INDIANAPOLIS – The relationship between Archie Manning and the New Orleans Saints was always star-crossed; bad timing, bad teams, bad karma. The Saints drafted Archie out of Ole Miss in 1971 and watched him become known as best quarterback to play on the worst team in NFL history.
It was 10 full seasons with Manning at the helm – or running for his life from defensive linemen – and 10 seasons without a winning record. It was one of the strangest careers anyone has ever seen – even rival players said they sometimes took it easy when sacking Manning because they felt bad for the guy.
Manning is the quintessential Southern gentleman, an unfailing polite native of little Drew, Miss., who never left New Orleans after his playing days. He long ago forgave the Saints organization, even if his 60-year-old body still feels all those pile drives into the Louisiana Superdome turf each Sunday.
New Orleans, meanwhile, has been a lovable loser despite its inglorious history, its era as the 'Aints and its fans who once wore paper bags over their heads so TV cameras wouldn't tell the world they had no taste in teams. The franchise may not have done many favors for Archie Manning, but his three boys, Cooper, Peyton and Eli, grew up fans anyway. Everyone in Louisiana does. After both Katrina and Drew Brees(notes)(ed) into town, the bond grew even tighter
So now here comes the most bizarre twist of all. New Orleans has at last reached the Super Bowl (a franchise first) and not only won't Archie and his Manning clan be able to root for the team, it's Peyton, the most prominent of the sons, that stands in the way of the Saints reaching the ultimate in football glory.
If New Orleans loses to the Indianapolis Colts on Feb. 7 in South Florida, it'll almost assuredly be because Archie Manning's kid crushed their dreams.
"Somebody's going to win," Archie said Sunday outside the Colts locker room. "And somebody is going to lose."
There's a Shakespearean drama in here somewhere. It's the cursed franchise, its mistreated, beaten-down former savior and the son with the chance to deliver payback for all those seasons of mauling and misery. It's the sporting passion of New Orleans against the city's first football family.
"I've lived in New Orleans for 39 years and I'm very proud of what the Saints have done," said Archie Manning, who finished his career with the Oilers and Vikings. "Very proud."
Yet make no mistake about his allegiances. Blood is thicker than Bourbon Street.
"I'm pulling for the Colts, 100 percent," Manning said. "One-hundred percent. That's not close."
For the Mannings, revenge has nothing to do with this. Yes, the Saints organization should've gotten Archie some offensive linemen who could've saved him, but that's deep in the past. Football gave them a gorgeous home in the city's Garden District, where the three boys developed into football stars – Cooper a high school star until injuries did him in, Peyton and Eli starting quarterbacks for Indianapolis and the New York Giants, respectively.
Archie Manning's career with the Saints (did not play in '76)
Atts, Comps, Yds
6 TDs, 9 INTs
18 TDs, 21 INTs
10 TDs, 12 INTs
6 TDs, 16 INTs
7 TDs, 20 INTs
8 TDs, 9 INTs
17 TDs, 16 INTs
15 TDs, 20 TDs
23 TDs, 20 INTs
5 TDs, 11 INTs
0 TDs, 2 INTs
If a Manning wasn't under center against New Orleans' opponent, the family would be yelling "Who Dat?" all over South Beach like everyone else.
"I hate to think about that," Cooper Manning said. "I'm born and bred in New Orleans. And love the Saints. I'm good friends with Drew Brees and Coach [Sean] Payton and have nothing but good things to say about them. All my friends are Saints fans. All my friends [were] at the Superdome [Sunday].
"So that could be a little awkward."
Especially if it's his brother, winner of consecutive MVPs and on a playoff tear like he has never experienced, that slams the door on the Saints at the final hour.
Karma doesn't care about forgiveness; someone get Anne Rice to break out the tarot cards because this is borderline voodoo.
Perhaps no franchise misused a potential superstar the way the Saints did with Archie. He managed to make two Pro Bowls despite a 35-91-3 record in New Orleans. He was sacked an outrageous 339 times, including four seasons when he got buried 40 or more times. By comparison, Peyton took just 10 sacks this season.
So now that the Saints finally got their act together, here's one of his sons slinging it around against them? Oh, and Peyton's favorite receiver just happens to be Reggie Wayne(notes), a New Orleans native himself? And the two of them playing at an elite level few pitchers and catchers have ever attained?
It would've been nice for everyone if the Saints had made a Super Bowl that didn't have a Manning in it. Of course, that's not easy to find anymore. This will be the third time in four years that a Manning brother is one of the game's starting quarterbacks – Peyton won it in 2007, Eli in 2008. For a dad who experienced so little professional team success, it's been a bountiful run.
"I sure never got close to it," Archie said. "So maybe it's justice."
Or some cosmic revenge, nearly four decades later, the son returning to pay back the Saints for the sacks of the father.