Saints Clinch NFC West

Outside of trips to the Pro Bowl, New Orleans Saints lineman Willie Roaf hasn’t had much to celebrate during his eight-year career until now.

“It’s all very gratifying,” Roaf said Monday before his team clinched the NFC West. “Mostly because we’re having a winning season.”

The Saints (10-5), who won the division when St. Louis lost 38-35 at Tampa Bay, have their first winning season since 1992 — a year before Roaf became their top draft pick. He was No. 8 overall in the draft.

“I’ve never been in a situation where we controlled our own destiny this late,” Roaf said. “It really makes me feel proud to be a part of it.”

Sudden Slide to Mediocrity

Roaf, Alex Molden, Mark Fields, Tom Ackerman, Joe Johnson and Doug Brien never saw the good times before this year. Instead they were around for the sudden slide that resulted in Jim Mora’s quitting halfway though the 1996 season that ended 3-13. They were also around for the two 6-10 marks under Mike Ditka and last year’s 3-13 debacle.

“I have such great feelings for the guys that were here in ’96,” said assistant coach Rick Venturi, who became the interim coach when Mora left. “They played their hearts out when there was nothing on the line and they’ve done it every year since then.”

Roaf became a starter at left tackle his rookie year. The following season he made his first trip to the Pro Bowl. He’s been a fixture ever since.

But there’s been no team success. His best season was an 8-8 record in 1993. For Roaf, the low point came last year when the Saints logged their second 3-13 record in a chaotic season. Earning another trip to the Pro Bowl didn’t help ease the pain.

He talked about wanting to be traded, wanting to experience a winning season before his career ended.

New Saints coach Jim Haslett, who was a New Orleans assistant coach in 1996, understood Roaf’s feelings. Haslett said it’s tough to go through one 3-13 season, let alone two.

“It’s tough to come out and practice hard all the time when you know you have nothing to fight for. It’s hard,” Haslett said. “And to go through it year, after year, after year, sometimes there’s a point of no return.”

‘It’s So Sweet’

Venturi said the Saints who have been with the team for years overcame the cumulative effect of enduring so many losing seasons.

“You don’t get to this level unless you’re superbly motivated,” Venturi said. “You are driven to win and when you go through year after year of working so hard without reward, it really eats at you. That’s why I call these guys survivors.”

Molden, the Saints No. 1 draft pick in 1996, said the difference has been astounding.

“Last year you were playing for pride,” he said. “This year there’s so much on the line.”

He hopes to keep the turnaround going as long as possible

“It’s so sweet,” Molden said.