METAIRIE, La. (AP) - It all began with the hiring of a rookie head coach and the signing of a quarterback with an injured throwing shoulder.
Making Sean Payton and Drew Brees the foundation of the rebuilding Saints may have looked a little risky in 2006, but it started New Orleans on a path from disarray to dominance.
Along the way, there have been a slew of fruitful late-round draft picks and unheralded free-agent signings that have combined to make the Saints what they are - the eighth team in NFL history to start a season 12-0.
"We've got a coaching staff that has a mentality that we're going to bring them guys they can work with and they do a great job of coaching them up and getting the most out of what they have," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said this week. "Sean has a particular talent of being able to look at someone and say, this guy's got this strength and I can use that."
The Saints, for example, never had to get into a bidding war over 34-year-old safety Darren Sharper or recovering drug abuser Anthony Hargrove. Both signed one-year league minimum contracts with the Saints this year and have played key roles.
Sharper is tied for the NFL lead in interceptions this season with eight, three of which he's returned for scores. Hargrove has become a regular on the defensive line with a few highlights of his own, including a fumble recovery for a touchdown. His three sacks rank second on the team.
They joined a roster where small colleges players that few knew of when they were drafted became immediate starters and eventually household names in the NFL.
They joined a roster with small-college players few had heard of when they were drafted, but who went on to become starters and eventually household names in the NFL.
Marques Colston played for Hofstra, an FCS school that recently announced it will disband its football program. The former seventh-round choice has 854 yards and eight TDs receiving this season, putting him on pace to surpass 1,000 yards receiving for the third time in four years.
Offensive guard Jahri Evans played at Division II Bloomsburg. He has started every game since being drafted in the fourth round in 2006.
Then there were the players that Payton kept from the team that had gone 3-13 while displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Right tackle Jon Stinchcomb appeared in only 10 games as a reserve in his first two seasons after being drafted out of Georgia in 2003. He spent 2005 on injured reserve. Payton made him the starter after training camp in 2006, and he's started every game since on an offensive line that has kept Brees among the NFL's least-sacked quarterbacks.
"He had a good picture of what he wanted to create from a core group of guys and then began to supplement in areas each year, just building a program," Stinchcomb said of Payton. "I think he would tell you he based it on good character guys that put team first and that had talent in almost that order.
"It was important for him to start with a guy like Drew Brees who has the highest character. He really embodies the type of player the coach talks about wanting on this team, and you look around this locker room, top to bottom, and that's what he's been able to find."
Given Payton's background as a college quarterback and offensive assistant in the NFL, it made sense that the Saints initially were strongest on offense. Brees proved his doubters wrong and rewarded Payton's faith by fully rehabilitating the torn labrum in his right shoulder. Then, with Payton designing and calling offensive plays, and Brees executing them with precision, the Saints led the NFL in offense in two of their first three years together. This year, New Orleans leads the NFL in offense again.
What the Saints needed was better defense, and they've gotten it with the help of new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and several new players.
Although Jabari Greer is injured now, he quickly became the Saints' top cornerback after signing as a free agent in the offseason and performed well in the first eight games. The Saints hope to have him back for the playoffs. With Greer and fellow starter Tracy Porter (sprained knee) both out, the Saints took a chance on Mike McKenzie, a player they had cut last winter because he'd had two serious knee injuries in the previous two seasons. In his first game back, he intercepted Tom Brady and broke up a fourth-down pass in the Saints' resounding 38-17 victory over the Patriots.
Loomis is quick to say there's been some luck involved, holding up Sharper as an example.
"We certainly didn't expect eight interceptions and three touchdowns," Loomis said. "Those older veterans - sometimes it's good to get them when they feel like they've still got something to prove. To Darren's credit, he came in with that kind of attitude."
Loomis said there is a tendency in pro sports for coaches and personnel departments to butt heads sometimes. Loomis and Payton meet four to five times a day to make sure they're working in lockstep. Meanwhile, scouts are invited to sit in on team meetings during the season to hear "what coaches are talking about to the players and understand what they're asking our players to do," Loomis said.
Loomis credits the chemistry between the coaching staff and personnel department for numerous roster decisions that have paid off handsomely in past few years. In 2008, the Saints acquired middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who was coming off a knee injury, from the Jets for a fourth-round draft pick. He's started every game since and is among the team leaders in tackles.
In 2006 the Saints acquired linebacker Scott Shanle from Dallas for a late-round draft pick. He's started all but one game since and has two interceptions this season. This season, the Saints got tight end David Thomas from the Patriots for a future seventh-round draft choice. He's come through with repeated third-down catches and a touchdown while also filling in at fullback.
The Saints top two rushers, Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell, both were undrafted players. Thomas was signed as a rookie in 2007 and was kept instead of Saints fourth-round draft pick Antonio Pittman.
"You've got to give credit to (Payton) for keeping an undrafted guy over a fourth-round pick," Shanle said. "Even though he was better, a lot of teams don't do that. Coach Payton and Mickey, since we got here, they've said, 'We're going to keep the best players. We don't care what round you're drafted in, how you got here.' So when they do that and prove to guys on the team they're really serious, that makes a huge difference."
Bell was without a job when the Saints brought him in during the 2008 season. He and Thomas have combined for 1,264 yards and nine TDs so far this season. The Saints' running game ranks fifth in the NFL.
Then there's starting offensive guard Carl Nicks, whose draft status was hurt by an arrest while he was at Nebraska. The Saints usually avoid players who've had trouble off the field. Loomis, however, said pro scouting director Ryan Pace and college scouting director Rick Reiprish have been good at gauging when it's worth taking a measured risk on such players. The Saints drafted Nicks in the fifth round in 2008 and he became a starter during his rookie year.
"We go in with our eyes wide open and we're not going to make a big investment on those types of things up front," Loomis said. "A fifth-round pick, you're hoping he makes your team and if he's a contributor all the better. If he's a starter you've hit a home run."
Even the high draft picks that initially looked like busts have worked out. After being drafted in the first round in 2007, Robert Meachem did not play a down in his rookie season and played sparingly in his second year.
This season, he's emerged as the Saints' top big-play threat, with a team-leading nine touchdowns.
"Acquiring the player is one thing, but at the end of the day, we're relying on our coaching staff to take young guys and develop them and recognize when they're ready to play," Loomis said. "That's one of the great talents we have on our staff right now."