From the Times-Picauyne (New Orleans) media
After weeks of minute planning, countless hours on the chalkboard plotting strategy, moving bodies around like some full-blooded chess pieces, two teams played football for almost 73 minutes, grunting and groaning, bleeding and sweating, and how does it all end? Let Fred McAfee tell you."I'm on the left corner," he gushed, flashing that megawatt smile. "I beat No. 80 on an inside rush and there I am in the guy's face. I'm wearing my monster look. I'm screaming ‘aaggahh.' I spooked him."

If you were the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, that's how you beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with less than three minutes left in overtime. You watch try-hard Fred McAfee, captain of special teams, redeem a unit that had not distinguished itself all afternoon, that is, until the moment the 5-foot-10, 198-pounder blew by the 6-4, 250-pound Todd Yoder, scared punter Tom Tupa out of his wits, scared him into rushing a pass that never left the end zone, one that fell out of his left hand, into the hands of rookie James Allen for a quick six. Saints win, 26-20. Home crowd goes searching for suicide kits.

It would have been a crime had Jim Haslett's gang let this one get away.As it was, the Saints let it slip away at least two times. If Joe Horn catches a third-down pass Aaron Brooks put in his mitts, the game's over in regulation. Saints keep ball, run out the final two minutes of regulation, and win 20-17.But Horn drops it and Saints punt. Then, with a minute left, the Bucs are driving. Brad Johnson fires one over the middle to Keyshawn Johnson. But there comes corner Ken Irvin, diving in front of the Buc receiver, getting both hands on what would have been a game-ending interception. Five plays later, the Bucs are making it 20-20 as time runs out.

At that point, there wasn't a soul among the home crowd of 65,000 that didn't figure the home team would launch the Jon Gruden era with an overtime victory. As it happened, let the record show Gruden, who cost the franchise a king's ransom in draft choices and money, was roundly out-coached in his debut in Pirate Land. From the opening tip, into much of the fourth quarter, it was the Saints who dictated tempo, who kept the Bucs guessing on both sides of the ball. On the offensive end, Brooks showed exquisite presence, buying time, making throws, making decisions, many times in the heat of a fierce rush. "Aaron was crisp, a man in complete control," said 14-year vet Jerry Fontenot. "When a receiver made a mistake, he let ‘em know about it. You always had the feeling he was going about business like this was his team."

Tight end Boo Williams, who caught a 32-yard strike to make it 13-3, was blown away by the way the quarterback took command. "They had trouble adjusting to what we did out of certain formations," he said. "I scored when we stacked two tight ends on the right side. On that play, I had to adjust my route a little. Aaron waited on me and threw a perfect pass."

It was the same story when Dontè Stallworth grabbed a 41-yard TD pass that stretched the Saints lead to 20-10 halfway through the third quarter. "I was supposed to run a go-route," said Stallworth. "The guy grabbed my facemask and I had to turn it into something else. They were in a zone and Aaron picked it up right away. He hit me in stride and I was able to split two guys and get an easy score. I came here hearing things from people about Aaron sometimes trying to force things too much. Well, that's not the Aaron I've seen since the first day of minicamp. He's cool. He makes plays."

He made enough plays Sunday to convert 10-of-20 third-down situations, usually with a completion (he hooked up with eight different receivers), one time with a scramble up the middle, several times with a handoff to Deuce McAllister, who squirmed, who slipped tackles, for 109 yards. Defensively, the Saints limited the Bucs to 161 yards in the first three quarters. "We decided to apply as much heat on the quarterback as we could," said defensive coordinator Rick Venturi. "We had some success coming in off the corners. But, mostly, it was a case of staying focused, trying to keep them from making the big play. For a while, it looked like they had the upper hand in overtime. But there at the end, we dug in and forced things just enough to give us a chance. Then the special teams made the biggest play of them all. Thank God."

The Times-Picauyne September 2002