The New Orleans Saints' season opener in Green Bay packed all the excitement and cliff-hanging that fans could want. Only the game's final score was a disappointment; the Saints lost, 42-34. Though they trailed the Packers throughout the contest, the Black-and-Gold kept fighting right up to the end — and the outcome wasn't determined until the final play of the game. Despite the loss, our team showed the kind of grit that sets champions apart from also-rans. The 2011 season is just beginning, which means Who Dats are brimming with optimism about the Saints' post-season prospects. Every year at this time, hope springs eternal in the Crescent City.
For four months, the 2011 season was up in the air; the lockout left a lot of people grumbling about rich players and richer owners amidst a lousy economy. But when times are bad, people want diversion — and, of course, New Orleans can forgive just about anything when it comes to its beloved Saints. (Case in point: the February furor over head coach Sean Payton moving his family to Dallas has receded ... as long as the Saints continue to win, of course.)
The preseason was a mixed bag. Probably best to focus on a couple of guys who made a good first impression. Running back Mark Ingram, a first-round draft pick, distinguished himself in the otherwise awful Aug. 20 loss to the Houston Texans, making a thrilling dive over several Texans to score a touchdown in one of the few bright spots of the night. In fact, Ingram scored TDs in three preseason matches in a row. In the Aug. 28 matchup against the Oakland Raiders, Joique Bell lit up the second half several times, particularly when he caught a 61-yard pass. And Joe Morgan went from "Joe Who?" to a rising star when the wide receiver proved a powerhouse on offense, including an exciting 78-yard-run in the game against the San Francisco 49ers — before tearing a meniscus in one knee during practice and getting sent to injured reserve for the season.
One thing was happily absent from the team's offseason, training camp and pre-season: drama. Too bad the same cannot be said for Louisiana's other football obsession, the LSU Tigers. Just two weeks before the season was about to begin, LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson and linebacker Josh Johns were arrested after a particularly ugly 2 a.m. bar fight. Both men were booked with felony second-degree battery and were suspended indefinitely, causing embarrassment for the university and a big distraction for their teammates. Fortunately, that drama proved to be no distraction in the Tigers' opening game; backup QB Jarrett Lee led a complete shellacking of the University of Oregon Ducks, which has had its own share of off-season player problems.
LSU's player debacle should remind New Orleanians of another source of local pride: Under head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints have been relatively free of major scandals. As an NFL city, New Orleans is probably the league leader in providing temptation for young football players, but we've seen no melees on Bourbon Street or messy run-ins in suburbia involving players. Quite the opposite, in fact. Many Saints players spend time off the field working for local charities and setting up their own foundations.
As Saints game time neared last Thursday, USA Today printed an appreciation of Payton's skills on and off the field, calling him "a prime reason free agents want to play for New Orleans, once considered the swampland of pro football." Saints owner Tom Benson obviously agrees and wants to keep Payton happy. On Sept. 5, the team extended the coach's contract through 2015. That's five more Super Bowls.
But the new season has just started. Who Dat Nation denizens are still picking out their 2011 fan jerseys, and tailgaters have barely broken in their new grills. This week we've got our first home game against the hated Chicago Bears, and once again the city can unite behind something that crosses all class barriers, all racial lines, all politics and all the unimportant things that too often divide us when we should be united.
Are you ready for some football, New Orleans?