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"Corny," Payton would later say of his message, "but true. This city wants us to do well so badly. We're so important to New Orleans. A guy came up to me at a [ Kenny Chesney] concert this summer and said, 'Coach, I don't have a job right now, but I scraped up enough money to buy six season tickets to the Saints.'"
Emotion, however, can carry a team with fourth-place talent only so far. Two of the Saints' best players in the trenches, center LeCharles Bentley and defensive end Darren Howard, left for big free-agent deals in Cleveland and Philadelphia, respectively. And a patchwork offensive line had Brees--who completed 65% of his passes and threw 29 more touchdowns than interceptions for the Chargers over the last two years--running for his life in the preseason. "Our line has to prove they can stop the best pass rushers in football. Can they? We'll see," says wideout Joe Horn, sounding unconvinced.
The situation is equally dire on the other side of the ball. Last in the NFC in sacks (25) last year, New Orleans did nothing in free agency to fortify its pass rush. And the projected unit at linebacker-- Scott Fujita, Colby Bockwoldt and Alfred Fincher--might be the worst in the league.
If Deuce McAllister--whose 2005 season was cut short by right ACL surgery last October--stays healthy, Bush will likely get 15 to 22 touches a game as a running back, receiver and punt returner. (The coaches don't want him to wear down, so Bush will not be an every-down back, nor will he return kickoffs.) Payton has been careful to give McAllister sufficient work so that he doesn't get ticked off by the attention lavished on the rising-star rookie. "I talked to Jerome Bettis about what's happening to me here because I figured the same thing happened to him in Pittsburgh," says McAllister, who averaged 1,368 rushing yards a season from 2002 through '04. "He told me, 'You've got to be comfortable with yourself, confident in yourself.' I know I'm one of the best backs in the league, but I also know why the Saints did this."
Bush and Brees, the latest marquee names on an ever-changing roster, have been passionate ambassadors for the new New Orleans. How well they play once the season starts will ultimately determine their p.r. value. And as much as every kid in town is fawning over Bush, it's Brees who will have a bigger say in whether this team makes a quick turnaround. Will he get the new offense on track? Will his surgically repaired right shoulder hold up? "My mind has told my body I'll be better this year than I ever have been," Brees says. "I'm convinced I will be."