Saints housecleaning more than fixed-up Superdome
By JIM LITKE, AP Sports Columnist
October 16, 2006
Nobody in their right mind wants to play the New Orleans Saints at home anymore, or anywhere else for that matter.
Forced into exile last season when Hurricane Katrina tore up their town and nearly blew their stadium down, the Saints went 3-13 while playing "home" games in New Jersey, Baton Rouge, La., and San Antonio. They had sympathy on their side, but little else. Some 10 months later, all those skeptics who thought just renovating the Superdome in time for this season was too ambitious a makeover, had no idea how grand a housecleaning was about to take place.
In short order, starting late last January, New Orleans hired a new coach in Sean Payton, took a flier on a free-agent quarterback coming off shoulder surgery in Drew Brees, and culled a handful of starters from the draft, including the most electrifying rookie in recent memory in multipurpose-back Reggie Bush.
What transformed the Saints even more than all the new faces, though, was the sense of purpose that unites them.
"It's a whole different team," Philadelphia defensive end Darren Howard marveled Sunday, and he should know.
Howard's Eagles became the fifth team to lose to New Orleans this season when John Carney's 31-yard field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired on Sunday. It was a fate that Howard had trouble imagining just a few days earlier.
He played the six previous seasons for the Saints, but spent much of the last one on the bench as the chip on their shoulder gradually became as heavy as a boulder.
The Saints coach at the time, Jim Haslett, tried using disrespect as motivation, telling his players the NFL shortchanged the team by moving them around without considering for how difficult even the simplest tasks were for an organization that was still hurting emotionally and essentially homeless.
That ploy backfired soon enough. Recalling the chaos that engulfed last season, Howard said in an interview leading up to this game, "It was rough. It's something you just had to deal with, and I'd never wish that on any other football team."
But these Saints aren't any other football team.
Payton turned out to be an inspired choice as leader, and not just because he possesses one of the better offensive minds in the league. It didn't hurt, of course, that he served as the running-backs coach at San Diego State when Marshall Faulk was there, and so had plenty of insight on how to deploy an all-purpose threat when Bush fell into New Orleans' lap. Or because he was the quarterbacks coach during a stint as an assistant with the New York Giants, and knows how to find Brees the time and space to maximize his talent.
But Payton's real genius so far has been convincing his players that they can accomplish something more important than winning football games simply by doing their jobs well.
"I'm fired up for this city," he said after Sunday's 27-24 win. "I'm fired up for the people who come watch us play. I couldn't be happier."
Neither could the Saints' long-suffering fans, who bought up every season ticket in the Superdome and haven't been shy about making their presence felt.
They don't see the signs Payton covered the walls in the locker room with -- a typical one reads: "Dumb players do dumb things. Smart players seldom do dumb things." And they don't get the chance to hear guest speakers like Avery Johnson, the hometown kid who now coaches the NBA Dallas Mavericks, give chalk talks to his players.
But they see Bush, Brees and Deuce McAllister, among other Saints, donating their time and money in the community. The way that the players are received reinforces Payton's preaching that preparing to play a football game is part of helping rebuild a city.
Considering how difficult the real task, that might be an inflated notion. But so far, it's worked like a charm.
Just before kickoff, Payton told an offensive line slapped together to cover some injuries "No sacks today," and they held the Eagles without one. His defense, the unit most affected by changes that saw New Orleans turn over nearly half its roster, has been not just stout but opportunistic.
Alternating Bush and McAllister, whose recovery from knee surgery has been surprisingly swift, Payton's offense has been not just productive, but controlling. It kept Donovan McNabb and the Eagles offense watching helplessly from the sideline by consuming 8 1/2 minutes on the final drive to set up Carney's field goal.
"They're doing it," Philadelphia's Howard said, "with a young set of guys who don't remember what happened in years past ... It's hard to say anything but they're legitimate."
New Orleans heads into a bye week at a most opportune time. The toughest stretch of the Saints' schedule lies ahead, with the Ravens, Bengals, Falcons (again) and Steelers on tap.
But they're comfortably on top of the NFC South, and re-emergence of All-Pro receiver Joe Horn, who caught two touchdowns Sunday to take some of the pressure off rookie Marques Colston, is a welcome addition to an already potent offense.
Even before he arrived in New Orleans to see these new Saints for himself, McNabb was asked if he could put his finger of what had changed to make them so formidable.
"They treat every weekend," he said, "like it's their last."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
RE: Great article.....
Great article thanks for finding that
RE: Great article.....
nice read. Howard hit it on the head.
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