… When the Saints make the Super Bowl.
It used to be a punch line. Now it's a bettor's line — New Orleans plus-5½, against an Indianapolis team they seem to match up fine with. The Saints in the title tilt? Lordy, what's the world coming to?
And looking down on it all, like a portrait in a Dixie mansion parlor, is Elisha Archie Manning III, the first Saint that ever mattered. It's a celebration. And as the guests raise their glasses to the fortune of 2009, the staid face in the painting smiles but still thinks of older times, when the football fortunes of New Orleans weren't so dandy.
"Most people who have a life in sports learn to deal with adversity and low times," says Manning, the Saints' quarterback from 1971 to '81. "In New Orleans we definitely had a lot of experience with that. There weren't a lot of happy times or good times ... maybe a lot of things we wanted to forget."
For years he was the club's only hope, a primo competitor who could create downfield action, naturally dynamic that way, delivering the ball right on, but he was placed in command of a perpetual expansion team. Surrounded by klutzy infrastructure. Blame former owner John Mecom, Jr. — big oil money, mini football know-how.
"You know, it wasn't that Mecom didn't hire some capable people," Manning says. "It's just that the chemistry never worked. We did not have great management during my years in New Orleans. There were always a lot of changes. Maybe management would have been better had the coaching been better, but the opposite was also true. There was never a time when management and coaching were both great at the same time. That's what really killed the franchise.
"John was not a cheapo. He spent money and he wanted to win. We did everything first class. I've never asked him this, but I'll bet today that John regrets not finding the best football man available to manage his team. He had the money to do that. Things might have been a lot different."
Different than the 45 wins and 114 losses and three draws, which was the Saints' scorecard during the Archie years? Playoff rumbles? Nada. His tip-top finish, ever, was 8-8.
"I've always told my kids that, of course you want to win championships," Manning says, "but first you want to get into big games and play well in the big games. Playing in big games is what I missed most in my pro career."
He remembers the fistful of upsets his club did pull … nailing George Allen's defending NFC champs, the Redskins, in '73 ("They weren't ready to play, too much Bourbon Street mischief") … and the flinty Rams in '71, and '74 and '78.
"We also beat the Cowboys in '71, who went on to win the Super Bowl that year," he says. "I'd bet if we played Dallas 10 times, we'd only beat them once. That was the 'once.' They were at least three touchdowns better than we were. I ran for a couple scores, and Dallas turned it over a bunch of times, but I don't know how we beat them 'cause we were clearly outmanned."
Outmanned is the scar of flimsy draft work. The Saints typically picked from the front row but they sure hauled in the clunkers — OG Royce Smith in '72 (eighth overall); WR Larry Burton in '75 (seventh); PK-P Russell Erxleben in '79 (11th), etc. … Faces swiftly forgotten.
"I remember the days before the 1974 draft," Manning recalls. "I was working out on the West Coast and I saw one of our scouts out there, so I asked him who we were going to take. We had another high pick that year, up in the top 10 or so.
"He said, 'There's a receiver from Southern Cal who I think will be available, and I think he can really help us. His name is Lynn Swann.'
"I said, 'Yeah, I've seen him on TV; I think he'll be good."
"Then he said, 'But the coach wants a linebacker.'
"Well, Swann was available but instead we picked a linebacker from Ohio State named Rick Middleton. He wasn't very big or strong. Rick wasn't even the best linebacker at Ohio State. We picked him over Randy Gradishar, who was an All-American. To me, that was one of our most disappointing picks."
What does Manning carry from his whole affair with the 1970s Saints? Not exactly the blue heartbreak you'd expect. Call it a piece of education, a classroom study on character and characters. Human Types 101.
"It taught me a lot about people," he says. "I dealt with so many of them. Just watching them — how they react to tough times or adversity or losing games — I was able to learn things about human character.
"Some people are quitters or complainers or become discouraged and lose their focus. Others keep plugging away, trying to find ways to overcome obstacles, encouraging and motivating people around them. I saw all types during my days with the Saints.
"There's a different kind of bond that's created during losing times, which I believe is just as strong as one that's forged while you're winning. I was on a successful team in college, so I can make that comparison. There were four of us that went through it together in New Orleans — Tommy Myers, a safety was one. Joe Federspiel, our linebacker, was another, and then my roommate and backup, Bobby Scott. There was some sort of bond between the four of us because we were on the team a long time and shared a lot of the same experiences.
"A lot of our Saint postgames weren't celebrations. They were more like mournings … wakes, if you will. But you go through them together. You depend on one another to do it. Somehow a bond is still there."