NEW ORLEANS – The 50th anniversary season of the Saints started and ended in haunting fashion reminiscent of much of this franchise’s history.
In brief, they led and lost spectacularly, 35-34 to Oakland to open the 2016 season in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Sunday afternoon.
There was an early lead of 24-10 in the second quarter, not unlike the 7-0 lead the Saints took against the Los Angeles Rams on their very first play in the NFL when John Gilliam returned THE opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown on September 17, 1967, in front of 80,879 in Tulane Stadium. They replayed that on the big video screen as part of a 50-year historical montage before the game. … But they lost that game, 27-13.
The Saints got their 24-10 lead on a 98-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Drew Brees that went 55 yards in the air to wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who went the rest of the way. It is now the longest play in franchise history and broke the record for longest play in franchise history, which was a 96-yard completion from quarterback Billy Kilmer to wide receiver Walt “Flea” Roberts on November 19, 1967, at Philadelphia. Roberts did not score on the play, and the Saints did not score after it as Roberts was knocked out of bounds near the goal line as the half ended. Then the Saints lost, 48-21.
The Saints still led, 34-27, in the final minute as they led the Rams, 24-23, in the final minute on December 18, 1983, for their first playoff berth. But the Rams won, 26-24, on a late field goal.
The Saints apparently had the Raiders beat on this day after a fourth-and-five pass from the Saints’ 18 by Oakland quarterback Derek Carr with 1:37 to go fell incomplete. Unfortunately, Saints linebacker Craig Robertson was called for pass interference on what looked like an uncatchable ball to running back Jalen Richard.
“To be honest, I thought it was a good play,” Robertson said. “I was almost about to celebrate. Then I saw the flag.”
Saints coach Sean Payton, who has almost had winning seasons the last two years but instead finished 7-9 each time, sighed when asked about the interference call.
“Listen, I’m not going to start the season off paying a fine,” said Payton, whose offense outgained Oakland’s 507 to 486.
The Raiders got a first down at the Saints’ 13, and scored two plays later with 47 seconds left. Oakland coach Jack Del Rio gambled and went for two. Carr threw to the back side shoulder of wide receiver Michael Crabtree in a one-on-one match-up with Saints rookie cornerback Ken Crawley, who was in the game because Saints star cornerback Delvin Breaux had left the game in the third quarter with a leg injury. Crawley had Crabtree about as well covered as possible. He almost stopped the play.
“He’s a big receiver with strong hands,” Crawley said. “The back side shoulder pass is one of the toughest throws to defend. It was a great catch. You catch that, I would get excited, too. I thought I had him.”
The Saints had one more chance. Brees took over at the New Orleans’ 23-yard line with 40 seconds to play and drove his team to the Oakland 43, which was almost makeable field goal range.
With five seconds to go, rookie kicker Wil Lutz lined up to kick a 61 yarder – just two yards off the NFL record of 63 yards booted by the Saints’ Tom Dempsey on November 8, 1970, for a 19-17 victory over Detroit as time expired. The win put the Saints at 2-5-1. They finished 2-11-1.
Lutz booted his about 63 yards, but it faded wide left just at the end. It was almost good. What an historic ending it almost was.
“I thought it was in,” Lutz said. “The whole operation was so smooth. To see if I can make it from 61 yards, I got nothing to lose. It’s what you live for. It felt really good coming off my foot. It just felt like it was in slow motion. Me and holder Thomas Morstead were just sitting there watching it.”
So was the crowd of 73,028.
“We were about ready to celebrate,” Lutz said. “But it moved to the left on me.”
New Orleans almost celebrated three times in a holy trinity turned trilogy.
The Saints almost won their first season opener since their last winning and playoff season in 2013. New Orleans was almost 1-0.
(© 2016 WWL)