When I was little — I can’t remember the year — the Saints beat the Falcons on a Morten Andersen game-winning field goal. I’m not going to Pro Football Reference to check the Morten Andersen career game log; I’m not scanning through the Saints/Falcons history; I don’t care about the specific facts of the game, because what matters is my memory of the event, regardless of its reality.
What I remember is Morten taking his steps back away from the holder — probably Tommy Barnhardt, who was our punter back in the day — and I remember how scared I was, chewing at the inside of my mouth because in a few seconds the trajectory of a football was going to determine my mood for the rest of the week. I remember my dad, half-laughing, half-seriously, reciting a prayer: “Hail, Morten, full of grace.” In situations like this prayer seems a legitimate option; there are few sins more unforgivable than blowing a game against the Falcons, because there is no loss that causes more intense pain for the Saints fan than a heartbreaker to Atlanta.
But I think probably there is one loss that would’ve caused more pain if it had in fact not ended up a win. It would have ruined more than a week.
The Hartley Kick. 24 January 2010
It makes absolutely perfect sense that the most emotionally-trying, suspenseful, tense, difficult experience I’ve ever had watching a Saints game was the NFC Championship Game win over Minnesota, because, after all, how else could the Saints finally go to the promised land? If it had been easy, it wouldn’t have been right.
At some point in the time before Brett Favre threw the ball to Tracy Porter during what was apparently supposed to be his career-capping game-winning Super Bowl-berthing drive I, my stomach twisted in pain, said: “We are so close.” Then Porter grabbed the ball, and we went wild, but it was a sort of apprehensive wildness, because it only gave us an opportunity — an opportunity during a game in which we’d had big problems capitalizing on them. My brother, across the room from me, actually slumped in disgust when Porter was tackled during his interception return. “He should have scored.”
Imagine if, in overtime, any one thing had gone just a little differently. If, say, a first-down reception had been overruled instead of sustained in review. If, say, Pierre Thomas had failed to hang onto the football in that short yardage situation — he came so close to fumbling, remember? What if Thomas had tripped or failed to break a tackle during the initial kickoff return, keeping the Saints farther away from field goal range than the offense seemed at that point capable of moving? And, of course, what if the guy Scott Fujita would later call the “fat punk kicker” had shanked the attempted game-winner nastily left of good, as is his rather annoying trend? It’s what he did in a far easier situation after all, when, last season, he committed that most grievous of sins and lost us a game against Atlanta. Competitors often say that the tiniest margins of defeat are what keep them awake when it’s dark and they’re alone, but sometimes the tiniest margins of victory get to me, too, because they seem so fragile, as if the wrong thought or wrong move can retroactively take away our great narrow triumphs.
The thing that the 2009 season national commentators don’t understand is that we Saints fans pretty much knew we were going to the Super Bowl that year — it was only a matter of when we knew it. Some of us detected the strange matter-of-factness of that reality around the time of the third preseason game, when we were pounding exhibition opponents into the ground with our running game. Others felt it clearly when we dropped more than 40 points in back-to-back games to open the season.
Me, I felt it after we beat Buffalo by just physically overwhelming an opponent for perhaps the first time in the Payton era and letting our defense sit back and seal the game for us. The question for Saints fans in 2009 wasn’t really a matter of whether Next Year had arrived, but rather a question of what Next Year was going to actually look like. I am never one for hyperbole and usually find it impossible to make a preseason prediction of more than 10 wins, but after week three I realized that this, given the composition of this football team, with its big-play defense, elite quarterback, and brutally physical running game, was very nearly a perfect football team, and that going undefeated was possible, maybe even likely. For about half the season, the 2009 New Orleans Saints were one of the best football teams in the history of the National Football League.
The Saints infamously staggered into the playoffs on a three-game losing streak, and hadn’t really been at their best for the last month and a half or so. It almost seemed like we’d gotten bored by routine, as if by week thirteen we were just ready to get on with it. That’s why, when it seemed possible everything was slipping away late in the NFCCG, our collective reactions ranged from the kind of shocked disbelief a religious fundamentalist might feel if someone somehow disproved the existence of God to a simple unwillingness to lose faith at all. We’d been in tight spots before—that Miami game, that ridiculous Washington game—and we’d marched right on through them. We’d do it again. I, personally, was too torn up to think much of anything. But then we won.
When Hartley’s kick sailed through dead-center and the Dome exploded it wasn’t just that forty-three years of failure finally became worthwhile — it wasn’t just that, as Wynton Marsalis said, it was like waiting forty-three years for someone to say “I love you” back, and then they do — it was an affirmation of faith held even after the experiences of those four decades, faith that this year was Next Year.
When Hartley’s kick was good, and Jim Henderson enunciated, as only he ever can, our communal emotional experience, it was very much like a divine affirmation.