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Revisiting Saints trading entire draft for Ricky Williams and the deals that almost happened

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“Twenty years ago—that’s crazy,” the Washington coach at the time, Norv Turner, said Friday. As was the deal. At the time, so much about it was revolutionary. The noted draft-value trade chart, invented by the Cowboys a few years earlier, had the Saints trading away 4,441 points of draft value in exchange for 1,700 points—the value of the fifth overall pick. “When the coaches were told about it that day,” Turner said, “we looked at each other and said, ‘This isn’t real. You gotta do that.’ “ And GM Charley Casserly, negotiating with Saints GM Billy Kuharich, agreed to it eagerly.

Ditka was smitten with Williams after his 2,124-yard, 27-TD senior year at Texas, and he proclaimed at the league meetings a month before the draft that he’d trade his entire draft for Williams. “Put us in line,” Casserly told Kuharich. Except New Orleans didn’t have a second-round pick that year. So Casserly said he’d have to have a first and third in 2000 to make up for the lack of a second-rounder. The Saints did it. (Man, why not ask for Ditka’s first-born too?) “A generational trade,” Casserly called it.

From the moment the deal happened, there were problems. Big problems. Williams was intensely shy. The Saints flew him to New Orleans for a post-draft press conference. On the plane, he was given a Saints cap to wear. “I’m not wearing that,” Williams said. He was told he’d be doing the press conference from a podium. “I’m not doing that,” he said.

Uh-oh.

When the dreadlocked Williams got to the Saints offices, Ditka greeted him wearing a wig with dreadlocks, and a flowered shirt and shorts. Williams did the press conference, standing to the side of the podium, not behind it. There was a fan fest with maybe 5,000 fans there on the property, fans going crazy because they got the best player in college football, and they chanted for Williams. Someone with Williams that day said, “Ricky looked around, and he was in shock. This was not what he thought the NFL would be. The look on his face was, ‘What the f— is this?’ “

Ricky-mania was in full swing. Williams dressed in a wedding gown and Ditka in a wedding tux, and they posed as bride and groom for an August 1999 cover of ESPN The Magazine. Heaven knows why Williams did that, but the season started bad and got worse. Williams’ shyness bordered on the weird. I went into New Orleans to interview him, and though pleasant enough, he insisted on doing the interview with his helmet on, with the dark shield covering his face. The Saints went 3-13, and Ditka was fired.

Williams lasted three seasons with the Saints before being traded to Miami in 2002. Other than helping New Orleans win a division title in 2000, Williams’ tenure in New Orleans was more circus than football. I texted Ditka on Friday and would have loved to speak with him about the trade and the weird year, but he didn’t get back to me.

“Oh my God,” his assistant head coach, Rick Venturi, said the other day. “That trade was a sugar rush for the franchise. We were at a low ebb. Everyone makes fun of the deal, because we gave up the farm to get Ricky, but we really trusted Mike. He’d won before, and he gave us faith we’d win with him.”

Postscript I: The Bengals, picking third, had a chance to make the same deal Washington made. Eight picks to move from three to 12 with New Orleans. Nope, the Bengals said. We’re staying. We’re picking the guy we want badly. Akili Smith.

Postscript II: Casserly thought he had a deal with Chicago, picking seventh, to move from 12 to seven if the player Washington wanted was available. That player: Champ Bailey. So after the deal with the Saints went through, Casserly called the Bears back, ready to move up five slots in exchange for third, fourth and fifth-round picks. “We had a deal, but they upped the ante on me when I called back,” he said. The Bears wanted Washington’s third-rounder in 2000, or there’d be no deal. Casserly, fuming, took a deep breath and agreed to the ransom. “If you really want the player, you’ve got to take a step back and take the emotion out of it,” he said. Washington got Bailey at seven.

Postscript III: I didn’t ask Casserly if he got any satisfaction from the quarterback Chicago took to be its long-term QB solution at 12—Cade McNown, who won three games in two years for the Bears. McNown was a disaster, and was out of football after two seasons.

Postscript IV: Casserly’s reward for getting those eight picks and maneuvering to pick up Bailey, and following that with Washington winning the NFC East? He got fired at the end of the year after new owner Dan Snyder took over.

Postscript V: Bailey lasted only five years in Washington before a contract dispute prompted the team to trade him to Denver for Clinton Portis. Bailey played 10 of his 15 seasons in a 15-year career for Denver. After being elected to the Hall last February, Bailey got a call from Casserly. “You realize I never would have traded you,” Casserly said.

Postscript VI: Williams had a good NFL career, in between missing two years for a “retirement” and a marijuana suspension. He finished with 10,009 rushing yards in 11 seasons, 31st on the all-time rushing list. Interesting who is 32nd: Clinton Portis.

They don’t make trades like they used to. 

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Saints field-goal favorites on NFC Championship Game odds

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The idea of a Superdome mystique boosting the New Orleans Saints is not supported by their record against the spread when hosting postseason games.

The Saints, led by quarterback Drew Brees, are 3-point favorites  on the NFL odds against the Los Angeles Rams with a 56.5-point total for their NFC Championship Game matchup on Sunday at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

The Saints are 9-0 straight-up in their last nine home games against teams with winning records, but are just 2-7 against the spread in their last nine games in the playoffs as home favorites at the Superdome. The Rams are also 9-2 SU in their last 11 road games.

Home teams are 10-0 SU in conference championship games over the last five years and favorites are 8-2 SU.

The Rams, who are 14-3 SU and 8-7-2 ATS this season, come into this matchup that decides a Super Bowl berth as perhaps the hotter team. Since Week 15, the Rams’ Jared Goff-led offense is averaging 33.0 points per game and 5.92 yards per play, compared to the Saints’ averages of 21.0 and 5.65 with Brees behind center in that same span.

Since losing to the Saints 45-35 in Week 9, the Rams have fortified their ground game, with Todd Gurley being spelled by C.J. Anderson. The Rams have a much stronger running game than the Philadelphia Eagles team the Saints edged in the divisional round, and New Orleans also lost run-stuffing defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (Achilles) for the year during that game.

The Saints are 14-3 SU and 10-7 on the point spread, and between future Hall of Fame passer Brees and his supporting cast that includes wide receiver Michael Thomas and running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, they often prove tough to contain at home.

Bettors who put stock in the conference-championship home-team trend likely also know that the Saints are 15-2 SU in their last 17 home games. Thomas, who had 12 receptions for 171 yards against the Eagles, was even more productive against the Rams in the regular season with 12 catches for 211 yards.

With that said, matchups and health are also paramount and Saints left tackle Terron Armstead (pectoral) will be playing hurt while lining up across from a defensive front that includes fearsome Aaron Donald, along with Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers.

The last four NFC title games has all gone OVER the closing total at sports betting sites.

The total has gone OVER in five of the Rams’ last six games on the road against the Saints. The total has gone OVER in eight of the Saints’ last nine home games where they were favored by 4.0 or fewer points.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

How a pump fake helped Saints beat Eagles

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NEW ORLEANS — Sometimes, in a slog of a game, when your season’s on the line and you’re down two touchdowns and absolutely nothing is coming easy, you’ve got to turn to a little hocus-pocus. You’ve got to call Doobie Pump.

And sometimes, when you’ve caught more passes than anyone in the league, and you’re near the end of a long season, and you are just dying to put your team on your back and prove to America and to your home crowd—which, by the way, lost its collective vocal chords in a high-decibel performance for the ages at the Superdome on Sunday—that there’s no better receiver in the NFL, you have to take one for the team. You have to be a decoy.

“At a crucial point of our season,” Drew Brees told me later, “Michael Thomas was a big piece of cheese.”

Thomas caught a Saints postseason-record 12 balls for 171 yards and a touchdown against the Eagles in the divisional playoffs, but it was a ball he didn’t catch that was his biggest contribution to the game … and a play that was his favorite play of his best postseason day.

Eagles 14, Saints 0, midway through the second quarter, fourth-and-goal at the Eagles’ 2-yard line. All eyes on Thomas, one of three Saints receivers to the left of the formation. The Saints, in a very Doug Pederson call, were going for it, and two Eagle defenders cheated toward Thomas as Brees called the cadence. Thomas came in motion from outside the numbers to the slot.

“Plays like this are the cool plays,” Thomas said in a quiet moment by his locker later, after the media herd thinned out. “It’s the kind of play the real coaches and the real players appreciate.”

Brees took the snap, stared at Thomas and pumped his arm forward. Everyone in the place, and Eagles defensive backs Cre’Von LeBlanc and Josh Hawkins, focused on Thomas.

After the game, Sean Payton stood in his office and drew it up on his whiteboard. Three receivers to the left, and the widest, Thomas, motions inside. “Looks like Mike’s gonna get it,” Payton said, stopping the blue marker behind the left guard, “but all of a sudden, it’s a pump. See, most times this season people would see that motion and we’d stick it in there to Mike, but in this case, Drew pumps. Everything about this play was Mike Thomas, till it wasn’t.”

“So,” Brees picks up the story, “I pump to Mike and they’re reacting to it, and that leaves [rookie receiver Keith] Kirkwood with a step on his guy over the top in the end zone, just the way we hoped, and just what happened in practice.”

The key was getting one of the corners, LeBlanc, who was on Kirkwood, to tend to Thomas in the same neighborhood. He did. And Kirkwood got a step on LeBlanc, and Brees’ throw was true. Easy touchdown to Kirkwood. One of the toughest TD drives of the year, from start to finish, for New Orleans, but also one of the most rewarding.

“I really wanted that play to work,” said Thomas. “It’s strange, but sometimes, when I’m getting all these targets from Drew—I caught the most passes in the league this year and didn’t drop many—people don’t really get to know exactly what kind of player I am. You know, I’m kind of selfish, but selfish in a way that I want to see the other guys I play with succeed too.”

Thomas said these “real plays” are the one receivers would talk about away from the field. “That’s the kind of play that the Larry Fitzgeralds and the Anquan Boldins, the great receivers, the guys who go to the Hall of Fame, they do. I’m happy to build my résumé by putting that one out there for people to see.”

That’s the fun thing about the Saints. They had so many issues  Sunday, with dumb penalties—guard Andrus Peat was flagged four times, twice for holding—but they keep coming at you. Afterward, Brees reflected on his long tenure, and whether he could have envisioned another shot at a Super Bowl after three straight 7-9 seasons in 2014, ’15 and ’16.

“Well, ’14 and ’15 were tough, really tough,” Brees said. “We lost a ton of guys and it was a different locker room, a different vibe. But after the ’16 season, we made an effort to draft the right guys—guys of character, toughness and intelligence. We rebuilt the foundation and the culture of the team that we had for so long here but somehow we lost. We brought in the right guys, and look at the results.”

“What are you going to do Tuesday?” I asked.

“My birthday?” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Your 40th.”

“I’m gonna be sitting there grinding on Rams film,” he said. “Like I always do. I’ve got the whole offseason to celebrate. My son [Baylen] turns 10 Tuesday. He was born on my 30th birthday. So it’ll be all about him. I might get a piece of his birthday cake.”

It’s not often a quarterback gets a second life with many of the same important characters, like Payton and GM Mickey Loomis. But as Brees reveled in it Sunday in his locker room, and as Payton and Loomis told stories postgame with visitor and Saints fan Isiah Thomas, this felt like the good old days, the nine-year-old Super Bowl days, in the Big Easy. That’s the last time I heard the crowd like this—in the NFC Championship Game overtime win against the Vikings. The franchise, and the city, will have a lot to live up to Sunday against the Rams.

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