First the brainchild of local sports entrepreneur Dave Dixon, who later built the Louisiana Superdome and founded the USFL, the Saints were actually secretly born in a backroom deal brought about by U.S. Congressman Hale Boggs, U.S. Senator Russell Long, and NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. The NFL needed congressional approval of the proposed AFL–NFL merger. Dixon and a local civic group had been seeking an NFL franchise for over five years and had hosted record crowds for NFL exhibition games. To seal the merger, Rozelle arrived in New Orleans within a week, and announced on November 1, 1966, that the NFL officially had awarded the city of New Orleans an NFL franchise. The team was named for the great jazz song most identified with New Orleans – "When the Saints Go Marching In", and it was no coincidence that the franchise's official birth was announced on November 1, which is the Catholic All Saints' Day. When the deal was reached a week earlier, Dixon strongly suggested to Rozelle that the announcement be delayed until then. Dixon told an interviewer that he even cleared the name with New Orleans' Archbishop Philip M. Hannan: "He thought it would be a good idea. He had an idea the team was going to need all the help it could get."
Boggs' Congressional committee in turn quickly approved the NFL merger. John W. Mecom Jr., a young oilman from Houston, became the team's first majority stockholder. The team's colors, black and gold, symbolized both Mecom's and New Orleans' strong ties to the oil industry. Trumpeter Al Hirt was part owner of the team, and his rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In" was made the official fight song.
, pictured attempting a pass in 1980, was one of the first players to be inducted into the Saints' Ring of Honor.
The inaugural game in 1967 on September 17 started with a 94-yard opening kickoff return for a touchdown by John Gilliam, but the Saints lost that game 27–13 to the Los Angeles Rams at Tulane Stadium, with over 80,000 in attendance. It was one of the few highlights of a 3–11 season, which set an NFL record for most wins by an expansion team.
For most of their first 20 years, the Saints were the definition of NFL futility. They did not finish as high as second in their division until 1979. The 1979 and 1983 teams were the only ones to even finish at .500 until 1987.
One of the franchise's early bright moments came on November 8, 1970, when Tom Dempsey kicked an NFL record-breaking 63-yard field goal at Tulane Stadium to defeat the Detroit Lions 19–17 in the final seconds of the game; the previous record was seven yards less, set in 1953. Dempsey's record was not broken until 2013 by Matt Prater of the Denver Broncos, who kicked one yard farther (at elevation in Colorado).
In 1980, the Saints lost their first 14 games, prompting local sportscaster Bernard "Buddy D" Diliberto to advise Saints supporters to wear paper bags over their heads at the team's home games; many bags rendered the club's name as the "'Aints" rather than the "Saints."
Jim E. Mora era (1986–1996)
Tom Benson, a successful automobile dealership owner and banker, acquired the franchise in 1985, and hired Jim Finks as general manager and Jim Mora as head coach. That combination provided the Saints with their first-ever winning record and playoff appearance, going 12–3 in 1987, which had one fewer game than normal due to a players' strike. Another playoff berth would follow in 1991, and the club's first division title came in 1991. During Mora's tenure, the Saints made the playoffs four times, with teams marked by strong defenses led by the "Dome Patrol" linebacking corps, but they were never able to win a playoff game. Mora coached the Saints until the middle of the 1996 season, when he stepped down halfway through the 3–13 season. His 93 wins were three more than the Saints won in their entire history prior to his arrival, and would remain the most for any Saints coach until 2016.
Mike Ditka era (1997–1999)
After the end of the 1996 season, ironically as Diliberto had suggested before Mora's resignation, former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka was hired to replace Mora. Although this initially generated a lot of excitement among Saints fans, Ditka's tenure ended up being a failure. The Saints went 6–10 in their first two seasons under Ditka (1997 and 1998). During the 1999 NFL Draft, Ditka traded all of his picks for that season, as well as the first-round and third-round picks for the following season, to the Washington Redskins in order to draft Heisman Trophy running back Ricky Williams in the first round. Ditka and Williams had a mock wedding picture taken to commemorate the occasion. However, Ditka, most of his coaching staff, and general manager Bill Kuharich were fired at the end of the 1999 season due to the club's 3–13 record.
Jim Haslett era (2000–2005)
Jim Haslett held the post from 2000 to 2005. In his first year, he took the team to the 2000 playoffs and defeated the defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams for the team's first ever playoff win. The team lost the following week to the Minnesota Vikings. After winning the 2000 NFL Executive of the Year Award, General Manager Randy Mueller was fired between the 2001 and 2002 seasons without explanation by Benson. The Saints failed to make the playoffs in 2001 and 2002, although in the latter year they had the distinction of beating the eventual Super Bowl XXXVII champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in both of their regular season meetings, only the second team to do so in NFL history.
In 2003, the Saints again missed the playoffs after finishing 8–8. The 2004 season started poorly for the Saints, as they went 2–4 through their first six games and 4–8 through their first twelve games. At that point Haslett's job appeared to be in jeopardy; however, he managed to win the three straight games leading up to the season finale, leaving the Saints in playoff contention in the final week of the season. In week 17, the Saints defeated division rivals Carolina; however, the Saints needed other results to break their way and when the St. Louis Rams beat the New York Jets the Saints were eliminated despite having beaten the Rams, who finished with the same record. The Rams, Saints, and Vikings all were 8–8, with the Rams having a 7–5 conference record, Saints 6–6, and the Vikings 5–7. The Rams received the #1 wild-card due to having the best conference record out of the three, followed by the Vikings due to the 38–31 loss handed to the Saints in Week 6. Haslett was fired after the 2005 season, in which the Saints finished 3–13 and did not play any regular season games in New Orleans due to Hurricane Katrina.
Effect of Hurricane Katrina
Tiger Stadium was one of the venues that hosted the Saints in 2005.
Due to the damage Hurricane Katrina caused to the Superdome and the New Orleans area, the Saints' scheduled 2005 home opener against the New York Giants was moved to Giants Stadium. The remainder of their 2005 home games were split between the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, and 's Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge.
Sean Payton era (2006–present)
Sean Payton is the current head coach.
On January 17, 2006, the Saints hired Sean Payton as their new head coach.
On March 14, 2006, the Saints signed former San Diego Chargers quarterback Drew Brees to a six-year, $60 million deal.
On March 23, the Saints announced that the team's two 2006 preseason games were to be played at Shreveport, Louisiana, and Jackson, Mississippi. After a $185 million renovation of the historic stadium, on April 6 the Saints released their 2006 schedule, with all home games scheduled to be played at the Superdome. On September 19, Saints owner Tom Benson announced that the team had sold out the Louisiana Superdome for the entire season with season tickets alone (68,354 seats), a first in franchise history.
The September 25, home opener, the first home game in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, was won by the Saints 23–3 against the Atlanta Falcons, who were undefeated in the 2006 season at that time. The attendance for the game was a sellout crowd of 70,003. Meanwhile, the broadcast of the game was ESPN's highest-ever rated program to date, with an 11.8 rating, and viewership by 10.85 million homes. It was the most-watched program for the night, broadcast or cable, and was the second-highest rated cable program of all time at the time. Green Day and U2 performed "Wake Me Up When September Ends" and "The Saints Are Coming", respectively, before the game. The game received a 2007 ESPY award for "Best Moment in Sports." The game is remembered by Saints fans for Steve Gleason's blocked punt on the opening series that resulted in a touchdown for New Orleans.
On December 17, the Saints clinched their third division title and their first NFC South title in franchise history. For the first time in Saints' history, they clinched their NFC South title on their home field. Sean Payton became the second consecutive Saints coach to win a division title in his first season. After the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Dallas Cowboys 23–7 on Christmas Day 2006, the Saints clinched a first-round playoff bye for the first time in franchise history.
After the first-round bye, the Saints beat the Philadelphia Eagles 27–24 in the Superdome in the 2006 Divisional Playoffs. No team had ever had such a poor record in the prior year (3–13) and then gone on to a league or conference championship game since the 1999 St. Louis Rams who advanced to win their first Super Bowl after being 4–12 the season before. Since the Saints' only previous playoff win was in the wild card round, this was the farthest the Saints had ever advanced at the time. The victory was only the second playoff win in team history. The season ended on January 21, 2007, when the Saints lost 39–14 to the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship game.
The Saints announced that for the second year in a row, the Louisiana Superdome had sold out every ticket for the season. Additionally, all luxury boxes had been sold out for the season. Both of these statistics are particularly surprising given that the city-proper has about 300,000 people or 150,000 fewer people than July 2005 population data (though the metro area still accounts for 1.2 million people).
The first game of the season was against the defending Super Bowl XLI champion Indianapolis Colts. The Saints lost this game, 41–10, and lost their next three games. In one of these three games, against the Tennessee Titans, the Saints lost running back Deuce McAllister for the season with his second career (second time in three seasons) ACL tear. After winning their first game, against the Seattle Seahawks, two weeks later, the team went on a four-game winning streak to bring their record to an even 4–4. After reaching 7–7, the Saints lost their final two games to finish 7–9.
Following a disappointing 7–9 record in the 2007 season, the Saints ended the 2008 season 8–8. Failing to qualify for the post season for the second straight year, the Saints found themselves struggling on defense. However, the Saints would match the explosive offense they had in the 2006 season. Drew Brees ended the 2008 season just 16 yards short of beating Dan Marino's single-season record of 5084 total passing yards, and receiver Lance Moore came 72 yards short of his first 1000-yard season.
2009 season: First Super Bowl championship
The 2009 season was the team's most successful season, which culminated in the franchise's first league championship win against the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. After achieving a record of 13–0 with their win over the Atlanta Falcons, it marked the Saints' best start to a season in its franchise history. The result clinched an NFC playoff berth, a bye in the first round of the playoffs. By winning their first 13 games, the Saints also set the record for the longest undefeated season opening (13–0) by an NFC team since the AFL–NFL merger, surpassing the previous record (12–0) held by the 1985 Chicago Bears. However, they would fall victim to the Dallas Cowboys in week 14, going on to end the season with a three-game losing streak. The Saints became the first team to win a Super Bowl after losing its last three regular season games.
Although its opponents would include winners of 9 of the last 15 NFL MVP awards, the team advanced to the 2009 NFC Championship game where they defeated the Minnesota Vikings, led by Brett Favre, 31–28 in overtime (at 9:19 CST), earning their first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. Television ratings for Super Bowl XLIV (44) were the highest for any TV program, sports or otherwise, in history, as their successful bid to win the Super Bowl was seen by many to represent the city's resurgence after the devastating Hurricane Katrina.
The Saints 2010 season began in the Superdome as the defending Super Bowl champions defeated the Minnesota Vikings 14–9, in a rematch of the 2009 NFC Championship Game. It was played on Thursday September 9, 2010 and televised on NBC, making it the first time the Saints have opened the NFL's season at home. On Sunday, August 8, 2010, NBC announced the televised opening festivities of the evening would begin with Taylor Swift and Dave Matthews Band. On December 27, 2010, with a 17–14 win against the Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta the Saints clinched a playoff appearance (wild card). This marked the first time a team in the NFC South had made back-to-back playoff appearances since the division was formed in 2002. The Saints would face the Seattle Seahawks for the wild-card opener at Qwest Field. The Seahawks were the first NFL team to capture their division with a sub-.500 regular season record (7–9). Drew Brees completed a postseason-record 39 passes for 404 yards and two touchdowns. Despite throwing 60 passes and hindered by a lack of depth at running back, last year's Super Bowl MVP was not intercepted and rallied the Saints within 34–30 in the fourth quarter. In the end, his efforts were negated by a defense that could not get enough stops and a late touchdown run by Marshawn Lynch breaking over a half-dozen tackles with 3:22 left which helped the Seahawks defeat the Saints 41–36.
The Saints began their season with a loss against the Green Bay Packers, but the team rebounded for the next four weeks to bring their record to 4–1. A loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers brought the record to 4–2, but the team bounced back with a 62–7 blowout win against the struggling Indianapolis Colts. A surprise loss to the St. Louis Rams resulted in the record dropping to 5–3. In the next seven weeks the Saints beat talented teams such as the eventual Super Bowl XLVI champion New York Giants, Detroit Lions, and Atlanta Falcons, bringing their season record to 12–3. To cap off the season, quarterback Drew Brees broke the single season passing record held for over 25 years, on the way to a Saints division winning game. The Saints won the NFC South title on December 26 and ended the 2011 season as the third seed in the NFC. They finished with a 13–3 record, beating Carolina 45–17 and also giving running back Darren Sproles the record for most all-purpose yards in a single season. The team broke numerous records that year including most yards in a season, completion percentage, yards passing, completions and more. The New Orleans Saints beat the Detroit Lions in the 2011 NFC wild-card playoff game 45–28. New Orleans also tied the NFL's postseason mark for team first downs in a game (34), and broke the record for total yards with 626, eclipsing the yardage record set 49 years ago. The Saints lost Saturday, January 14, 2012, in the Divisional round in the playoffs against the San Francisco 49ers in Candlestick Park. A game that was considered an instant classic by many as the game saw numerous lead changes in the final four minutes of play.
2012 season: Payton suspended; punishment for Bountygate
After an off-season dominated by news of the bounty scandal and the year-long suspension of head coach Sean Payton, the Saints sought to refocus on football and produce yet another winning year. Instead, the team, led by offensive line coach Aaron Kromer for its first six games, started the season with four straight losses and a last place spot in the NFC South. The team finally broke through with a win in Week 5, against the San Diego Chargers, a game that also saw quarterback Drew Brees break Johnny Unitas's longstanding record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass. After their scheduled bye, the Saints went on to win 4 of their next 5 games, to bring their record to an even 5–5. Joe Vitt returned after his six-game suspension to serve as interim head coach for the rest of the season. The team failed to hold its momentum, however, and lost the next three games, including a loss at Atlanta that also marked the end of Brees' record touchdown streak after 54 games, and a 52–27 blowout loss to the Giants that dropped the Saints to 5–8. Despite winning 2 of their last 3 games, and Brees again leading the league with 5,177 passing yards (his third time to surpass 5,000 yards, as he remained the only quarterback to break that barrier more than once), the team finished tied for last in the NFC South, at 7–9. The Saints defense allowed 7,042 yards, setting an NFL record.
The Saints finished their 2013 preseason 3–1, and won their first five regular season games against the Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Arizona Cardinals, Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears. The Saints under Sean Peyton had been winless in Chicago's Soldier Field and had not won in the Windy City since 2000. The Saints fared well against Chicago, Arizona and Miami, winning 26–18, 31–7 and 38–17 respectively, but needed a 4th down shutdown and a last-minute field goal to escape Atlanta and Tampa Bay. The Saints went on a 5–0 win streak, but were stopped short by the New England Patriots in Week 6, losing 30–27, with a touchdown pass by Tom Brady in the last 5 seconds of the game. New Orleans would go undefeated at home for the second straight season with Sean Payton as the head coach, but finish just 3–5 on the road. Key losses included a 7–34 blowout against the Seattle Seahawks on in Seattle which cost them homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, a 16–27 upset against the St. Louis Rams in St. Louis which led to the Saints needing to win their next game against Carolina to control their own playoff destiny, and a heartbreaking 13–17 defeat to their division rival the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte who went on to win the NFC South. The Saints finished the season with an 11–5 record and earned a wild card berth as the sixth seed in the NFC. On January 4, 2014, the Saints recorded their first road playoff win in franchise history over the Philadelphia Eagles 26–24. On January 11, the Saints lost to the first seed, the Seattle Seahawks, once again in Seattle 15–23. The weather conditions were very poor, which gave the offense much difficulty. Despite the conditions, the defense of the Saints played well, holding Seattle to just 23 over the 34 points allowed against Seattle during the regular season.
The Saints finished the season 7–9, second in their division behind the 7–8–1 Carolina Panthers. They missed out on the playoffs after being defeated 14–30 by their divisional rival, the Atlanta Falcons, in the second-to-last week of the season. This season was notorious in Saints history for having the 31st worst ranked defense in the league, which is one of the main reasons for the Saints poor 2014 campaign. The only two great performances by the defense out of the entire season came from a 44–23 home win against the Green Bay Packers and a 31–15 victory against the Chicago Bears in Chicago.
The Saints finished with a 7–9 record for the second consecutive season. They were third in the NFC South after the 15–1 NFC champions Carolina Panthers and the 8–8 Atlanta Falcons. Their defense was historically bad. They allowed the most passing touchdowns in a season in history as they allowed 45, effectively making them the worst passing defense in NFL history. They also set the NFL record in opposing passer rating (116.2), while finishing last in points allowed (29.8) and yards allowed per play (6.6). Atrocious play by defensive captain Brandon Browner, who set the NFL record for most penalties with 23, did not help the struggling Saints defense. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was fired near the half-way point in the season and was replaced by senior defensive assistant . The Saints had strong play from their 2015 draft class. The Saints first pick Andrus Peat started at right tackle and left guard at certain points in the season, and other first-round pick Stephone Anthony finished his rookie season with 112 tackles, one sack, one interception, and two forced fumbles. He had two scores, both coming against the Carolina Panthers and led all rookies in tackles. Second-round pick Hau'oli Kikaha had 4 sacks. Canadian football star Delvin Breaux, who was signed in the off-season, led the Saints struggling secondary with 3 interceptions and 19 pass deflections. Drew Brees also tied the NFL record for touchdown passes in a game with 7, coming against the New York Giants.
On March 15, 2018, the Saints' owner Tom Benson died from flu at the age of 90 after he was hospitalized on February 16, 2018. Benson's wife Gayle Benson succeeded him as the owner of the Saints and the NBA's New Orleans Pelicans.