Fleur-de-Lis Fever | Ten Years Later, How Ricky Williams Affected New Orleans

Paul Augustin, Jr.Senior Analyst IApril 8, 2009

There has been a trade... New Orleans is now on the clock.

These words put die-hard Who Dats and casual Saints fans alike on the edge of their seats.  The Saints' brass had rarely made major draft day moves in previous seasons, but now they were putting all of their chips forward.

There was speculation in the days leading up to April 17, 1999, that the Saints would strike a deal with the Redskins if the Colts chose Edgerrin James instead of Ricky Williams.

Sure, the price would be steep, but it would be worth it.  New Orleans' offense had long been a sore spot and its running game considered the weak link.  The Saints had gone the entire 1990s without a 1,000-yard rusher.

Mike Ditka arrived in New Orleans two years prior to this landmark draft.  Owner Tom Benson wanted a big name to succeed Jim Mora, the Saints' most successful coach to date, and got the biggest name out there.

Ditka was supposed to bring New Orleans the same hard-knocks style that he brought to Chicago in the 80s.  In Ditka's first two seasons in the Crescent City, the Saints got knocked around hard as they compiled consecutive 6-10 seasons.

With the fifth pick in the 1999 NFL draft, the New Orleans Saints select...Ricky Williams...Running back...University of Texas.

Chaos ensued. 

From the French Quarter to the Saints' headquarters in Metairie to my living room couch just 38 miles from the Superdome, there was an eruption of screaming, elation, and grown men jumping up and down throughout the black and gold nation.

Visions of Lombardi trophies danced in our heads.

To understand our excitement, you have to understand the sports scene in New Orleans. 

While the city has hosted nine Super Bowls, numerous Sugar Bowls and Final Fours, and even the 1992 Olympic Trials, New Orleans has never had a winner to call its own. 

The city had dabbled in pro basketball (the ABA's Buccaneers and the NBA's Jazz), but the Saints were the team in New Orleans since 1967. 

New Orleanians have supported the Saints through thick and (mostly) thin.  The team didn't experience its first winning season until 1987 and to date has only won two playoff games.

Now, this relatively small but loyal and passionate fan base had good reason to be optimistic.

Maybe Ricky Williams wouldn't be the second coming of Walter Payton, but the former Heisman Trophy winner and Texas Longhorn just may be the next Earl Campbell.

At the same time that the Saints were stumbling to back-to-back 10-loss seasons, the rest of the league was showing New Orleans the benefits of a strong running game. 

Denver's Terrell Davis was the workhorse back behind the Broncos' Super Bowl runs, and Jamal Anderson's breakout season was the catalyst behind the Falcons' NFC championship.

Run, Ricky, Run.

This short phrase became the mantra that accompanied the hype surrounding New Orleans' newest star and only rookie.  It was on billboards everywhere and became a huge part of the Saints' advertising campaign.

New Orleans was ready for Ricky Williams to take them to the Super Bowl.

Then things got strange.

First, there was the wedding dress.  He and Mike Ditka appeared on the cover of ESPN the Magazine dressed as a bride and groom.  The picture and article suggested that Williams and Ditka were married to each other, for better or for worse.

Then came the locker room interviews with the helmet on.  Williams conducted many of his postgame interviews with his helmet on and dark visor shielding his eyes.

Williams achieved moderate but unspectacular success as a rookie.  The Saints, on the other hand, achieved nothing close to moderate success..

At the conclusion of Ricky Williams' rookie season, New Orleans completed its worst four-year stretch in 20 years and fired Mike Ditka.

In 2000, the Ricky Williams era seemed to take a turn for the better.  With a new coach and new attitude, Williams led the Saints to a 7-3 record and racked up five consecutive 100-yard games.

However, the beginning of the end was near.

Williams missed the final six games of the regular season and the Saints' first-ever playoff win with a foot injury.  He returned in the divisional round against the Vikings but was largely ineffective.

Ricky Williams racked up over 1,200 yards in his third season, but the writing was on the wall.  Just two years after pulling off a blockbuster trade to get Williams, the Saints drafted another running back, Deuce McAllister, in the first round.

I mentioned that the Saints would be willing to pay the Redskins a steep price for the No. 5 overall pick, and a steep price they paid.

The Redskins traded their first-rounder (No. 5) to the Saints for a first- (No. 12), third- (No. 71), fourth- (No. 107), fifth- (No. 144), sixth- (No. 179), and seventh-(No. 218) round pick in the 1999 draft, and a first- (which wound up to be No. 2 overall) and third-round selection in 2000.

Now, most of these forfeited picks became busts and no-names (Cade McNown), but the Saints passed on a ton of Pro Bowl and Hall of Fame talent.

By trading away those draft picks and then selecting Williams, the Saints missed out on drafting players such as Torry Holt, Champ Bailey, Jevon Kearse, Joey Porter, Donald Driver, and Brian Urlacher.

Holt and Bailey were drafted right after Williams at Nos. 6 and 7 overall, respectively.

If the Saints had never made the trade, they could have selected Kearse and Porter to add a couple of outstanding pass rushers to the defense and then Donald Driver to give the Saints a No. 1 receiver.

Washington used the No. 2 overall pick in 2000 to select LaVar Arrington.  At this spot, the Saints would have also had their choice of Chris Samuels, Jamal Lewis, Brian Urlacher, Julian Peterson, and Shaun Alexander.

In two seasons, the Saints could have have a team that featured Donald Driver and Shaun Alexander on offense and Jevon Kearse, Joey Porter, and Brian Urlacher on defense.

When the Saints traded Williams to Miami and ended another infamous era in black and gold history, they eventually receiver two first round draft picks.

The Saints used one of those picks to select Charles Grant.  They paired the other first-round pick with their own first-rounder to trade up and select Jonathan Sullivan.

I was just 15 years old on the day Ricky Williams first put on a Saints uniform.  I was swept up in the hype just like many other Who Dats.

I, like every other Saints fan, had witnessed just four winning seasons in my lifetime.  Williams was supposed to be our ticket from the outhouse to the penthouse.

I guess some things were just never meant to be.

While the New Orleans Saints had just one winning season and one playoff win in Ricky's three seasons in the Big Easy, they have not experienced much success since trading away their once highly coveted running back.

In the seven seasons since Ricky Williams left New Orleans for South Beach, the Saints have had just two winning seasons and reached the NFC title game just once.


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