck. After Saints running back Pierre Thomas gained two yards up the middle, Brees tried to fit a ball in a position it just couldn’t fit.
Brees rolled to his right and saw tight end David Thomas down the field. But he didn’t see Carolina’s Charles Godfrey when he probably should have. The result was a nine-yard interception return for a touchdown that tied the game and took all the momentum and shifted it to the Panthers.
After the game, Brees recognized the mistake and put the onus on himself for it.
“He made a nice play, Godfrey, but obviously that can’t happen,” Brees said. “Tried to extend the play and tried to at least make something out of nothing, But really that’s a ball you just throw away and move on.”
New Orleans, you might recall, lost by eight points.
6. Jabari Greer breaks up a pass to Roddy White in the end zone, preserving New Orleans’ 31-27 win (Nov. 11)
It would be safe to say New Orleans’ secondary was much-maligned throughout the 2012 campaign.
And in this particular game against Atlanta on Nov. 11, no defensive back seemed more overmatched than cornerback Jabari Greer. By the penultimate Atlanta offensive series, he already had given up long pass plays to Falcons receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones.
But one thing with Greer – he’s a confident player who trusts his teammates and vice versa. Greer’s teammates know he makes up for some of his shortcomings by thinking the game through and on this game-saving series, he culled Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan into throwing a pass that maybe shouldn’t have been thrown.
Atlanta got the ball back with 5:54 to play in the game and trailing by four points. In that time, it managed to move down to New Orleans’ 1-yard line. Ryan’s pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez was broken up by New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins on second-and-goal.
On third-and-goal, Saints defensive end Will Smith snuffed out a middle-give to Atlanta running back Michael Turner, stopping him for a one-yard loss and setting up a heart-stopping fourth-down play with 1:46 left on the clock.
White ran a route to the back of the end zone, cutting in. Greer, the savvy veteran that he is, allowed White enough of a lead to let Ryan think the window was open. At the last second, Greer leapt forward, knocking away Ryan’s pass and preserving the Saints’ win.
“Even though the play made something happen, really the story is just the resilience of the guys,” Greer said afterwards. “The never quit (and) the never end attitude. Always going out there to fight.”
A week later New Orleans beat Oakland to get back to .500 after an 0-4 start and had everyone believing in the possibility of a postseason push. The win as Atlanta’s first loss of the season and the play was Greer’s best of the season.