With one play in 1971, Archie Manning went marching into the end zone — and fans’ hearts
An optimistic crowd showed up at Tulane Stadium on Sept. 19, 1971, to witness the debut of the Saints’ anticipated savior — rookie quarterback Archie Manning, the team’s No. 1 draft choice after a highlight-reel of a career at Ole Miss. On the game’s final play, Manning ran 1 yard for a touchdown that gave New Orleans a 24-20 upset win over the Los Angeles Rams as the crowd celebrated what it hoped was the beginning of the franchise’s glory days.
Sure, Manning’s career didn’t end up the way he, or Saints fans, would have liked. Regardless, that game — and that play — started a love affair between the two that continues today. Outside of New Orleans, Manning is better known as the father of retired NFL star Peyton Manning and current New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. Here at home, though, he remains one of the most popular players in Saints history and one of New Orleans’ most prominent citizens.
- Manning lost the football as he crossed the goal line on the game-winning play, but the officials ruled he had scored before the fumble.
- Manning completed 16-of-29 passes for 218 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He rushed four times for 14 yards and the winning touchdown, but — in what would become a regular feature of his Saints career — he was under constant duress and was sacked seven times.
- The Saints went into the game as two-touchdown underdogs.
- A front-page headline in the next day’s Times-Picayune referred to the Saints’ new quarterback as “Miracle Man Manning.” A separate story recapping the game was headlined, “Archie’s Pro Debut is Smashing!”
- The victory snapped a 12-game losing streak for the win-starved Saints, dating to the 1970 season. The previous win? It also came on a “miracle” play, when Tom Dempsey kicked his NFL-record 63-yard field goal.
- New Orleans went on to finish the season 4-8-2. Still, that marked the fewest losses the team had in its first five seasons.
- The win, which saw the team hoist head coach J.D. Roberts onto their shoulders, “Rudy”-style, gave Saints fans a rare but welcome taste of the unbridled joy of a big-league, last-second win. “As Manning slid into the end zone … strangers hugged each other in disbelief, friends slapped each other on the back and some fans’ heads whirled about dizzily as if about to faint,” read The Times-Picayune’s recounting of the game.
- Manning remains the only quarterback the Saints have ever drafted in the first round on draft day. (They used their 1981 No. 1 on Illinois quarterback Dave Wilson in a supplemental draft.)
Manning’s career summed up the history of the pre-Super Bowl Saints for their fans, always believing better days were at hand only to discover they weren’t. Manning once said of that touchdown against the Rams: “The sad thing is that it was the highlight of my NFL career.” Nonetheless, few Saints’ careers are recalled as fondly as Manning’s, if for no other reason than because he provided the black-and-gold faithful with a wealth of something they desperately needed: hope.