Will we see the New Orleans Saints take to the field in Indianapolis on Feb. 5 to compete in the team's second Super Bowl? No way to tell just yet (we went to press before the team played the Detroit Lions on Sunday, Jan. 7). But if people were exceptionally excited this year about the possibility of seeing the Black and Gold go all the way, it's because the 2011 Saints season has felt a lot like the 2009 season — and, in some ways, even better.
These are fine times to be a football fan in New Orleans. It's not just the Saints who are on fire, but also the LSU Tigers, who face their archrivals, the Alabama Crimson Tide, in the BCS championships on Monday, Jan. 9 — after a season in which the Bayou Bengals went undefeated. Speaking of wins, the Saints finished the regular season with only three losses, all of which were on the road, so if you saw the Saints play in the Superdome this year, you saw a Saints victory.
As the season wrapped up, the Saints knocked down records as if they were tackling dummies. Quarterback Drew Brees broke the single-season record for passing yards (5,084, formerly held by Dan Marino) in the fourth quarter of the Dec. 26 matchup against the Atlanta Falcons, then added to it in the last game of the season with another 389 yards. He also made 468 completions, breaking a record held by Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. Even if Brees does not win the NFL's Most Valuable Player award (another thing we won't know till Super Bowl week), his position in NFL history seems cast in bronze.
Two other fan favorites also set records this year. Jimmy Graham capped his sophomore NFL year by breaking the record for receiving yards in a single season by a tight end. Though Graham's record was immediately broken by the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski, it was still an impressive performance for such a young player. Meanwhile, all-purpose running back, receiver and return specialist Darren Sproles broke an 11-year-old record for all-purpose yards in one season. Sportswriter Nicholas Fontenot of the Shreveport Times summed up the team's last game of the year perfectly: "If a record exists for most records broken in a single season, the 2011 New Orleans Saints have probably set it."
Off the field, the Saints continued to make the city proud as well. There scarcely seemed to be a day during the season when one or more players weren't doing something for their own charitable foundation or another good cause. In an era when many pro athletes are spoiled, mired in scandal or just throwing juvenile tantrums, the Saints exhibited exemplary behavior in the community as well as on the gridiron.
Whatever happens in the post-season, one thing is certain: The 2011 New Orleans Saints are already winners.
Another one for the record books: Jim Henderson, longtime sports director for WWL-TV and the voice of the Saints on radio, announced last week he would retire from television in February. If the Saints make it to the Super Bowl again, he says, that will be the grace note on a long and honored career.
Henderson began at WWL-TV in 1978. He likes to tell the story of how, on his first day, he was confronted with picketers angry that he was replacing the legendary sportscaster Hap Glaudi. Since that day, he's become not only the city's preeminent sportscaster and commentator, but also one of the city's best journalists, period.
With a bachelor's degree in English as well as a master's degree in radio and television, Henderson delivered sportscasts and commentaries that were both erudite and down-to-earth. He has received the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association's Sportscaster of the Year Award 13 times, and last year the New Orleans Press Club honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award. More important, he's deeply respected by his colleagues, the teams he covers and the public as one of the genuine class acts in New Orleans television.
If there's one silver lining, it's that Hondo will continue in his role on the "Saints Radio Network," providing play-by-play of Saints games with analyst Hokie Gajan. It's become a ritual for Black and Gold fans to turn off the sound on their TVs and let Henderson call the game. We wish him well in his "retirement," but we hope to hear his voice coming from our radios for many, many years to come. Good luck, Jim.