September 29, 2006 Sean Burns
By Chris Licata
The New Orleans Saints are finally home. In a celebration that included fanfare that seemingly rivaled the arrival of the Pope, the Saints played their first game at the Louisiana Superdome since Hurricane Katrina hit the city a little over a year ago Monday night when they defeated the Atlanta Falcons, 23-3. However, the most eye-opening aspect of the night was not the performances by U2 and Green Day, the appearance by former President George H. W. Bush or even the riveting pictures and testimonials from city natives. No, lost amongst the outpouring of emotion Monday night was the realization that this Saints team is pretty darn good.
Not to diminish what Monday night’s game meant to the city of New Orleans, but it was still a football game, and from that standpoint Saints fans really have something to be proud of. At 3-0 the traditionally lovable losers from the Big Easy have looked sharp in every aspect of their game and there is no reason to believe that they won’t continue to win and make the playoffs. So how did this team go from being the NFL’s hard-luck charity case in 2005, to contenders this year?
It all began with the hiring of Sean Payton as head coach back in January of this year. Payton’s resume includes stints as an assistant head coach and passing game coordinator under Bill Parcells since 2003, and an assistant for the Giants’ Jim Fassel from 1999-2002. In addition to studying under one of the games greatest coaches (Parcells), Payton has earned some impressive credentials of his own. Since 2000, Payton has coached a 3,000-yard-passer every season.
Not long after Payton’s arrival, the Saints acquired the second piece of the 2006 puzzle in quarterback Drew Brees. After completing 64.6 percent of his passes for over 3,500 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2005, the Chargers parted ways with their QB after Brees suffered a shoulder injury towards the end of the season. Sold on Brees’ ability, Payton took a chance on the 1999 and 2000 Heisman Trophy Finalist and it has paid off. In three games this season Brees has completed 62 percent of his passes for 714 yards and three touchdowns.
With Brees and Payton on board the Saints were one superstar away from building a powerhouse team. That superstar would arrive with a bang April when the Saints were able to grab Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush at No. 2 overall. Bush brought mega-star power to the city of New Orleans and while as a rookie Bush is splitting time with established back Deuce McCalister, his presence in the city has done more than anything he’s done on the field so far. Bush immediately immersed himself in the community and has become a local favorite for good reason – if this young man can do half of what he was capable of a USC, the Saints will be a very, very good team.
Monday night the Saints absolutely stuck it to the Falcons in every aspect. Beginning with a ferocious blocked punt on the fourth play of the game that was turned into a touchdown, the Saints never let up. Even the under-appreciated defense played above their ability, keeping Michael Vick in the pocket all night and sacking him five times.
While many may criticize the team by saying this was nothing more than a blip on the radar, a team riding the emotion of the night to a big victory, they should consider this – according to the ESPN telecast last night, for the first time in the franchises’ history the Superdome is sold out for every game this season. If the Saints can keep playing well, and the fans can stay loud, even the best teams in the league are going to have a hard time winning in New Orleans this year.
And that, is a real feel-good story.