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Lords of the Ring 

Can the Black and Gold go two for two? The Saints want to join the Patriots, Broncos and Cowboys as the only NFL teams to win back-to-back Super Bowls in the past 20 years

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The New Orleans Saints are Super Bowl Champions. How confidently could anyone have predicted that as little as a year ago? The Saints were a lot of things before 2009 and "winners" was far from the first thing to come to mind. Sure, Drew Brees and Sean Payton had inspired confidence in this team's ability since their 2007 run to the NFC championship, but the Saints had never made it to, let alone won, the Big Game.

  So ... where do we go from here?

  History is not kind to teams looking for multiple Super Bowls. Consider: All but four franchises have played in the Super Bowl and 18 teams have held the Lombardi Trophy — but of those winners, only 10 have multiple championships, with seven of those winning back-to-back titles. Winning the Super Bowl may be hard, but winning more than one is even harder.

  Therein lies the dilemma for the upcoming Saints season: just how the hell do you top the last one? Last year's Saints didn't lose a game until December, and the contests weren't all cakewalks. New Orleans trailed Miami by two touchdowns before storming back and winning in week six. Just two weeks later, if wide receiver Robert Meachem hadn't turned an interception into a fumble return for a touchdown, the Black and Gold could have lost to the lowly Redskins. Aside from the last three games of the season — and really, who even remembers those? — the Saints seemed to have gotten every bounce and break all year. Nothing could go wrong.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JONATHAN BACHMAN

  Bill Barnwell, of the website FootballOutsiders.com, is an expert at finding statistical trends that define the quality of teams and players in the NFL. But when it comes to detecting whether a team has the ability to build a dynasty of championships, there's not much to go on, he says.

  "I don't think there are any obvious statistical trends, but that might be a story in and of itself," Barnwell says. "Even if a team has great chemistry, a talented roster and smart coaching — well, the Minnesota Vikings aren't always going to put 12 guys in the huddle at the end of the NFC championship game."

There's always more than a football team to celebrate in New Orleans, and the mood of the city doesn't fall when its team doesn't do well. For years, the pain of not making it to the Super Bowl was masked by the simple fact that the big game usually takes place around Mardi Gras. But last year, when Tracy Porter intercepted Colts quarterback Peyton Manning to seal the Saints' championship and people flooded the streets to "Stand Up and Get Crunk", the party seemed like it was never going to end.

  The city hosted parades on 11 of 13 days around the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras. When the popular sports blog Deadspin found a picture of Brees whipping the reins on his Mardi Gras float dressed as King Bacchus, they ran the headline "Drew Brees has gone mad with power," highlighting the rest of the country's bemusement at the over-the-top revelry in the Crescent City.

  Ross Louis, a season ticket holder who dresses as Chef Who Dat for games (and channels the character on the Chef Who Dat blog), says he didn't pay attention to how the national spotlight affected the perception of the Saints or their fans — and he isn't bothered by the residual corporate effects of winning a Super Bowl.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JONATHAN BACHMAN

  "Leave us alone and let us enjoy our party, let us enjoy our team," Louis says. "It's not going to change the unique things that happen, the music that's created around the team — none of that generic manufactured NFL stuff is going to catch on here."

  That was evident when the NFL tried — ultimately unsuccessfully — to claim a copyright on the term "Who Dat," and Saints fans across the city reacted by creating and buying as much non-NFL "Who Dat" merchandise as possible. The Saints may be a corporate entity, and the players may have earned the championship on the field, but the Super Bowl, the championship and the Lombardi Trophy — that belongs to the entire city of New Orleans.

  The Saints have displayed the Lombardi Trophy across the Gulf Coast. In the midst of all the fanfare, Payton and Brees found time to pen best-selling books, and Reggie Bush snapped some pictures with U.S. soccer players in South Africa at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Brees even tempted fate by appearing on the cover of the popular Madden NFL video game franchise (being on the cover has notoriously spelled bad luck for players).

Fans have been on a high since the Super Bowl, and that high doesn't show signs of waning. Louis says that unlike past years, he's barely been concerned about the 2010 season.

  "The team did so much and we just want to sit back and enjoy it a little bit," he says. "With the memory of Bourbon Street after the Super Bowl and the NFC Championship game, it's hard to get stressed about the upcoming season."

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  That seems to be the biggest post-championship factor: less stress. Lifelong Who Dat Shaneika Dabney said she looks forward to watching games without experiencing "sweaty palms, skyrocketing blood pressure and heart palpitations."

  But the same national spotlight that has helped the city's visibility also has highlighted some less-than-favorable qualities about the Saints. First ESPN took the images of Brees as Bacchus and suggested the team was celebrating its victory too much. Then former Saints security director Geoffrey Santini claimed Payton had stolen the prescription pain medication Vicodin. A lawsuit filed by Santini against the team has been withdrawn, but the case is in arbitration.

  Bush, meanwhile, has been at the center of NCAA violations that have rocked his alma mater, the University of Southern California, stemming from cash and favors he received during his playing days. The football program has been placed on a two-year bowl ban, among other sanctions. In response, the school's president announced July 20 that the Trojans returned Bush's Heisman Trophy on the grounds that the school "honors USC sporting careers of those persons whose actions did not compromise their athletic program or the opportunities of future USC student-athletes." Ouch. His on-again, off-again (currently it's off) relationship with reality TV figure Kim Kardashian has also kept Bush in the celebrity watchers' spotlight.

  Then there is Tom Benson. Just five years ago, he risked becoming the most hated man in Louisiana when rumors circulated that he would move the Saints to San Antonio, Texas. Since then, Benson has kept the Saints as the only NFL team that's subsidized by the state where it resides. He even squeezed an additional $85 million out of the state to upgrade the Louisiana Superdome when budget deficits are forcing the reduction of public programs across the state.

  It's likely Benson will be forgiven any transgressions as long as the Saints continue to play in New Orleans and he doesn't directly insult fans. He did come close to losing some supporters such as Louis, who found out in the middle of his post-Super Bowl celebrations that the season tickets he has owned since 2006 were being eliminated as part of renovations to the Superdome. In the place where he watched the 2009 winning season would be a new press box. For a while it seemed Louis and his friends in section 641 would lose their seats. In a stadium where sections are treated like neighborhoods, the Saints faced a growing backlash from "The Missing 1,200" — season ticket holders who lost their usual seats to upgrades and renovations — until the team offered relocation packages.

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  "To my knowledge everyone was offered a chance to relocate," Louis says. "Some folks couldn't afford it, and I'm not sure that everyone actually kept their season tickets. I'm looking forward to moving to different part of the Dome and having different tailgating parties."

  The move points to the Saints' growing identity as a major corporate player both on the Gulf Coast and the national stage. The press box is being moved so luxury boxes can be built in their place. Other renovations include expanding the lower terrace, adding more high-priced, high-demand seats to a stadium that already can seat more than 80,000 people. Both moves attract big-businesses and high-income fans, but it comes at the expense of cheaper seats for fans with lower incomes.

  On her blog ChicksintheHuddle.com, Dabney, aka NOLAChick, has written about accepting the higher ticket prices as part of the experience of rooting for a championship team. Despite joking that she'll need Lenny Kravitz to hold a benefit to help her pay for her tickets. Living in Atlanta, Dabney says she's still going to make it to as many games as she can. But unlike Louis, she isn't content with just celebrating one championship.

  "I don't really believe in Super Bowl grace periods," she says. "I've been following this team since I was a little girl, sitting on my dad's lap, and yelling at the TV during the games despite having no clue what was happening on the field. Success for them always has been and always will be the primary objective."

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Any championship team will tell you one of the hardest aspects to deal with is deciding how to shape a post-championship roster to ensure more wins. The "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" argument has real weight, but when every other team in the league presumably got better in the offseason, how can you afford not to do the same?

  The result is a painful one for players and fans. Scott Fujita, the Black and Gold's longtime linchpin took the money and ran, pursuing a more lucrative contract to play for the perennially bad Cleveland Browns. The Saints let go of Mike Bell and dawdled when it came to re-signing Pierre Thomas, all the while paying Reggie Bush $8 million to be a backup. Darren Sharper also got an ego check when, after realizing that no other team would pay what he was demanding, New Orleans was his only real option in free agency (not that the Saints were falling over themselves to sign the 34-year-old interception machine).

  The Saints have benefited from a surplus of goodwill and favorable ratings from fans, media and the country. The story of the Saints winning the world championship, combined with ongoing Katrina relief efforts, endeared this team to people all across the United States (with ESPN dubbing the Saints the new "America's Team").

  "Certainly, the huge majority of people watching the Super Bowl were rooting for the Saints," Barnwell says. "Since then, I think it's safe to say that they've made some new fans nationwide that they would never have otherwise reached."

  Benson and Payton have to do a little more than displace some fans or be accused of stealing pills to lose their standing in the community. But there's no telling how feeling they can do no wrong will affect their competitive mentality. Will all the success and outpouring of affection lead to confident determination moving forward, or will this team get too complacent and satisfied when it needs to stay hungry?

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  "I won't be one of the schmucks booing them in week four in the Superdome if they happen to not be undefeated by that point or have a bad game," Dabney says. "I'm so grateful to them for what they did for our city, but I know they've got so much more gas left in the tank."

  Having something in the tank and winning a race are two different things. The modern NFL game is designed for parity. Because of the salary cap, injuries and the setup of the draft, teams can go from last to first in a year. Just look at the NFC South, where no team has repeated as division champion and this year's bottom feeders continually become next year's top dogs. But there are teams that find the right mix of veteran leadership, young talent and role players that get the job done. Barnwell says the Saints have that crucial core in place.

  "The Saints strike me as a similar sort of team to the Colts over the next few years. As long as they have Drew Brees around, they've got a steady date with nine wins," Dabney says.

  It's nice to have a potential Hall of Famer playing your team's most important position; once again, the fate of the team will rest on Brees' shoulders. Last year at this time, we wrote that Saints players, coaches and fans don't even want to think of a world without Brees. Well, that's still the reality. Backing up Brees are Chase Daniel and Sean Canfield, who combined have zero NFL starts.

  Brees' supporting cast appears airtight. Last season, Brees made a habit of hooking up with as many targets as possible. In Pierre Thomas, the quarterback has an every-down back that can pound the ball and open up possibilities. Bush is a less productive back who serves as a valuable decoy and can still break games wide open.

  The list goes on: tight ends Jeremy Shockey and David Thomas and wide receivers Marques Colston, Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson all are capable of catching the ball anywhere on the field. In the past two seasons, the Saints were often just one long pass away from scoring a touchdown; now the team has a stable of talented players who are proven winners.

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  In the NFL, where people measure advantages in inches, just knowing what it takes to win is a giant advantage. Even through last season, no one knew if this team really had what it takes to become Super Bowl champions. The question going into last season was how Payton was going to manage all the team's talent and if he could effectively use all the tools he had. In the two seasons between the Saints' NFC Championship loss to the Chicago Bears and the Super Bowl win, the team was 15-17 and there was no guarantee Payton would remain at the helm if the team faltered again.

  Last season quashed those doubts. In addition to being an offensive mastermind, Payton also showed confidence and determination when he started the second half of the Super Bowl with an onside kick. It's been hailed as one of the gutsiest moves in football history and likely will go down as one of the most memorable championship plays ever.

  Payton and his players are now in unfamiliar territory. Known for his pre-game motivational speeches, how does Payton prepare the Saints yet again? Payton has spoken about winning multiple championships — that's what defines the great teams from the legendary ones. In the past 20 years, only the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys have managed to win back-to-back Super Bowls. The Pittsburgh Steelers have set the gold standard with six championships, including consecutive wins in 1975 and '76 as well as 1979 and '80.

  There may not be any hard statistics that link those teams, but they all had the common denominator of a great coach and a great quarterback playing at the height of their prowess. Payton and Brees share an unquenchable desire to win, along with the youth and exuberance required for sustained excellence in the NFL.

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  The only difference is that now there is no more weight of expectations for New Orleans. No one on the Saints has to prove himself capable of winning a championship anymore — it's all about building a legacy. Should they fail to win another championship, last year may be regarded as a fluke, but this group of players will still be Big Easy royalty. The Saints are Super Bowl Champions and nothing can take that — or the experience of Lombardi Gras — away from New Orleans.

  Now just think about how much fun it would be to do it all over again.

Click here to download your printable 2010 Saints schedule!

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click to enlarge PHOTO BY JONATHAN BACHMAN
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click to enlarge PHOTO BY JONATHAN BACHMAN
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