|NFL 2007: After unprecedented 2006, increased expectations will test Saints' fortitude|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 30 August 2007 17:06|
But what really causes a stir in these parts is the sighting of a successful Saints coach. And right now, that's Sean Payton.
``Sometimes things happen that are awkward or humbling,'' Payton said, recalling the buzz his presence caused during country star Pat Green's concert at the French Quarter House of Blues last year.
``Here's a guy that I think a lot of, who's a fantastic musician, and all of a sudden the attention shifts off the artist to someone in the audience,'' Payton said. ``I know Pat pretty well and it's somewhat embarrassing. I remember him saying later on, 'That's the first time that's ever happened to me.' All of a sudden, you recognize that this is something that's so important to these people.''
When Payton first took over the Saints, the playoffs seemed like a far-fetched dream. Now, the reigning NFL coach of the year can't go anywhere, from downtown to a beach two hours away, without hearing the words ``Super Bowl'' uttered by hopeful fans.
``They're genuinely excited about it,'' Payton said. ``I take it as encouragement ... the expectations being high is healthy.''
The Saints, woeful for most of their four decades in the NFL, reached their first NFC championship game last season. A loss to the Chicago Bears left them one victory shy of giving a football crazy city its first chance to see its team in the Super Bowl.
In the context of New Orleans' recovery from Hurricane Katrina, the improvement from 3-13 in 2005 to 10-6 and a playoff berth in 2006 made for a storybook season.
But such a turnaround on the field was not unprecedented - not even in New Orleans.
In 2000, then-rookie coach Jim Haslett took over a Saints team that had gone 3-13 in 1999. He went 10-6 before leading the franchise to its first-ever playoff victory. Like Payton, Haslett was voted coach of the year.
But Haslett's Saints languished in mediocrity during the next several seasons, narrowly missing the postseason several times, They fell apart two seasons ago, when they were displaced to San Antonio by Katrina, then plagued by injuries to key players and eroding morale.
Payton said recently he was unaware of the striking similarities between his and Haslett's first seasons with the Saints. Moreover, he didn't care.
``I could look at it and study the press guide and study the records and none of that matters to us, really,'' Payton said. ``What matters to us is this season, 2007, where we're at and are we getting better? That's really what matters to us and the rest of that's history.''
For Payton, even last season is history. To symbolize how he felt, he gathered players for a mock jazz funeral outside team headquarters. Replicas of the Saints' 2006 accolades, such as Payton's coaching award, were laid to rest.
But not entirely forgotten.
Payton often talks of building a foundation for long-term success and seeks to do so in various ways, from filling the roster with disciplined players to enforcing team rules in a way most players regard as strict but fair.
Defensive tackle Hollis Thomas, who played for a perennial winner in Philadelphia before Payton brought him to New Orleans, signed a four-year extension last offseason with the hope of finishing his career with the Saints.
``I guess in the past things weren't quite that great around here, but they're taking the proper steps,'' Thomas said. ``As organized as coach Payton is, you know, he has a plan and he just has to get guys to believe in it. Once we saw the plan work, we bought into it and we're here to accomplish the same thing he's trying to accomplish. ... Once you get that combination, you can get a guy to run through a brick wall.''
The walls of the meeting, film and locker rooms at Saints headquarters are white-painted cinderblock. They were mostly bare when Payton arrived to begin the work of rebuilding the franchise into what he hoped would be a source of inspiration to a rebuilding city. Now they're decorated with signs that, for example, warn against being a ``dumb player,'' and there are huge glossy photos, selected by Payton, of triumphant scenes from last season.
In the receiver's meeting room, it's a shot of Marques Colston, then a rookie seventh-round draft pick in his second NFL game, catching a touchdown pass at Lambeau Field during a victory over Green Bay. In a larger room across the hall, a photo shows several members of the Saints' largely unheralded defense gang-tackling during a win at Cleveland. In the locker room, there's a photo of the team gathering to rev up each other before a game.
Together, the coach's decorative influence speaks to a winning tradition that the Saints have never had, but which Payton intends to build.
Indeed, he has the tools to do as well, perhaps better, than last season. Reggie Bush improved throughout his rookie year and has returned hungry for a breakout season. Quarterback Drew Brees and running back Deuce McAllister are healthier and stronger than last season, when they both were coming back from major reconstructive surgeries.
``I still feel like we've only scratched the surface as an offense,'' Brees said. ``We've got a lot of weapons and we've got a lot of balls to be spread around. I'm excited about the possibilities and the opportunity we have.''
The defense, meanwhile, is a little deeper, with free-agent signings at linebacker (Brian Simmons), cornerback (Jason David) and safety (Kevin Kaesviharn).
``I like to think more that we've got a real good group of assistant coaches, that we've got a good plan in place and we've got players that understand what we want to do, starting with the quarterback,'' Payton said. ``We've got talented running backs, we've got some young receivers that have made progress and most importantly, we've got a group of guys up front that have bonded together on the offensive line.''
So the pieces are in place for the Saints to be an elite NFL team in ways they never have been before. And Payton fully expects to take the heat if that promise goes unfulfilled - never mind all the adoration heaped upon him locally and the respect he's gained nationally over the past year.
``It's a fickle industry and it's year to year,'' Payton said. ``So I understand that and I've been in this long enough to know that there are short memories and you've got to start again.''