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The New Orleans Saints' Metamorphosis 

From 'Aints to perhaps the best team in the NFL could lead to a berth in the Super Bowl

click to enlarge Defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove (No. 69) celebrates after - scoring a touchdown against Carolina Panthers Nov. 8 in the - Superdome. - PHOTO BY JONATHAN BACHMAN
  • Photo by Jonathan Bachman
  • Defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove (No. 69) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against Carolina Panthers Nov. 8 in the Superdome.

Here's something to mull over: Your beloved Saints are one of — if not the — best teams in football. Seriously, take some time to ponder that; think about what it means. As it stands, New Orleans already is one of the best regular-season NFL teams ever. Not many football fans can say that about their team. For a long time, Saints fans couldn't even imagine it.

  "I remember way back when people were putting bags on their heads and this was the worst team in all of football," says Lionel Alphonso, aka "The Pope." "It's hard for the fans to really grasp (this season) because we're so used to saying, 'Here we go again,' and everyone says we can win every game."

  Alphonso speaks from lifelong experience. He's been a season ticket holder since the Saints first started playing in New Orleans at Tulane Stadium. Though the teams were short on talent and wins throughout the years, he attended games religiously because he was a football fan — and the Saints were the only game in town. But now, cheering for the so-called 'Aints in an empty Superdome seems so far away.

  "It's a totally different team from what we had years back," Alphonso says. "All the fans feel that way. We finally have something to believe in."

  The New Orleans Saints organization as a whole understands it's treading in unknown waters. When the Saints beat the Carolina Panthers in week eight to solidify their best start in franchise history, head coach Sean Payton gave a poignant answer when asked to put the win into context.

  "I don't know that we're paying a lot of attention to where this mark compares at the halfway point to previous seasons," he said. "There hasn't been a real rich history here in regards to successful football."

  As of press time, the Saints stand at 13-0 with a self-destructing Dallas Cowboys team coming into town. Should this Saints team not win another game this season, it will still be the most successful team in franchise history. As Drew Brees pointed out before the Saints' week 13 win in Atlanta, every week the Saints progress, they continue to write the story of their best season.

  "Each week now holds another prize at the end of it," he says. "You win this week, you secure a first-round bye. Maybe the next week or the week after you secure potentially the one seed, and then potentially, the week after that, you have an opportunity to make history and you're in the playoffs. So it gets more and more exciting each and every week."

  The numbers are impressive.

  • The Saints have gained an average of 426.1 yards and 35.8 points per game, making them the best offense in the league.

  • Drew Brees is first in the NFL in passer rating (112.3), yards per attempt (8.9), and passing touchdowns (32).

  • Thirteen different Saints players, including Brees, have set foot in the end zone this season.

  • In 2008, they had a -4 turnover differential, meaning the Saints gave up four more turnovers than they forced. This year, they're +16.

What are we to make of these statistics? How much are these numbers just sugarcoating a great-but-not-championship team and how much of it is the Saints rising to the NFL's elite? Bill Barnwell, a writer for FootballOutsiders.com, used his site's own brand of calculating statistics to look at the Saints' performance this season and found that the team's biggest weakness last year has become its greatest strength.

  "The biggest difference is in their passing defense," he says. "Last year, they had a pass defense DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) of 17.8 percent, meaning they allowed 17.8 percent more yards and points to the average offense per passing play than league average. That was 23rd. This year (after 11 weeks), they're at -23.5 percent — the best pass defense in football."

click to enlarge Coach Sean Payton keeps an eye on the action on the field - during a home game against the Jets. - PHOTO BY JONATHAN BACHMAN

  For Saints fans, this should come as the best news of the season so far. Who can forget Jason David and the two-season span where teams seemed to pass at will against the Black and Gold? The Saints' defense has gone from giving up big plays regularly to making them consistently, scoring nine touchdowns so far this season. Barnwell sees the Saints' passing defense as the key to this years' success, but he also was very impressed with New Orleans' wins over the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots.

  "Those are three very good teams," he says. "The Patriots were ranked No. 1 in DVOA before playing the Saints, and New Orleans just blew them out of the Superdome. No one else in the league has three wins like that." 

  That 21-point thrashing of the Patriots on Monday Night Football Nov. 30 may be the iconic victory for the Saints' 2009 season. This is the same New England team that won three Super Bowls in the past nine years and is the only NFL team to finish a regular season 16-0. Publicly the Saints said all the right things, praising their opponents and downplaying the victory. Privately, Payton embraced family and friends and let out some hollers after his press conference, while Brees and backup quarterback Mark Brunell shared a hug and a laugh. The fans, of course, were going crazy in the streets.

Who can blame Who Dat Nation for going completely nuts this season? From dressing to the nines for every home game to meeting the team at Louis Armstrong International Airport by the thousands after away games, Saints fans are relishing their team's moment in the sun. And now, thanks to the Internet, that fandom has reached critical mass with Who Dats posting an array of mix tapes and pump-up songs on YouTube to commemorate the season. Even Kermit Ruffins got into the mix with "A Saints Christmas" on his latest album Have a Crazy Cool Christmas.

  For fans like Alphonso, it's been a long time coming. He has been dressing up as "the Pope" since 1987 when Pope John Paul II visited New Orleans at the Superdome just before the start of the NFL season. The year before, the Saints had been 7-9, and had yet to post a winning season in franchise history. After the pope's visit, the Saints won their opening game and Alphonso decided the pope should bless the Saints every week. "The Pope" character was born, and the Saints finished their season 12-3.

click to enlarge Coach Sean Payton keeps an eye on the action on the field - during a home game against the Jets. - PHOTO BY JONATHAN BACHMAN

  The players on the field had a lot to do with that success, of course, but it was also a turning point for Who Dat Nation. This year, 12 Saints fans and the Pope put together a Who Dat calendar to benefit the 9th Ward Field of Dreams. For sale on DirtyCoast.com, the calendar showcases fan creativity in the Big Easy and is one of the many reasons this Saints season has been so fun to follow. (After all, when charities can make money from a football team's fans, you know something must be going well.)

  The age of the Internet also has helped spread the Who Dat gospel. One fan who goes by the moniker "Supa Saint" and has his own off-the-wall Web site (www.supasaint.com) posted a video in the off-season of himself dancing in a warehouse, only to be confronted by former Saint Steve Gleason, who urges all Who Dats to be patient.

  "That came from a dream I had of Supa Saint dancing off my frustrations," he says. "Steve Gleason was a fan of Supa Saint and we got him and a production crew and knocked it out."

  The video became a viral sensation (it's been watched more than 9,000 times) and opened the floodgates for other online Who Dat craziness spurred by the undefeated season. Most recently, one fan posted a video of his friends shooting his television to bits after he incorrectly predicted the Saints would lose to the Redskins in overtime. Before that, the video du jour showed former Saints quarterback and WWL radio host Bobby Hebert screaming with delight, fist pumping, in the press box during the Saints' victory over the New York Jets Oct. 4.

  All three videos were showcased on the popular sports blog www.deadspin.com and have given the rest of the country a sight to which New Orleanians have become accustomed. Saints fans have long been among the most creative in the NFL regardless of their team's on-field record. With the Black and Gold winning, the national spotlight has shone on Saints fans and they've stepped up to the occasion (in Atlanta, for instance, a "Who Dat" chant was clearly audible during FOX's broadcast of the Saints' 26-23 victory Dec. 13). It's only now that fans like Supa Saint and the Pope, who've led cheers even when there was nothing for which to cheer, are getting their due.

  "Even when we got some horrible seasons, there's no dying down with me," Supa Saint says. "I'm always passionate, I'm always fiery."

What does this mean for the rest of the season? Even with everything the Saints have accomplished this year, everyone is left wondering where this fantastic journey will end. For a group of supporters as superstitious as Saints fans, the words "Super Bowl" have been thrown around pretty loosely. But with the way the Saints have been playing, why not? Barnwell says this Saints team compares favorably to the 2004 Patriots and 1999 St. Louis Rams — both Super Bowl champions — as well as the 1994 Dallas Cowboys, 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers and 2008 Eagles, which all fell short in their conference championship games.

  "Truthfully, there's not really some sort of magic notation in the data that suggests they're more likely to end up in the championship side of this group than in the runner-up section," he says. "The best thing a team can do is get to the playoffs, get a bye, get home-field advantage, play well and hope the bounces go their way."

  The only negative aspect about being compared to the 16-0 2007 Patriots is that New England ultimately fell short of winning a Super Bowl. With the Saints on the verge of perfection, they've decided to put pedal to the metal, as evidenced by Payton deciding to run a fake field goal in the fourth quarter against Atlanta. The Saints failed to convert and were in danger of losing that game, but linebacker Jonathan Vilma saved the day with a late interception to seal the win.

  "It was something that we looked at and felt good about," Payton said of the fake field goal. "Those were the decisions that we made. We felt like the opportunity came up and we took it and hopefully it will work the next time."

  That kind of uber-aggressive mentality is what defined the New England Patriots and has set the standard for successful teams in the NFL. It also has spelled a relative downward spiral for the Patriots in which fourth-down gambles have cost them wins recently. For now, it hasn't backfired for the Saints, but what happens if the team is undefeated going into the Super Bowl? Will they rise to the challenge or will they, like every Black and Gold team before them, fold in the spotlight?

  "There's always something in the back of everybody's head, something telling you not to get too excited because something horrible is about to happen," Supa Saint says. "But I gotta say, we have one of the best teams in the history of football."

  Super Bowl or not, fans are witnessing the rebirth of a franchise that should lead to more successful seasons. With such a scant history of winning, Saints fans can't really ask for more. But as Ruffins sings in "A Saints Christmas," all Who Dats want for Christmas is the Saints in the Super Bowl.

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