With the Superdome destroyed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the team forced to play pseudo-home games in Baton Rouge and San Antonio, the club finished a depressing season just 3-13. Owner Tom Benson, who has had a shakey relationship with the Crescent City for quite some time, was apparently shopping the team to Los Angeles and other potential suitors. With the city of New Orleans dangerously close to being washed away forever, the future of this franchise was in limbo to say the least.
Apparently, none of that mattered to first-year head coach Sean Payton as he has directed one of the more stirring resurrection projects in NFL history.
The Saints went 10-6 in 2006 and are undoubtedly the feel-good story in professional football these days. Despite being picked by most experts to finish dead last in its division, New Orleans won the NFC South and earned a first-round bye. After defeating Philadelphia 27-24 last Sunday in the divisional round, Payton's club will march into Chicago with a chance to move on to Super Bowl XLI.
This team has done it primarily with a high-octane offense, thanks in large part to free agent quarterback Drew Brees.
Despite lingering questions about a throwing-shoulder injury he suffered at the end of last season, Brees was an instant success in New Orleans taking over for the erratic Aaron Brooks. The former San Diego Charger led the NFL with 4,418 passing yards and threw 26 touchdowns en route to a sizzling 96.2 passer rating. Brees topped 300 yards passing eight times even though veteran Pro-Bowl receiver Joe Horn missed six games due to injury.
Back in April, the Saints received an unexpected gift from the Texans. Ultra-versatile tailback Reggie Bush appeared to be the top player available in the NFL Draft, but there was a public rallying cry for Houston to select the hometown hero, quarterback Vince Young, with the No. 1 pick. To the shock of everyone, the Texans bypassed both Bush and Young and chose to go with defensive end Mario Williams.
New Orleans had the No. 2 pick and drafted Bush in a heartbeat. They already had Deuce McAllister in the fold at running back, but with Bush being compared to Gale Sayers in terms of his ability in the open field, the Saints could not say no. They could use him as a runner, a receiver, a return man - the possibilities were endless.
Payton got both McAllister and Bush plenty of touches in an offense that paced the NFL with 391.5 yards per game. McAlliser ran for 1,057 yards and scored 10 touchdowns a year after knee surgery, while Bush caught 88 passes out of the backfield and scored nine TDs of his own. With McAllister's bruising style between the tackles and Bush's multi-dimensional talents, suddenly the Saints were the envy of the league with what they could do offensively.
Payton believes that today's NFL requires a two-back system because of the punishment handed out every Sunday.
"I think it's hard with the length of the season now and the pounding that position takes," Payton said on Wednesday via conference call at Halas Hall. "It's difficult to get through a year thinking that you're going to run one back 28 to 30 times a game."
Although he didn't anticipate Bush being available at No. 2, Payton didn't hesitate to pull the trigger on what many considered to be a once-in-a-lifetime kind of player.
"When the Texans had signed Mario," he said, "we felt like our highest graded player was Reggie Bush. We would deal with that and make it a positive. So I think you have to be somewhat flexible. But I think it's tough with the length of the season and the schedules now for you to just have the one featured player, and yet some teams do. I just know you can't have enough at that position, tough. And we're fortunate enough to have some depth there, and that served us well."
The Dallas Cowboys have been known as 'America's Team' for quite some time, but the Saints seem to have borrowed that title in 2006. Half the population of New Orleans still has not come back after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, yet the Saints set a record this season for season-ticket sales. The emotion of their Week 3 return to the Superdome on Monday Night Football brought a tear to many eyes across the country, and Payton & Company have been riding that wave ever since.
Although Payton appreciates the nationwide support his team has received this season, he is quick to give credit to the many lifelong Saints fans.
"We're a little insulated maybe because of our schedules," he said. "And when we get in here, we get into our meetings and practice. I think that's more from [the media]. I think there's certainly a fan base here that has been outstanding in regards to our support. Prior to Katrina even."
Payton was originally surprised to learn that the Saints were not just a big part of New Orleans but the entire Gulf Coast region.
"When I arrived here," he said, "it was pretty amazing to hear how important this team has been over the years to this community. And not just New Orleans but Mississippi, Alabama and those areas. I think there's some obvious reasons because of everything that's gone on a year and a half ago of why you gain support, and I don't think that's a bad thing. I think that's probably good for football."
If the Saints can march in to Soldier Field and upset the Bears on Sunday, Payton will have authored one of the more improbable Super Bowl runs in NFL history.