This has to be the year. It just has to be.
That’s a common refrain among sports fans. Hoping against all hope, not to mention all logic. Believing because you want something to believe in, something more immanent than what your faith offers. Adding up the plusses and minuses of your team can promise — and fudging the equation because, after all, isn’t a good team better than the sum of its parts?
Of course, you never want to admit that your team is worse than the sum of its parts. A bunch of old Red Sox teams were that way: fractious, flawed in character, destined to break hearts. One LSU basketball team featured Shaquille O’Neal, Stanley Roberts (eight years in the NBA), Chris Jackson (11 years in the NBA), Geert Hammink (first-round draft choice, lasted three years in the NBA), and excellent college players Vernel Singleton, Harold Boudreaux, Wayne Sims, and Maurice Williamson — but couldn’t get beyond the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Then there were teams that consisted of spare parts and parts nobody should have ever wanted — like the New Orleans Saints in the late 1960s, when a gritty and ruddy-faced Billy Kilmer was drawing up plays in the dirt while fans chanted to bring somebody named Ed Hargett into the game, where a former first-round draft choice named Joe Don Looney lived up to his last name (and gained minus-3 yards on three carries for the whole season), where first-ever draft choice Leslie Kelley never started a game, and neither did the next choice — Bo Burris — and where they wasted an expansion draft choice on Packer great Paul Hornung, who never played a single down for them. One Saints wide receiver was named Margene Adkins — but my father called him Margarine Adkins because the man had butter-fingers that couldn’t hold on to a ball.
Even the Saints’ first league all-star, hustling receiver Danny Abramowicz, was so slow that an NFL book chapter on him was entitled “Million-Dollar Hands — and Ten-Cent Feet.”
Those are the Saints teams that permanently scarred the psyches of Saints fans, whose one great high point in the first ten years of existence was a 63-yard field goal by a kicker with half a foot. Even then, fans listening to the game at home on the radio never heard the result of the kick: A swarm of bees literally invaded the station’s transmitter just as the ball was snapped, and all the listeners heard was a furious buzzing.
The then-lowly Atlanta Falcons drubbed the Saints 62-7 in 1973; completed a “Hail Mary” pass call “Big Ben” to beat us in 1978; found a referee named Grover Klemmer to call a phantom pass interference penalty on the Saints to nullify an interception and hand the game to the Falcons later that year (even the receiver said no Saints touched him); and began the next year by beating the Saints in overtime when punter Russell Erxleben tried to pass after picking up a loose ball and threw it right to the Dirty Birds for a game-losing interception.
The Saints once traded a first, second and third round draft choice for quarterback Steve Walsh, who deteriorated so badly that he once literally couldn’t hit the ground. Yes, Walsh tried to spike the ball once to kill the clock, but it slipped out of his hand and flew up instead of down — nobody touched him — and into the hands of a surprised defender.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost their first 26 games in the league — until they played the Saints. When the Browns returned to Cleveland in 1999, they lost their first seven games by a combined 128 points (an average loss of 19 points per game), but won their first when they beat the Saints on, yes, a Hail Mary pass. The Saints once blew a 35-14 third-quarter lead on the Oakland Raiders on a Monday night when the playoffs hung in the balance. Another time when the peerless Archie Manning engineered a 28-point halftime lead on the San Francisco 49ers, the nonexistent defense gave away that game as well. And — true story — a four-year-old Peyton Manning, completely by mistake, once booed his own father.
Not even the halftime shows were exempt from tragic performances. In a re-enactment of the Battle of New Orleans, a cannon backfired, blowing off three fingers of one of the re-enactor soldiers. Charlton Heston played a beleaguered Saints quarterback in the movie Number One, and broke three ribs in the process. And even as late as their fourth decade in existence, still without a single playoff win to show for it, the Saints were laughing-stocks: Coach Mike Ditka traded every single draft choice one year for running back Ricky Williams, and celebrated by posing for a magazine cover with Williams wearing a wedding gown. (HUH?!!!??!!)
Maybe the worst indignity of all, though, was a cartoon that once ran in the independent New Orleans football weekly Gridweek. A donkey, driving a car, was stuck in a massive traffic jam of vehicles en route to the stadium rising in the distance. Every car but the donkey’s coupe had Saints pennants waving out the window. And the donkey, his face turned toward the reader and his thumb pointing at all the Saints fans, had one simple statement in the dialogue bubble: “And to think they call me a jackass!”
All of which helps serve as a reminder, once again, of why we longtime Saints fans this week are quaking in our boots at the thought of Saturday’s playoff game, wondering if we can possibly fail even to reach the conference championship (not to mention the Super Bowl, where we’ve never been) after winning our first 13 — yes, 13 in a row — games of the season. Our nightmares are filled with Joe Don Looney, Margarine Adkins, Grover Klemmer, Russell Erxleben, and Ricky Williams as Da Coach’s bride….
Then again, never mind. This has to be our year. It just has to be.