The Saints' Ring of Honor and Archie . . .

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The New Orleans Saints will induct former three players into their first official Ring of Honor tonight at halftime of the Cowboys-Saints game at the Superdome.

They got it right: Archie Manning, Rickey Jackson and Willie Roaf. I’ve watched the Saints from the beginning. Those should be the first three. Such stalwarts as Deuce McAllister, Jim Finks and Drew Brees (no time soon, we hope) should follow.

Of course, Manning’s No. 8 was already up on the wall of the Superdome. So he is being honored in this manner for a second time.

He doesn’t mind.

“This is really nice,” Manning said earlier last week. “New Orleans has been my home now for 43 years. The people here have been good to me. To be honored along with two Hall of Fame players, Rickey and Willie, makes it all the more special.”

Here’s what Manning did more than anything for the Saints: He gave us a reason to watch.

Before Manning, the Saints were like an inept circus, highlighted often by remarkable halftime productions. Archie brought excitement to the Saints, although for most of his career he was like a thoroughbred surrounded by plow horses. He was a great player on a bad team.

Roger Staubach, the Hall of Fame quarterback with the Dallas Cowboys has said more than once that the difference between him and Manning was that he was drafted by the Cowboys and Manning by the Saints. That is something I have always believed. On another team — with a functioning offensive line — Archie would have been wildly successful.

Here’s a for instance: In 1972, only Archie’s second year, he led the league in passing yardage. The Saints finished 2-11-1.

Here’s another: During his Saints career, he was sacked 340 times. And we’re talking about a quarterback who had as much escapability of any quarterback in his day. Often, he literally seemed to be running for his life.

And still he was selected for two Pro Bowls. In 1978, when the Saints finished 7-9, he was selected NFC Player of theYear. Imagine that: Player of the Year on a 7-9 team.

Archie’s career with the Saints didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts. His contract negotiations were far from harmonious, beginning with a meeting at John Vaught’s house soon after the 1971 draft. Among those present were Arch, Vaught, Indianola attorney Frank Crosthwait (Archie’s agent and great friend) and then Saints General Manager Vic Schwenk. I’ve heard this story from three of the four.

Schwenk made the first offer and there was a long pause before Vaught said this: “Hell, Schwenk, he made more money than that at Ole Miss.”

But Archie eventually signed and then in the first game of his rookie season, he single-handedly led the Saints to a come-from-behind victory over the Los Angeles Rams and their famed Fearsome Foursome at Tulane Stadium. I saw it and still don’t believe it.

Trailing 20-17, he took the Saints down the field against the clock and as fine a front four as there’s ever been. The Saints were on the Rams one at the north end of Tulane stadium with time for one play. Kick for the tie? Run it? Throw it?

Archie called timeout and went over to the sidelines where coaches were huddling.

“We’re gonna go for it!?” J.D. Roberts, the head coach, kept saying.

“What’s the play?” Archie asked.

They never gave him one. Finally, the referee came over to the sidelines and got him.

Archie went back to the huddle. “What’s the play?” teammates asked.

“They never said,” Archie said. And so he did what he would have done at Ole Miss. He called a rollout to the left. He kept the ball. And he scored.

You have never seen such a party — at least not until the Saints beat Archie’s middle son in the Super Bowl.

What always struck me about Archie was the way he endured all the physical and mental abuse he suffered as Saints quarterback during those years. Sometime, he will tell you he had to find the humor in it.

Like the time, a tight end brought in the play from the sidelines.

“We had gone through I don’t know how many tight ends that year,” Manning says. “And this guy comes in with the play and I looked at him. I realized I didn’t know him. I said,’Who are you?’”

The guy had been signed the day before.

That was the kind of stuff Arch dealt with in what should have been the prime of his career.

Then, there was the time when the Saints had a new, speedy receiver named Jubilee Dunbar, who could run like the wind but had other, shall we say, shortcomings. On one play on one Sunday Dunbar was supposed to run a short out pattern as a sort of safety valve. But, as usual, Manning was running for his life. And, as was often the case, Dunbar ran the wrong pattern.

Archie threw the ball as far as he could before he was buried by the opposition. And then he heard the roar of the crowd. Jubilee had run a deep post instead of the short out and had caught the ball in stride for a 70-yard touchdown.

“I don’t know if Jubilee ever knew he ran the wrong pattern,” Archie says.

And maybe it’s just as well…

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