Commentary

10 Spot: Bad company

The Saints left a fraternity no NFL franchise wants to pledge

Originally Published: January 29, 2010
By Adam Schefter | ESPN.com

With the New Orleans Saints competing in the Super Bowl for the first time, the NFL has its version of a "Final Four," a dubious honor for its membership.

Here are the only four of the existing 32 franchises never to have made it to a Super Bowl:

The Cleveland Browns. The Detroit Lions. The Houston Texans. The Jacksonville Jaguars.

Every other NFL team has advanced to the Super Bowl at least once, including New Orleans, the latest team to make its run from shame and into the title game.

Sunday night, confetti showers rained down on New Orleans in a way they never had before. The Superdome exploded with noise and hope. For the first time, in a moment none of its fans will ever forget, New Orleans was on its way to the Super Bowl.

This week's 10 Spot shines a spotlight not only on the Saints and Indianapolis Colts -- the Super Bowl XLIV combatants -- but also on the four teams that have never made it to the title game.

Now Jacksonville and Houston have an excuse. Jacksonville didn't start playing until 1995. The Texans didn't begin play until 2002. Their opportunities have been as limited as their talent -- though the Jaguars were in the 1996 and 1999 AFC Championship Games.

But the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions have been in existence longer than the Super Bowl, and still their fans know nothing but heartbreak.

It's the type of heartbreak the Minnesota Vikings experienced Sunday on an even higher level, just 60 minutes from Miami. But the flip side was New Orleans.

The last time New Orleans experienced any type of professional sports championship run was back in 1968, when the New Orleans Buccaneers advanced to the ABA Finals. Of course they lost, leaving the city without a title.

But this year's Saints have made it feel as if it were all worthwhile. Of all the Saints' accomplishments this season, none was more impressive than this: They brought happiness to their city and hope to others.

The Saints checked out of the NFL history books and into Miami, all while creating the NFL's new final four.

And now back to this week's 10 Spot.

1) Peyton Manning is a master -- arguably The Master. It is easy to admire him, respect him, cheer him -- unless your favorite team happens to play against him. That's especially true in the AFC South.

Woe are the AFC South teams that must try to fight their way to a division title or into the postseason when they must face Manning twice a season. It is no accident that the Colts have won the AFC South six of the past seven seasons, with the one exception coming last season, when Tennessee's 13-3 record barely trumped Indianapolis' 12-4 mark.

As long as the 33-year-old Manning is quarterbacking the Colts -- and there's little reason to doubt that he will be doing it for at least the next half-dozen years -- other AFC South teams face long odds in trying to reach the postseason. For the Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans or Jacksonville Jaguars to qualify for the playoffs, it will take a performance equal to, or better than, the one that Manning turns in for the Colts.

Good luck with that. Other AFC teams not in the South have a much clearer path to the playoffs. In the other circuit, NFC teams don't have to worry about Peyton Manning until the final Sunday of the season.

But the AFC South presents some unique and challenging problems. AFC South coaches, defenses and organizations face pressures than no other franchises do. They are difficult to overcome. By the time Manning's career is complete, it might turn out to have been a virtually wasted decade for the Titans, Texans and Jaguars.

2) If they could, teams would hire former Colts coach Tony Dungy tomorrow. His credentials are impeccable. His personality is even more impressive. Yet Dungy's teams have fared as well without him as with him -- if not better.

After the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fired Dungy on Jan. 14, 2002, they won the Super Bowl the next season. Then last January, after Dungy announced his retirement, the Colts reeled off 14 straight regular-season wins and then two more in the playoffs to reach Super Bowl XLIV.

Now Dungy is the first coach in NFL history to see two teams he left reach the Super Bowl the season after he left it. As well as Dungy coaches his teams -- he's got the Colts' Super Bowl XLI title to his credit -- he might do an even better job molding them and preparing them for the future. And should a team lure Dungy back to the game in future years -- and it could happen -- then it could feel reasonably comfortable that some of its greatest successes might come the season after Dungy leaves it.

3) Speaking of Dungy, there's a note that New Orleans would rather not read. No team that ever has lost to Tampa Bay during the season has gone on to win the Super Bowl in the same season. But maybe things are changing. Up until last weekend, no team that ever lost to Tampa Bay during the regular season had reached the Super Bowl in the same season. Now New Orleans has shattered one trend -- and soon will attempt to shatter the other.

4) Think of the hotel where you spent your honeymoon -- or a hotel where you enjoyed one of the best weeks of your life. When the Colts think of this, they think of the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. where they were housed for their Super Bowl XLI victory over the Chicago Bears. Now when the Colts head back to Miami, where the franchise has played in all four of its Super Bowls (III, V, XLI and now XLIV), it once again will be staying at the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort in Fort Lauderdale. (For a glimpse of the hotel, check out its Web site.)

Not only will the Colts stay at the same hotel, but they will also practice at the same training facility as their last Super Bowl trip. Twenty-five players who already won one Super Bowl with Indianapolis now will attempt to win another in the same places as last time. There will be similar meeting times, similar news conference times, similar practice times, similar everything.

Colts rookie head coach Jim Caldwell has been able to take the schedule that team president Bill Polian and former head coach Dungy helped formulate and apply it for the team's newest business trip. Basically, the Colts will be reliving one of the happiest times of their lives while the Saints are acclimating themselves to the Intercontinental Hotel in Miami. It might not sound like much, but it has to be some type of psychological advantage.

5) Oklahoma's 2004 freshman class produced two NFL players who had a profound impact on deciding this year's NFC Championship Game. Any NFL scout who studied Oklahoma that year would have pegged Sooners running back Adrian Peterson as the one player most likely to carry his team to a Super Bowl appearance.

Peterson turned out to be the Vikings' 2007 first-round draft pick, an instant star and one of the key's to Minnesota's playoff run this season. But the player from Oklahoma's 2004 freshman class who turned out to be the biggest difference-maker Sunday was Saints kicker Garrett Hartley, who booted the Saints to an NFC Championship and a trip to Super Bowl XLIV.

Like Peterson, who finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting his freshman year, Hartley contributed early in his career at Oklahoma. Like Peterson, Hartley went on to a successful NFL career. Like Peterson, Hartley was a key figure in the NFC Championship Game. But whereas Peterson scored three touchdowns, Hartley kicked the game-winning 40-yard field goal that sent him to the Super Bowl before his more heralded college teammate.

6) Some of the most famous people named Pierre include Pierre Harmel, the former Belgian prime minister; Pierre Trudeau, the former Canadian prime minister; Pierre Cardin, the French fashion designer; and Pierre Curie, the French physicist and husband of Marie Curie. But now two Pierres in the NFL are building their own names and creating their own legacies. In Sunday's AFC Championship Game, Colts wide receiver Pierre Garcon caught 11 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown against the New York Jets before proudly displaying a Haitian flag.

Then, in the NFC Championship Game, Saints running back Pierre Thomas accounted for 99 yards from the line of scrimmage and scored twice. There never was a better day to be named Pierre. Maybe it could cause a proliferation of the name that is the French form of the name Peter and means "rock."

But admit it -- Peter Garcon and Peter Thomas don't sound anywhere near as elegant as Pierre Garcon and Pierre Thomas. Those are flashy names and productive players.

7) It's easy to forget now. But after former Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison was released last offseason, the player expected to replace him was Indianapolis' former first-round pick Anthony Gonzalez. But in the 2009 season's first game, Gonzalez injured his knee and never returned. If the Colts had had the guy they thought would be their second-best receiver, Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie probably would not have made the strides that they did this season.

But when Gonzalez returns next season, the Colts will be overloaded at receiver, more so than any other team in the league. They'll have Reggie Wayne, Gonzalez, Garcon and Collie, not to mention Pro Bowl tight end Dallas Clark. Good luck covering all of them. For the remainder of his career, Manning will have a surplus of targets for his touchdown passes.

With all the firepower Indianapolis has, New Orleans is going to need as many good defensive backs as it can line up. Just look at what happened to the Jets, who did not have enough defensive back depth to match up with the Colts. They got Manning-handled. Fortunately for the Saints, their 2009 first-round pick, cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, is expected to return to play after missing the NFC Championship Game with a hamstring injury.

Hamstrings can be tricky, and Jenkins will have to test his at practice next week to determine how healthy he is and how much he can play. But New Orleans needs him out there more than it has needed him for any matchup this postseason, and Saints coach Sean Payton said this week that he expects to have him.

8) Any team that wants to knock off the Saints or Colts next season better take care of business during the regular season. Should New Orleans, Indianapolis or any dome team play home playoff games next year, they are going to be difficult to defeat.

Just consider what happened this postseason. Dome teams -- New Orleans, Indianapolis, Minnesota -- posted a 5-0 record at home this postseason. But home dome teams' success goes beyond this postseason. After the Pittsburgh Steelers upset the Colts in Indianapolis in the 2005 divisional playoffs, home dome teams have gone 11-2 in the postseason. Since 2000, home dome teams have compiled an 18-4 postseason record, losing only to the 2008 Eagles, 2007 Chargers, 2005 Steelers and 2003 Panthers. So the Vikings didn't lose the NFC Championship Game to the Saints on Sunday so much as they lost it to them during the regular season, when New Orleans won home-field advantage.

9) Older people typically flock to and thrive in Miami. So it is only fitting that a game in Miami will make history for having the Super Bowl's oldest player. Colts kicker Matt Stover turned 42 years old Wednesday.

By the time Super Bowl XLIV kicks off, Stover will be 42 years and 11 days old -- the oldest player in Super Bowl history. Stover is so old that when he went to training camp with the New York Giants in 1990, his teammates included quarterback Phil Simms and linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Those players have left the game, but Stover hasn't. Now he is assured of making Super Bowl history, breaking the mark that Giants punter Jeff Feagles set in Super Bowl XLII, when he was 41 years and 333 days old.

Stover certainly has the experience over Garrett Hartley; Stover has attempted 563 NFL field goals, while Hartley has tried only 26. And while Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Drew Brees and Reggie Bush are role models for the younger generation, Stover is a role model for -- as, appropriately enough, The Who would sing -- my generation.

And a special shoutout to John Carney, the Saints' main placekicker for much of this season. At 45, the 21-year NFL veteran would have smashed record for the oldest player in Super Bowl history. He connected on 13 of 17 field goal attempts, including a season-long 46-yarder in the Saints' exciting 46-34 come-from-behind victory at the Miami Dolphins in October. Another gig kicking in Miami -- this time in the Super Bowl -- would have been a fitting homecoming for the West Palm Beach, Fla., native.

But the Saints waived Carney on Dec. 22, made Hartley their first-string place-kicker, and on Christmas Eve hired Carney as a consultant. He's ineligible to kick again this season, but Carney can take some satisfaction that his protégé Hartley is a hero for kicking the Saints into the Super Bowl.

10) Sportsman that he is, President Barack Obama has taken a keen interest in rooting for and picking winners. Last year he picked the Pittsburgh Steelers to win the Super Bowl, and was right. Then he picked North Carolina to win the NCAA basketball tournament, and he was right. And now, even though he hasn't necessarily picked the New Orleans Saints, Obama is rooting for them. In an interview this week with Diane Sawyer, before he delivered his State of the Union address, Obama toed the politically correct line, then threw his support behind New Orleans.

"You know, I think both teams are terrific," Obama told Sawyer. "I guess I am rooting a little bit for the Saints as the underdog partly just because when I think about what's happened in New Orleans over the last several years and how much that team means to them. You know, I'm pretty sympathetic." So now we'll see how prescient our president is.

Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.