Surprises. That's what The New Orleans Saints were all about during the 2000 NFL season. The surprises encompassed everything from draft picks, to the coaches, to the reemergence of has-been players. The Saints were the surprise team of the year. Going from cellar dwellers of the previous season with no high draft picks, devastating injuries and a first year head coach to Western Divisional Champs. Y2K was, without a doubt, the greatest season to date for the New Orleans team as they experienced the first ever Saints post-season victory over the reigning NFL champs, the St. Louis Rams.
Following the demise of the Ditka regime, owner Tom Benson began his search for some new front office leadership. After several contestants, former Seattle Seahawk GM Randy Mueller was put at the helm and a new coaching staff was put together. Only linebacker (and one-time stand-in head) coach Rick Venturi was kept from the Ditka days. Pittsburgh Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett was named Head Coach and Mike McCarthy was brought on as Offensive Coordinator to breathe some life into one of the NFL's most impotent offenses. John Zook was hired to recapture the Defensive Glory of bygone days.
Without 1st or 3rd round picks in the 2000 draft, the Saints immediately became the most active team in the free agency market. Bengal QB Jeff Blake was brought on to guide the new "West Coast" offense that the Saints would implement and mammoth Defensive lineman Norman Hand was signed away from San Diego. Other signings included WR Jake Reed (Minnesota), WR Joe Horn (Kansas City), LB Charlie Clemons (St.Louis), LB Dennis Stevens (Dallas), DB Steve Israel (Philly), RB Brian Milne (Cincinnati), RB Gerald Moore (St.Louis), TE Andrew Glover (Minnesota), Safety Darren Perry (Pittsburgh), and WR Harold Jackson (Cincinnati). And by year's end even former All-Pro Terry Allen would be signed.
With only a handful of draft picks available, the Saints made them count. Taking DE Darren Howard in the second, Blocking Fullback Terrelle Smith from Arizona St in the 4th and RB Chad Morton in the 6th from USC. All 3 would make impacts during the season.
The injuries began quickly, as projected starters Steve Israel and Charlie Clemons went down with injuries in training camp. Cam Cleeland was lost for the season in the Preseason opener.
The season started slowly. The Saints were 1-3 after the first 4 games. Losses to Detroit, Philly, and Seattle were attributed mostly to special team breakdowns. The victory over San Diego came when Jeff Blake put together a 10 play, 90 yard drive that ended with an 8-yard Joe Horn catch with 47 seconds left. It ended a 14 game losing streak on the road.
The Saints came off the bye week against Chicago and simply caught fire.
The ensuing 6 game winning streak was the longest the Saints had experienced in years. Almost complete dominations of Chicago and Carolina were followed by a win over Atlanta where Williams rushed for 3 TDs and a comeback win over Phoenix when Keith Mitchell returned an interception 40 yards for the winning TD. Two more dominating games over San Francisco and Carolina before a loss to a high-flying Oakland Raider team where Jeff Blake was lost for the season with a broken foot.
The following game against the reigning NFL Champion St. Louis Rams was to be one of the most memorable in Saints history. Second year QB Aaron Brooks led the Saints to a 31-24 upset as he scrambled and dodged Ram defenders all day passing for 1 score and rushing for 2 more. The defense recorded 6 sacks and held All-Pro back Marshall Faulk to only 47 total yards. A big letdown the following week against Denver as Mike Anderson set a new rookie rushing record as he decimated the Saints Defense with 251 yards on the ground. Another almost total domination of Atlanta brought the Saints their first Western Divisional title in 9 years. Another big win over the 49ers where Brooks once again showed his ability to elude would-be sackers over and over again, set the scene as the Saints returned home for the season finale against a revenge-minded St.Louis club.
Unfortunately, Marshall Faulk was nothing like the first time the teams met as he rushed for 220 yards, caught 7 passes and scored 3 TDs in route to a Ram victory. The regular season over, the Saints prepared for their first post-season game in 8 years.
The Rams came to the Dome for the first round of the Wildcard games. The game was a wild one. St. Louis rallied back from a 31-7 deficient to pull within 3 in the 4th. It looked like they would get another chance to score until Az-Zahir Hakim muffed a fair catch with 1:43 to play in the game. The Saints recovered and ran out the clock. Against Minnesota in the Divisional playoffs, however, rookie QB Danute Culpepper and veteran WR Chris Carter proved to be just to much as the Vikes offense exploded for 34 points. The season of surprises was over.
Individually, many of the Saint players had the best years
of their careers. Others had their careers revitalized.
Rickey Williams became the first Saint to rush for 1000 yards since 1989. And his 5 consecutive 100 yard rushing games set a new team record. Most importantly though, he finally shed his knock for not getting in the endzone as he scored 9 TDs (8 rushing and 1 receiving). Unfortunately, while on his way to an All-Pro year, he broke his foot against Carolina in week 11 and lost for the season. Also having an All-Pro season was Jeff Blake until he was injured against Oakland.
There were many records set or tied. Joe Horn set a new team record with 94 catches and 1340 yards. Aaron Brooks also set a new team record for yards passing in a game against Denver with 471. WR Harold Jackson tied a league record with his 3 TD catches against the Rams in the wildcard playoffs.
La' Roi Glover led the league in sacks with 17, While rookie DE
Darren Howard's 11 sacks, 9 passes broken up, 2 forced fumbles
and 1 interception was good enough to make runner-up for rookie
of the year. Joe Johnson was named Comeback player of year.
The defense was tops in the league for sacks with 64 for the year.
Willie Roaf, Joe Johnson, Mark Fields, La'Roi Glover , Kyle Turley and Keith Mitchell all made the Pro-Bowl.