A month before the New Orleans Saints regular season kicks off, it's hard not to hear or read an NFL analyst talking head predicting doom. Chaos.
I simply don't see it. The Saints have established proven leadership, upgraded talent and are supported by a loyal fan base that'll dress up as whistles, clergy, video games, presidents and even Moses.
Sean Payton may not be with the team in body, but his fingerprints are all over the organization like powdered sugar on a beignet.
Walk into the team's indoor practice facility and above you hangs a giant photo of Payton glaring down from upon high, headset on, eyes squinted, lips pursed, with the legend "DO YOUR JOB."
"It's a little bit creepy, but if you look at that face — I mean, that's Sean," says receiver Lance Moore.
Payton may not be around to call the shots, but the Saints have experienced coaches at the ready. Joe Vitt, who will lead the team this season, has more than 30 years of experience. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael has been with quarterback Drew Brees since Brees' days in San Diego; last season, Carmichael was the play caller a majority of the year after Payton's knee injury. New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo helped win a Super Bowl with his defense in New York, and is coming from a head coach slot in St. Louis.
The Saints are still a very talented team. Last season, Brees' offense was the most prolific in NFL history and returns almost entirely intact.
The defense may actually be better — thanks to a new philosophy and additional talent.
Spagnuolo's defense, which now features four first-round draft picks on the defensive line with the addition of defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley, will focus on creating pressure upfront, with the goal of allowing the secondary to make more plays on the ball and provide better coverage. Linebacker Curtis Lofton was plucked from the hated Atlanta Falcons, weakening them, stepping in nicely at middle linebacker. Linebacker David Hawthorne is an upgrade.
Asked how the team will fare without Payton, Brees says, "The fact of the matter is the pieces have been put in place in this organization since '06 to withstand anything that would come our way. You create the environment, the culture of the belief and faith ... so that you can weather any storm that will come your way."
That word, storm, resonates like no other around these parts. Hurricane Katrina and the Saints' success in the year after the federal floods are joined at the hip.
"I think we were, in a lot of cases, carried by the emotions and the spirit of the city and everybody coming off of Katrina," Brees remembers. "Here we are six years later, and we've established ourselves as one of the contenders in this league. That each and every year, when people see the New Orleans Saints on their calendar that they need to get their mind right, because we're a team that believes we can win every time we step on the field."
The city rose on the back of its football team during that 2006 season as the Saints inspired us, represented us and showed our resiliency. Now it seems the favor is ready to be returned as the fans appear eager to help carry the team on their backs.
The Black and Gold faithful are up in arms feeling their team has been unjustly punished by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell — who may need presidential-level protection the next time he visits the city.
"This city really has, it seems, an 'everybody is against us' [attitude]," says Saints safety Roman Harper. "Nobody really expects us to do much so it makes [it] even better for us."
It's kind of what New Orleans is all about. You doubt us, we prove you wrong. You take on one of us, you got us all. The Saints have every reason to fail this season — which is why they appear eager to prove they can finish the job of winning the 2013 Super Bowl on their home turf.
— Listen to Gus Kattengell weekdays from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. on WIST 690 AM's "The Sports Hangover."