Deep breath. Exhale. Six-and-oh. Yes, six-and-oh. After the Oct. 25 match-up against the Miami Dolphins, the New Orleans Saints have begun their season with six games undefeated — but not without nearly giving us a heart attack first.
The first half against the Miami Dolphins left us slack-jawed and glassy-eyed with a 21-point deficit. Were the bad old days back again? Then, as home viewers reached for the Mylanta and the Abita, it all changed in the second half — 22 points in the final 15 minutes. Just watching was emotionally exhausting. Could they? They could, and they did.
New Orleans now has the only undefeated team in the NFC, and the Saints as of last week were one of only three unbeaten teams in the NFL. We have Drew Brees. We have Darren Sharper. We have Reggie Bush on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated, a photo snapped in Michael Jordan-ish mid-flight, with the caption "Saints Soaring."
New Orleanians have waited a long time for this — 43 years this week, to be exact. The team was founded on Nov. 1, 1966 — All Saints' Day, a very special holiday (and holy day) in New Orleans — and it grabbed New Orleanians' hearts immediately. Unfortunately, the team, like the city itself, has not always been easy to love.
Long-suffering Who Dats can argue about the nadirs in the team's history (1980, when the team lost its first 14 games, is a major contender), but think back just 10 years. At this point in the 1999 season, the team was 1-6, and Mike Ditka was in his third lackluster year of coaching and relentless self-promotion. It was just about this time of year when Da Coach sealed his fate. After a dismal performance by the team against the Tennessee Titans, Ditka flipped off disappointed Saints fans — and, by extension, the city itself. The NFL fined Ditka $20,000, and he would be gone by year's end, but his legacy, Ricky Williams — the man for whom Ditka traded every single draft pick that year — would stick around until 2001. The stink from that bad decision lingered over the team long after Ditka blustered back to Chicago. That made the Saints' recent victory over Williams and the Dolphins doubly sweet.
There's plenty of credit to go around, starting with head coach Sean Payton and his entire coaching staff. New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has worked miracles. And, of course, there's the team itself, which has shown excellence on the field and in the community. This is perhaps the most civic-minded group of Saints in team history. Moreover, they've shown strength of character, with no one getting into the sort of trouble that's become sadly characteristic of so many highly paid, egocentric professional athletes who behave like jerks on and off the field. In short, New Orleans not only has a winning team, but also a squad for which we don't have to apologize on any level.
Putting aside the economic impact of a 6-0 football franchise, a top team has intangible benefits, not the least of which is the invaluable morale boost it can provide for polarized, fractured, often demoralized New Orleans. When they're playing like this, the Saints can unite us in ways we can't manage for ourselves, cutting across issues of race, class, culture and all the meaningless distinctions that too often keep us down. From the corner barroom to the Garden Room at Commander's Palace, we're united as New Orleanians. It feels good.
This week, the Saints return to the Louisiana Superdome for Monday Night Football against the Atlanta Falcons. It's one of the most significant home games since Sept. 25, 2006, when they trounced the Falcons in the newly reopened Superdome in what became ESPN's most highly rated telecast of all time. U2 and Green Day provided star-powered performances, but it was when Irma Thomas came out to the mic and Allen Toussaint sat down at the piano that New Orleanians could no longer hold back their emotions. We wept that night for joy, together.
The 2009 Saints are beginning to make us feel that way again. Bless you, boys.