Just five months removed from a dismal 3-13 season, a season that engendered both apathy and enmity among the team's fans, the Saints announced that they had sold nearly 55,000 season tickets -- a team record -- for seats inside a Superdome still scarred by Hurricane Katrina's abuse.
How did they do it? How did the team quell the discord, cure the indifference and motivate a fan base that, according to post-Katrina population statistics, had no business setting ticket-buying records?
Part of it was accomplished by obliterating the status quo and making bold personnel moves that showed a departure from the past.
And part of it was pure serendipity.
Before the Saints ever kicked off the 2006 regular season, they executed several key plays that ensured excitement would accompany the team in its return to New Orleans after a one-season sabbatical in San Antonio.
They hired a new head coach.
They signed a new quarterback.
And the most ballyhooed player in the 2006 NFL Draft fell into their lap.
The first part of the equation was the most anticipated.
The day after the 2005 season ended, the Saints jettisoned Jim Haslett, ending his six-year tenure as head coach in New Orleans.
After sifting through a handful of erstwhile NFL head coaches and current coordinators, the Saints selected Bill Parcells-acolyte Sean Payton. Payton arrived in New Orleans from Dallas, where he had served as the Cowboys' assistant head coach and passing game coordinator. Though he had no prior head coaching experience, Payton did take the job with a very clear concept of what playoff teams have in common.
"These are the teams that won the turnover ratio, that did a great job and did the little things right and that starts today for us, for this team, for this staff, for this organization in regards to our methods -- and we can't just obviously pay lip service to that," Payton said in his introductory news conference.
"But I think it comes from being at the weight room at the right time, from being in the training room appointment at the right time. It comes from being at the meetings at the right time. It's not okay to be offsides. It's not okay to be late. Those are things that won't be tolerated. It will be different."
If Haslett's dismissal was expected, the Saints next major offseason move was a bona fide shocker.
Haslett's destiny was inextricably linked with quarterback Aaron Brooks. In Haslett's first season at the helm, Brooks filled in for an injured Jeff Blake in the 11th game of the season and went on to make 82 consecutive starts. Not until three meaningless games remained in the 2005 season did Haslett bench Brooks.
The Saints released Brooks on the same day they introduced their new quarterback. Conventional wisdom had the team waiting until the NFL Draft to select one of two promising collegiate signal callers -- Texas's Vince Young or Southern Cal's Matt Leinart.
Instead they jumped headlong into the viper pit that is NFL free agency. They entered a bidding war with the Miami Dolphins for the services of San Diego Chargers quarterback Drew Brees.
And they won.
THE SAINTS SIGNED BREES TO A SIX-YEAR contract worth $60 million. The deal included an $8 million signing bonus with a $12 million option bonus due in his second year. A second season in New Orleans would undoubtedly mean a successful first season for Brees, but more importantly, a healthy one.
In January, Brees had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. He suffered the injury during the Chargers last game of the 2005 season. But since his arrival in New Orleans, Brees has maintained that his throwing shoulder will be totally healed by the beginning of training camp at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss.
Proving he's healthy enough to start is Brees' current challenge, but proving himself is something he's had to do for years.
Despite going undefeated as a starting quarterback at his Texas high school, Brees was not heavily recruited by the college football powers in the Longhorn State. In fact, only Kentucky and Purdue, both better known for basketball than pigskin prowess, were truly interested. He chose Purdue, where he went on to set dozens of NCAA, Big Ten and school passing records and led the Boilermakers to their first Rose Bowl appearance in 34 years.
In 2001, the Chargers selected Brees with the 32nd overall pick in the NFL Draft. He experienced early struggles in San Diego, leading the Chargers to pick Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning first overall, and then trade Manning to the New York Giants for North Carolina State quarterback Philip Rivers.
The message was clear: Brees was not the Chargers' quarterback of the future. But that didn't hamper Brees' ability to produce. With Rivers on the bench for two years, Brees exploded with the two finest seasons of his career.
In 2004, he made the Pro Bowl and was named Associated Press NFL Comeback Player of the Year. In 2005, he piled up a career-high 3,576 passing yards and was named as an alternate to the Pro Bowl.
While Aaron Brooks possessed a world of ability, he rarely displayed the leadership skills that are an inherent part of being a successful starting quarterback in the NFL. Leadership is Brees' forte.
"This will be my sixth year in the NFL," says Brees. "I feel like my strength would be leadership on the field -- composure -- and I feel the biggest challenge now is obviously a new team, learning new personalities, learning a new offense, obviously getting my shoulder back. I've got a lot of responsibilities and a lot of things I'm going to be working on very hard in this offseason, so that's a challenge in itself."
Sean Payton is known as a cultivator of quarterback talent, and in Brees he sees a player who is equipped to excel in the NFL.
"He's a player that makes great decisions," says Payton. "He's a high-character person. He's everything you look for at the quarterback position when you evaluate and evaluate the position over a long period of time. There are some common denominators the quarterback has, especially denominators in guys that have won in this league. And if you can identify those specific tangible things and grade the player accordingly, I think your chances of being successful go up immensely. We certainly feel that way with Drew."
Brees' reputation as a leader is unquestioned, but the integrity of his right shoulder is what the Saints are banking on. Despite all the positive predictions, Payton realizes it was a calculated gamble to sign a player on the mend to a big-money contract.
"There has to be concern, just from a standpoint of the possibility," says Payton. "But at the same time, when we made that decision back in the spring, it was with that risk and knowing the person who is rehabbing. I like where he's at right now, but it is what it is. That concern exists with (running back) Deuce McAllister, (safety) Josh Bullocks, (defensive end) Will Smith, these guys that are injured."
If the Saints landing Brees was a shocker, what happened on the eve of the 2006 NFL Draft was earth shattering.
NEW ORLEANS HAD THE SECOND OVERall pick and most pundits believed the Saints would select North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams, Virginia offensive lineman D'Brickashaw Ferguson or Ohio State linebacker A.J. Hawk. The forgone conclusion was that the Houston Texans would pick Southern Cal running back Reggie Bush with the first pick. Everything else was subject to debate.
Then the unthinkable happened.
The night before the draft, the Texans announced they had signed Mario Williams to a six-year, $54 million contract.
In doing so, the Texans snubbed Bush and allowed him to fall to the Saints at No. 2.
On draft day, Saints fans could not believe their good fortune. Nor were they certain their beloved team would, in fact, select Bush. These were the Saints, they thought. Stellar player evaluation and sage personnel moves have not been hallmarks of the franchise.
But in a move already regarded as one of the most important in team history, the Saints did what any intelligent team would have done: they picked Reggie Bush.
At a fan draft party not far from the team's practice facility in Metairie, the news was met with an eruption of euphoria. There were shrieks of glee, emotional embraces between complete strangers and dewy-eyed prayers sent to the heavens for this unexpected munificence.
It was another reason New Orleans owed a deep debt of gratitude to the city of Houston. First Houston sheltered our tired, our poor, and our huddled masses after Hurricane Katrina, and then it allowed the most spectacular player to enter the draft in decades to enter the huddle wearing black and gold in his rookie season.
Thanks again, Houston.
Lest New Orleans fans fear that Bush would pull a John Elway or Eli Manning and refuse to play for the team that selected him, Bush offered them solace.
"Yes, I want to play there," Bush said on Draft Day. "I just want to get there on the football field. I'm excited to be able to come to New Orleans. I'm excited with Drew Brees. They already got (Dont) Stallworth, Deuce McAllister and they're looking to turn the program around."
Bush brings an unprecedented dimension to the Saints. In 2005, the Heisman Trophy winner led the nation with 223.3 all-purpose yards per game. Rushing, receiving or returning, the 6'0", 203-pound virtuoso is a threat to score every time the ball is in his hands, and that is what he often does. He found the end zone an astounding 18 times during his junior season.
Much to the delight of Trojan fans, Bush didn't just put up numbers -- he produced with panache and he escaped with lan. He plans to continue that artistry that he exhibited on so many Saturdays in college. Now it will be on Sundays, but beyond that, Bush doesn't anticipate changing his personal game plan much.
"I don't think there is a major adjustment other than just adjusting to the whole NFL experience," says Bush. "The level and obviously the game play and game speed are different. I think adjusting to that is it. Just adjusting to that and just preparing myself for the different mentality."
His elusiveness, lateral quickness and burst of speed through the hole often left tacklers clueless and fans slack-jawed. His myriad skills might create debate about how best to use them all. Bush has a simple solution for the Saints.
"I don't think it will be that challenging," says Bush. "Just put me out there and let me make plays. I know the coaching staff is very excited to have me here, and I am excited to be here and be able to help this team turn this program around and be able to make plays from different spots on the football field."
Despite his eye-popping credentials, Bush plays down the notion that Sean Payton will treat him differently than his teammates.
"As far as I am concerned, I am just another player," says Bush. "I am just another guy trying to prove myself again. That is the type of person that I am. I always feel like I have something to prove no matter what level it is and no matter what I have accomplished. I am always going to feel like I have something to prove and I think that is what helps me be successful -- just keeping that mentality."
WHAT THE SAINTS WILL HAVE TO PROVE is how effectively they can utilize Bush and Deuce McAllister, a Pro Bowl running back in his own right and the Saints' best player.
But McAllister's health may dictate how much action Bush sees this season. Last October, McAllister suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in a blowout loss to the Green Bay Packers. It was a season-ending injury for a player who, just four months earlier, had signed a seven-year contract extension worth more than $50 million.
For McAllister, this offseason has been a grueling one that he hopes never to duplicate.
"Hopefully, obviously, you want to be 100 percent by the first game," says McAllister. "You got to try to build it up going into training camp and everything, but you definitely want to be 100 percent by the regular season."
Considering the glaring needs the Saints had at other positions, McAllister probably didn't think he'd have to share time in the backfield with a No. 1 draft pick, but the preternaturally humble McAllister says he supports Bush's selection.
"It's going to add some explosiveness to this offense," says McAllister. "He's a special player. He has an ability to do some things with the ball that a lot of us aren't blessed to do. It's obviously going to give defenses fits, just when he has the ball and when I'm in the game and I have the ball. They're going to have to account for him. I think he's going to help both of us to go out there and do our best."
For an offensive-minded strategist like Payton, working with a talented tandem like McAllister and Bush is inspiring.
"There will be a lot of personnel groupings for us, there will be the ability for us to put (Bush) and Deuce in the same backfield," says Payton. "I know there will be a lot of questions in regards to two backs, and these are good problems to have and we are looking forward to it."
Though McAllister may be the incumbent at running back, it's unlikely he'll get his customary number of carries this season. Bush is too talented to leave on the bench, and McAllister realizes that his own value is determined by how much he can still produce.
"I'm a back. I want the ball," McAllister says. "Any player wants the ball regardless of their position. Whenever you got an opportunity to touch it, you got to make plays."
Assuming his shoulder is healthy, Brees is going to have to do a lot more than simply hand off the ball to his running backs this season. He says he's confident that the Saints will have a dynamic, multi-faceted offense.
"We've got a lot of weapons and obviously, Sean and his ability to mix and match and move guys around, you create matchups this way and you keep a defense off balance," says Brees.
"As an offense, you always want to be the one to set the tempo for the defense. We feel like we're getting to that point. We're going to try to get them to worry about us, not us worry about them."
FOUR-TIME PRO BOWL RECEIVER JOE HORN was one of the few constants on the Saints offense during the Haslett era. He'll likely be a focal point of the Saints passing game, even if not much else is familiar under the new head coach.
"There's going to be new faces," Horn says. "There's going to be changes made that obviously veterans that have been around are going to have to see. I'm talking about myself. It's part of the job. It's part of the NFL. It's part of getting paid and changing the organization to win football games."
Despite Payton's declaration that there are no fixtures on the roster, regardless of what players have done in the past, the consummately confident Horn says he's not worried about his place on the team.
"As long as (Horn's number) 87 does what I do best, and that's run routes, get open and catch footballs and stay healthy, I'm going to play football."
Horn's 2005 season was not a banner year for him. Nagged by a hamstring injury, he missed three games and his production dipped steeply. He caught 49 passes for 654 yards and one touchdown.
While Horn struggled, mercurial teammate Dont Stallworth flourished during the Saints season of discontent. In 2005, Stallworth caught a career-high 70 passes for 945 yards and seven touchdowns. Though Stallworth was rumored to be Saints trade bait in the offseason, when healthy he is still the team's biggest deep threat at receiver -- unless Reggie Bush lines up as a flanker.
FORMER LSU TIGER DEVERY HENDERSON, who was never a Jim Haslett favorite, should figure prominently in the Saints receiver rotation. Henderson is entering his third pro season, and the team is still waiting for him to blossom.
At tight end, Zach Hilton is looking to show that his breakthrough season was a prologue to a productive career. The hulking 6'8" player started six games last season and caught 35 passes, most of them in the final half of the schedule.
And how will the Saints safeguard this new constellation of stars?
The offensive line that will block for Brees and create holes for McAllister and Bush is still a work in progress.
The Saints lost their best offensive lineman, Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley, to the Cleveland Browns in free agency. They replaced Bentley with Jeff Faine, who was acquired in a Draft Day trade from Cleveland. While Faine is regarded as a solid starter, the void left by Bentley is significant.
Aside from Faine, the only other lock to start on the offensive line is left tackle Jammal Brown. Brown, who was the Saints first-round pick in the 2005 draft out of Oklahoma, started 13 games at right tackle last season. The all-important left tackle position opened up when the Saints traded aging Wayne Gandy to the Atlanta Falcons in the offseason.
The rest of the spots on the offensive line appear up for grabs.
"It is one of those position groups where you have some concern, but in 2000 when I was with the Giants we went to the Super Bowl with Lomas Brown, Glenn Parker and Dusty Ziegler," Payton says.
"We do have some turnover there and people switching positions -- Jammal at the left side. You have some turnover at the guard position. You have a new center working and obviously competition at the right tackle position, so we're starting a little bit from square one. Upsetting the apple cart when you're 13-3 is one thing, but upsetting it when you're 3-13 is another, so I think it's easier to do with the latter."
THE 2006 SAINTS DEFENSE BOASTS CON-siderably less name recognition than its offensive counterparts.
One of the team's most prolific pass rushers is gone. Darren Howard, who racked up 44.5 sacks in his six seasons in New Orleans, bolted to the Philadelphia Eagles who signed the defensive end to a six-year, $30 million contract.
Despite Howard's departure, the team still has an athletic and capable pair of defensive ends in emerging star Will Smith and Charles Grant.
The Johnathan Sullivan experiment mercifully came to an end. Picked sixth overall in 2003, Sullivan became the silent spokesman for Saints draft futility. The defensive tackle struggled with an array of issues including his weight, his conditioning and his desire to play football. In June, the Saints traded Sullivan to the Patriots for wide receiver Bethel Johnson.
The most significant addition to the defensive line is defensive tackle Hollis Thomas. The Saints traded a fourth-round pick to the Eagles for the rotund veteran. Thomas is a classic space-eater who could help plug some of the holes in the team's porous run defense.
The Saints linebackers have been among the weakest units in the league for years. While the team completed a makeover on last year's group, it's unclear if this bunch will be any better. Courtney Watson, Ronald McKinnon and Sedrick Hodge are gone. In their places, the Saints signed free agents Scott Fujita, Anthony Simmons, Tommy Polley and Jay Foreman. Second-year player Alfred Fincher will get a chance to earn a starting spot at middle linebacker.
The landscape at cornerback looks strikingly similar to 2005. Veterans Mike McKenzie and Fred Thomas will likely be the top two starters, and Jason Craft should get the nod in the nickel package. Fakhir Brown is out of the mix -- he signed a free-agent deal with the St. Louis Rams.
The Saints spent the offseason stockpiling safeties. And while it's anyone's guess as to which players will emerge as the starters, this much is certain -- they have options. The team added former Redskin Omar Stoutmire through free agency and landed former Falcon Bryan Scott in the Wayne Gandy deal. The Saints also have a pair of promising second-round draft picks at safety in Josh Bullocks -- selected in 2005 -- and Roman Harper -- taken in 2006. Steve Gleason occupies a roster spot at safety, but earns his money on special teams. Last season's starting tandem of Dwight Smith and Jay Bellamy is back, though the team's mini-camps showed the competition for both spots is wide open. Bellamy had his streak of 122 consecutive NFL starts snapped last season when he suffered a season-ending rotator cuff injury.
THE MOST STARTLING REHABILITATION of the offseason may have come in the relationship between Saints fans and team ownership.
The 2005 season elevated discord between the two sides to new heights. Infuriated by a perceived lack of commitment by Tom Benson to keep the franchise in New Orleans, fans lashed out with vitriol in the form of stadium signs, homemade T-shirts and scathing messages in Internet chat rooms.
After fans taunted him following a loss to the Miami Dolphins in Tiger Stadium, Benson reportedly fired off an e-mail to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, saying he would not return to Baton Rouge for any reason, and that he had felt he and his family "could have all been severely injured or killed."
Eventual assurances from both the NFL and the Saints that the team would return to play all of its home games in the Superdome helped calm fans' frayed nerves.
Ultimately, the panacea for past pain was what the team did to improve its future on the field.
And Benson is basking in the fervor.
"I thought last year when the hurricane came, we were going down the tubes pretty fast and that God had forgotten about us," Benson says. "But He sure has shone bright on us since then, hasn't He? And very truly, I feel very good about it. You cannot imagine the excitement. I think you can see it. You can see it when you come out here, whether we're having a mini camp, our staff, whatever, the excitement is so tremendous. This is going to be one hell of a year. I just can't hardly wait for it to start."
The new cast of characters wearing black and gold eagerly embraces those expectations.
"I think the thing that's challenging is right now just with everything that's happened," says Payton. "I think it's probably a little bit of a surprise to all of us that the organization sold more season tickets than at any time in the history (of the team), coming literally the year right after Katrina. It's hard to pinpoint, and that's a credit to the fans here locally and also in this whole Gulf South. Obviously they've made a statement. They're excited about this team and it works out with the opportunity to play good football for them."
Bush says playing in a post-Katrina New Orleans provides a rare chance to give fans an outlet while they grapple with true personal hardship. "It's pretty devastating, and it gives me a sense of what I was playing for -- not just a football team, but a city that was looking for us to bring some happiness back."
The Saints occupy a singular place in the psyche of the New Orleans sports fan. A triumphant 2006 could do wonders for a city that is still coming to terms with the concept of loss.
"I think that anytime you have a situation like you had last year with Hurricane Katrina, a lot of people losing their homes or being forced from their homes and not coming back, they need that sense to be uplifted," says Brees. "I think we have an opportunity as the Saints franchise to be a part of that rebuilding process and the lifting of their spirits."