"You can see some progress being made," said Saints running back Deuce McAllister of a city still reeling from Hurricane Katrina. "But there is a long way to go."
"When I first got here in January," said new coach Sean Payton, "you had traffic, you had people. It was different from what I expected. Living in Dallas and seeing the town in the news, I thought I'd be coming to a ghost town. It was much different than that. There was a lot of traffic, a lot more commuting into the city for work purposes. There are still areas that you would look at and you might think a month ago the storm hit. There are areas that have recovered quicker. Businesses are reopening, restaurants and hotels are reopening in the city. For me, being here since January, it's been a gradual change."
A symbolic chunk of that change was the re-opening of the Superdome. It was renovated for $184 million and opened to a Monday night audience with much pomp and circumstance. The Saints won that night and they kept on winning. They're now considered America's sentimental favorite, or "America's Team," according to the media.
Steelers All-Pro guard Alan Faneca is a New Orleans native. He lives there in the off-season and says the rise of the Saints is a great story, not just hype.
"I think it is something," he said. "The same way when we win and people in the city of Pittsburgh have a good Monday, it's a good Monday down there, which for some it's few and far between. It's getting better, but it's definitely normalcy, something that's been there. So many things are not there anymore in the same form or capacity."
To that extent, Faneca believes it was important renovate the Superdome and trumpet its resurrection, even though families are still living in squalor.
"I live right outside the city, and, yeah, there are still people in trailers everywhere, businesses that are slowly making it back," he said. "For us it's still far away from what it was. But to be honest, I can't say that I ever caught a story where people were upset about the Superdome, that it was being re-done. I never caught that story while I was down there and I was down there the whole off-season."
But couldn't the money have been better spent?
"First off, whose money is it? I'm not sure," he said. "If it was money that could've been directed elsewhere than maybe there is an issue there."
According to The Washington Post, FEMA paid $115 million, the State of Louisiana paid $13 million, the NFL paid $15 million and an LSED bond accounted for the other $41 million for the new and improved Superdome.
"All I'm saying is what you saw on the Monday night game was real," Faneca said. "What you saw – the excitement, the fans, and how they were into it – that was real. I would venture to guess that that kind of excitement is still going on surrounding them. It's something for people to talk about. They haven't been that good -- like they are now -- in awhile, period."
It's been written that Katrina was the best thing to happen to the Saints, that owner Tom Benson wasn't getting anywhere with state officials in an attempt to refurbish the dome, and that Katrina played on heartstrings and political agendas and the Saints got the upgrade they needed.
Faneca sneers at that type of cynicism. He believes rebuilding the football stadium so quickly was the right thing to do. But Faneca's sneer turned to a smile when he was asked if the dream will end for the Saints on Sunday at Heinz Field.
"Yeah," he said. "I'm trying to give them a bad Monday. I want them to have a bad week."
NOTES – Safety Mike Logan (hamstring) was updated to probable. ... The five players who missed Wednesday's practice – James Farrior, James Harrison, Jeff Hartings, Clint Kriewaldt, Willie Reid – also missed Thursday's practice. ... Saints reserve safety Steve Gleason was added to the injury list as questionable with a knee injury. WR Joe Horn returned to practice, but TEs Ernie Conwell and Nate Lawrie, and CB Fred Thomas remain out. ... Cowher said he's leaning toward keeping Santonio Holmes at punt returner, but said he hasn't made up his mind on any other potential changes.