Posted: Tuesday October 17, 2006 10:58PM; Updated: Wednesday October 18, 2006 2:30AM
Coach Sean Payton celebrates with fans at the Superdome after the first-place Saints beat the Eagles to improve to 5-1.
Enter Jim Leyland, the manager who took over for Alan Trammell. With a lineup that was essentially the same -- pitcher Kenny Rogers, importantly, was added to the rotation -- Leyland somehow got the Tigers to believe in themselves and led them to a 95-67 regular-season record and their first postseason appearance in 19 years.
The city hummed with excitement all summer, and small businesses in the downtown area boomed. Real estate sales began to rise. New clubs and restaurants opened. Abandoned buildings were being turned into lofts. The downtown area became a place to linger, mingle and enjoy. And that was before the Tigers validated their regular-season resurgence by knocking off the heavily favored (4:1) Yankees, then sweeping the Oakland A's to give Detroit its first AL pennant since 1984. If you don't think one team in one season can turn around a city's image of itself, give it a boost of adrenalin, I recommend you take a trip to Comerica Park for the Series. It's ground zero for Detroit's renewed civic pride.
Better yet, follow that up with a trip to New Orleans, where the surprising Saints, who were 3-13 a year ago in the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, are now leading the NFC South. Heady stuff, that. This is a team that, in 39 seasons, has a grand total of one playoff win, and is best known for fans wearing paper bags on their heads and a nickname shortened to the 'Aints.
After watching the Saints play their home games all over the country last season and suffering as their city became a symbol of government ineptitude and individual despair, New Orleans invested $143 million in the renovation of the Superdome, paying 800 workers round the clock to get the stadium ready in time for the 2006 home opener. Couldn't that money have been better spent? "We're a barometer for recovery in this area," Mike Stanfield, the VP of ticket and suite sales, said.
What recovery? a cynic could be forgiven for asking. Of the pre-Katrina population of 450,000, a quarter of a million residents remained displaced. Yet the Saints were still somehow able to sell a record 54,969 season tickets over the summer as citizens banded together to convince the NFL and Saints owner Tom Benson, who'd talked openly about moving the team, that New Orleans, and its football team, would rise again.
The Saints hired a new coach, 42-year-old Sean Payton. They lured in a free-agent quarterback, Drew Brees. They drafted the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner, Reggie Bush. The first green shoots of hope were growing through the ashes and mud.
But no one expected the sort of turnaround that suddenly has football experts saying that the Saints are actually for real, a playoff-bound contender. After knocking off the tough Philadelphia Eagles 27-24 on Sunday on a last-second field goal, the 5-1 Saints enter their bye week on top of their division and as the feel-good story of the league.
Payton, a former quarterbacks coach with the Giants and offensive coordinator with the Cowboys, has found ways to get Bush the ball where he can exercise his considerable open-field skills, a task perhaps made easier because of Payton's experience as a running backs coach at San Diego State when Marshall Faulk was there. The 27-year-old Brees, coming off shoulder surgery, has had only four interceptions while completing 66.7 percent of his passes and he's thrown for more than 300 yards in a game twice. He's fourth in the league in total yardage and is generally playing like a quarterback in his prime.
Can it last? Who knows? The Saints got off to a 6-1 start in 2002 before fading to 9-7 and missing the playoffs. But this team and this year seem different, largely because there's a sense Payton has convinced the Saints that they're playing for something bigger than themselves. Payton gave the game ball to the city of New Orleans after the Saints' 23-3 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sept. 26, the first game played in the Superdome since Katrina. "I'm fired up for this city," he gushed. "They were a big part of this win."
You get the feeling that it's the other way around, too. That the Saints are a big part of the city of New Orleans' recovery. There are a lot of games ahead, and a lot of work to do, but everyone seems as if they're in it together in the Big Easy these days.