The 2009 Super Bowl champion Saints were just what New Orleans needed
The team and the city were the right combination for a Super Bowl
In the midst of the recovery process after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans needed its Saints more than ever in 2009.
"A lot of fans would explain to us that this was their break from their reality," said former Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma. "So they wanted to go and get there early, tailgate, get away from whatever problems that they had going on."
And with the support of the fans, success came early and often.
The team raced out to a 13-0 record while averaging nearly 36 points per game. Vilma said that the players knew they had something special all the way back in training camp. He recalls the team's incredible energy level during a preseason game against Houston that was unlike anything he'd seen before.
"We went out there and our level was just so much higher than theirs," Vilma said. "We ended up getting into fights, and it wasn't just the typical fights -- it was because we were so much more energetic, so much more competitive, and they weren't ready for that."
After that game, Vilma said the team realized that it was capable of having a dream season. The Saints had a core of veteran leaders, including Vilma, defensive end Will Smith and, of course, future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees.
"Drew Brees is the best teammate I ever had," Vilma said. "When I went to New Orleans (from the New York Jets) I knew Drew was good, and I knew he could throw the ball -- I didn't realize how good."
Brees was the only player to beat Vilma to the weight room every day, and it annoyed Vilma to the point that he would time Brees' arrivals and try to beat him the next day. But sure enough, Brees would somehow continually arrive just before Vilma.
Having a leader that worked that hard made the other players want to elevate their game to try to match his level. In addition to Brees and the team leaders, Vilma said the squad was full of "quiet workers," like the team's leading receiver, Marques Colston, and cornerback Jabari Greer, who went about their business without ever uttering a complaint.
"That always helped us -- the vocal guys -- because we didn't have to worry about them," Vilma said. "We kind of just let them be."
Vilma said Brees had another leadership quality that was crucial during the the team's 13-0 start.
"He knew how to keep perspective on the season, how to keep perspective on the offense, how to keep perspective on the team," Vilma said.
Even in the middle of a perfect season, Vilma said the team never talked about going undefeated. Their focus was on winning a Super Bowl, and they knew that going at least 12-4 would almost guarantee them the division title and a first-round bye.
"We won our first four games -- we were excited. We won our next four games -- we were excited. We won our next four games -- we were excited," Vilma said. "But we just always wanted to make sure that we went back to what our goals were -- and none of our goals were 16-0."
Throughout the season the Saints made sure to continue to give back to the community through various events. They gave out turkeys to families in need on Thanksgiving and visited local children's hospitals on holidays like Halloween and Christmas.
"When you get locked into the grind of the NFL season, you kind of forget what's going on in the outside world," Vilma said. "To take a Tuesday, four or five hours out of the day, it was really humbling to regain perspective on what's going on around you in the community."
Another huge reason for the Saints' success in 2009 was head coach Sean Payton. In his fourth season as head coach, Payton tapped into his players' talent and put together an offense that is up there with some of the best in league history. He wasn't afraid to delegate, leaving his defense in the hands of coordinator Gregg Williams.
Vilma said Payton never overreacted to small mistakes, and entrusted his players to examine their own errors and correct them.
"He was very good at understanding how to push our buttons -- when to back off and when to push the issue," said Vilma.
The game came down to the Vikings' final drive of regulation, when Favre was trying to get his team into field goal range to break the 28-28 tie with 19 seconds left in the fourth quarter. But Favre famously threw an ill-advised interception, ending the Vikings' drive and sending the game to overtime, where the Saints would win on a 40-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley.
"I had a feeling they were going to pass," said Vilma, who audibled to zone coverage just before the play. "[Favre] thought it was still man coverage, so when he tried to hit the receiver on the back side he assumed it was man. Fortunately we were in Cover 2 and our corner, Tracy Porter, was right there. He threw it literally right into Tracy Porter's hands, he ran the clock out and then we won it in overtime."
After the game at the Superdome, Vilma remembers something special about the fans in the city of New Orleans.
"I'll never forget, and I know my teammates will never forget, when we won the NFC Championship Game and, for that night, there was no crime in the city -- first time ever," said Vilma. "That's when we knew they live and die with the Saints, how we play. Win, lose or draw they always appreciated if we gave 110 percent."
The team returned early Monday morning to a makeshift parade comprised of rabid fans lined up along the expressway next to the airport. That's when the Saints knew this was about more than just football.
After facing Favre in the NFC title game, Vilma had to help prepare his defense to stop another future Hall of Famer, Peyton Manning, and the Indianapolis Colts. Vilma said the biggest weapon he had against Manning was the fact that he had two weeks to prepare.
He spent one week watching film, and the next week calling everyone he knew who had played against Manning to ask them what they picked up in terms of Manning's checks.
Vilma and the defense spent the Colts' first two possessions listening and studying Manning's play calls from the line. Even though the Colts scored on both drives and led 10-0, the Saints were gaining confidence on defense.
"In the second quarter, I stared making checks to his checks," Vilma said. "That's when we started to get in a little bit of a rhythm defensively against him. Our offense was rolling -- they just needed the ball more."
The Saints held the Colts to just one more touchdown while the offense rattled off 31 points to win Super Bowl XLIV and deliver the city of New Orleans its first title.
"I don't remember talking to anybody," Vilma said. "You look up and see the confetti dropping -- everyone's jumping around, cheering. I don't know if I ever said a word besides, 'I can't believe this.' That was the only thing I kept saying."
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