In sagging Big Easy, Saints lift spirits

The city's football team, which hasn't had a good season in years, heads to the playoffs Saturday.

When Gary Greiner thinks back 30 years ago or so, he remembers sitting in a pounding rain at the old Tulane Stadium only to watch his hard-knock Saints lose once again during the football season, this time by 66 to 0 to the Eagles.

As he has for 40 mostly miserable seasons, he stayed until the final whistle. Now his reward has come.

In a city bogged down by hurricane recovery and battered by a crime wave in which nine people have died this year, the Saints have chosen a fine time to live up to their name. With a bright rookie head coach and 25 new players, the onetime "Aints," whose fans invented the paper-bag-over-the-head protest are headed to the playoffs, and some speculate, perhaps even to the Superbowl. As the Saints prepare to take on the Philadelphia Eagles at the Superdome Saturday at 8 p.m. EST, New Orleanians, who are used to looking for hope, are now basking in that rarest of commodities: success.

"It's meant to be," Mr. Greiner exclaims. "Everybody's got that feeling."

True to the spirit of the city, the Saints were born of a backroom deal, taking to the field in 1967 and promptly losing the first game to the Los Angeles Rams, 27-13. It became a hard habit to break. They couldn't pull off a .500 season for 20 years, and even the team's official history is peppered with adjectives such as "miserable" and "horrible." Great quarterbacks like Archie Manning had no chance behind a half-hearted offensive line. This is, after all, a fan base that has heard the words "coulda woulda shoulda" come out of one coach's mouth, while another lamented that the team stank after a close loss.

Despite having the No. 1-rated offense in the NFL this year, the Saints' losing tradition may be hard to shake, especially for a team that's not accustomed to the added physical strain of playoff football.

Indeed, all the "Cinderella Saints" hype works against the home team, says Bob Carroll, executive director of the Professional Football Researchers Association in Pittsburgh, Pa. "With all this run-up, they're sure to lose," he says. "Teams in this situation can get overfocused and never find their zone once the game starts."

But, right now, fans, like John "Buddy" Parker, say the Saints have already done their job. Through the years, he says, the city and the team have become partners in misery, bolstering each other through corruption, crime waves, and economic downturns, learning to find joy and camaraderie despite a legacy of loss.

"This city sticks up for its own, even if you're not having much success," says Mr. Parker, a local millwright.

But in their hour of greatest need, the city that loved their losers almost lost them. When the Saints, who, like the rest of the city, had turned into nomads after the ruination of the Superdome, came close to being moved in 2005 to San Antonio, fans – including Mayor Ray Nagin – were up in arms. At one point, owner Tom Benson said he feared for his safety and refused to set foot in Baton Rouge, where many Saints fans had holed up.

So when the Superdome was reinaugurated this season after a $185 million renovation, it turned into a madhouse as alternative rock group, Green Day sang its single "The saints are coming." The squad then sealed the historic, healing day with a victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Mr. Benson was forgiven, and could be seen about town doing his "Benson Boogie."

"As players, we play for our families and we play for fun, but right now we're giving the city some good news, and we feel like that's part of our job," says wide receiver Jamal Jones.

Like Chicago Cubs fans, Saints supporters always had "next year." But Chris Caire, an insect exterminator in New Orleans, says the pieces began falling into place as early as the 2006 NFL draft.

Somehow, Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, a fleet-footed running back, didn't get picked first, and the Saints grabbed him. San Diego castoff quarterback Drew Brees found a natural home in a new offensive system. Untested rookie head coach Sean Payton proved himself such a gridiron mastermind that American sportswriters chose him as Coach of the Year.

The team spirit is captured in players such as receiver Marques Colston, who, after scoring a touchdown doesn't celebrate, but gently hands the ball to the official. Many players credit veteran running back Deuce McAllister for the bond that team veterans have with the young guns and for fostering an atmosphere of selflessness in the locker room. Coach Payton has rewarded that spirit by spreading the ball around to a variety of players, often leaving defenses dazed and confused.

"Guys have been willing to put themselves second in order for the team to succeed," says tackle Jon Stinchcomb.

For Mr. Caire, the defining moment came in a game last September against the Green Bay Packers. The Saints turned over the ball three times early on, going down 13 to 0, but went on to win, 34 to 27. "In the past, it would have been, 'Oh, oh, here we go again,' " he says. "Instead, they stuck in there and came back and won, and you realized it wasn't the same old Saints."

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